Meelis Oidsalu: We should listen to Macron and address our own fears

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: ERR

President of France Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday urged Europe to create its own "security and stability" plan in relation to Russia. Macron said something very important and it should be heeded, security expert Meelis Oidsalu said on the Vikerraadio "Uudis+" show last week. Estonia should also address its own fears.

What is your explanation for the conflict having reached a point where Russia is amassing troops and machinery on its western border, with the press speculating that it is gearing up to attack Ukraine at any moment and under any pretense? Why is deterrence not having an effect?

My understanding is that it is not working because Russia has been planning to go to war from the off. There is this habit of being baffled in the West – statements where we use words like "strange" and "mystical" to refer to Putin's plans or ask, "what does he really want?" This kind of mystical hacking in political comments sections.

However, their actions on the ground have been systematic and unfolding for some time. The first troops were moved there in spring. It was also a test of European and U.S. mentality. Because the Biden administration had signaled that it wants to work with Putin in some things, they probably decided to wait to hear what he had to say. This was followed by the Biden-Putin declaration on global stability in June.

No U.S. president has started their security policy career by signing a cooperation agreement with, what is by today, a dictatorship. Biden is in a hurry. His frail condition, that manifested just this morning (Thursday – ed.), clearly means he is looking at a single term. But things are looking clear enough on the map. No country stations so many troops on another's border just for the purposes of trolling.

Let us come back to Biden's statement from this morning where he suggested that a minor incursion into Ukraine would not be that bad. How can you say something like that?

Children and the poorly tell the truth. It seems to me that Biden sometimes drifts away from talking points that prompts the White House to then explain the talking points as intended, as it happened today.

Looking at 2014 [the invasion of Crimea], no military punishment followed for the Russians. The U.S. has made direct military aid available to Ukraine today, which suggests willingness to help the country defend itself instead of putting boots on the ground in Ukraine. The old man simply let slip what has been shamelessly obvious throughout the time of the Biden administration.

French President Emmanuel Macron made his own proposal yesterday (January 19 – ed.) when he urged Europe to create its own security and stability plan in Russia relations when appearing in front of the European Parliament. Do we really need one or is Macron coming off like a useful idiot? It is water for Putin's mill if the Europeans and Americans fall out over who needs to broker peace with Russia.

Tallinn is too quick to label people idiots whenever they make statements that gravitate away from our interests and come at an inopportune time for us. We get scared and try to hide that fear by insulting the president of one of the key states in Europe. We should not go there. Every government in every crisis looks for ways to actualize its strategic vision.

Macron has been saying it all along – that the U.S. will leave Europe sooner or later as part of a strategy pledged by the Obama administration. The question is whether we will have something with which to defend ourselves once that happens. That is the message Macron wants to echo. He is also looking at [the presidential] elections and wants to be visible himself. And that is one surefire way to do that.

Macron's statement in no way interferes with deterrence against Russia. He said something important that we need to keep in mind. We need to leave that diplomatic door ajar even if we do not believe our partner because we do not know how some cards will fall, whether there will be a new event, disaster, epidemic etc.

In that sense, we would do well to listen to Macron more often and rather address our own fears, boost our strategic empathy.

But we are all in NATO together and should be united in talking to Russia.

France is on board, which has been highly visible in the Ukraine process since Crimea. That is not the issue here. France also ramped up its military presence in the Black Sea right after Crimea. Their diagnosis of the situation differs from that of Germany where we are hard-pressed to get a coherent message about what they want to do from inside a single government.

At the end of the day, it is public knowledge that while we have sent Ukraine arms, even Estonia to an extent, Russia knows full well that an invasion of Ukraine will not merit a military response from the West.

Just as it is common knowledge that Ukraine is not part of NATO and therefore not entitled to NATO collective defense. That is the starting point. There are various ways of supporting Ukraine, various military ways even, and it is completely understandable if a nation decides not to pledge its citizens to a conflict at this time.

Bosnia was not a NATO member in the 1990s, nor is it one today, while NATO still bombed Serbia.

Indeed, which is the precedent NATO and the countries that form it need to consider. Not all decisions have to happen through Brussels. It is quite possible a country will get involved in the form of a coalition of will.

What is it Russia is seeking to achieve by attacking or invading?

The troops currently on the border are not enough to split Ukraine in half. There has been a lot of talk about resource issues in Crimea, that there is water shortage and the need to somehow consolidate and perpetuate the new territory. We will have to wait and see whether the so-called people's republics will be annexed of whether they will remain as unpleasant sources of tension working in Russia's interests.

However, and as suggested by the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) commander recently, I am not ruling out pressure, military threats on Lithuania or another NATO border state, such as Romania, which is rather near the conflict. There might also be developments in Moldova. Potential trouble goes beyond Ukraine.

What about Estonia?

