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Keynote Speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany


Honourable Ambassador Ischinger, Minister Schmidt, Admiral Nielson, ladies and gentlemen!

First of all, I would like to thank the German Atlantic Association and the Munich Security Conference for organising this side-event. As Estonia is one of the four host nations of the eFP Battle Groups, I would like to use this opportunity to give an overview of what has been done during the last year and a half since the Warsaw Summit, and what should be done further. And finally, I will also share a couple of thoughts on what we should not do in regard to eFP and the cohesion of NATO as a whole.

Although the creation and deployment of eFPs was primarily triggered by the 2014 events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the aim of getting allied military presence on Estonian soil goes back much further. Estonia gaining NATO membership in 2004 and becoming part of the collective security space was a huge, positive development for the Baltic Sea region against the backdrop of recurring negative tendencies in European security. However, it was certainly not ‘the end of history’ for us. Even then, we understood that in order to have fully credible collective defence, one also needs to work on interoperability, realistic contingency planning, and military presence by other allied countries.

Looking towards the East, we see a steady military build-up and modernisation of the Russian Armed Forces that began already some ten years ago. Originally, the explanation was long-postponed defence reform. More recently, it has been called a reaction to the small NATO contingents deployed in the Baltic states. Whatever the reason for the build-up, it is a fact that today, the permanent size of the troop contingent in Western Russia is equal to the level that in 2009 was only attained for a short period of time during the 2009 ZAPAD exercise. This, unfortunately, is the new normality for us.

Before 2014, the only permanent military presence in the Baltic states was a small Air Policing detachment to Lithuania. NATO reacted quickly and seriously to the post-Crimea situation, because the occupation of Crimea obviously changed the risk assessment. It did not only constitute the decision to create the eFP in the summer of 2016 and deploy battle groups already in spring of 2017, which by NATO’s standards is very fast pace. We also welcomed the first US fighter planes to Estonia in March 2014, only a couple of days after the request was forwarded. These were followed about a month later by the enhanced Baltic Air Policing mission to Estonia and US Army contingents in all three Baltic states and Poland. Of course, at the same time, diplomatic efforts were undertaken to make sure there would be no misreading of the western alliance’s willingness to protect each and every NATO member. President Obama visited Tallinn in September 2014 to declare that Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius are just as important as the defence of Berlin, Paris, and London. It was a coherent chain of action responding to the rapid need to buttress deterrence capability.

All these steps demonstrated not only to our adversaries, but also to our home audiences, that when it comes to real security challenges, NATO can still make quick, bold, and effective decisions. A 100% track record of successful deterrence has been a strong cornerstone in NATO’s modus operandi.

When we come to the deployment phase of the Battle Groups, the main challenge wasn’t military or logistical. It has been a success story by all accounts. But what was disturbing during the year after the Warsaw Summit was the odd worry that the risk to NATO via the Baltic states might actually increase with eFP deployment. I think that most of you have seen the headlines: ‘Is Estonia next?’, ‘Baltic states readying for all-out war’, ‘Heightened tensions as NATO deploys to Russian border’, etc. I would be happy if I could reduce this to the media’s presently common antics of exaggeration, but you could also hear it discussed in some Western capitals. I wish to make it very clear: of course it is in Russia’s interests for Western allies to see it this way. Of course they did and will continue to make sure that as many people as possible will see their side of the story. But it’s for us to know better.

Russia respects action and decisiveness, clear boundaries. It is very important to note that the worries of some did not materialise: relations with Russia didn’t deteriorate any further because allied troops were deployed to the Baltic states and Poland. Quite the contrary: currently, we can observe that its aggressive posture in the region has been contained. The eFP Battle Groups have had a stabilising and deterring impact on the Baltic region’s security situation, just as allied military contingents in Western Germany had a stabilising and deterring effect during the 40 years of the Cold War.

