Alar Karis: Self-belief something Estonia must learn from Ukraine

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

In recent weeks we may have witnessed Putin's failures on the Ukrainian front and seen signs of increasing criticism of the handling of the war and mobilization within Russia itself, but it would be foolhardy of us to assume that Russia and its imperialistic ideology are on the verge of collapse, President Alar Karis said at the National Defense Course (ENDC) conference.

Fellow attendees,

As you will have heard here at the conference today, the defense of Estonia is no straightforward equation.

Our state budget does not and will never allow us to develop all – and I stress the word "all" – of the military and national security capabilities and civic defense measures which, ideally, a country on the very edge of the free world should have.

For this reason, when distributing what resources we do have available to us, we must always think about how we can strike a balance between our critical security needs on the one hand and the long-term development and well-being of society on the other.

In addressing the public, we must ensure that everyone in Estonia has an adequate understanding of the threats we face and the preparedness – in every sense – to cope with them. At the same time, we must avoid spreading the kind of panic that undermines society.

We must be uncompromising when it comes to loyalty to the state and to the constitutional order of all those who live here, but we must go about this in a smart way so that our fellow countrymen who speak other languages do not drift away from us.

This list of choices is by no means exhaustive, and surely each of us has our point of equilibrium in these matters.

I do not come from a national defense background. When the Riigikogu elected me president of the republic last year and I became the supreme commander of Estonia's national defense, I thought long and hard about my core values and my own points of equilibrium in the role. I would word them as follows.

Firstly, defending the Estonian constitution and the values it enshrines. Secondly, constantly learning and adapting, albeit not in any sense of submissiveness; and thirdly, focusing on people and community.

Allow me to expand on that, starting with my first point. Through its Constitution, Estonia is built on principles which collectively, as a nation, we consider important: democratic governance; respect for human rights and basic freedoms; the rule of law; freedom of speech; and so on.

There is a certain degree of flexibility, of course, which enables those in power to impose restrictions and to act more quickly and more forcefully at a time of crisis. But I feel very strongly that even in a crisis we must not allow ourselves to forget the constitutional foundations of our state. They are what we are defending, against enemies both within and without; for peace in our country and beyond its borders. The values on which our constitution is based must be upheld and carried forward. We must be guided by them in the face of war, and even in its midst.

To my mind, Estonian society's support for the defense of their country can only be grounded in trust. There must be trust between people, and in the state, its leaders, its institutions and the rule of law. This means the country must be governed in a way that is as understandable to as many of its people as possible and in a way that fosters trust, which in turn is the basis for people's willingness to defend their country, even on the battlefield.

Secondly, when speaking of learning and adapting, I mean that Estonia must learn from the best how to defend itself: from countries in a similar position to Estonia that stand out for their rock-solid defense. Thankfully, one such country is right on our doorstep, across the Gulf of Finland. We also have a great deal to learn from Ukraine: how they have adapted in countering Russia's aggression; how successful they have been in international diplomacy; the all-encompassing way in which they have mobilized; and the support of Ukrainian society for their military resistance.

Another vital thing we can learn from Ukraine is the need to maintain a functioning state even in war, and the effort of the entire nation to cope with that reality.

It starts with simple things. You must keep the country running: public services, the police, rescue workers, the availability of medical assistance, the work of banks, the payment of salaries and pensions and benefits. Then there is working with companies and local governments to ensure the supply of gas and electricity and communications and food and water, as well as emergency reserves of all of them.

One thing we simply must learn from the Ukrainians is self-belief. If they had doubted, even for a moment, that they were capable of mounting serious opposition to Russian forces, Ukraine as we know it would no longer exist.

The lesson for us here is clear: there is good reason to fight an enemy, however overwhelming their numbers and firepower may seem, with ingenuity and belief in yourself, and calling on your allies for their support. As a member of NATO, Estonia no longer has to call for that support, because we know it will be offered by those who share our willingness and ability to defend our sovereignty. To anyone who doubts whether our allies really will back us up, I have but one thing to say: they are already here.

Finally, my third point.

By "focusing on people," I mean that in addition to the military defense of our country, we must think about how we protect those who live here. The first and perhaps most basic thing we can do in this regard is to raise the nation's awareness of and preparedness for a military crisis. Secondly, if war does in fact break out, which for the moment is unlikely, we must be able to ensure, as a community and a state, that the population is caught up in military action as little as possible and spared from it as much as possible.

This entails having the necessary means to issue warnings when we know that a threat has become imminent – even when the normal functioning of communications services is disrupted. We must be prepared to organize widespread evacuations and to establish shelters that provide at least primary protection against blast waves, heat, shrapnel and the like.

How we think, which is to say the attitude we take to a crisis, is very important. Coping with the reality of war not only requires every individual to do all they can to ensure that they and their families are able to get by when, for example, vital services are disrupted, but the community as a whole must come together as well. Apartment associations, companies, village societies and the like can take steps to avoid rapidly finding themselves helpless and requiring assistance. Helping one another should be what drives Estonian society and keeps it together: we should be turning more attention to those in need, and lending one another a helping hand, in both peacetime and times of crisis.

These are the choices I have outlined for myself that need to be made in determining how best to defend Estonia.

Today, however, I have a favor to ask of you all: when you leave this conference and return to your everyday lives, please don't stop thinking about national defense and security. Don't stop thinking about Estonia's future and day-to-day life.

More than anything else, what our country needs right now is for people to notice, to contribute, to express their opinions, to constructively criticize, to put forward proposals, to be there for their country and their people in thought and deed. In Russia we have seen what civic passivity leads to.

Each and every one of us can defend Estonia and democracy by not staying silent but having our say.

The question I often ask myself is simple: what can we do to make sure that people in Estonia never grow tired of the subject of security? We have often accused the West of ignoring the Russian threat for decades, but let's be honest, here too we decided that other topics were much more pressing, or at least those outside of security and government circles did. But this is not an accusation per se, whether it be levelled at the West or ourselves – it is a simple admission of truth that this was how things were.

Now, however, we must make sure that as many people in Estonia as possible know that without effective and reliable national defense, there is no future for a nation, its people or its culture. A country's independent existence is not preordained; it cannot be taken for granted. At least, not in this part of the world.

Ensuring that everyone knows that demands daily effort from a large number of people, and is a never-ending process.

No doubt we have all realized that the military threat posed by Russia is one we will be living with for years, if not decades, to come. In recent weeks we may have witnessed Putin's failures on the Ukrainian front and seen signs of increasing criticism of the handling of the war and mobilization within Russia itself, but it would be foolhardy of us to assume that Russia and its imperialistic ideology are on the verge of collapse. Nor can we allow ourselves to hope that it will take years for Russia to restore its military might. Security must remain the focus of both our state and our society.

Thank you for being here today, and thank you for listening!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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