Kristjan Mäe: NATO deterrence and defense stance in the coronavirus crisis

Kristjan Mäe, head of the Ministry of Defense's NATO and EU department.
Kristjan Mäe, head of the Ministry of Defense's NATO and EU department. Source: Ardi Hallismaa

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been taking a toll on the transatlantic family for some weeks, while it has taught Estonia and its allies in NATO many important lessons, writes Kristjan Mäe, head of the Ministry of Defense's NATO and EU department.

Heads of state and governments are concentrating mainly on combating the healthcare and economic crises, while we cannot forget that the remaining dimensions of security, including conventional military threats, have not disappeared (more on that in the Foreign Intelligence Service's 2020 report).

"Culture of readiness" has been an important concept in NATO language since Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, while the cast of mind of preparing for crises and worst-case scenarios is in the DNA of defense ministries and armed forces, it is our raison d'etre.

Therefore, it is only natural that our people, civilian and military know-how and resources support societies in combating civilian crises, without jeopardizing situational awareness and defense readiness.

Strong foundation begins with solidarity

NATO's strength and unity are built on solidarity – from political declarations and crisis management operations all the way to the implementation of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty. Solidarity has few applicable metrics, while the speed of political decisions is one.

Do we still remember that moment in the early spring of 2014 when U.S. fighter jets landed at the Ämari Airbase a mere day after our defense minister called for help? Rapid deterioration of the security situation makes hours seem like days, days like weeks and weeks like months.

Allied relations key to Estonia's continuity

Estonia does not have an extensive toolbox for helping its allies, while speed can multiply a small country's effective capacity. Let us think back if only to the benefit of Iceland's decision to be the first country to recognize the independent Republic of Estonia on August 22, 1991.

The Estonian government's decision to support Spain and Italy – allies suffering the most in the coronavirus crisis – as soon as possible was also of key importance. That is precisely why we should keep in mind our allied obligations when creating Estonia's continuity supplies.

Instability is fertile ground for more instability. Few people can accurately forecast the medium and long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis. We can be sure of one thing, however – our adversaries, Russia, first and foremost, are sure to consistently test our allied relations and partnerships for weaknesses. What is a healthcare and economic crisis cannot be allowed to morph into a security crisis.

Collective defense at the heart of NATO activities

Various information and influence operations but also cyberattacks form merely the tip of the iceberg that is our adversaries' strategic goals and capacities. That is why it is important for collective defense to remain central to NATO activities also when we are addressing and adjusting to the current crisis. This message has been emphasized by both foreign affairs and defense ministers in April, during what have been the first video meetings in NATO history.

While looking out for the health of members of armed forces both at home and in mission areas, no concessions will be made in terms of NATO's deterrence and defense stance. Just as Estonian Defense Forces members are actively supporting allies on missions, addressing security concerns far from home in Mali, Afghanistan and elsewhere, allies continue to contribute to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence and Baltic Air Policing.

Estonia must continue contributing to missions also in the most difficult times and stand ready to support allies through additional efforts if necessary.

Long-term effects of resource decisions

Crises must and can be prepared for when times are still good, while making the right decisions is crucial when times are difficult. The previous global economic crisis took a toll on allies' defense budgets, defense readiness and military capacity.

It was only the "unexpected" Russia threat that forced allies to quickly agree on bigger defense spending at the Wales summit in 2014. Because of that, considerable success has been found in recent years, stopping and reversing of which could have dangerous consequences.

Maintaining defense spending is a difficult task for everyone in an economic crisis, while it is absolutely necessary in terms of Estonia's independent defensive capacity, allied operations and presence, as well as NATO deterrence and defense stance as a whole.

Short-term resource decisions can have long-term effects on maintaining military capacity and procurements, while they also determine how well and how quickly Estonia and its allies can react to crises or conflicts that could go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their effects. As it has been for the past decade, Estonia once again finds itself able to visibly demonstrate its dedication to independent defensive capacity and serve as an example for other allies by keeping its defense spending on the required level.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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