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Poll of the experts: What have we learned from a year of war?

Estonian and Ukrainian flags.
Estonian and Ukrainian flags. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Just over a year ago, on February 24, 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

ERR asked four defense and security experts: Head of the International Center for Defense and Security chief (ICDS) Indrek Kannik, EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas, Estonia's Ambassador to Finland Sven Sakkov, and defense expert and former civil servant Rainer Saks, what the past year has taught Estonia, Europe and the whole world.

Indrek Kannik

For Estonia, Russian aggression recapitulated what we actually knew very well anyway. Perhaps we are somewhat of a border state of Western democracy, living right next to a large, aggressive neighbor. 

This means two things for us. We must continue to work hard to ensure that NATO's credibility remains, plus that allied presence Estonia and in the region as a whole is sufficient. 

Second, it also means that we have years ahead of us where Estonia's defense spending will remain at a high level, and in fact will likely grow even more, as there is no real reason to believe that the nature of the Russian state and society will change significantly, even in the event of Russian defeat in Ukraine.

Europe as a whole will hopefully now be able to understand better than it had done, that freedom and democracy are more important than cheap natural gas. In addition to Russia, dependence on China must also be scaled down. 

Indrek Kannik. Source: ERR

It seems to be the case that that belief in the time for peace dividends has finally come to an end, and that investments must be made in national defense. In other words, the intellectual flirtation on the topics of strategic autonomy will also be let go. While Europe has been a key supporter of the Ukrainian army, without the decisive contribution of the U.S., both Ukraine and Europe as a whole would be in real trouble.

Now a few words about the "global South". As demonstrated by UN General Assembly voting patterns, about half of the countries from the global South condemn Russia's aggression, while the other half abstain. Only a handful have supported Russia publicly. Unfortunately, China and India are also among the neutrals. These two countries are currently Russia's lifelines, with which it can develop trade relations.

This is not surprising in the case of China, as they share Russia's anti-Western agenda. But India is a more unfortunate case. The world's largest democracy, one which rightly criticizes the colonialist history of the European powers, is quite cynically ready to tolerate Russia's current colonialist war.

Ukraine has heroically demonstrated that it is always vital to fight back, even when the enemy is bigger and stronger. But when you start resisting, it may turn out that you are not so strong.

Matti Maasikas

Russia's war against Ukraine began back in 2014, but in February 2022 it was transformed into a full-scale invasion. However, for the rest of the world, unfortunately also even in parts of Europe, the war was simmering in "far away" Donbas and was something insignificant, which did not concern us. This was allowed to happen, so the aggressor became bolder and more brazen.

Even the most powerful countries on the globe played dumb, saying that we have the Normandy Format and the Minsk agreements at our disposal, meaning there is some kind of diplomatic process. Russia in any case did not intend to fulfill the Minsk agreements, which were very unfavorable to Ukraine, and was only emboldened by all this.

Matti Maasikas. Source: ERR

Consequently, all signs of aggression - especially in the case of countries with greater military capabilities - must be scrutinized more closely than ever before, and concrete steps must also be taken. Would the current invasion still have happened when it did, if Ukraine had already had HIMARS in its arsenal a year ago?

There is a major war for Europe, the first of that scale since World War II. The EU has learned its lesson (see above), however. As a result, the union has become a truly geopolitical organization. Geopolitics includes, among other things, choosing sides. The EU has chosen the side of Ukraine in the ongoing war, while the leaders of the EU institutions have repeatedly and unequivocally said: We will support Ukraine until victory is achieved. To this end, the EU and its member states have so far provided subsidies worth €67 billion, of which €12 billion will go on weapons. 

Very painful sanctions have been imposed on Russia. We will aid Ukraine in keeping its electricity system running, and so on and so forth.

Most important, the EU has recognized the viability for Ukraine (plus Moldova and Georgia too) to become EU members, and has also granted Ukraine and Moldova the status of candidate country. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly confirmed that through this perspective and hope, this will help Ukrainian soldiers to fight, and Ukrainian society to support that resistance.

In this way, at a truly decisive hour, member states and partners who share the same values as the EU, can be sure of the EU. Cooperation within the EU and Brussels' coordination with its allies - especially the U.S. and the G7 countries - is stronger than ever.

