Estonia shows off NATO ties at celebrations on Russian border

Narva (Estonia) (AFP) - Estonia marked its independence day Tuesday with a military parade featuring NATO hardware and troops on its eastern border with Russia amid heightened east-west tensions over Ukraine.

Around 100 British, Dutch, Spanish, Latvian and Lithuanian troops marched in the snow alongside some 1,300 Estonian soldiers to mark the independence of the formerly Soviet-ruled republic, now a member of the European Union and NATO.

"History has taught us that if we do not defend ourselves, nobody else will," General Riho Teras, Estonia's chief of staff, said at the parade.

"The events in Ukraine that have kept the entire world awake, demonstrate very clearly that we ourselves must maintain security," he added.

Two US Stryker armoured personnel carriers and a number of Dutch CV90 tanks were also on parade, equipment NATO has brought into the Baltics for a wave of exercises on the heels of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and subsequent meddling in that country's east.

The annual parade has taken on particular importance this year in the context of jitters in the Baltic countries.

Holding the parade in Narva on the Russian border, where a majority of residents are ethnic Russian, was seen by commentators as sending a strong signal to Moscow about NATO's committment to collective defence.

General Adrian Bradshaw, NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said last week that Russia could try to seize territory from the alliance's states off the back of fighting in Ukraine.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon reportedly also told journalists last week that there was a "real and present danger" to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

However, few ethnic-Russian Narva locals who came to the parade seemed to echo fears of a Russian intervention.

"In my opinion national security is blown up by the press, it's nothing serious, everything is okay, no one is going to attack anyone," said 55-year-old Yuri Melnikov.

Elvira Neimann, 77, said she's been living in Narva since the end of the Second World War in 1945: "I feel part of Estonia, not Russia."

"We're all tolerant people, Russia is our friendly neighbour," she told AFP.

Lithuania said Tuesday it would return to limited conscription later this year as concern mounts over Russian military exercises near NATO Baltic states.

The Soviet Union annexed the three small states during World War II. They won independence in 1991 and have had rocky ties with Moscow ever since.