Meelis Oidsalu: Interior minister's collective defense gamble dangerous

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: ERR/ Ken Mürk

Minister of Internal Affairs Lauri Läänemets talking to the British opposition leader to question defense agreements between authorized representatives of the two governments makes the Estonian government look foolish, Meelis Oidsalu writes.

The elections countdown has begun, which has quite predictably caused parties to try and appear competent where it matters most today – security.

The [ruling] Reform Party recently launched its pre-elections "security tour" that attempts to treat with almost all walks of life from the national security perspective. Journalist Urmas Jaagant has remarked: "The Reform Party's vision is clear – if people are not talking about security, they are talking about coping. And if people are talking about coping, they are more likely to listen to [opposition leader] the Conservative People's Party (EKRE)."

EKRE, mind you, not the Social Democrats (SDE) who are more likely facing a struggle to make the [5 percent] election threshold in the coming months. The Social Democrats disappearing from the political arena would constitute a very dangerous development for Estonian politics.

The perceived importance of security topics is probably the reason SDE leader Lauri Läänemets opted for the internal affairs portfolio instead of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. But he is not off to a great start. The interior minister rather publicly went against Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in the process of picking the next director of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), which is a rather surefire way to undermine the footing of one's preferred candidate.

Next, Läänemets went up against the foreign affairs minister. The public tug of war over restoring border control was an Isamaa solo and a sign that Isamaa also wants to come off exacting in security matters.

Leo Kunnas, who has kept the national defense brass on their toes for the last two decades, is suddenly very tame and even praises choices by the Estonian Defense Forces commander and defense officials. Isamaa perceives this (mostly in the person of MEP Riho Terras but also attempts by Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu to quiz Läänemets on the border) as an opportunity and is about to seize the initiative.

The interior minister's bureau seems to have picked up on heightened expectations, with Läänemets "pulling a Kunnas" on [Defense Minister] Hanno Pevkur. The difference is that Kunnas has not picked a fight with the Estonian national defense establishment as part of the incumbent cabinet. And it is a major difference.

ERR reported that Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) brought excellent news back from London this week. It was agreed that the Brits will designate a rapid response brigade based in the UK for the defense of Estonia that will frequently come here to train. But the same article tells us that Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets has launched parallel talks with the British opposition and is trying to undermine the delicate and historic agreement through his contacts (the piece mentions Läänemets having talked to Labor leader Keir Starmer).

What makes the agreement between Estonia and the UK historic and delicate? The UK will put an army brigade on high alert and send it to train in Estonia, ready to support the British battalion stationed in the Baltic country. It is an extraordinary and concrete decision that will cost London a lot of money and people as the Brits will have to use and develop other forces for other readiness operations.

Expedition forces are much more expensive than territorial defense units. Not to mention the expenses of the existing British battlegroup in Estonia that Hanno Pevkur said will be reinforced with multiple rocket launchers and Stormer air defense systems. This in a situation where the UK armed forces are expected to become more capable in defending the British Isles.

This constitutes a major expense for London and the British Ministry of Defense on Whitehall, the corridors of which often carry rumors that echoes can and usually do end up distorting.

If a member of the Estonian cabinet, Lauri Läänemets, talks to the British opposition leader to call into question an agreement between authorized representatives of the two governments, it creates undue confusion and dangerous noise in London power corridors, while making the Estonian government look foolish and undecided. It suggests Estonia knows not to appreciate investments the UK has made in its military defense or the special relationship that developed after the Afghan war.

The cost of this special relationship is both financial and political. Designating a rapid response brigade for the defense of Estonia fundamentally (and not merely formally as it is not a NATO requirement) constitutes a mutual defense agreement. London perceives that it is expected to be the first to defend Estonia, with the rapid response brigade serving as a guarantee.

There is no proof of this dedication yet, which will happen once the brigade arrives to train in Estonia. Until that happens, we have no reason to talk about fundamental gains in terms of national defense. Riho Terras is right in this: verbal pledges and press releases are one thing, while realistic changes on the landscape are what matter. More so as information of the Brits planning to dial back their Estonia presence leaked in the meantime.

The additional battalion of 700 troops that was meant to stay permanently in Estonia is going home. It came as a poor signal and [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas' public comments revealed she had not prepared. Kallas, who returned triumphant from the Madrid summit with allied promises in tow, looked as though she has been caught hiding something, with both Isamaa and SDE rushing to close the gap with Reform in terms of defense credentials.

As former EDF commander, Terras knows just how uphill NATO processes can be, which is why he knows to react more painfully to dwindling British presence in Estonia.

The Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the EDF commander (as mutual understanding between military decision-makers is key) have made considerable efforts to secure the rapid reaction brigade designation for Estonia. The Estonian government must do everything in its power to make sure this historical agreement will happen and materialize. Läänemets' collective defense gamble, inspired by domestic political bloodlust, could end up costing Estonia's military national defense dearly.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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