Address of the President of the Republic at the Victory Day parade in Kuressaare
Respected Defence Forces personnel, people of Estonia, Young Eagles, Home Daughters, ladies and gentlemen,
Upon taking office, I swore an oath whereby I pledged to be unwavering in my defence of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. The Constitution is not one single law. It is much more than that: it describes the values and the principles by which we live in our country and which are important to us as a nation; it outlines our rights, our freedoms and our obligations before one another and before the state.
Article 54 of the Constitution states that Estonian citizens have a duty to be loyal to the constitutional order and to defend the independence of Estonia, adding that if no other means are available, every Estonian citizen has the right to initiate resistance against a violent change of the constitutional order.
To defend the independence of Estonia is a duty for which many have the requisite drive and desire, but which in fact it behoves us all to fulfil. This means not simply looking on should Estonia fall into danger. First and foremost this pertains to those who have the skills needed to defend the country and its people.
Standing here before our Defence Forces personnel, I feel there could be no better indication of just how intent we are as a nation to defend our land, our independence, our right to make our own decisions – at any cost.
You do not yield to strangers: you fight back. You defend your home.
You are part of the same story that veterans of the War of Independence could tell, that soldiers who have served on foreign missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali could tell. It is a story shared by rescue workers and police officers, by all those who defend our safety and security.
This time last year, when the Victory Day parade was held in Paide, Estonia was just opening up from lockdown and people were revelling in the chance to come together once again. But even then, that sense of relief was tinged with anxiety regarding those who have not stopped wanting Europe’s future to be shaped by the rights of the powerful rather than the free self-determination of the people.
We now know that as long as 12 months ago the door to war was already ajar.
The last four months have shown that even in Europe, where we have declared the era of armed violence to be forever behind us, war remains possible. The West did everything to prevent war on the continent, but Russia did everything to instigate it. Now we have to accustom ourselves – not just here in Estonia or the Baltic States, but throughout Europe – to the thought that peace may not last forever. And we must be prepared to defend our freedom on the field of battle, should it come to that.
This is already having a tangible impact on our everyday lives as we and our allies seek to support Ukraine and rein in Russia: the higher cost of heating and petrol; the rising price of food; inflation in general. Then there is the need to help those Ukrainian families who have fled the war. These things impinge upon all of us, and to one extent or another we are all feeling the effects of the war started by Russia.
I know that many are finding it even harder to cope. That resilience, that patience, that added burden is not something I ask of you lightly. But in helping Ukraine fight and defend itself, we are protecting Estonia and defending peace in Europe. It is our fight for freedom.
Perhaps we were not prepared for younger generations to have to face down Russia’s military might and its determination to strip its neighbours of their right to make their own decisions. But this is something we must do. Russia’s aggression must be stopped.
On the 24th of February I said that the war Russia had started in Ukraine was a crime that would cost the lives of many Ukrainians and Russians alike. The reality is even more horrifying. Russia is into its fourth month of waging this war and its crimes are only mounting. Bucha, Borodyanka, Mariupol and Severodonetsk – names previously unknown to most – are now synonymous with violence, suffering and death.
We cannot afford to grow weary of or to resign ourselves to evil, to forget the lives the Ukrainians have lost, their cities that have been destroyed, if we want to live peacefully in our own country, one that is founded on freedom, law and justice.
This year’s Victory Day marks 103 years since our triumph in the Battle of Võnnu. A century later, we can confidently say that Estonia is, and will remain, a safe, beautiful, resourceful, democratic, independent place that cares about the environment.
That sort of Estonia deserves to be maintained and defended.
Against the backdrop of the barbarous acts perpetrated by the Russian forces, we have been inspired by the bravery, resourcefulness and strength of the Ukrainian military and its defensive units, and also of its people. They have shown all of us their mettle and just how much they love their homeland. We have seen just how many Ukrainian people have joined territorial defence units since the Russian invasion: their numbers have grown from around 6500 to 117,000, or an 18-fold increase, in just three months.
Would we be as resolute? Yes, I have no doubt we would. For example, since the 24th of February, more than 3300 people in Estonia have applied to join the Defence League. It is remarkable that more than a third of them signed up to the Women’s Voluntary Defence Organisation, because the contribution of Estonia’s women to the defence of our nation is crucial. From right here on Saaremaa alone, 50 men have applied to join the Defence League and 30 women the Voluntary Defence Organisation.
Ask them why and their reasons are very simple: they want to be prepared for a crisis should it arise, and want to gain in peacetime the skills they would need at a time of war, or else they want to brush up on what they learnt during their military service.
They are right to do so, because we can only expect to prevail in a crisis if we are thoroughly prepared, we have practised what to do and we have learnt to work together.
Every person in Estonia should know what their role is in a time of crisis. It might simply be putting their knowledge and skills to work to ensure their ability to cope, but it may involve a more direct contribution to national defence. This includes in the Defence League, where there are places for those whose age or health or personal convictions exclude them from taking direct military action. The same is true of volunteer rescue workers and assistant police officers. We can all learn how to help ourselves and others.
Thinking which focusses on being prepared and looks to the future is precisely what will help us, as a country and a nation, to be ready for any eventuality. Next year we will be further expanding our territorial defence units, recruiting an additional 10,000 people, mostly from among our reserve forces. This will enable us to reinforce our national defence even more, as well as giving our reservists the chance to better retain and hone their skills and to maintain strong ties with their comrades and with national defence as a whole.
My unshakeable faith in Estonia’s national defence also stems from what every survey conducted has confirmed: that our reserve forces are willing and able to step up and that morale among them is high. One statistic I can highlight from a survey that was carried out last year is that 98% of reservists would be willing to contribute to defensive action were Estonia to be attacked. Not a single person answered that they would definitely not be willing to do so. Not one.
And although it is not easy for many to attend training alongside their work and their family lives and their other obligations, more than 6200 reservists participated in the recent ‘Siil’ military exercises. That is in addition to the thousands of conscripts, active forces and members of the Defence League who took part. We should recognise their families and employers for enabling them to contribute the way they do. Your support is vital, because such exercises help us maintain our battle-readiness.
Where security is concerned, the outlook is far from bright: the dark clouds which were once on the horizon are now overhead. But today we celebrate triumph, not defeat. We are here to mark Victory Day, and in fact even more importantly, Midsummer! I hope the public holidays give you the chance to spend quality time with your families, friends and brothers (and sisters) in arms.
Enjoy the parade and enjoy Victory Day.
Long live the Defence League! Long live Estonia!