What is the Number 1 Estonian security problem? Should Estonia build shelters for its people, like Finland? What stance should it take on compulsory military service for women? Will sanctions force Russia to undo its actions or do they provoke Russia even further? Diplomaatia held a discussion on defence policy in the run-up to the elections, attended by representatives of all political parties currently in the Riigikogu.
Külli-Riin Tigasson, Eesti Ekspress
The war in Ukraine, the terrorism offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), relations between nations—when you think of Estonia’s security problems, what concerns you as a politician the most? What is the most important foreign security problem? What is the top internal security problem?
Urmas Reinsalu (Pro Patria and Res Publica Union): From the point of view of military security, we must consider the increasing aggressiveness of Russia. The Western world, including Estonia, must be prepared for the confrontation to last a long time. This may include a military clash between Russia and NATO. Estonia’s location means that we could also become a participant.
Laying it on the line—are you talking about the possibility of a military conflict on Estonian territory?
Reinsalu: At the end of 2013, the magazine The Atlantic published an analysis about potential armed crises in 2014. It did not include a word about Ukraine, Russia or Transcaucasia. The picture has completely changed now. When a country has started to alter its borders by force of arms—and we are talking about a nuclear weapons state—then this is the most severe military crisis since the end of the Cold War. This country no longer abides by the basic rules of international law. Its actions are unpredictable. Military crises begin with unpredictable behaviour, which comes to a head. We must be ready for all sorts of surprises. Russia’s behaviour is contrary to any instincts that we may have about the well-being of its citizens or its international reputation. It is illogical in the short and long run. We must take account of the unexpected and the illogical, and this could result in a military confrontation between NATO and Russia.
Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party): I agree that, generally speaking, the greatest foreign security problem is, of course, Russia, and the world without rules it has established. The problem also includes shows of sympathy, which can be found in countries near and far, including members of the European Union and NATO, and, to some extent, in Estonia. We cannot talk about great unity in Estonia in terms of security policy, and even the electorate has different attitudes towards the problem. A very big issue is the capacity for psychological resistance, and I have seen incredible setbacks on this matter in the international arena.
Marianne Mikko (Social Democratic Party): There are two big problems from the point of view of foreign security. First, Russia is not like what the West had thought, wanted and dreamed of. It is aggressive and has no intention of turning towards democracy. Second, the ISIL offensive. Although it does not involve us directly, we are part of NATO and the EU and therefore involved anyway, as militants have gone to join ISIL from Finland and Sweden. When the leader of the Swedish Security Police claims that terrorist attacks similar to that in Paris will become the norm, this is a very serious statement. The most important internal security question is whether we consider the one-third of the population that does not speak Estonian to be “on our side”. Are they patriotically minded?
Rene Toomse (Centre Party): It is clear that Russia is the only country that poses a military threat to Europe. As to Mr. Ligi’s comment, it is certainly not the Estonian Centre Party that has a different understanding of the issue. The question is rather about how to resolve the situation. Let’s take a wider view. The country’s survival is very much based on the economy and exporting its products. And here, Russia has been an important partner. Is there any point in getting into a gunfight while equipped only with pocket-knives, when we are the ones who would suffer later? It would be better to remain moderate! I would like to remind you that the Estonian Centre Party has condemned aggression against Ukraine, and the attack on Georgia at the time. While we have politicians who may seem to support Russia, this is not our official position, but the private view of individuals.
Do you mean that Estonia should seek the weakening of sanctions, as Estonia’s economy and security are suffering?
Toomse: The issue does not concern only sanctions; even Khodorkovsky says that they do not work. Other solutions are needed.
Toomse: Sanctions tend to provide two options: all or nothing. We can see that the current sanctions do not work; they do put strain on Russia, but they do not make Russia withdraw from Ukraine. Things are not simply black and white.
Ligi: Things often are black. When leading politicians play down the problem of Crimea when competing for votes—instead of directly addressing the Russian-speaking voter—then this is a problem.
