Why two CPR News journalists are in Europe with Colorado’s National Guard

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A European Union flag flies across the street from the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the Old Town section of Tallinn, Estonia, May 20, 2022. The Orthodox Church was designed by Russian architect Mikhail Preobrazhensky and built between 1894-1900.

It’s Friday morning and I am both exhausted and excited. Excited because I’m in Estonia, where Colorado’s National Guard has been participating in Defender-Europe 22, a large-scale U.S. Army-led multinational exercise. Exhausted, because I only managed to grab about an hour of sleep on the “overnight” flight to get here. 

Colorado’s Army and Air National Guard units are just some of the 1,200 Guard members from six states — Maryland, which has a state partnership with Estonia, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — taking part in this exercise. In total, more than 3,400 U.S. military and 5,100 allied service members are spending this month participating in Defender and various other exercises, with names like Swift Response, Iron Wolf, Flaming Thunder and Summer Shield, across Eastern Europe.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
A building in Tallinn, Estonia, displays the nation's flag next to the Ukrainian flag on May 20, 2022, as a symbol of solidarity. Colorado National Guard troops are participating in an exercise in the NATO country this month.

Now, full disclosure: I have had a varied career, always coming back to journalism (much to my parents’ chagrin). My last stint away, I served as a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department. My first post was in Tallinn, Estonia.

So when my past and my present collided, how could I resist this reporting opportunity? Especially with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, happening about 800 miles away. 

Now, the U.S. military will be the first to tell you that Defender is unrelated to what’s happening in Ukraine (and the former Foreign Service officer in me would agree with that). American troops rotate, train and exercise regularly across the region as part of the nation’s relationship with Europe.

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Colonel and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Study, also emphasized this: “It wasn’t ginned up in response to the invasion of Ukraine.”

Yet, this annual exercise has taken on added significance — to reporters like me, and readers like you, and possibly the people of Estonia too — because of what’s happening in Ukraine.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Old Town section of Tallinn, Estonia, May 20, 2022. Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is home to about a half-million people, and dates to 1050, although archaeologists have found evidence of inhabitants in the area dating back 5,000 years.

In a very broad sense, it is related because exercises like this have been part of the U.S. effort to support allies and to deter Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014. Many leaders in this part of the world have been worried about an aggressive Russia for years. After all, like many Eastern and Central European countries, these small Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century.

Defender is focused on readiness and interoperability. As Cancian explained it — making sure all the different elements of NATO can all work together.

“Getting 30 different command structures, 30 different communication systems, 30 different sets of doctrine and all working together takes effort — continuous effort.”

And it’s also an opportunity to see the Guard in action abroad. Many Coloradans have seen the work of the Guard firsthand in recent years, from helping with wildfires and floods to taking on some of the medical response in the early days of the pandemic. But they also have a federal role, as a reserve component of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
People gather to watch the sun setting over the Baltic Sea from a vantage point in the Old Town section of Tallin, Estonia, May 20, 29022.

In the four days I will be here with CPR photographer Hart Van Denburg, we’ll get a chance to watch the exercises up close, talk with the troops involved in them and hear from U.S. military figures about the strategic importance of this international relationship.

It’s a connection countries in this part of Europe are increasingly thinking about, especially those NATO member states that share a border with Russia, like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do.

And Estonians have been taking a keen interest in what has been going on in Ukraine.

In a corner of the Museum of Occupations and Freedom, two women are cutting strips of cloth for another two to tie into knots on an old fishing net, making camouflage nets that will be sent to the Ukrainian army.

“This is not only about Ukraine. It’s about the security of the whole Europe,” said Anare Koppel, one of the volunteers. “We don’t do it because we are only worried about our country, but we are worried about the whole of Europe.”

Want to follow along on Caitlyn and Hart's journey?

Get updates and photos from Caitlyn and Hart on Twitter (@caitlynkim) and (@hartoutwest).

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
In a corner of Tallinn's Museum of Occupations and Freedom, volunteers prepare a camouflage net to sent to the war effort in Ukraine.