The start of this major war came as no surprise to Estonia. We were also among the handful of countries that had been aiding Ukraine with weapons even before the current, full-scale invasion began. We have always and on every position been right about this war. Does this give cause for satisfaction? Not really. We might be satisfied if, together with like-minded countries, we had managed to convince our most important allies and strongest organizations, namely the EU and NATO, that the wolf was really at the door right now, meaning we need to start acting.

Simultaneously, there is no reason for self-criticism either. Estonia's size and opportunities are limited, and we were facing much bigger countries who were in the "we-know-better mode": "This is not in Putin's interests", "we've been buying gas from Russia for decades, they're not interested in jeopardizing that", "this won't materialize," and so on and so forth. 

The major task now facing us is how the universal recognition of: "Yes, you were right" we now have can be transformed into concrete policy steps to isolate Russia as wholly as possible, and to seal up its economy to the extent that it is impossible to finance its war machine. We can only do this with very determined work and together with our allies. Estonia cannot do this on her own.

Sven Sakkov

The lesson was taught that it is not weapons that create war, but people. President Zelenskyy's statement " I need ammunition, not a ride," was the most important sentence uttered in 2022. A year later, we are at the situation where we are, above all, thanks to the bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people.

The lesson that democratic societies and free market economies can work wonders was taught. European public opinion, in their support for Ukraine and the Ukrainians, dragged along even the most recalcitrant politicians in its wake.

A teachable moment, that Europe can get by economically without Russia, took place. The fairy tale about the inevitability of close economic relations between the EU and Russia has been dispelled.

Sven Sakkov. Source: ERR

The lesson on how underfunded European defense forces have been up to now, was made clear. Estonia and Finland are one of the few positive examples of countries that did not neglect their defense capabilities in the recent decades.

We learned that the stories about the Strategic Autonomy of Europe were a nice fairy tale that might come true sometime in the very distant future. U.S .military aid to Ukraine is twice that of all of Europe combined. Let us remember that the war is taking place in Europe, immediately beyond the borders of the EU, not on the other side of the Atlantic.

A lesson was given on how vital it is to skillfully use social media in delivering your own messages. Ukrainians have proven past masters at this. Social media loves creativity – and creativity loves a free and democratic society.

The lesson of different the West is from most of the "Global South" has been drawn. If the public opinion in Australia, Canada, Estonia or Portugal is only slightly different regarding the Russian war of aggression, the majority of the African nations have a completely different opinion.

That Estonia has always been right on these issues has been made clear to Europe. The alarm is such that being right cannot be made into a sin. We must be able to convince our friends now that we are right now. But this is not as simple as it seems. A time machine that only showed the correct time in the past, would be weird.

Rainer Saks

Russia's attack on Ukraine, which began in early 2014, escalated into a full-scale military aggression a year ago. The antecedents of this military conflict go back even further, but the consequences will determine the security and stability of Europe for the next century.

We can learn a lot from what has happened in Ukraine. First of all, one must know a potential enemy so well and so thoroughly that we can assess their abilities, intentions and also their will. We don't need emotions to come to an adequate evaluation, but rather facts and experience.

Our independence and resilience begins when we are able to stand up for ourselves and do our own thing, even in the face of those who challenge us. Given our size, we must have a near-perfect early warning system at our disposal.

Rainer Saks. Source: ERR

We need to tell our own story, and explain our goals to the world. We have to define our own situation; no one can do that for us. Neither can our allies. This cannot begin once the crisis is already here. Abilities in strategic communication and diplomacy are among the major prerequisites for our independence.

A major issue facing Estonia in case of major crises is its connections with the rest of the world. These need to be completed as soon as possible and, at the same time, must be transferred to the European standard to as great an extent as possible. Communications with the rest of the world must not ever be interrupted.

Due to our size and location, all the means necessary for our defense must be located in Estonia before any potential conflict begins. Once any war has begun, we will no longer be able to develop the capabilities necessary for the defense of the country. Our civil defense aspects needs to be developed over the coming years. It is vital to test the capabilities our country has to work in a crisis situation, until we are convinced that we have such capabilities in full. Every state institution must know what its role is during a major crisis. If we cannot provide vital services, then defending the country will not be viable.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

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