Reinsalu: It cannot be claimed that the sanctions have not had an effect, but nor can it be said in what way they influence Russia, whether towards aggression or peacefulness. The unpredictability of such behaviour involves a risk—it may be put to the test by military opposition between NATO and Russia, and our geographical location puts us in a difficult position. The fact is that we are a country bordering Russia and, at the same time, a member of NATO, and the military balance in our region does not favour the Alliance. The permanent presence of NATO is a reasonable goal to pursue. In addition to the symbolic presence, we need the real military presence of the US. We should insist, with Poland and the other Baltic States, that some of the US units in Italy should be relocated to our region.
Ligi: Estonia’s only military deterrence that Russia takes any notice of is NATO. However, Russia also takes into account the concept of hybrid war and Estonia has been written into the very concept; the April Events [of 2007] are seen as a classic of hybrid war in a NATO member state. The devilish nature of hybrid war manifests itself in its versatility and various techniques for influencing opinion. Unfortunately, Putin has some support in several other countries. But values-based politics cannot be doubted simply because it is not profitable in economic terms. The new radical leftist government in Greece is a very big warning. All of this is helping to feed a hybrid war.
Mikko: Unlike our former ministers of defence, I am rather relaxed about whether Estonia is protected or not. Estonia got what it wanted in Wales last autumn. This is a problem which we need not fear or be overly anxious about. We must be good at developing our own capabilities, but I cannot agree with Mr. Reinsalu’s suggestion that we should bring American soldiers from Italy to Estonia. We should not spend too much time on this in the election campaign. There are certain topics which should be discussed behind closed doors and not in public, as these are analysed by experts. We should be firmer, braver. The level of Estonian defence spending—2% of GDP—is a very good assurance that we should be taken seriously, and considerably more seriously than Latvia or Lithuania. Estonia has also contributed tangibly to various operations. Estonia has been, so to speak, more Catholic than the Pope himself. I agree that hybrid war is a serious matter, but we should not be desperately anxious about it.
Reinsalu: Desperation, nervousness and excessive fear are certainly not the most rational options. But the changed risk behoves us to contribute more. Of course Estonia is protected, but it would be dangerous to consider the confrontation which has developed in Ukraine a short-term phenomenon.
Mikko: I didn’t say that!
Reinsalu: We can see this attitude in several Western countries, even among the political elite in our partners’ capitals. The seeds of the war in Ukraine were sown in the Russo–Georgian war, when the aggressor was left unpunished and was therefore encouraged further. I agree that sanctions are successful when they force the aggressor to withdraw. Therefore, the present sanctions have not been applied to a sufficient extent and have been applied too late, as they have not tamed the aggressor. This apparent tolerance has certainly made the crisis deeper, not alleviated it. Decisiveness and a demonstration of strength are the main features that have been lacking in the Western response.
Toomse: Unfortunately, the Russian people feel that “when one of ours is being beaten, everyone will come to help”. Perhaps Estonia should not position itself on the front line. When we demonise Russia more than is reasonable, we shall be paving the way to a hybrid war!
Are you claiming that Russians in Estonia may start to feel that Russia is being bullied?
Toomse: Correct. We should be more careful about that. Let us put ourselves in their position: they will not start loving us more if we demonise Russia. These psychological aspects should be reviewed from a scientific point of view, not based on emotions.
When it comes to NATO, membership is very good, but in reality … According to a military scenario, three or four Russian brigades may attack Estonia. In a real military situation, it is very difficult to move anyone here. Our airspace will be covered by the enemy’s air defence from the other side of the border. Approaching by sea is difficult due to Kaliningrad. The land strip is very narrow. It is probable that, if Russia attacked the Baltic States, Latvia would be attacked first—after that, access by land would be impossible.
It may be feared that planned cuts in US defence spending will make them incapable of fighting two wars on different fronts and in different regions: one in the Middle East, the other here. And they would contribute more to the Middle East as ISIL is even more worrying. Russia will also monitor the situation to see who increases or decreases their presence, and where. Even the British—a significant force in Europe—are decreasing the size of their forces. There are only two countries in Europe who have contributed 2% of GDP to national defence—Estonia and Poland. All the rest have cut their spending: the British are heading for 1.88%. We should take a broader view of the development of our defence forces and develop the hybrid concepts ourselves, not create a miniature version of the army of a large country. There is no point in Estonia standing out strongly, but at the same time we must be ready to defend ourselves if someone attacked our country.
