Former defense ministry undersecretary: Less means less and that is okay

Kristjan Prikk
Kristjan Prikk Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Former Ministry of Defense undersecretary and current Estonian ambassador to the United States Kristjan Prikk spoke to ERR's Toomas Sildam about the pains, gains, connections and backgrounds of national defense. He also spoke on the decision to cut the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) orchestra.

You graduated from University of Tartu with a degree in political sciences, have worked as an official in the defense and foreign affairs ministries and in the State Chancellery. How interesting has Estonian politics been for you?

Politics - what is happening in society - has always interested me. And there have certainly been more colorful times and more boring times in Estonian politics.

How are times now?

One of the more colorful times.

How understandable are Estonian politics to a top official?

If we look at what is happening in Estonian politics consistently, even while scratching the surface, we should not allow ourselves to be struck or wonder where it comes from for larger developments. Some single decisions can be quite unexpected, but things have logical beginnings, ends and triggers in the big picture.

You will soon dust off your shoes and establish yourself as the Estonian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C. When you are standing on the steps leading to the plane, how will you look back at the defense ministry and national defense?

We have been able to consistently develop Estonian military defense and the EDF for an enviably long time, keeping in mind our wishes and plans.

Even before World War Two, there were changes of direction and interruptions, either due to external factors or the economic crisis in the 1930s. Developments now have been more stable and positive.

But there are always sectors where you know that holes are significant. National defense can never be completed. So there is still much left to do.

Things have gotten stormy: the government, in search of budgetary balance, has sent each state institution an austerity plan and EDF commander Martin Herem announced that the EDF orchestra and chaplain's service will be laid off, causing quite an uproar.

This is certainly one of those times where I remind myself what I have always told myself and my colleagues: we cannot take anything for granted when it comes to military defense or the functioning of the state in general. And we must not assume that each step we take - even with the best of intentions - is always understandable.

Especially in the debate around the EDF orchestra, it makes me sad that if Lt. Gen. Herem would have said that the 2nd Infantry Brigade's artillery battalion must be closed to be in line with the cuts, people would have just shrugged their shoulders or nodded their heads in understanding and said: "Well, what can you do, if there is not enough money, there is not enough money." But the effects of that step to Estonia's military defense would have significantly greater than the effects of the current step.

Kristjan Prikk. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Do you understand why many people in culture stepped up to defend the EDF orchestra?

I certainly understand. The reaction is quite surprising in its extent or soreness in some nuances, but it does not surprise me in general. The EDF orchestra is known, it has its own audience, it has certainly had a role in developing the image of events and the EDF itself.

When cuts to the culture budget were demanded in England during World War Two, prime minister Winston Churchill asked: "Then what are we even fighting for?"

What is stated in the quote gives off Churchill-like spirit and understanding, even if it is not actually his quote. You cannot look at everything in society through an Excel sheet, everything must have a higher goal and no machine or human can be assigned to do something just to keep itself running or to fulfill tasks in the respective organization.

I believe that wind music has always existed in Estonia, it will certainly exist in the future. It is up for debate in which capacity the state should finance it. I see that the current issue is that perhaps on day X, when the state budget strategy was developed or it had already been drawn up, they could not state or communicate it accurately enough that less means less and that is completely okay.

When there are questions about if less money than was planned could lead to real cuts next year, which will also reach people and units, it shows that perhaps we have done a bad job. We have not been able to provide a realistic picture or people have not trusted us, because they think there are wads of cash in a drawer or behind a closet that have been hidden and can be used now. It is not like that.

Am I wrong if I see the generals making a tactical decision here - show politicians that if the EDF is forced to cut back, they will make it as inconvenient as possible.

I certainly do not agree with that assessment or suspicion.

Having worked with Lt. Gen. Herem and his closest advisers for many years, I do not see them as spiteful or insidious. I see them as being cunning militarily when it comes to actual warfare. I see in them a lot of worry about Estonia's security situation and attempts to improve military defense.

I do not see Lt. Gen. Herem's decision to lay off the orchestra among other cuts as intervention in party or budgetary policy, but rather a rational choice to weaken military defense as little as possible.

Even many people dealing with the state budget do not know and it comes as a surprise to them that a large part of the EDF's operating costs comes from organizing trainings, training ammunition, personal equipment for conscripts and servicemen, foreign operations and, of course, salaries. If we cut back there, the level of trainings will decrease, trainings are in turn tied to military readiness.

It seems to me as a simplification of national defense - only iron, soldiers and machines. How is it possible to extract the most bang for your buck and no softer values. It is not in line with the principles of national defense.

The fundamental philosophy of overarching national defense is that national defense consists of multiple components, of which perhaps only a sixth is actual military defense.

Maybe the orchestra could fit in the other five fifths?

Possibly. I know that discussions on the orchestra issue take place in the interior, culture and defense ministries. But as we said before, wind music will not go anywhere. David Otto Wirkhaus and other famous names will certainly continue.

If there is an argument about laying off the EDF orchestra and chaplains, who has the final say - the defense minister or the commander?

The defense minister's word is final, that is not news.

That is civilian control.

That is civilian control. But I also emphasize the autonomy of agency heads in civilian control and not just decision-making.

When I heard on "Esimene stuudio" (ETV's political interview show - ed) that an agreement [between Reform and Center in coalition] has been made to not affect people by making cuts in the budget, I had not heard of such an agreement or directive as the [defense ministry] undersecretary. Quite the contrary, cuts were based off operating costs, of which personnel numbers are an important component.

