Parties double down on 3% GDP defense spending goal after Herem's warning

Scouts Battalion.
Scouts Battalion. Source: Kaitseväe peastaap

Estonia's political parties on Thursday emphasized the need to raise defense spending to at least 3 percent of GDP after Estonian Defense Forces chief Martin Herem's recent comments that even a Ukrainian victory will not be enough to subdue Russia.

Politicians from all parties agree on the need to raise defense spending in the coming years. It rose this year to 2.85 percent of GDP, well above NATO's 2 percent suggestion.

Three percent is seen as the lower limit, MPs told ERR in December. Some called for pushing it as high as 6 percent.

ERR spoke with politicians on Thursday, the day after Herem's comments were published, and they doubled down on their views.

Isamaa's MEP and former head of the Defense Forces Riho Terras said spending should be doubled.

Riho Terras Autor/allikas: Priit Mürk/ERR

He said Herem is right and the threat posed by Russia has not been reduced and the country should not be underestimated.

"Increasing defense spending this year is a step in the right direction, but we must be ready to spend twice as much on defense. Russia will always have the numerical advantage, which is why we must do our utmost to ensure that the Estonian Defense Forces and the Defense League are better trained, better motivated and better equipped than their opponents," Terras said in a statement.

The MEP added Estonia needs to move forward with the "concept of comprehensive national defense and increase the presence of our allies in Estonia".

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said a loan should be taken out to increase spending on necessary military capabilities.

"As far as investment in new capabilities is concerned, Isamaa's position is that it must be substantially increased," he said.

Urmas Reinsalu at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Bucharest on November 30, 2022. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) said defense spending is unlikely to double in the coming years as money is also needed for other areas and these cannot be ignored.

However, most political parties - including Reform - agree spending should rise to 3 percent and this should be the new normal, he said.

"We are trying to make sure that there will be a political agreement that we will have a lower limit of 3 percent. Whether and by how much more the country could raise defense spending is a question of national ambition and taxpayer capacity," Pevkur said.

The minister said the sustainable development of the Defense Forces and good relations with Allies must be maintained in the coming years. Increasing indirect fire capability could also be considered.

Pevkur said Herem gave an objective assessment of the situation.

Hanno Pevkur. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"We all know that Russia's military capabilities have weakened, but their ability to attack Estonia in particular, for example, and to inflict a great deal of destruction on Estonia, remains great," he said.

"Russia continues to mobilize people, Russia continues to produce more ammunition and other military equipment. And therefore, from our point of view, nothing has become easier. We have to take into account the fact that Russia continues to be the biggest threat to Estonia."

Head of the Riigikogu's National Defense Committee Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE) said he could not rule out compromises to allow defense spending to rise.

"This means either an increase in taxes, or an increase in the public debt burden, or that it may not be possible to meet all the demands in other very important areas in the years ahead. At the same time, we have to understand that security is a priority, and if we fail to protect our national defense, at some point everything else may become meaningless," he said.

The MP believes 0.5 percent of the budget should be earmarked for civilian defense and that it would not be impossible to double defense spending.

Raimond Kaljulaid. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Kalev Stoicescu, Eesti 200 member, agreed funding should be allocated for civil defense measures although he suggested it could be more than 0.5 percent.

He said investments in air defense should be a priority.

The security expert agreed with Herem that the Russian threat will not disappear if the country loses its war in Ukraine, but said it cannot automatically be concluded that Estonia will be in immediate danger.

He said Russia would also be weakened domestically.

"It could be a very turbulent time, including international conflicts, anything is possible. On the other hand, Russia's economy and its military are weakening considerably. These are not the same assumptions that existed before February 24," Stoicescu argued.

Kalev Stoicescu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"And, on top of that, Russia's position vis-à-vis its neighbors and China, for example, will change very significantly. In this sense, we cannot make assumptions about what will happen if Russia loses the war on the basis of the assumptions and the position that Russia had before February 24."

EKRE's Leo Kunnas, vice-chairman of the National Defense Committee of the Riigikogu, said 3 percent should be the minimum spent on national defense and also agreed with 0.5 percent for civil protection.

He called for more investments to be made over the next four years to make up for gaps over the last decade.

"It would be the biggest mistake if we underestimated Russia now. No matter how the war in Ukraine ends, Russia remains a threat to us and we need to make much more effort," Kunnas said.

The MP said defense spending should remain between 3.2-3.5 percent of GDP for the next decade. New taxes or loans could fund the rise, he said.

Leo Kunnas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Center Party Chairman Jüri Ratas said comments from the Defense Forces must be taken seriously and that spending should be increased.

"It seems to me that a cross-party consensus has emerged here. At least the Center Party sees that defense costs could be at least 3 percent of GDP," he told ERR.

He also supported the creation of new taxes but said a loan should only be taken out for specific investments.

"If we are talking about maintaining 3 percent of defense expenditure over the long term, we cannot finance this every year from borrowing. It can be financed from a fixed revenue base, and a fixed revenue base is a tax base," Ratas said.

Neeme Väli, a former commander of the Defence League who is running as an MP for the Center Party, said long-term plans need to be made.

Jüri Ratas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"What bothers me a bit is that we are only thinking about it in the context of the next few years. We still have to think of it as a system that has to last for a long time and the foundations of which have to be very firmly in place, and I don't think we are thinking about these foundations at all today," said Väli.

Serious work should be done to increase the motivation of both professional members of the defense forces and reservists, he said.

Herem: 3 percent is enough for planned investments

On Thursday, Herem told "Akauaalne kaamera" that if the country makes the required investments in national defense for the next three years, 3 percent of GDP will be enough to sustain them.

"This means the capability upgrades that we declared at the end of last year - HIMARS, air defense, etc.," he said." But we can't add very much [more] to that if we stay at 3 percent."

EDF commander Lt. Gen. Martin Herem. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

He said, after these investments, the focus should move to obtaining ammunition for these capabilities.

Air defense, indirect fire, intelligence and the equipment of individual combatants for night and day fighting could also be considered.


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Editor: Aleksander Kryukov, Iida-Mai Einmaa, Helen Wright

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