Ligi: First we should make an agreement with Yana Toom [Centre Party MEP] about how to react to things. Savisaar would gladly accept these votes. I would like to see the parties with more leftist views address the Russians more firmly.
Reinsalu: I do not agree that Estonia should be more moderate or establish self-censorship about the war in Ukraine because of the Russian minority here. On one hand, the war in Ukraine is a general human question about values, just like any injustice in the world or fundamental attitude towards a nation. The other dimension is our direct security interest. When the aggressor is encouraged over Ukraine, it will find the motivation to expand its borders even further. The Estonian survival instinct in terms of security policy should be to play on Europe’s conscience! However, the citizens of Malta will see the debate about Ukraine and Russia from a more academic perspective than the people of the Baltic States.
All other crises—Syria, Iran, US–China relations—should be viewed from this other perspective, as otherwise these issues will take the Western world’s attention away from Ukraine and Russia.
Last spring, as the situation in Ukraine began to intensify, the Estonian media started a discussion about shelters—civil defence shelters built during Soviet times had been left to decay, while Finland was building new shelters. Do you think the decision not to deal with the shelters here was correct?
Reinsalu: The protection of the civilian population is very important. But when it comes to protecting them from a potential airstrike, medium-range air defence capability is more important than shelters.
Toomse: The shelters themselves are not the only solution, but they should certainly be prepared. The Finns have a requirement that all new buildings which exceed a certain size must have a shelter, including shopping centres. Every human life is valuable.
Reinsalu: The protection of the civilian population must be a part of the comprehensive national defence strategy. But this does not automatically make shelters a priority. Modern wars have become increasingly fast. The type of warfare characteristic of WWI—years of bombing and fighting on fronts—is not widespread anymore. Developing a rapid response capability is the priority these days. Crises may develop very quickly. When you ask what is more important—medium-range air defence or shelters—it is the former.
Ligi: Yes. All sorts of things can be done—and why not build shelters? But this is a matter of priorities, and security institutions have not specified this as a priority. It is a matter of cost-effectiveness.
Toomse: In other countries, this is the real-estate developer’s responsibility. The state need not allocate a lot of resources, but the builder must construct the cellar floor in such a way that it can be used as a shelter. This is not very costly.
Ligi: It is also a matter of resources, as there is no point in assigning the private sector excessive obligations before we are certain of the results.
Mikko: Starting to build shelters tomorrow seems a bit naïve. Shelters have been built actively not only in Finland but also in Switzerland, where a house will not be commissioned until a shelter has been built. But instead of shelters we should discuss how to provide the Russians in Russia with counter-information and how to sustain liberal democracy, in case we have to enter a propaganda war during the hybrid war.
Many European countries are abolishing conscription, one by one. Estonia is not. However, only one-third of those born in a particular year have been conscripted, while more than 80% are being taken into service in Finland. Should Estonia make efforts to increase the number of conscripts?
Mikko: In Norway the percentage is only 10% of those born in a year.
Toomse: We should take every healthy young man who is ready for it. Many of my acquaintances would like to go voluntarily, but cannot. One hundred per cent of healthy men should undergo conscription, as they would learn a lot! The associations are not only of a military nature, they are social too. Conscription might include vocational education; all of the specialties available in the Defence Forces also exist in civilian life. It seems entirely feasible that when a young person leaves conscription he should also have a professional certificate, which will facilitate finding a job. This makes the person more attractive to employers.
Mr. Ligi, the Reform Party has shown a preference for developing a professional army in the past …
Ligi: Nobody doubts the need for conscription during wartime! I have never been a fan of peacetime conscription. As to the number of conscripts, experts claim that we do not need more than 3,000 men a year, just the number we prepare now. This number should not be exaggerated. The situation in Finland is very different, as it is not a member of NATO, it has a long border with Russia, and it has more problems protecting its territory. But all boys should receive military education in one form or another. I believe in experts, not fanatics who claim that every boy should serve in the army. Society must be kept functional even during wartime. Experts do not consider that we need all of those born in a certain year for conscripted service, as is claimed by fanatics.
Reinsalu: Now you have confused things. You cannot claim that we need conscription during a war and not during peacetime; things do not work like that.
