Minister of Internal Affairs Mart Helme told a Finnish newspaper the Estonian government had begun to draw up a "plan B" for defense in case NATO can not protect the Baltic States. His comments have been condemned by the prime minister, the foreign minister and others.
Helme, who is also the chairman of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), said a contingency plan is necessary because the government cannot hope that NATO will ensure the territorial integrity and independence of Estonia in every situation.
"I don't want to say that Macron is 100 percent telling the truth when he says that NATO is brain-dead, but it is clear that NATO has a problem," Helme told Finnish daily Iltalehti (link in Finnish).
Helme said Estonia's positions for the NATO Summit in London are currently being prepared. "We are also working on a plan B, which is what Estonia and the other Baltic States will do if Macron's words prove to be true," said Helme.
Estonia's plan B is being prepared with Latvia and Lithuania, he added. "We do not know exactly what the Americans intend to do. Our ministers have recently been to the U.S. that always talks about China. Very few people consider Russia a topic," Helme noted.
He said what is worrying is what is happening in the Middle East: Americans are gradually leaving and Russia and Turkey are reaffirming their friendships.
"We are worried about Russia. I said at the government meeting that we had to do everything to find out what the 'big guys' were going to do. Britain thinks about the security of the Baltic states but what happens after Brexit and what will happen in Germany after the end of Merkel's term? No one knows how much Merkel's exit will change German foreign policy," Helme noted. "Do the French want to warm relations with the Russians? Everything is unclear."
"Nobody knows what's going to happen next. That's why we need a plan B, which doesn't mean we think Russia will invade Estonia," Helme said. "I believe that Finland is interested in having an independent Estonia on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, not the Russian Empire once more," he added.
Helme noted that, in his opinion, Russia has always been a threat to Estonia and will remain so in the future. "The threat depends on who is in power in Russia. There are two sides: if Russia has a dictatorship and is ruled hard, it means a military threat for Estonia. If Russia has a democratic government, there is a different kind of danger. Our relationship with Russia will always be complicated," said Helme.
Estonia cannot rely on the European Union either, Helme said, because the European Union is not a "center of power" in the world, and in the future the influence of the European Union will lessen.
Helme said NATO may emerge from the crisis, but it cannot be relied on, and so other plans must be made. At the same time, he noted that he will continue to rely on NATO. "We want NATO to be strong," he said.
The principle of collective defence is at the heart of NATO's founding treaty and works on the idea that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies. The principle of collective defence is enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance's Washington Treaty.
The article in Iltalehti noted that none of the Estonian government's leading politicians had previously said publicly that the Estonian government would prepare a plan B in case NATO's Article 5 failed.
The Minister of the Interior is not engaged in military defense planning.
Ratas: NATO does not need to be questioned
Replying to Helme's comments, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) said there is no need to question Estonia's membership in NATO and its alliance with member states.
"Estonia's security is secured through a transatlantic link within NATO, and everything we do with our regional allies and partners, such as Latvia, Lithuania, is aimed at strengthening NATO and the unity of the West. It ensures the values and security of the entire North Atlantic space," Ratas wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
Ratas said Estonia's plan A, B and C is to develop independent defense capabilities and remain within NATO.
"At the same time, NATO is viable and operational, both militarily and politically, in Europe and beyond. I know this because I have been assured of it together with other NATO heads of state and government at a common table or recently during a NATO mission in Afghanistan involving our Defense Forces," noted the prime minister.
He said it is natural for member states to have divergent positions, but NATO is doing far more together "than disagreements within the context of the Alliance."
"NATO has taken a significant step forward in strengthening collective defense and boosting defense spending in recent years. Since 2014, Allies have been providing air defense to Ämari and in 2017, the U.K.-led NATO Battle Group has been present. We are grateful to all our allies for their contributions," wrote Ratas.
Reinsalu: There is no alternative to NATO
Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), who will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday in preparation for the summit in London, said in a Facebook comment to Helme that he does not see an alternative to NATO.
"We are working with our regional allies in security policy and military, both in the European Union and bilaterally and collectively, but certainly not as an alternative to NATO. This is for the simple reason that there is no alternative for NATO collective defense and there is no need for one," he wrote.
Reinsalu believes that the differences between NATO allies must be resolved through dialogue.
"In the Atlantic space, for freedom and security, there is really no alternative to NATO either in our view, in the U.S. or for other European allies. I am sure that, in a rational view, all allied capitals, in spite of the pressures of current rhetoric, see it this way. It is our vital security interest to ensure NATO's capabilities and allied commitment," the foreign minister wrote.
He also said Estonia's "special relationship with the US" must be maintained.
"Looking at NATO's military capabilities, in light of President Trump's comments, the allies have been able to raise a total of more than one hundred billion dollars which we need to develop in a number of areas in order to further European-U.S. allied relations," Reinsalu said.
Isamaa chairman: NATO is not in crisis
Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder said in response to Helme's comments that NATO is not in crisis.
"NATO is not in crisis and Estonia is not looking for an alternative to NATO. NATO is functional as an organization as evidenced by the presence of allied forces in Estonia. We value additional regional security cooperation as it strengthens and complements our alliance with NATO but it does not replace it," said Seeder.
"Such statements overlook the bigger picture. NATO as an organization works. The criticism of some politicians toward NATO has little effect and is as short-sighted as the criticism of some Estonian politicians back when Isamaa and its Defense Minister Reinsalu called on NATO troops to ensure our security in Estonia. These troops today are defending the independence and sovereignty of Estonia and the entire eastern wing of NATO," he said.
Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee: We expect a lot from the summit
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu Enn Eesmaa (Centre Party) said that there are surprisingly few NATO crisis talkers, considering that it is NATO that largely guarantees Estonia's security.
"The overwhelming majority of politicians, peoples and nations are now calling for unity and decisive action to develop and improve NATO. We look forward to the upcoming London Summit," he told ERR.
Eesmaa said everything should be done to never start developing a plan B.
"This is how I wrote the original text of the foreign and security chapter of today's coalition agreement, which was unanimously approved and adopted as the basis for the final text," Eesmaa noted.
Social Democrats: When will Helme be dismissed?
Indrek Saar, chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), sent a public letter to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas on Tuesday asking if Ratas would seek Mart Helme's dismissal.
Saar recalled that when Centre Party Minister Mihhail Korb in the previous government questioned Estonia's membership in NATO, he was dismissed.
"The social democrats expect Estonia's foreign policy stance to be steadfast and for members of the Estonian government to follow it. Interior Minister Mart Helme has repeatedly called into question Estonia's membership in NATO, much like the previous government's minister Mihhail Korb, whom you dismissed. We expect the prime minister's assessments to be consistent and determined. We want to know when will you go to the president with Mart Helme's resignation statement?" Saar wrote.
Editor: Helen Wright