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President of the Republic Public lecture at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs "Security in the Baltic Sea region – an Estonian perspective"


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen!

First of all I would like to thank the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs for organizing and hosting this public lecture. I do believe that in addition to all the official meetings and tête-à-tête talks that I always have on my visits, it is equally important for me to have opportunities to forward Estonian views also to wider audiences. And I hope to use this lecture to give a wider overview on how Estonia sees the current security situation and challenges in the Baltic Sea region. And what has been – and for that matter still is – the general Estonian approach to national security.

The conceptual choices that Estonia made in the early 1990's in establishing the main principles of Estonian security policy are largely a reflection of the disaster that struck Estonia during the Second World War.

Unlike Finland or Norway, who in 1939 and 1940 decided to step up against foreign aggression, the Estonian leadership decided to capitulate without a fight to the Soviet Union. There were many reasons why this happened in Estonia and also in Latvia and Lithuania, but one of the main reasons was that Estonia found itself to be without any allies in 1939. Estonia had declared itself to be neutral, which in practice meant balancing on the antagonism between the Soviet Union and Germany, instead of developing relations with the Western democracies. It was a policy that seemed to work very well for some time, but ended in disaster as soon as the two dictatorships came to terms with each other in 1939. And although it was naively hoped by the Estonian leaders of that era that giving in to the aggressor would avoid human sufferings and losses, the reality was quite the opposite. As a result up to a quarter of the pre-war Estonian population was either arrested, deported, executed, mobilized into the Red Army or German Wehrmacht and killed on the frontlines, or fled to the West.

Estonia was occupied for half a century and then regained its independence 1991as one of the poorest countries of Europe.

Out of this very painful experience came two basic principles that have guided Estonian understanding of security and defence for the last 26 years:
First of all, never again will we give up without a fight – because the consequences of a "peaceful surrender" are always more devastating;
And secondly – never again can we allow ourselves to end up in a situation where we are left without allies on at the most crucial moment.

Those are the main reasons why neutrality was not a serious option when we regained our independence, but gaining membership in NATO and EU was a priority for Estonia from the early 1990's. And even when joining EU the prevailing argument was security, although everybody also saw the economical benefits.

And those are also the reasons why defence issues in general, including higher defence spending they have always been considered very important in modern Estonia, and more important than maybe in some other European countries.

Countries with difficult or tragic history sometimes tend to see also current challenges in a historical perspective or context. And in the case of Estonia we have learned the lesson of history when establishing our national security principles, but I wouldn't say that our history would have left an excessive imprint on how we see developments in Russia.

Foreigners sometimes tend to think that the Estonian-Russian relationship is bad because of this past. Well, it isn't, on the contrary – when we were trying to regain independence from the Soviet Union in the end of 1980's and beginning of 1990's, then there were no bigger allies than Yeltsin's Russia at that time. A number of well-known Russian liberals and democrats – like Anatoly Sobtchak and Yeltsin himself of course – were very supportive towards Estonian endeavors. And it was very much hoped in Estonia that this cooperation would pave the way to friendly and good-neighbourly relations between the re-independent Estonia and the new Russia.

And this, however did not materialize, because something went wrong in Russia. A whole separate discussion would be in order if would want to understand why Russia developed the way it has during the last 15 or 20 years.

And we do regret it. We are not happy about of this state of affairs but it is not our wrong-doing, it is not the Western countries wrong-doing. It is about Russia not respecting some signatures on international agreements, starting from the Helsinki final acts and ending with the Budapest agreements guaranteeing Ukraine's security.

Russia has a completely different understanding of the values that we hold so dear in Europe – freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. They have no scruples when breaking the principles of international relations – when they annexed Georgian territories in 2008, or occupied Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin has used military force against it's neighbouring countries and their military doctrine foresees to use all other state assets against their perceived adversaries.

Don't get me wrong – we do believe in Estonia that the likelihood of an all-our war between the Russian Federation and NATO is very low. It's non-existent basically, because we trust 100% into NATO's capacity to deter as the risk analyses changes. We have seen since Whales and Warsaw that NATO has reacted to the differences of the risk perception and therefore the security situation in our region is secure. We are prepared, but we are not afraid.

I sometimes like the comparison between a geopolitically seismic region and a seismic region. In a seismic region one is not afraid of an earthquake from day to day, but one prepares – builds houses which will stand the earthquakes etc. – but the earthquake might come anyway. But when in a geopolitically seismic situation you are in some sense actually you better off, because your actions might actually take you to a situation where the earthquake never comes.

And in regards to Russia there can not be going back to business-as-usual, as long as Russia does not start fulfilling international law. It's not for us to provide the way out from the current situation.

Having said all that, we still believe that 1939 will not happen all over again. Provided we stay united, provided we stay alert. Of course what we cannot avoid is accepting that there remains a risk that a miscalculation can be made in the Kremlin thinking that NATO will not react to an aggressive move, or will not react quickly enough.

This is why the decision at the NATO Warsaw Summit to deploy NATO battlegroups to the Baltic States and Poland had a serious and positive strategic influence on the situation. This gives a clear signal that there are Allied troops in the Baltic states constantly, and that any conflict would more or less automatically invoke the collective defence mechanisms of the North-Atlantic Alliance.

I am very glad also that Norway has been participating in the Baltic Air Policing mission, and your soldiers are participating in the NATO battle group in Lithuania.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We also need to always talk about our own capacity to defend. We fully understand that militarily Estonia can effectively be defended because there is Article 3, that say that you have to be able to defend yourself and top of that comes Article 5.

We have always made serious investments into our own defence capabilities, structures and budgets. Unlike many other new member states of NATO, Estonia decided to retain universal conscription and territorial defence reserve units also after gaining NATO membership in 2004. And in this sense Estonia is along Norway on one the few countries in NATO that has retained conscription.

