Interview | Defense minister on Estonia's NATO experience now and in future
Of the current government ministers, Jüri Luik (Isamaa) has more experience than most, and in the same post – defense. ERR News sat down with the minister to ask him what NATO and EU membership brings, how the defense forces tick, what lies ahead in the future, and, conversely, how Estonia's armed forces have transformed since the 1990s in his first stint as defense minister.
"I think it's very important to outline how much Estonia has developed in general, and when it comes to defense. This was one of the areas where there was no Soviet analogy for us, after becoming independent again. There were no Estonian defense forces as such, so we essentially had to start with a green-field project, from meager means and with very inexperienced personnel."
This has obviously changed exponentially since then.
"I think we have now developed these armed forces into a capable fighting force based on the reserve army model, which today numbers around 24,000 troops. We haven't focused too much on the size, but instead on the quality of the troops. Some countries make the mistake of building up 'paper' armies, but for us, it's very important that if we build a unit, it is well trained, well supplied, has gone through many exercises, has ammunition, has logistics and is ready to go if and when necessary."
The approach is carried through both in Estonia's regular defense forces, the EDF, as well as the volunteer-based Defense League (Kaitseliit), of which more later.
"This set up works well for a small country. We've come a long way, but a lot remains to be done," the defense minister says.
NATO and the EU
Estonia may be a small country, but many of its near and far neighbors, both friendly and not so much, are certainly not small. The country joined both NATO and the EU in the same year, 2004, one of many watershed years. While defense obviously springs to mind when hearing the term "NATO", this may not always be the first association with the EU, but there is an important defensive component there too.
"It's fair to say that the EU has done a lot to develop its security and defense component, which is not a 'traditional' aspect of the union. Defense is really quite a new dimension of the EU. I think we have to be very realistic in saying that a lot of these projects are connected with technology, innovation and logistics, for instance [EU defense and security structure] Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects, which are part of developing new weapons systems, or military mobility, based on improving EU infrastructure so it can be used by military echelons."
"But when it comes to actual combat capabilities, then it is fair to say that EU as an organization does not possess these things to the same extent, as military cooperation is the responsibility of NATO."
This has also taken Estonia on some foreign missions, such as in the West African nation of Mali, which are less obviously in Estonia's sphere of interest.
Estonia and Mali
"When it comes to EU defense, we have to make a distinction when, if we're talking about the EU as a whole, then European countries have their own 'coalitions of the willing' and which are not under the EU flag, especially in Africa. Estonia is part of one of these, being led by the French, in Mali (Operation Barkhane – ed.), and this is our way of indicating that, while Estonia may ask other countries to help us in the east, we are certainly ready in return to help other countries in the south. We believe that European security is 360 degrees, and that we all share these security threats together. We understand that the instability in the south impacts us in the north and what happens in the east impacts our allies in the west of Europe In fact, when people ask us why we are in Africa, that's the main reason."
In any case, the EU and NATO seem to complement, rather than compete with, each other, at least so far as Estonia is concerned.
"The main guarantor of EU security is and remains NATO. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is the key element of credible deterrence – which does not mean the EU countries or European countries do not play a role – many are, after all, members of both organizations, but defense plans for the whole alliance exist only in NATO Everyone plays an important role but really the U.S. participation remains a central element of NATO, which is one of the reasons why the relationship with the U.S. is very important. For Estonia we really highly value that."
Going back to the EU, is that cohesion not jeopardized sometimes when some of its member states, or at least their leaders, seem to engage in a more cordial relationship with the Russian Federation than might be desired?
"No, since nowadays, having a strong defensive posture against Russia and talking to Russia are not seen as contradictory."
"Ultimately, everyone understands Russia is an unpredictable partner or adversary, so no one believes that you can state clearly that Russia has not bad intentions at all – they clearly have, and have shown it."
"There were times, perhaps late 90s/early 2000s when this was seen as a contradiction in terms, but nowadays it's not. There are indeed countries which have more diplomatic activity with Russia, some have less, but in general everyone follows the EU line, which is that Russia should behave according to international law, and if they don't they should be sanctioned, which as you know already has a strict regimen in place and with new measures coming after the Navalny poisoning case – yet I don't see any EU country trying to subvert that, not at all."
NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup
No better concrete example of both the NATO-EU interface and the posture towards Estonia's giant eastern neighbor could be found than the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), based in Tapa, since 2017, and British led, with the regular participation of units from France, Denmark and Belgium – all EU countries of course – in particular.
"Naturally, our defense is very much dependent also on our collective efforts with other NATO countries, hence the term collective defense. The most visible aspects of collective defense are of course the eFP and air policing units here in Estonia. But, of course, collective defense is much more than that, including rapid reinforcement by allies, something which is vital for the defense of NATO and Estonia."
This even led to the first ever use of one particular U.S. system in Europe, outside of Germany, recently.
"We are constantly running exercises here in Estonia, even with COVID-19. The Americans were here with the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which is a very impressive and capable weapons system. This was the first time the system had been moved from its training ground in Germany, ever, to any other location in Europe. Naturally, our neighbor to the east made a scene about this, while conveniently forgetting to mention that their own rocket battalions are permanently stationed right next to our border."
The U.S. and Germany
The news in summer that the U.S. would be scaling down its personnel numbers in Germany, does this mean that some of that capacity will find its way to Estonia, as well as Poland?
