President Karis at the opening ceremony of NATO defense chiefs conference

President Alar Karis.
President Alar Karis. Source: Raigo Pajula/VPK

President Karis urged against (re)building a policy towards Russia that is based on fear of instability in a speech delivered at the opening ceremony of the meeting of the NATO Military Committee in Tallinn. He said that while leaders at the time played on the fear that their losing power would bring unpalatable figures to the helm of Russia, this happened anyway.

Mr. Chairman, Chiefs of Defense, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends!

I'm honored to welcome you in Estonia, in Tallinn, for deliberations which will shape NATO and our collective defense for years, if not decades, to come. There is a solid basis for this work from the Madrid Summit. Now all of us, and you – NATO's most brilliant military leaders – in particular, are faced with the hard job of translating these guidelines into something tangible. Something that will ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic area at this critical moment in our history. That will determine, if this space remains whole and free. This is an existential question for Estonia.

But right now, an existential battle is being fought in Ukraine. I'm sure we have all felt relief because of Ukrainian gains on the battlefield in recent weeks. Not just relief and hope for Ukraine but for the future of Europe. And we may even feel a certain pride – many of us have contributed to that success through supporting the training of the Ukrainian armed forces or providing military equipment, armaments, sharing intelligence. If anyone still needed proof that Ukraine is worthy of those efforts, then I think we now have plenty.

Right now is the time to ensure that Ukraine can continue to build on those initial successes on the battlefield. We all know that the war is far from over. This means keeping our military support going, whatever it takes. Failing to capitalize on Ukrainian gains would be a major error. A frozen conflict in Ukraine would be a festering wound at the heart of Europe. It would keep us in a cycle of confrontation with Russia for years to come.

I also want to address the question of eventual Ukrainian victory, a defeat for Russia. I know that there are some concerns as to what this would mean for European security. There may even be a worry that a military defeat in Ukraine would lead to a disintegration of the current power vertical in Russia. A disintegration of Russia itself, perhaps.

My first recommendation is to not build a policy towards Russia that is based on fear of instability. We have been there before. In the late 1980s and 90s the importance attached to the stability of the Soviet, and later Russian, leadership caused Western leaders to turn a blind eye to the political trajectory Russia was taking. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin played on the fear that their losing power would bring unpalatable figures to the helm of Russia. Sadly, this happened anyway.

Looking back, it was a mistake to not squarely acknowledge nor address early signs that Russia had not let go of its imperialist aims, and that it was willing to compromise on crucial democratic principles. Not to mention – disregard human rights. The West was offered the same social contract as the Russian population – stability and economic prosperity in return for accepting backsliding in democracy and aggressive international conduct. Let's not fall into that trap again.

Instability in Russia may be a risk. However, the current form of stability where Russia feels able to invade its neighbors and to undermine our Western democracies through corruption, energy blackmail, information war and influence operations, cannot be the status quo we wish to maintain. From the perspective of European security and stability, the most effective strategy towards Russia continues to be containment, economically, politically and militarily. In the military domain, this means NATO's truly credible deterrence and defense capability in the form of forward defense to counter potential Russian aggression.

We may be certain that whichever internal political struggles may be unleashed by the coming defeat in Ukraine, the ideology of Putinism that dictates re-establishing control over Russia's sphere of influence, the fragmentation of Europe and the destruction of the transatlantic bond, will not disappear. And so, our resistance to such efforts must remain unbreakable. This is what our policy should take as the objective. We are not responsible for helping Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership save face. They are and should be treated as fully responsible for the crimes committed and mistakes that were made in attacking Ukraine, and its broader consequences for Russia.

But let's now return to the work that lies ahead in the coming days: how do we best defend ourselves – across the NATO territory? Russia may be losing but it would be a mistake to underestimate the danger to NATO, which still remains acute. And we cannot forget the growing threat of jihadist terrorism in key regions of the world that are of critical importance to NATO.

Estonia is a nation that has always believed in the importance of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Therefore, when faced with a severe security threat, we focus on raising our ability to help ourselves. So while NATO and the transatlantic bond remain the bedrock of Estonian security, Estonia fully intends to be prepared to defend itself. In the first six months of this year alone, the Estonian government has allocated an additional billion euros for defense spending. We are already working on developing new capabilities, enhancing our ammunition stockpiles and making our reserve army system more agile. We are committed to building a division in Estonia, with the support of our Allies, and to enhance accommodation and training facilities to NATO troops here. Polling data show that our nation's will to defend our country is higher than ever, and nearly 70 percent of Estonians are ready to directly participate in Estonia's defense.

And I know that it is said often – however, it cannot be said often enough: Estonia is deeply grateful for the contributions NATO Allies have made and keep on making to our defense. As all of you know, our discussions in NATO can be heated and we don't always agree. However, I know, and all Estonians know, that we can rely on our Allies, and we will never forget this. So let me, on behalf of the Estonian people, thank all of you, and your troops who have been working here with us.

I wish you fruitful discussions in the coming days, and hope you enjoy your time in Estonia. I was looking forward to welcoming all of you on Sunday in Kadriorg but unfortunately urgent travel plans have interfered. Nevertheless, I do hope you enjoy the reception!

Thank you!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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