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Max Jakobson Memorial Lecture at the Finnish National Defence Courses Association


Ladies and gentlemen, hyvat ystävät

I was asked to speak to you on how Estonia currently perceives the Baltic Sea security environment. Facing such a challenge, one would obviously seek to make an informed comparison. I know Estonian talking points by heart. Not the Finnish ones.

Nevertheless - when you open pages 21 and 22 of your government’s latest report on Finnish foreign and security policy, and compare it to page 4 of the Estonian equivalent, then it looks as the paragraphs regarding Russia and the Baltic Sea region are written by the same people.

Point proven – we may have different tactical approaches on how to handle our security, build deterrence and co-operate with our partners. But we are exactly on the same page when it comes to our understanding of our security environment.

The threat picture is the same. The funny thing is that it’s not always perceived to be the same in the international sphere. Or, for that matter, sometimes also on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.

But I would point out that it’s usually Russian stratcom that tries to portray our two countries as having a totally different and incompatible understanding of the situation. But none of that is actually true if you compare both of our official White Papers.

What do differ are some of the solutions that our two countries have taken to defend and protect ourselves. But even here there seems to be more similar or even identical solutions than one sees at first sight. It may be a well-kept secret and I am OK with keeping it so, but facts on the ground are clear.

The Estonian basic understanding of security and our solutions very much stem from the experiences of 1939 and 1940. In those critical years Estonia found itself to be without allies. And unlike Finland, Estonia decided to capitulate under totalitarian pressure. The results were devastating as we lost almost a quarter of our pre-war population and 50 years later, we emerged from the Soviet Union as one of the poorest countries in Europe, 5% of our pre-war territory left to the Russian Federation.

Finland fought. You lost altogether 97 000 people – 2,6% of your pre-war population. And 12% of your territory. But gained so much more – the right to decide. For yourself. Your economic model. Your partners. Freedom. Even if you totally unfairly had to pay Soviet Union the war reparations until 1952.

'We drew our conclusions, when we were finally allowed to draw them, in 1991. Our security and defence policy can be summed up in two words – “Never Again!”.

Never again should we give up without putting up a fight. Because the consequences of a ‘peaceful surrender’ are always more devastating. And never again can we allow ourselves to end up in a situation where we are left without allies at the most crucial moment.

First Commander in Chief of Estonian Armed Forces, after regaining independence, who now rests on Arlington Cemetery, because he was a Vietnam war veteran and a Colonel in US Army, even if an Estonian – inserted the obligation to fight back into his Order of the Day number 1 from 1995. From there, it found its way into our legal texts. Rarely you see in Europe a system like ours, were there is obligation from highest level – me – to the lowest – an unit commander under attack – to just go and fight back, if you come under evidently hostile fire.

This historic miscalculation of 1939, taken – as far as we know – because we felt alone, unsupported by any guaranteed liaison with allies, is also the reason why neutrality, or not joining military alliances was not a serious option when we regained our independence. Rather, achieving membership in NATO and the EU was a priority for Estonia from the early 1990s. By the way, even when joining the EU, the prevailing argument was security, even though the economic benefits should have seemed the most obvious ones. But the campaign to join the EU – it took a referendum – was run on the slogan of security. And never being alone again. Economic benefits, by the way, are extremely hard to sell ex ante. We might never have joined the EU without security argument, Estonian citizens were next lowest supporters in the whole enlargement round after maltese. With only 66%. But security from alliances is easier to perceive than economic benefit, even if we now know that EU economic co-operation is clearly defined, while its military co-operation is in the embryonic phase, as the clause of coming to the help of each other in urgency was only inserted into the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.

Of course, just being in NATO was not the end of this story. When we finally gained NATO membership in 2004, we also had to strive hard to have NATO defense planning up-to-date. We also wanted Allied units more or less permanently based on Baltic territories.  Times were difficult for such developments – peace dividends were probably at the highest ever and getting peoples` minds around the need to really be ready to act in case of a real danger was hard.