Center Party deputy chairman Jaanus Karilaid claimed that cuts would not affect individuals on "Esimene stuudio".

Just so. But it might mean people are affected in the defense ministry. Among other things, it probably means a decision on the number of conscripts increasing from 3,500 to 4,000 yearly will be delayed. A lack of people means the current development numbers provided to the EDF by the government to have people prepared at a sufficient level will likely be suspended or lessened.

Coming back to civilian control. Can the EDF chief of staff (Veiko-Vello Palm - ed) already speak about how the orchestra is laid off and how people are working there for a few final months, but the defense minister has still not yet decided on which cuts will be agreed to?

In general, there is a tradition that has developed in the defense ministry's areas of governance that higher EDF officials and the ministry's political administration and officials only give out signals that have been discussed. I do not believe it has changed in the last months.

Kristjan Prikk. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

How does the sentence "But in the grand scheme, and compared to many of our NATO allies, we are still amateurs. So we are willing to accept an amateur orchestra." sound to you?

That is a reference to a sentence EDF chief of staff Veiko-Vello Palm said on the radio.

On Klassikaraadio, speaking about how many people at the EDF parade are amateurs and how our entire army is a reserve army. Therefore, is the Estonian Defense Forces an amateur army?

What Gen. Palm wanted to point out, perhaps in a questionable way to listeners, was the pros and cons of a reserve army. Certainly, the average Scouts Battalion serviceman - their only job is to prepare for their military operations - trainings and muscle memory is certainly of a higher quality than the average reserve soldier.

But if the Scouts Battalion is FC Flora (historic football powerhouse - ed), for lack of a better example, then the reserve battalion is like a public league or a league where professionals do not play in. But there is also a cup format in football, where professionals and amateurs can meet. And as it often does in football, amateurs beat the professionals, which is why the cup format is beloved.

I am extremely proud about the EDF that we have managed to find a model that prepares reservists and later refreshes their skills through reserve trainings, additional trainings, in a manner that international guests often wonder if these are even our reservists. And we say no - they are regular infantry, who are actually carpenters, lawyers, drivers and they do a damn good job as amateurs.

Mister ambassador, I still did not get a response, because it was so diplomatic and we even went on the football pitch for a moment. Is the EDF an amateur army?

The Estonian Defense Forces is a reserve army. And if the definition of amateurism in a reserve army is that the majority of wartime defense forces convened when necessary are not paid for the work, then yes, they are amateurs. But they are damn good at what they do.

I have no doubt that they are ready to whoop whichever opponent.

Last year, you wrote in Eesti Päevaleht (link in Estonian) how U.S. security and defense advisers said that Estonia is a frontline state and Estonia should contribute more than 2 percent, because all countries contributed more than 2 percent during the Cold War, frontline states even double that. So how much should Estonia contribute?

2 percent of the GDP is the level on which no state is left on the bad list when NATO heads of state convene for a meeting in Brussels in June.

There are no tables or documents on the walls of the U.S. Congress or the White House saying that Estonia's contribution to national defense should be X percent, which is much greater than 2 percent.

But the assessment of NATO defense planners is important when they get acquainted with our plans and their implementation. Estonia has done a remarkable job in developing its defense capabilities, but carefully planned resources do not allow for the full implementation of capabilities, its supplemental trainings and other activities on the level that is in line with the goals of burden sharing.

This assessment was given, if I recall, in the fall of 2019, when the entire economic picture and our resource frame was completely different than now.

The EDF commander and the defense minister spoke in front of the Riigikogu in March about the importance of increasing the level [of defense spending] to 2.6 percent of the GDP, which would be enough to implement so-called Estonia-based developments and take a step, which would allow us to proceed to regional development and to cause much more strategic dilemma, in which the region would be much better protected as a whole and where attacking one point of the region could bring the attacker issues elsewhere.

If we were to move to that level, not even sticking to the percentage, but rather the philosophy of keeping our main things at home and developing them, but being prepared to join the higher leagues with our own weapons and devices, which are capable of affecting opponents...

In this Baltic and Polish space?

In principle, yes.

Then it would be something that is considerable for our allies and a welcomed contribution to collective defense.

Retired Gen. Maj. Vello Loemaa, former Air Force commander, proposed a few cuts on ERR (link in Estonian) recently. First, we should have one navy with its home base at the Mine Harbor (Miinisadam). Is that a wise proposal?

One navy? I think so. There are certainly nuances to deal with.

Mine Harbor? If it is not the Mine Harbor, there must be a very good plan of where and with what funding an alternative harbor can be developed. That last part, in particular, has not been fulfilled. This new navy base could be somewhere else, but I do not know where yet.

There could also be one Air Force, which would mean merging the Police and Border Guard Board's air unit with the existing Air Force?

Seems like a logical and resource-efficient step, but let's try and manage the naval side first.

To conclude: will you head to Washington as the ambassador calmer and more happy than you would have last year?

It depends what you mean by a year (laughs). But I will head there happy and calm, we have a great embassy in Washington.

The administration and president has changed in a year.

Estonia is prepared to work with whichever U.S. administration. It is most important to me that there are quite a few people in the current administration that I know personally from my time working in the embassy. So the starting position is considerably better than it would have been a year ago, indeed.

And since the embassy itself is strong, the foreign ministry and the Estonian government prioritize relations with the U.S., I have strong backing. Now I must make the effort to not let down these expectations.

Kristjan Prikk and Toomas Sildam. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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