Former president Ilves: More reflection, please

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

We could say that cyberattacks and disinformation have rendered kinetic warfare, that has been our traditional fear, less likely at least in Europe, President of Estonia in 2006-2016 Toomas Hendrik Ilves writes. Attempts to influence our politics using other tools – hacking, crippling infrastructure and spreading lies – are becoming increasingly important.

I decided at the start of my ten years as president that I will dedicate my June 23 or Victory Day speech to security and national defense. These have been the most pressing maters for our people throughout the 20th century.

And throughout history, threats the world and Estonia faced had always been kinetic – bullets, shells, cannons, bombs, tanks, artillery – at least until 2007. Force is mass times acceleration, if we recall our Newtonian physics. Things fly and destroy, while heavier things fly and destroy more. It has been the case since the early man discovered he can more easily destroy his fellow humans by using a weapon or a tool for slaughtering, as portrayed by Kubrick in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Our whole understanding of security changed in 2007 when cyberattacks perpetrated in Russia brought life to a halt in Estonia. It was something the world had never seen before, where one country shut down or disabled another without using kinetic force. Based on the words of German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of politics by other means, it was the first cyber war.

The world did not believe us at first. NATO did not take cyberattacks seriously. What is this about war? It is unheard-of and obviously a figment of imagination of the Russophobic Eastern Europeans. Nine years on, NATO decided at its 2016 summit that cyberspace would become the fourth domain of war, in addition to land, sea and air. For the first time since its founding in 1949, NATO had decided that wars can be waged in other ways than kinetically.

Every even remotely thorough article or book on cyberwarfare starts with the 2007 cyberattacks on Estonia these days.

Concept broadening

However, non-kinetic warfare went beyond cyberattacks. The dizzying pace of Internetization resulted in social media in the early 2000s the first flagship of which was Facebook. Things picked up even more momentum when social media moved to smart portable devices that made the Internet and social media universally attainable. Facebook alone has nearly three billion users today to which we can add China's Weichat and the Russian vKontakte.

It only took a few years for social media to fan the flames of the so-called Arab Spring in which uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen started with messages and videos on Facebook and Twitter. Many considered it a triumph of democracy. That resourceless civil society can topple dictatorships using nothing but cell phones and computers.

Unfortunately, authoritarian rulers had an entirely different view of the phenomenon. If social media can be harnessed to change to a considerable degree the politics and political orientation of states without resources or central management, imagine what it can do when coupled with the resources of an authoritarian regime to disseminate lies, fake news and disinformation.

Do you still remember von Clausewitz? War is the continuation of politics by other means.

The strategy first appeared during the Russia-Georgia war seven years ago when Russian disinformation reached an unprecedented level. They deployed a simple yet brutal method – especially after flight MH17 was brought down by a Russian anti-aircraft system – Lie! Lie! Lie! This meant getting out as many versions of what happened as possible until no one knows what to believe.

President Trump's adviser Steve Bannon recommended a similar tactic: Flood the zone with shit.

Lying on a massive scale in social media was successfully used by Russia to influence politics in the West in the case of the EU-Ukraine association agreement in the Netherlands in 2015. And since then, at the Brexit referendum and 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It failed in the case of presidential elections in France but still had a major effect.

By now, disinformation from Russia and inside every county has become a daily occurrence.

But what does this have to do with security and national defense?


Russia and other NATO enemies no longer have to just worry about Article Five. You do not have to conquer a country if you can put in place a government that will veto the use of Article Five or take the country out of NATO as promised by Marine Le Pen who was the runner up at the 2017 presidential election in France.

Broad-based defense

We could say that cyberattacks and disinformation have rendered kinetic warfare, that has been our traditional fear, less likely, at least in Europe, than other means of changing our politics, such as hacking, crippling infrastructure and spreading lies.

Estonia has experienced its fair share of this, both directly and indirectly, from Russia and even the U.S. I am reminded of how two Estonian publications ran stories by Bannon's own Breitbart. But there have also been independent initiatives, when a key minister of the previous government declared that Covid is nothing but a cold that can be treated with goose fat, mustard plaster and warm socks.

Threats our independence faces have become many times more versatile than they were 102 years ago when Estonians defeated the Landeswehr, which is what we are celebrating today.

It is all the more peculiar to realize that the Estonian government does not understand these new threats. The NATO Cyberdefense Center of Excellence is located in Tallinn. While the threat of disinformation seems not to bother us. The way things are today, it seems the government's austerity no longer allows Estonia to dispatch a representative to the other NATO center that deals with new threats, the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga that was created for the express purpose of fighting disinformation. To fight for the security of the new age. The position of deputy director belongs to Estonia, while it is in danger of remaining vacant because of budget cuts. I read that it is about €125,000 a year. In truth, it is about the ability to realize what matters and is needed or lack thereof. Both for Estonia and our allies.

I am sad, at a loss and aggrieved.

Is the more than 2 percent of GDP Estonia spends on national defense by developing its independent defensive capacity and meeting obligations to NATO allies merely a figure or do we consider how to use these common resources?

Estonia passed the broad-based national defense strategy over a decade ago that sees threats to our independence go well beyond the ones combated using tanks and guns. It was and remains an extraordinarily modern concept of national defense. However, broad-based national defense is little more than fiction if attitudes toward security are stuffy and narrow-minded.

More reflection, please.

Happy Victory Day and Midsummer Holidays.

Long live Estonia. Long live Estonia that is defended wisely.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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