It is paradoxical – as many things in history are – that achieving the necessary level of attention from NATO took Russia`s repeated military actions against its neighbors. We always needed real planning; real boots on the ground, to give a clear signal that any aggression against Baltic countries will inevitably involve Allied soldiers.  And that’s something that we managed to achieve in 2017 with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence battalion-size battle groups in all three Baltic states and Poland.

 I doubt indeed that we would see these developments without aggressions against Geo and Ukraine, but I do not hold it against the alliance. Deterrence has to take into account the risk perceptions, move with it, going up if needed, and down if the geopolitical situation allows. NATO`s action is parallel with the efforts of non-NATO countries of the region, who also have had to adjust their readiness levels. Yes, I am talking of Finland and Sweden.

Apart from the NATO membership, our security and many of our security solutions are very similar to Finnish ones. For one thing, I would say that both of our societies hold a generally positive and healthy attitude towards national defence and security. It’s mirrored, by the high popularity and support that our defense forces or compulsory conscription has in public opinion polls. 70% of Estonian people do think that Estonia should be defended by all costs and a similar percentage of people is ready to participate themselves. Those numbers are only marginally higher in Finland. Which is actually surprising given the fact that your self-confidence and high willingness to defend your homeland comes from retaining your independence in the Winter and Continuation War. Whereas our national psyche has had to deal with the “silent capitulation” of 1939.

There are many reasons for these kinds of positive attitudes in Estonia. But one of them is certainly the Estonian National Defence Cources which has indoctrinated the Estonian society on these topics. And I’d use this opportunity to thank all the people of the Finnish National Defence Courses Association that gave us this excellent idea and format 20 years ago.

Of course, since these courses are for people who are otherwise visible and vocal in our society, their opinion matters and influences the self-assurance of our people that we really can defend ourselves. But conscription and voluntary Defence League, Kaitseliit, similarly build self-confidence. Estonians really believe they can defend their homeland, because they know how we will do it. Either they have firsthand experience or they know it from their loved ones. It is an important element of deterrence, in my mind – the self-confidence, the knowledge that we can do it.

As for never again giving up without putting up a good fight we have a number of ways to give the orders should anything go wrong. The prime minister, for example, can mobilize the whole army by ordering additional reserve training exercises. Or if that should fail, then I as the Supreme Commander of national defense can make a similar proposition to the Parliament, or declare state of war and mobilization myself if aggression has already taken place. But unlike many other countries we have an additional safety measure.

We have in our legislation a paragraph that basically states that the first professional unit commander can use force and therefor commence hostilities if he or she establishes that an armed attack has taken place against the Estonian territory or his unit; and if his superiors nor the minister of defence cannot be reached in due time. I know that this might sound radical or even reckless. But never again do we want to end up in a situation when our people just stand idly as our independence and way of life is being destroyed.

To give an order to fight back is one thing. Having a real army to do this is another. I would like to thank the Finnish defense establishment for all the good advice, training and equipment that we received from you in the 1990’s. Finland has been – a very good example for us on how to organize conscription training, the reserve army system and many other things. The way you have managed to combine relatively scarce resources and mandatory conscription into a balanced system between quantity and quality has been a very good role model for us. And by the way – welcome to the 2% club!

By today I believe that we have managed to reach a similar level. Yes, we do not have all the same high-end and expensive weapons systems as you do – because our 10 times smaller economy does not allow them. We have, instead, the NATO alliance to fulfil the gaps, and more and more a NATO that is exercising to fill these gaps quickly in case of a need.

The weakest part of this readiness, perhaps, by now, is indeed the mindset of the political establishment, but eFP, the necessity to deal with security of your own forces in the Baltics – there are 19 NATO nations involved, exercise feedback from here to both NATO and national headquarters – this all means a NATO not only capable in theory, but in practical terms.

But for our own 2% of GDP we have managed to create a reserve army some 25 000 men and women strong, comprising of two full-blown infantry brigades and a robust territorial defence structure based on our voluntary Defence League, or Suojeluskunta.

