Aivar Riisalu: Band and chaplains just the tip of the iceberg

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Aivar Riisalu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

I fully support hiking defense spending to a level that corresponds to the security situation and modernization of weapons. But weapons do not fight wars, people do, Aivar Riisalu writes.

Recent news of the reorganization (read: liquidation) of the Band of the Defense Forces and its chaplaincy service comes as a sign of the alienation of the heads of national defense from society and inability to understand national defense.

It seems that the brass of the Defense Forces no longer feels there is control or the need to report to the people what they are doing with the resources they've been given. It is baffling to have to read about plans to liquidate a military capacity developed over decades simply as an austerity measure.

Things are made even more confusing by the defense minister claiming that nothing has been decided one day, only to have the message overturned by the commander of the general staff the next, saying that the matter has been put to bed and is not subject to reversal. Who is giving orders to whom and how is civil control in effect?

The commander of the Defense Forces in turn says that the plan was on paper a year ago and the minister aware of it. The Defense Forces sports group was abolished in 2020, followed by the band and chaplains now. Therefore, a master plan exists to be put into practice in stages when the opportunity presents itself that only works to undermine Estonians' will to defend their country.

What next?

Let us recall that then Defense Minister Jüri Luik represented a different coalition the policy of which was not to go after human resources. The only conclusion we can draw from this is that it was a planned activity and that the planners were just waiting for the opportune moment.

We can read in the papers about new weapons systems, munitions and equipment procurements and the constant need for additional funding without which defending Estonia is hopeless.

I have witnessed developments in the Defense Forces and the Defense League, contributed to shaping legislation to better serve Estonian interests in the Riigikogu National Defense Committee and fully support hiking defense spending to rise to the security situation and modernization of arms. However, the leadership should be able to realize that weapons do not fight wars, people do.

I recommend to the heads of the Defense Forces reading the Estonian Constitution and understanding that the people defend the state. The people are not a renewable resource entrusted to the defense managers – in a democratic country, the armed forces is a subject of the people, a part of national identity.

The band is a part of that identity, confirmation that it is a battle-worthy army of the people that has the will to defend its land, just as it was in the War of Independence. The band had a very clear military purpose – to support mobilization that serves as one of the core preconditions of successfully deploying a reserve army, which is something we need to do on a professional level.

Instead, the commander of the general staff tells the people that the army is made up of amateurs and that is what we must settle for in regard to its band.

My experience in national defense has put me in touch with a lot of officers, non-commissioned officers, Defense League members and professional soldiers. Most are professionals in their field, the best and brightest representatives of their profession. Many have real-world combat experience, some have headed international organizations, been recognized by NATO general staffs and are valued because of their know-how, experience and intellectual capacity.

Most of them have a good sense of where society is and know the adversary. Unfortunately, many are planning to quit because developments in the field of defense make it impossible to realize their potential and fail to support their professional values.

Amateur defense planners have proposed cutting the band in the past, while former Commander of the Defense Forces Gen. Ants Laaneots, being a professional, never allowed it to happen despite what was a considerably more modest defense spending.

Today, the idea seems to be coming from the brass. Of course, the band is not a decisive factor in peace or wartime, just like having three or four extra anti-tank missiles cannot make us invincible. Missiles can be replaced, procured, bought and borrowed – people cannot.

Capacity takes years to create and minutes to liquidate. The will of the people to defend the country cannot be measured in money, weapons systems or bullets. While it can be eroded by dismantling value judgments. Efforts to undermine core values motivate people living in a world with free movement to find a new homeland where the conditions are better and the climate milder.

Modern war is waged in a cognitive world and in the conditions of mentality and decisiveness. If we have people who know and want to defend their homeland and are willing to hold out in the face of whichever dangers and attacks. The "soft" values so despised by the management of the Defense Forces today help shape people's mentality and give them a reason to participate in defending said values.

Opportunity and temptation

The Defense Forces commander took a bold step when he recently said on Kuku Radio that he believes there will be war. Is that really a socially mature statement? However, under the circumstances, I'm forced to agree because the steps taken by the enemy often follow opportunity and temptation.

The latter has followed inadequate leadership. Let us think back to Georgia in 2008 – the president's conduct created openings the enemy did not fail to seize. The rotation plan for the Defense Forces brass provides no grounds for optimism in terms of things improving in the near future as practically no one has enough leadership and international service experience.

Things are not improved by the fact that the secretary general of the ministry is applauding the developments having absolutely no relevant knowledge. Perhaps it is time to ponder why the Finnish defense ministry does not appoint an ensign to serve as secretary general and instead the job description calls for a high-ranking reserve officer.

The band and chaplains are just the tip of the iceberg but point to the social and professional immaturity of decision-makers. We can only wonder at decisions made behind the veil of state secrets.

The Ministry of Defense in April proposed amending the Public Information Act in a way to make it possible to indefinitely postpone the declassification of in-house use documents with a five-year step. This would allow the Defense Forces to make even more decisions that are not subject to civil control and do not have to be explained to the public.

It is clear that speaking Estonian without an accent, being educated in Estonia and knowing Mart Laar and Jüri Luik is not enough to qualify for the job. The next commander of the Defense Forces needs to be chosen in a few years' time. I believe that parties need to look for the next commander based on whether they are suitable for the position as opposed to their likability in the eyes of parties or state officials.

Aivar Riisalu is deputy mayor of Tallinn (Center Party), former deputy chair of the Riigikogu National Defense Committee, reserve officer and a Defense League member of nearly 30 years.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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