Conscription and conscription-based reserve units were retained in Estonia for the Article 3, and without that we would never be able to look our allies into the eye and say "yes, we are able to protect our own territory", which, by the way is also NATO territory. This is something very important to stress because quite often you hear the reasoning about 'NATO protecting the Baltic States'. NATO is not protecting Baltic States, but rather NATO is taking care of its own eastern flank.

So, we have always carried seriously this responsibility to make sure that we spend enough to be able to protect this eastern flank. Since 2012 we are spending 2% of our GDP on defence and also there has never been a serious debate about it should we have it or should we not have it. Even when we all came through the economical crisis of 2009/2010.

And 2% bench mark is a sign to our allies that we do take defence seriously and we are not the free riders, we are contributors, we are not consumers of the security and we keep the promises and the pledges which we have made.

Also there seems to be a rule-of-thumb in defence planning that a sustainable and balanced defence budget is the one where personnel, operating and investment costs are approx. 1/3 each. And 2% of GDP seems to be the level at which most Western countries are able to ensure this balance.

And having said all that, we have actually not stopped at the 2% level, but actually increasing it to approx. 2,2% level in 2018 – additional funding on top of 2% is provided for hosting the Allied units in Estonia, and also for some urgent ahead-of-schedule ammunition procurements.

While we very much welcome this push to spend more in Europe and be able to defend ourselves, we also need to understand that for that spending to be efficient and effective, it might be that some countries – instead of trying to fit 2% in with their own army spending – might actually to want to look outside, to spend elsewhere, in order to be able to make sure that those parts of NATO territory which need protection will be actually not less protected. We have the example of Luxembourg that has invested in the cyber range in Estonia.

That is the value of the future European defence structured cooperation for us, there will be hopefully some redistributional elements of defence spending in the future. It's not currently in the cards, currently we discuss common procurement and common R&D investment, but I'm quite sure that it is possible to move onwards.

I have stopped for so long on the Baltic Sea region and Estonia's way of safeguarding our own territory by military means, but of course that doesn't mean that we see security and defence as a purely military issue, or that we would have geographical limitations towards our participation in security elsewhere.

Like Norway, Estonia also believes that it is not only important to be a member in NATO, but also to be an active and contributing member. We try to punch above our weight, if necessary. And we have been participating in EU, NATO or UN missions for the last 22 years.

This is one of the main reasons why Estonia was one of the biggest per capita contributors to the lengthy and loss-heavy ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

We deployed infantry units to the most dangerous region of the country, the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, and we did so without any noteworthy national caveats. There was an understanding already back then that fighting in Afghanistan means actually protection Estonia. Of course, we suffered one of the highest per capita personnel losses also.

I do believe that our participation in Afghanistan along with United Kingdom and our very quick deployment of troops also to the Central African Republic along with the French in 2014, did contribute to the fact that these are the two European nuclear countries which are currently represented in the eFP battle group in Estonia today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Defence in 21st century definitely is not only a conventional defence issue any more. A single vital service, like electricity for example, or other vital services, they all are elements of security nowadays, and we all know that either by accident or deliberate diversion, somebody could take out a countries electricity grid. It will mean there will be no electricity at homes, hospitals will soon stop working, no power means no money from the ATM's etc.

That is also why our national security concept sees military defence as just one of six fields in security – the others being sustainability of vital services, internal security, international activities, psychological defence and civil sector support to the military.

And in many sense, also the current popular catchphrase about hyper threats or hybrid warfare is nothing new or novel to Estonia. In the cyber field we consider us to be one of the first countries that felt the impact of coordinated and politically motivated cyber attacks in 2007 and have therefore been an acclaimed expert on this field.

In the wider sense I believe that hybrid warfare as such is nothing new in the history of conflict. Countering conventional with unconventional and finding the weakest and most vulnerable spots of your adversary using espionage, diversion, rumour-spreading to weaken the enemy, it is as old as warfare itself. But the main difference in this regard between the past and the present tends to be that if in the past the so-called hybrid warfare elements were usually the weapon of the weaker and non-state actor, then currently hybrid warfare is something that also is used by conventional and strong state actors.

And in addition, technology has made hybrid warfare does often have anu geographical limitations. It can happen everywhere. Countries close to Russia, for example, are no more prone to facing an attack on their democracy than countries further afield. It's nothing to do with where you are, but more to do with what your values are. And obviously we see also that hybrid has exactly all the same elements like conventional. There's a capacity issue if you are busy dealing with elections on the other side of the Atlantic – then maybe you have less time to think about similar acts in Europe. If there are big elections in Europe, you probably concentrate your efforts there. If there are no big elections coming up, then probably you will try to use those tools, for example, to compromise the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States or Poland.

I hope that the picture I painted over the last 20 minutes was not too gloomy and grim. At least I didn't want it to be such. I wanted to show you why we are prepared and how we are prepared. And quite regularly some of the news headlines tend to show the Baltic States as countries on the brink of an all-out war, when actually the general security situation in the Baltic Sea region and Estonia is stable and secure and predictable. This stability, security and predictability is derived from two themes that I tried to follow also in this lecture:
1. First of all, you honestly need to admit that the modern world is not always the safest place to be in and that one has to prepare himself not for the best, but for the worst-case scenarios.
2. And secondly, that security is not a godsend from the heavens or NATO, but something that even a small country such as Estonia can and must strengthen by its own actions. Our Cyber Security Centre of Excellence of NATO, also the StratCom Centre of Excellence in Riga in Latvia shows that as smaller NATO allies we all try to punch above our weight in helping other allies to counteract the threats which we are facing commonly.

Thank you for listening.