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At the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs


Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen!

First of all, I would like to thank the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs for organising 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 also have opportunities to describe Estonia’s views to wider audiences. 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, as well as on 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 1990s 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, which in 1939 and 1940 decided to step up against foreign aggression, the Estonian leadership at the time 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 causes was that Estonia found itself to be without any allies in 1939. Estonia had declared itself neutral, which in practice meant balancing upon 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 prevent human suffering 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 in 1991 as one of the poorest countries of Europe.

Out of this very painful experience came two basic principles that have guided the 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 at the most crucial moment.

These are the main reasons why neutrality 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. And even when joining the EU, the prevailing argument was security, even though everyone also saw the economic benefits.

They are also the reasons why defence issues in general, including higher defence spending, have always been considered very important in modern Estonia. Perhaps even more important than in some other European countries.

Countries with difficult or tragic histories sometimes tend to see current challenges in a historical perspective or context. Estonia has taken a lesson from history when establishing its national security principles, but I wouldn’t say our history left an excessive imprint on how we view developments in Russia. Foreigners sometimes tend to think that the Estonian-Russian relationship is negative because of this past. On the contrary: when we were trying to regain independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, there was no bigger ally than Yeltsin’s Russia at that time. A number of well-known Russian liberals and democrats, such as Anatoly Sobtchak and Yeltsin himself, of course, were very supportive towards Estonia’s endeavours. We in Estonia very much hoped that this cooperation would pave the way to friendly and good-neighbourly relations between the re-independent Estonia and the new Russia.

Alas, this did not materialize. A whole separate discussion would be necessary if we wanted to understand why Russia developed the way it has during the last 15 to 20 years.

Russia has a completely different understanding of the values that we hold so dear in Europe: freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. They have not hesitated to violate the principles of international relations, such as by annexing Georgian territories in 2008 or occupying Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin has used military force against its neighbouring countries, and its military doctrine allows all other state assets to be used against perceived adversaries.

Don’t get me wrong: we in Estonia do believe that the likelihood of all-out war between the Russian Federation and NATO is basically non-existent.

In regard to Russia, there can be no going back to business as usual so long as the country refuses to abide by international law. It’s not for us to provide a way out of the current situation.

Having said that, we still do not believe 1939 might happen all over again. This provided we stay united; provided we stay alert. Of course, we cannot avoid accepting the fact that there remains a risk of miscalculation in the Kremlin’s thinking, that NATO will not react to an aggressive move, or that it will not react quickly enough.

That is why the NATO Warsaw Summit’s decision to deploy NATO battlegroups to the Baltic states and Poland had a serious and positive strategic influence on the situation. It gives a clear signal that allied troops are present 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 also very glad that Norway has been actively participating in the Baltic Air Policing mission, and that its soldiers are involved in the NATO battle group in Lithuania.

Ladies and gentlemen!

As always, we must also discuss our defence capability. We are fully aware that Estonia is effectively defensible as a result of Article 3, that it possesses self-defence capabilities, and that after that comes Article 5.

We have always made serious investments into our own defence capabilities, structures, and budgets. Unlike several other new NATO member states, Estonia decided to retain universal conscription, similar to Norway, as well as to maintain territorial defence reserve units after gaining NATO membership in 2004.

Conscription and conscription-based reserve units were retained in Estonia for the benefit of Article 3. As a result, Estonia has always taken very seriously its own responsibility to ensure sufficient spending to protect this eastern flank. Since 2012, we have been spending 2% of our GDP on defence. There has never been any heated debate in Estonia over whether or not we should do so. Not even when we all went through the economic crisis of 2009-2010.

This 2% benchmark is a sign to our allies that we do take defence seriously and are in no way free riders. We are contributors to, not only consumers of, security, and we keep the promises and pledges we have made.

At the same time, there is a rule-of-thumb in defence planning: a sustainable and balanced defence budget is one where personnel, operating, and investment costs each make up approximately one-third of the whole. Two percent of GDP seems to be the level at which most Western countries are able to ensure this balance.