The next challenge for us on the communications front is to explain to the general public that these are not NATO troops defending Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, but that this is NATO protecting itself. And that that there wasn’t and would not be a sizeable military vacuum in the Baltic states without allied contingents. Estonia has already, for many years (and Latvia and Lithuania are reaching this level in 2018), spent at least 2% of its GDP on military defence. We have created a reserve force of over 20,000 reservists with a real, and tested, capability to mobilise with 24-hour notice. So, in this sense, we are truly grateful to all our allies participating in the eFP, though we are very disappointed when this is presented as NATO supporting a helpless, burdensome eastern flank. The reality is that the eFP creates a tripwire with strategic value, but in purely numerical terms the eFP Battle Group is just another infantry battalion in addition to the tens that Estonia is able to field itself. We are an outpost, benefitting the whole alliance.

When we come down to the tactical and technical level, then the first ten months of the UK-led Battle Group’s activities in Estonia have been successful. The Battle Group is well integrated into the Estonian Defence Forces command structure, operational planning, and annual training cycle, although the interaction of a permanent full-strength mechanized battalion tactical group is certainly a challenge for our small peace-time army. The allied troops in Estonia tend to admit that their living and training facilities are of a better quality than those they had back home. This is, among other things, due to Estonia investing another 0.2% of GDP on top of our regular defence budget for host nation support.

Already from the first year of exercising together in different eFP battle groups, NATO has learned a lot about its capacity to really and truly act in an integrated manner with troops coming from an array of armed forces, as well as in difficult terrain and climate conditions unfamiliar to most allies. There are lessons to be learned, especially when it comes to, for example, communication systems or using heavy equipment in forested or swampy areas. I wouldn’t call these issues ‘challenges’, but rather an excellent opportunity to exercise collective defence in a realistic environment and use these lessons to further enhance NATO’s collective defence capability. Rotating the units in and out of the host nations in six-month intervals also means that you have approximately 8,000 allied soldiers who each year get a first-hand account of the terrain, climate, and armed forces of the region they would need to defend if our deterrence should fail.

Ladies and gentlemen, the eFP is a success. But deterrence is not finished. So, what is to be done that our capacity to deter will continue to be credible?

We must finish what we agreed upon in Warsaw, meaning that the Battle Groups must have joint enablers. In practical terms, this means a solution to bolster the EFP’s air-, maritime-, and air-defence or indirect-fire capability. This is vital not just for the eFPs, but to the whole Area of Operations. The tactical, technical, and logistical lessons we have identified so far must be integrated into everyday planning and training.

Moving on to a higher, more strategic level – for deterrence to work, we need both our own, national military capabilities as well as the eFPs. However, no one would likely think that these would be enough to effectively defend the Baltics in case deterrence should fail. Therefore, for deterrence to remain credible, we need a realistic reinforcement strategy that would, among other things, assure the adversary that an aggressive move will be swiftly responded to by sending additional troops and capabilities to the region. It is demonstrating allied solidarity and willingness to react by a swift allied response should something touch the tripwire.

How can we achieve credibility of this scenario? Three steps are necessary.

First of all, NATO must be ready and trained to make these decisions swiftly. It has to be prepared and exercised both at the political and the military levels.

Secondly, there must be enough deployable units in high readiness at hand in order to de-escalate a crisis and avoid large-scale aggression. If that fails, there must also be a following capacity of larger scale, of defined nature and defined abilities, which is able to co-operate as soon as it is assembled. If we fail to do this, we would face devastating consequences not only to the men involved and the populations of the territories under attack, but also to the security and morale of our publics.

And thirdly, Russia has the ability to seriously hinder allied reinforcement with its Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities. The Alliance must be prepared for this and have the necessary capabilities to reinforce in spite of it. There must be realistic planning, exercises, and mechanisms in place for moving troops across Europe and the Atlantic and inserting them into the Baltic Sea region, even if it must take place through the so-called A2/AD bubble. This is equally important alongside having the necessary troops in place. Often, only realistic planning and exercising of these plans demonstrates the real gaps in capabilities or in troop numbers on paper.

Estonia hopes these issues will be discussed and provided for at the forthcoming Summit in Brussels. We especially see a need for strong guidance in how the Alliance will continue to develop its reinforcement strategy. Taking these steps is the best way to further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture across the Eastern flank – but not only there. Having necessary command and control systems, plans, and troops is the best way to ensure that we will never have to use them to shoot in anger. Their existence for one region makes NATO stronger, and fighting safer for its armed forces, in a 360-degree radius.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Although the challenges arising from Russia might seem like the most urgent issues for countries on NATO’s Eastern flank, the developments of the last couple of years have given impetus for NATO to refocus on the collective defence of its territory. This is positive overall and is much broader than simply protecting the Eastern flank.