Ligi: I did not confuse anything.
Reinsalu: When we look at the logic of how the Estonian army reserve has been built, then it is not realistic to think that we can form large units without the reserves, i.e. those who have undergone conscription. Conscripted service is a real necessity, despite the slogans people have chanted at various times. We will not be capable of employing 20,000 soldiers; this is unrealistic. Keeping to the level of 3,000 conscripts a year is a challenge as the number of those born each year is falling, and the sample is decreasing with the population. The health requirements have been eased, but this cannot continue for ever. The percentage of conscripts out of those born in a certain year will start to rise as the number of young people falls.
Ligi: On the question of confusing things, I must make clear that I did not use the terms “war” and “peace” in their legal context. The security situation in Europe has changed completely. The new situation will influence defence policy. But the low cost of conscripted service is only imaginary, as those left out will not undergo service. The burden will be placed on those who have been called up for conscription, and none on those who are not. This raises questions.
Mikko: When you take into account the worsening health of young men and the fact that young women are allowed to undergo conscripted service as of spring 2013, I believe this resource can be used to raise and maintain the number of conscripts. Young women currently constitute only 1% of conscripts, but in future it could be 20%. Our only true general, whom I consider a general, is Tiiu Kera, but she is not in the Estonian Defence Forces.
Should conscription be compulsory for women?
Mikko: The position of the Social Democratic Party is that Estonia has a long way to go before becoming like Norway. Our party supports the greater involvement of women in military service. However, it is too early to speak of compulsory service.
Reinsalu: Conscription for women is effectively voluntary in Norway, too.
Mikko: For example, female pilots are far better at their profession than men!
Reinsalu: It is reasonable that all young people should be taught civil defence at secondary school level, and informed about the possibility of conscripted service. However, it is also reasonable to keep conscription non-compulsory for women.
Toomse: Estonian society is not ready for compulsory conscripted service for women.
Ligi: There should be some division of labour in society!
What should be done about the border between Estonia and Russia? After the Eston Kohver case it became apparent that it might not be too difficult for the so-called little green men to cross …
Toomse: The Estonian Border Guard was eaten up by the police. In case of a military conflict, Estonia would need about 2,000 border guards. Conscripted service on the border, with special border-guard training, should be restored.
Ligi: Very broadly speaking, it has been widely believed in Estonia that, until we have a border treaty, we do not need to invest in the border. But marking the border and defending it are two different things. Modern military conflicts are never solved on the border. I have not heard a credible expert who would advise us to build up our military capabilities on the border.
Reinsalu: We must separate two aspects. The police-like function on the border is to stop the passage of drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. Another aspect is to stop potential provocations by Russia, which are not on the scale of a military conflict, but are connected to the use of military force in order to cause psychological deterrence or provocation. Handling such problems is the task of the military. The idea that we can create two defence forces at the same time, one for war and one for protecting the border, is not realistic.
Mikko: The ball is in the Russian court, but we should consider whether the border treaty should be ratified unilaterally.
How well would you say that energy security in Estonia has been safeguarded? 90% of our electricity is produced in one place in a border city. Wouldn’t distributed energy production be more secure?
Reinsalu: We can use Estlink 2 to meet our energy needs in the short term.
Ligi: Energy security will be provided by the network and connections with other countries.
What is the most important task in the field of psychological defence?
Ligi: To ensure the mental fortitude of the people. The state Constitution plays a role in this, and must be up to the task .Mikko: Psychological defence involves feeling that one is a citizen of the country, keeping both feet on the ground and seeing that one is being protected. This is also expressed in the behaviour of politicians, in political decisions and how much information is given to citizens and how many discussions are held about the real issues rather than distractions. When we talk about the one third who do not speak Estonian, establishing a Russian-language TV channel is essential.
Reinsalu: Russia is engaged in war propaganda, inciting and organising its diaspora. This is influencing people. The first step in tackling this is to explain the process and write about it. The annual review of the Internal Security Service is perfect for this task. The second issue is not to damage ourselves during our own activities.
Toomse: To me, psychological protection means that people should be told the truth about the current situation. This creates belief in one’s country, but it cannot come from attempts to deceive the people.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.