Estonia borders Russia. The EDF commander used the words "I do not think it will spill over to Estonia," yesterday. We don't know. We cannot rule out there being pressure on Estonia at one point. It is shaping up to be a long crisis. The military operation alone has been ongoing since spring. We could be sitting in these trenches for another three years and don't know where we'll be in six months. The Baltic region was living a completely different normality half a year ago. One where borders were not bombarded with human bodies and there were no direct kinetic attacks against a NATO member – I am referring to Poland. Unfortunately, we find ourselves living in very interesting times.

I have to ask – NATO troops are in Estonia, allied troops as we are part of NATO. But will they come to our aid immediately in case of a potential invasion or will there be a longer chain of command of some sort?

They absolutely will. Why is collective defense, the whole NATO shebang so attractive? Because everyone is constantly preoccupied with what would happen if a member state was not defended. The meaning of collective defense, the entire so-called service they have been exporting would lose a huge chunk of its value. No country can afford such a transaction. We have a very well-armed and equipped British battle group in Estonia. The British government would have no way of staying out of a potential conflict, which fact has been considered and plans drawn up.

Still, the EDF commander cannot order British troops to do anything.

The EDF commander cannot give them orders. It would be rather ghastly if an Estonian public servant started ordering foreign troops around.

Foreign troops? Don't you mean allied troops?

Allied troops from abroad. They are still foreign troops by definition, just friendly ones.

Let us come now to the political side of things in Estonia and the prime minister's national defense speech in the Riigikogu the main message of which was €380 million in additional defense spending over the coming years. Do you think it is all good and necessary?

All of it could have happened four months ago when the situation was exactly the same as it is today. Unfortunately, our strategic early warning apparatus was way off last year. Head of foreign intelligence Mikk Marran said at the time that the things we are seeing today were out of question, which is why the government did not take the step sooner.

The apparatus has been fixed and logical steps taken now. Most of additional funds are spent on munitions whenever the security situation changes. We tend to wonder why. But a single day of fighting using the guns we have costs tens of millions of euros. It is over €50 million, while I cannot go into any more detail. Missiles and anti-tank rockets cost around €200,000 per piece, while our anti-aircraft missiles cost half a million euros a pop. Buying enough munitions for existing guns is the first step any country takes when it perceives a threat.

It is good that broad-based national defense has also been allocated additional funds to ensure civil defense. While this does not come from strictly official channels, allow me to propose a hypothetical scenario. Tensions are stoked in a Baltic country, things get very heated on the diplomatic level that Russia follows up with threats of preemptive missile strikes. The government needs to have a credible plan for defending the civilian population against such psychological warfare that also takes money. Luckily, it is being funded now.

The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) has criticized the national defense development plan for lacking medium-range air defense. Is it something we should have?

Yes, it is. It is a considerable gap in our military capacity. It is embarrassing to talk about, but defensive capacity is an expensive thing in the modern world. And all this military aggression on the part of our neighbor is a way for one country to tax another country, so to speak, by having it spend money on defense instead of higher education etc. Unfortunately, we are forced to incur these expenses to ensure our survival.

You said that the message came several months too late, while the government actually agreed to boost defense spending in fall, even though not as much as was prescribed in the previous state budget strategy. Does this constitute making good on the initial pledge?

No, it will be on top of what has been previously agreed. That agreement was aimed at developing new capacity. It is sensible to rapidly boost preparedness through extraordinary decisions once the security situation takes a turn for the worse to avoid expensive munitions spoiling sitting in warehouses or simply having too much money stuck there. It is insensible to always maintain peak readiness. However, based on what I've gathered, the money will be on top of other agreements.

The Reform Party's tendency to come up with random numbers in the state budget strategy came as a surprise when I was still serving as deputy secretary general. I always thought they were more diligent when it came to finances. The sum should be added to the defense investments program for it to be identifiable, to avoid it being forgotten once the impulse dies down. Otherwise, what we are seeing is just a psychological maneuver to escape the energy crisis.

In other words, politicians did not perceive the threat as acute enough to plan the sums ahead of time less than a year ago?

They did not. I was still working at the defense ministry last year and we got the message that some things are souring when Lukashenko entered play in spring – because Lukashenko completely altered his geopolitical profile, having been, shall we say, a moderate autocrat and even cooperating with the West in economic terms before. A part of readiness funds was redirected inside the defense budget at the time. There were also additional procurements of barricades and engineering materials, hardcore military things. The right time to adjust the general threat level would have been somewhere in August or September, while the analytical capacity of our foreign intelligence is not the best at present. I know that Mikk Marran will fix it.

Let us hope so. In summary, how good is Estonia's defensive capacity?

Compared to our neighbors – and this is not a nice thing to say – meeting a tyrant or bully, it tends to go for the weak. I think we are in a rather good place today compared to our neighbors.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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