Where we have really surpassed most other reserve-based armies in the world – maybe only Israel is an exception here – is the combat readiness and reaction speed of our whole force. Not only have we stocked and pre-positioned all our weapons, equipment, vehicles etc in a way that they could be quickly taken into use unit-by-unit. But also our legislation and reservists call-up system is such that if necessary, then it takes about 24 to 48 hours since a government decision for all the necessary reservists to arrive – without any prior notice – to their assembly points, gather their guns and kit, and be deployed to the field as integral units. As platoons, companies and battalions.

I know that this might sound far-fetched even to you Finns. But we have tested this system since 2016 with our annual snapexes and on randomly selected reserve units – and it does work that way!

And this is important due to the fact that our adversary has in their Western Military District the largest post-Cold War troop concentration with such readiness levels that we probably wouldn’t have weeks and months to get prepared. In the worst case scenario preparation is limited to few days.  

Dear friends

If we now turn to the wider, more global picture, then it’s evident that China has already become the actor that will shape the global arena and international relations in the 21st century. It’s not just about 5G, technology or their attempts to leverage economical power by trying to procure critical infrastructure in many countries. By the end of the day it comes down to the matter of principles and values.

These are also the reasons why the United States has been shifting its focus more and more to the Pacific region. It already started during the Obama administration, and make no mistake; it will continue to be so also under Biden. Yes, Russia will continue to be threat to European and transatlantic security in the coming decades. But if one looks at the bigger picture then Russia is actually an empire in decline.

Their demographic, economic, R&D indicators are going down. The only thing that is still “going up”, are their conventional, and to some extent nuclear capabilities. This means two things for us. Firstly, Russia is becoming more and more an European regional threat, whereas China is becoming the new global challenge for the Western world.

Secondly, and paradoxically, this trend actually increases Russian unpredictability and dangerousness in the 10-20 years perspective as they themselves in the Kremlin understand also that their window of opportunity is closing.  They know that time is not on their side if they still wan’t to knock-off NATO and re-establish the good old policy of spheres of influences.

All this brings us to the question of European defense cooperation and our relationship with the United States. I would like nothing else than Europe doing more in defence and developing more power and capability to act. The EU defence cooperation initiatives that were launched a couple of years ago during Estonian presidency are certainly the right way to go. But if we look at the bigger numbers, capabilities and how defence cooperation has been operationalized, then NATO, or more specifically, US within NATO, will continue to be main guarantor of collective defence for Europe in the decades to come.

Europe can and should do more, but when it comes to hard security and the capability to project overwhelming military power to any point in the globe then we still need the transatlantic bond and our special relationship with the United States.

I would actually like us to take the challenge that our regional adversary is not anymore considered the biggest global risk more seriously. I fully share the call by High Representative Joseph Borrell, and his predecessor, Federica Mogherini, that Europe needs capabilities. Not discussions about how we understand autonomie and soveraignitè in  different mainstream languages of Europe. Capabilties.

Europe must grow up, there is ample space to invest into to achieve ability to operate in our own neighborhood at least with some level of independence. Not like in Libya where Europe decided to intervene, but could not do so without calling on US capabilities. This picture is made even more complex with Brexited Britan who nevertheless is strongly stating its commitment to European security not only through NATO but also through co-operation on security with the European Union.

I believe that this – the importance of United States to vis-à-vis European security, is also well understood not only in Finland, but also in regards to Finnish security and defence. Again – this is something where our understanding is quite similar. Or to quote what Max Jakobson said already in 1999: “In regards to Finnish security interests it’s important that we preserve United State’s trust. No big gestures is needed for that. It’s enough to take U.S. policies soberly and maintain readiness in those fields that we’re good at.” End of quote.

I think that this excellently sums up not only the way Finland – and for that matter – Estonia have to act vis-à-vis the United States, but also how European defense cooperation should play out in regards to the transatlantic bond.

We do not need any big gestures – although we are living in the time of gestures – but rather sticking to what we are good at. And not forgetting the value base that combines Estonia and Finland, and the United States with Europe. Because values and human rights – which is also the pervading topic in both of our security policy White Papers – is something that cannot be taken as self-granted these days.

Thank you! And I’m now open for discussion and questions&answers.