Of course, while we welcome the renewed focus on NATO’s core task, we must not forget that there are also other, equally important challenges facing the Alliance. These include, for understandable reasons, terrorism, extremism, instability, and uncontrollable migration from the Mediterranean that keep decision-makers and common people alike up at night.

Estonia and the other Baltic states understand this very well. Therefore, we are increasing our contributions to crisis-management operations, all of which are, in one way or another, connected to the aforementioned threats. NATO has three core tasks, and Estonia is committed to fulfilling all of them. We welcome the creation of the regional Hub for the South in Naples. Among many other things, the Hub will facilitate analyses of the risks being faced in that area finding their way to decision-makers such as myself, as naturally and easily as I can analyse and explain the East. Similarly, I will personally continue to keep close contact with my southern colleagues in order to maintain a common and comprehensive high-level analysis of the various challenges surrounding us.

Since I have already turned away from military topics and towards political discussion, let me continue a bit on that, albeit on an issue I know best: NATO’s policy towards Russia. Is it relevant? Should it be reviewed?

There are lot of misperceptions out there. Some we created ourselves, because we seem to be stuck in the past.

I noticed while going through the MSC programme that there is a session called ‘Dialogue and Deterrence: Europe, Russia and the Future of the Harmel Doctrine’. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone in this audience of the context when Belgian Minister Pierre Harmel wrote the report in 1967. Moreover, it is a report. Not a doctrine. And it spoke of a dual-track policy – deterrence and détente. Of maintaining adequate defence capability while promoting political détente. It included a plea for balanced force reductions in the East and West. That was back in 1967 at the height of the Cold War. Fifty-one years later, some allies are still looking the Harmel Report as solution to the challenges of post-Cold-War times.

Of course, the policies set out in the Harmel Report worked well for the times for which they were designed. However, is it still the right solution for the challenges we have been facing since August 2008 and the winter of 2014, when Russia caused the biggest geopolitical landslides in Europe since the Second World War? Do we really want to use the policies of the past to tackle the present and the future? And if we were to stick to the principles of the Harmel Report in its integrity, not doing any cherry-picking, then NATO’s current Eastern flank with the eFP would clearly not be enough for credible deterrence.

Our policy vis-à-vis Russia has been collectively reviewed in Wales and Warsaw, and we should stick to it. We must not forget that it speaks of deterrence, defence, and dialogue. There are two parallel tracks: deterrence and defence on the one side, and dialogue on the other. One cannot be held hostage by the other. If Russians were to think that the enhancement of our defence and deterrence posture depends on how many NATO-Russia Council meetings there are per year, and if General Gerasimov were to pick up the phone whenever the Supreme Allied Commander Europe or the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee called, then we would be in a deadlock. Therefore, we do both not on a dual track, but on parallel tracks.

Dialogue is important, of course. I’ve always held the strong conviction that it makes sense to speak face-to-face. In the context of NATO, it is not a question of having dialogue or not, but on what conditions and how. This from the position of strength, of course. On that, we are in consensus. But it is also about being transparent, having a clear objective, being frank vis-à-vis the Russians, and challenging them where needed.

I firmly believe that NATO’s current policy towards Russia has worked, because we are not worse off than in 2014. Having a status quo for the past four years is an accomplishment.

I would argue that the steps we’ve taken on deterrence and defence have increased our dialogue, not diminished it, as Russia simply takes a strong NATO more seriously. However, there is room for improvement both on deterrence and defence, as well as on dialogue. Let us finish what was agreed upon in Wales and Warsaw in regard to eFP and further equip it with necessary enablers to boost its credibility. And let’s have plenty of political dialogue with Russia: not only on the Baltic Sea region and issues related to transparency and risk reduction on NATO’s Eastern flank, but far more broadly. The NATO-Russia Council is not about the eFP only. We should also discuss topics such as Syria, the Middle East, aspects of the Sahel, etc., for there are not two Russias, one in the east and one in the south. And, at the same time, we must continue fulfilling NATO’s core duty. After all, it has worked for the last 70 years.

Thank you all for listening!