That being said, Estonia has actually not simply stopped at the 2% level, but increased it to close to 2.2% in 2018. Funding above the 2%-level is directed towards hosting allied units in Estonia, as well as being used for some urgent ahead-of-schedule ammunition procurements.

While we very much welcome this push to spend more in Europe and to ensure self-defence, we also need to understand that for that spending to be efficient and effective, it might be the case that instead of trying to supplement military spending with an additional 2%, some countries might actually wish to look outside and spend elsewhere so as to be able to guarantee that the parts of NATO territory needing protection are not, in fact, less protected. One example of this is Luxembourg, which has invested in cyber security in Estonia.

This is the value of future structural European defence cooperation for us, and hopefully, some elements of defence spending will be redistributed in the future. It’s not in the cards at the moment as we discuss common procurements and R&D investment, but I’m confident that it will be possible for us to move forward.

Dear listeners!

The fact that I have been addressing the Baltic Sea region and Estonia’s solutions to the questions of how to militarily protect one’s territory does not mean we see security and defence as purely a military issue or have set any geographical limitations on our participation in security.

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

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

We deployed infantry units to the most dangerous region of the country, southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, and did so without any noteworthy national caveats. There was an understanding even at that time that fighting in Afghanistan in fact meant protecting Estonia. Of course, we also suffered one of the highest losses of life per capita in the country.

I do believe that our participation in Afghanistan along with the United Kingdom, as well as our rapid deployment of troops to the Central African Republic with French forces in 2014, contributed to the fact that these two nuclear European countries are represented in the eFP battle group in Estonia today.

Ladies and gentlemen !

Defence in the 21st century is certainly no longer a mere issue of conventional force. Any vital service, such as electricity, is now an element of national security, and we are all aware that countries’ grids can be taken out either by accident or deliberate acts of diversion. A nation-wide electrical disruption would mean no more power at home, hospitals soon shutting down, ATM networks being offline and cash unavailable, etc.

This is also why Estonia’s national security concept regards military defence as just one of six fields of security, the others being the sustainability of vital services, internal security, international activities, psychological defence, and civil-sector support to the military.

In many senses, the presently popular catchphrases ‘hybrid threats’ and ‘hybrid warfare’ are nothing new to Estonia. In the cyber field, we consider ourselves to be one of the first countries that felt the impact of a highly coordinated and politically motivated cyber-attack in 2007, and have therefore become recognised as experts in the field.

Broadly, 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 in your adversary’s armour by way of espionage, diversion, and spreading rumours are as old as warfare itself. However, the main difference between the past and the present in this regard is that whereas elements of ‘hybrid’ warfare were usually the choice weapon of the weaker or non-state actor, in the present day, hybrid warfare is something also used by conventional and strong state actors.

As a result of technological advancement, hybrid warfare often has no geographical limitations. It can be waged anywhere. Countries physically close to Russia are no more prone to face an attack on their democracy than those further afield. It has nothing to do with where you are located, but rather with what your values are. Naturally, we have seen that hybrid warfare contains the very same elements as conventional tactics. There is 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 going on in Europe, then efforts will probably be concentrated there. If there are no important elections coming up at all, then the tools might be used, for example, to compromise the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states or Poland.

I hope the picture I’ve painted over the last 20 minutes was not too gloomy and grim. At least I didn’t intend it that way. I wanted to show you why and how we are prepared. Although some news headlines regularly portray the Baltic states as countries on the brink of all-out war, the real-life overall security situation in the Baltic Sea region and Estonia is stable, secure, and predictable. This stability, security and predictability is derived from two themes that I tried to address in this lecture:

  • First and foremost, one must honestly acknowledge that the modern world is not always the safest place to be, and must prepare not for the best-, but for the worst-case scenarios.
  • Secondly, security is not a godsend from NATO or the heavens, but something that even a small country such as Estonia can and must strengthen by its own actions. Estonia’s NATO Cyber Security Centre of Excellence, and also the StratCom Centre of Excellence in Riga, show that even as smaller NATO members, we all try to punch above our weight in helping our allies counteract the threats we commonly face.

Thank you for listening!