"The US military presence in Europe is a cornerstone of European security and the transatlantic bond. I do think it is too early to say or predict how the U.S. wants to proceed with the decision made late summer. From our regional perspective, it is immensely important that we share the same regional threat perception with the U.S. and the decisions made on basing the troops are made on this particular threat perception."
"What we see is that Russia has not scaled down its exercises despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are closely monitoring the preparations for next year´s large-scale Exercise Zapad (West) 2021, traditionally directly aimed at the West."
What about Brexit though? Has this been a blow to the collective security approach?
"It has not changed that much – our British colleagues have this very beautiful saying, which I think is true: 'The UK is leaving the EU but it is not leaving Europe,' and the British troops here in Estonia are probably the best testament to the fact that the UK remains very strongly connected to European affairs and security."
"Obviously we are very happy to have the Brits here, with the Challenger tanks and a lot of other impressive equipment and personnel; they play a crucial role in guaranteeing the security of Estonia."
This has necessarily led to the transformation of Tapa base and the surrounding town in the past three to four years.
"What has happened at Tapa has been huge, it's become a huge base and, the supporting political fact of having NATO troops here as well of course as the high combat value. The political or symbolic aspect is also extremely important. Everyone understands that message."
Ämari and NATO Baltic Air Policing
The NATO Baltic Air Policing duties, flying out of Ämari air base, predate the eFP by over a decade. What is the rationale there and how does it work?
"If we were to buy our own fighter jets for our air force, we would have to sink our entire defense budget into it."
"So NATO's air policing mission is to have European air forces rotating their planes roughly every four months. Germany has probably been the most active country there so far (and currently holds the role, over two, back-to-back , as well as French, Italian, Spanish and other European air forces. This has been extremely impressive. Coming here, flying fast jets and deploying them is actually a very expensive investment for a country, for them to come here and support us and use our airspace."
This is not just theoretical, NATO air force planes at Ämari, and Šiauliai in Lithuania, regularly intercept Russian planes often straying close to, or into, Estonian air space and that of the other two Baltic States, Luik points out.
The pandemic hasn't done anything to subvert this either, Luik says.
"We have made sure the activities of both Estonian forces and those of our allies will continue and that our readiness does not decrease due to the virus. In spring we did exercises, and created a system of control, so that really we almost entirely avoided any spread of COVID-19 among the military and were able to continue with our training."
"We also helped the civilian authorities during the COVID-19 crisis, sent a field hospital to one of our islands, Saaremaa, in spring – then a hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic – and also our Defense League volunteers to support where necessary."
EDF and Defense League set-up
The EDF is centered on two brigades, principally armored, mechanized infantry-based, but this is more than augmented by the fact that Estonia has both a large reserve of ex-EDF personnel and people in the Defense League.
"When the Estonian conscripts finish their military training, they are added to the reserve and can be mobilized very rapidly. In addition, the Defense League – Kaitseliit – is a voluntary military organization, some of whose aspects are supposed to be integrated into the operational structure, the two main brigades, but others are meant to be used in various locations as territorial defense units, to cover the whole country, which is quite large in comparison with the size of the population. The Defense League officer corps is generally made up of professional troops.
Another key aspect of the Defense League mirrors both Estonian defense and Estonia's e-state a whole, Luik goes on.
"We have a Defense League cyber defense unit, made up of people who work in the banks, or the crème-de-la-crème of cyber specialists."
"These people we could never match in pay compared with what they get paid by their employers, so the Defense League offers them a way to converge to use their knowledge to support their country while still working."
"This is, I think, a very good way of illustrating what the Defense League is. However, of course if you join, you have to abide by the rules, by military orders, the system – it's not just a group of citizens with guns. It's still part of the military."
Future defense plans for Estonia
As to the future, Estonia's nuts-and-bolts defense development will hone in on two areas: Coastal defenses, and a fully-mechanized infantry. But what are coastal defenses exactly?
"Usually what coastal defense systems comprise covers many layers – you can have sea mines, you can have short-range missile systems, long-range missiles, vessels etc. It depends very much on what the particular needs are and what your financial capabilities are. We have been discussing purchasing a long-range coastal defense missile system, but this is all still very much at planning stage.
"Estonia is a country with a huge coastline, a seafaring country, and it is natural that we would need a coastal defense system. There are various elements to this as things stand. We have received funding for 2022, and we are in the planning phase of developing this area."
"We are not buying anything haphazardly and not putting anything which is not of use to this project, but the first move is that next year we will be purchasing sea mines, also as part of the coastal defense."
What about some more vessels for Estonia's Navy (Merevägi)?
"We would like to do that, but it is extremely expensive. Our navy has focused on mine-hunting capabilities, and coastal patrolling, though this actually falls under the interior ministry's remit under the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA). We work, as a small country should do, hand-in-hand with the interior ministry's maritime units in patrolling sea borders, in other words."
"As to land forces, we have the self-propelled howitzers which we bought from South Korea – the K9 – gives us a long reach, which is an important component, and at the same time we are creating fully mobile units with armored, tracked vehicles– the Swedish-made Combat Vehicle 90 – we aim to supply the whole operational structure with that."
"Ultimately, the physical protection of the land border is in the PPA's hands in peacetime. Obviously if someone, as it were, would come over, I don't mean a couple of smugglers or something but real military units, then the border zone becomes a matter for us."
Jüri Luik has served as Minister of Defense over three terms, in the 1990s and 2000s, and most recently from 2017 to the present. He was also foreign minister in the mid-1990s.
The Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) covers Estonia's maritime and air forces, the Merevägi and Õhuvägi respectively, as well as its land forces and cyber command.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte