Minister of Defense: NATO presence the best deterrence against Russia

Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet.
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Allies must assure in the form of decisions that Russia will not be given the chance to launch another war. Estonia's main goal is for NATO to be able to field a battle-worthy division in the Baltics, Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet writes.

The last three months have proven beyond all doubt what every Estonian knew all along. That Vladimir Putin's Russia is not a country that cares for the fate of others or than can be naively trusted. Russia's completely unjustified attack and monstrous war in Ukraine has unmasked its intentions also for the West.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is bent on ruling its near vicinity for which purpose it is prepared to level cities, kill tens of thousands of innocent people and force millions to flee their homes.

Putin's war has already resulted in consequences no one held likely or even possible as recently as last year. Europe is in the process of weaning itself off Russian gas and oil. NATO members are boosting defense spending, arming Ukraine and procuring new weapons and munitions to replace what they have given away. The strategic turn of Germany is especially noteworthy.

The most important change is Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO. A decision aimed primarily at self-defense. It shows more clearly than anything else that NATO is the only way to ensure national security today, even for countries that have long remained hesitant.

Every attack punished

Estonia must also do everything in its power to dissuade Russia from testing its military on other countries following Ukraine. Sanctions introduced by the West are at work dismantling the Russian economy, while the only language our eastern neighbor truly understands is strength. Military strength especially and the kind that destroys any and all appetite for war. Both sanctions and military strength constitute deterrence Estonia and its allies must now step up even more.

While Estonia has contributed a great deal toward its security over the years, the government's recent decisions for additional defense funding in the coming years are aimed specifically at taking away Russia's appetite to fight a war against us. Our strong contribution to national defense is one facet of credible deterrence.

The other key part of deterrence is Estonia's NATO membership and allied presence in Tapa and Ämari. The NATO core principle that an attack on one is an attack on all has been sufficient deterrence so far as Russia would undoubtedly lose a confrontation with the entire alliance. The risk of any attack being punished constitutes penalty deterrence.

NATO must reinforce its periphery

However, Russia's crimes in Ukraine tell us that threatening punishments is just not enough. It is clear after February 24 that this approach has had its time and we need to switch from penalty deterrence to obstructive deterrence. The idea of the latter is to demonstrate that every member is strong enough to completely turn the enemy off the idea to attack.

The NATO principle of "all for one" still applies but needs to be executed differently.

The resilience of NATO border member states needs to grow considerably. While Estonia cannot host enough allied troops to fight Russia's entire military might, it is not necessary if we know we are better able to defend ourselves in our region and a sufficient number of NATO troops is standing ready to move into the region immediately. So quickly and effectively as to render any attack meaningless. To achieve that, we need to look back to the lessons of the Cold War and draw the most useful conclusions.

During the Cold War, deterrence was ensured by plenty of battle-ready forces but especially the ability to deploy them immediately. Estonia has a considerable reserve force that is practicing with allies as we speak at the Siil (Hedgehog) major training exercise.

Our NATO allies have the will and capacity to bring even more troops to Estonia to defend us against Russia. However, we need to ensure effective leadership of our and allied troops on location and already in peacetime.

To manage that, we need divisional-sized command headquarters capacity in Estonia. To foster allied integration and send a stronger deterrence message, we also want to boost the number of allied units stationed in Estonia and have prepositioned division equipment and arms.

Strong leadership ensures bigger effect of military operations

Having a multinational division headquarters in Estonia would create the capacity to jointly command Estonian Defense Forces and allied activities in defending Estonia. It is big enough for a country the size of Estonia, allows for defense planning in peacetime and for actions to be coordinated with NATO from the first and groundwork for bringing more allied reinforcements to the region in a crisis.

A division headquarters would tie together the ground, sea and air domains for added effect when conducting military operations. Allied advantage is greatest in the air and at sea, which is why the ability to use it to defend Estonia is crucial. A division headquarters would create the necessary framework and, alongside similar units in the other Baltic countries and Poland, give Russia plenty to think about.

That is why it is my goal and that of Estonia to achieve an agreement for a reinforced defense posture for the Baltics at the NATO Madrid summit. As a modern approach, it needs to follow Cold War lessons and be based on obstructive deterrence. The allies must assure in their decisions that Russia will not be given the chance to launch another war.

If allied unit placements in the Baltics and Poland were decided at the Warsaw summit, Madrid must yield a decision to boost eastern flank presence this time around.

The main goal for Estonia is for NATO to be able to field a battle-worthy division in Estonia and other Baltic states in a crisis. This would work as a clear signal to Russia that the war in Ukraine has only steeled the allies' resolve to protect one another. The West has finally seen Russia's true nature and wants to stand up to Putin. We stand ready to ward off any attack and will not let Russia do what it wants.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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