Estonian opinion leaders and defense experts have since the start of Ukraine crisis debated about the likelihood of Russian invasion of Estonia. The debate was fueled again this week when President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in an interview with the British daily The Telegraph that should Russian forces attack, “it would be over in four hours”. Estonian defense experts have been quick to play down the fears at home, while supporting Ilves in his campaign to get the message through abroad.
Ants Laaneots, the former chief commander of Estonian Defense Forces, and Kalev Stoicescu, a research fellow at International Center of Defense and Security, both told ERR that there is no reason to panic and the president's message was directed at NATO, in order to emphasize the need to have more troops on the ground in Estonia.
Laaneots said that Russia is keen to send a message to the world that it is still a big power, and the only means to prove it is by military force. Therefore it is understandable that president is concerned, especially taking into account what happened in Georgia and Ukraine.
“Russia is conducting large military exercises in the vicinity of Estonian border, their air force has repeatedly violated the air space of the Baltic states. Therefore it is natural to be concerned and be prepared for the possibility that President Vladimir Putin and his administration may attempt to use the same scenario that was used in Ukraine,” Laaneots said.
“But I think that President Ilves's message, expressed in the interview, was directed at NATO. It's not easy to defend Estonia – we have the potential threat in the east, and our northern and western borders are surrounded by the sea. Ilves's message is that we need more NATO troops – not just a small American brigade, currently stationed in Estonia, and meant to wave NATO flag to Russia – but a proper military base, which would be able to react in a crisis situation and accommodate additional Allied troops, if necessary. This would help to deter Russians,” Laaneots added. He also said that it is crucial to maintain the NATO Air Base in Ämari, with fighter jets permanently based there.
However, Laaneots made it clear that Russia is unable to invade and occupy Estonia in four hours, and in his opinion, President Ilves has not said otherwise. “Russian administration knows that by attacking the Baltic states, they would enter the war with NATO. Despite the indication that President Putin is suffering under some kind of psychiatric problems, the team in charge of Kremlin are not kamikazes – they will not risk the war with NATO, which could spell the end for their own existence.”
Laaneots also cited other reasons why Russia's attack would be unlikely, such as being involved in Eastern Ukraine and the country's economic woes. But Laaneots said that this does not mean that Estonians should sit idly and do nothing. “The Western-European countries like their comfort and are trying to avoid any confrontation with Russia as much as they can. Therefore it is our task to explain the security situation and put a pressure on the West, as much as possible, to eliminate potential threat before it becomes real – and President Ilves is doing a good job on this,” Laaneots said, adding that we should remain calm for now.
Other defense experts also maintained that Estonia has never been better protected than now, and defense forces are ready to defend the country.
Kalev Stoicescu from ICDS said that the priority is to deter Russia from even contemplating an aggression against Estonia and that is the reason why it is important to have more NATO troops on the ground in Estonia, adding that emphasizing the need for this deterrence has also been President Ilves's core message.
In Stoicescu's opinion, many decisions with regards to NATO's increased presence in Estonia will be taken in the light of Russia's continuing interference in Ukraine. “Should the war in Ukraine start again, with Russia flexing its muscles, then it will give a serious reason for increased Allied presence in Estonia. But as it stands, the Western leaders are anxiously holding their breath whether the Minsk II peace agreement holds, so I think that simultaneously increasing NATO presence in the Baltic states is not on the agenda. Should the conflict in Ukraine intensify again, however, everything is possible.“
Ilves's recent pronouncements, including the one in question, received criticism from Estonian MEP Indrek Tarand, who called the president to be more diplomatic when giving interviews to foreign press.
Editor: S. Tambur