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Future ambassador Vseviov on Estonian-US relations and national defence

Jonatan Vseviov (left) with Toomas Sildam (right).
Jonatan Vseviov (left) with Toomas Sildam (right). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Ahead of his final approval as the next Estonian Ambassador to the US, Jonatan Vseviov, who is stepping down as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, spoke with ERR's Toomas Sildam this week regarding relations with the United States as well as national defence, two topics with which he is intimately familiar.

Asked to describe the security situation in which Estonia currently finds itself, Vseviov called it multifaceted. "I don't know how to sum it up in one sentence," he added. "Dynamic, if I had to pick one word."

He did not agree with the suggestion, however, that the unity of the Western world was cracking. "There are certainly things previously regarded as self-evident that have become objects for debate," he admitted. "That does not mean that it is cracking or falling apart. Of course the general chaos is making security predictions more difficult and general sense of security more fragile, but if you consider the state of our independent defence capability as well as our collective defence together with the presence of our allies and their ability to come to our aid, then we are currently in a better position than ever before."

Asked what he believed to be the greatest risk the country is currently facing, the former ministry official described the dangers of complacence. "We are a small country — we constantly have to struggle, constantly worry," he explained. "Naturally not to the point of losing our nerve, or getting panicky. But while it seemed for a while, especially in 2004-2005, after Estonia joined NATO, that history in terms of Estonia's security policy was now complete and all that was left to do moving forward was technical management... That belief was misguided at the time, but everyone understands by now that a small country with our geographic location cannot allow itself to sit idly."

Support shown after April Unrest, Russian invasion of Ukraine

Vseviov has years of previous experience at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, where he worked as a political diplomat from 2005-2008 and again as defence policy adviser from 2013-2014. As described by Sildam, key events and issues during his first stint in the US capital included the US' robust support for Estonia following the April Unrest and cyberattacks of 2007, including the establishment of a NATO cyber defence centre in Tallinn as well as visa freedom; of key importance during his second stint was the deployment of US military units to Estonia in response to Russia's attack on Eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea.

"In 2007, after the Bronze Night, we saw the US' clear support," he recalled. "President [Toomas Hendrik] Ilves was invited to the White House, with accommodations at the President's Guest House, or Blair House. Meetings took place at the Capitol. Then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D) requested to meet with the Estonian head of state, and just prior to it, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R) asked to be able to join the meeting. Boehner later became House Speaker. So the support that America offered Estonia at the time was tangible and visible, and of symbolic significance to our security."

Nonetheless it did take effort on Estonia's part at the time to convince its allies of the need to prioritise the establishment of a cyber defence centre in Tallinn, even despite the fact that everyone understood even then that cyber defence was an important matter. Estonia was able to use the cyberattacks of 2007 to its advantage in this regard.

In contrast, the deployment of US troops to Estonia in 2014, or "boots on the ground," which had involved years of groundwork by the Americans and other NATO allies, ended up moving much faster after Russia annexed Crimea and launched military operations in Eastern Ukraine.

"Decisions in the US were made very quickly then, and they were implemented very quickly," Vseviov said. "The [2016] Warsaw Summit confirmed that this is not one country's initiative, but rather all of NATO's job. And all NATO member states agreed that an allied battalion-sized battle group would be stationed here to which many states would contribute. And so if we are seeking proof that NATO works, then we don't have to look any further than Tapa, or Ādaži in Latvia, or Ämari, or Šiauliai in Lithuania.

"At the same time, let us recall that when we first brought up the idea of allied presence in the Estonian media, there were plenty of people even here that were quick to criticise, thinking that this would never happen, and if it did happen, it would be detrimental to our security," he added.

Despite changes in administration, Estonian-US alliance, NATO ties steadfast

According to Vseviov, when considering the alliance's military cooperation, its progress in defence initiatives would never have been possible without the support of all NATO allies, including the US.

"There was a time, and it wasn't so very long ago, when classical collective defence matters, i.e. how to defend NATO territory if necessary, were well into the periphery of NATO as an organisation," he pointed out. "Now they are part of NATO's everyday core. Collective defence which once only existed on paper has since become actual collective defence which rests on two pillars: the forces that are already here, and the forces that would come to our assistance here if necessary. This requires plans, troops, our ability to move them in Europe across national borders, our ability to receive them, and work together with them and so on. The fact that NATO is dealing with all of this today is the result of the [2014] Wales and [2016] Warsaw Summits and driven by Russia's activity in Ukraine — the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass."

Asked how different of a US he would be arriving in as ambassador this year, Vseviov said that of course it would be a new America, under a new administration and largely new staff, as was the case after Barack Obama became president, or George W. Bush before him.

"A clear difference is the style in which the US speaks," he proffered. "This is due in part to the people that are in power, but also the way the media has developed. Gone are the days when people received the majority of their news from the TV at night or the paper in the morning. We are living in a 24/7 news cycle in which it is inevitable that everything comes and goes very, very quickly."

He did not believe, however, that transatlantic relations were anywhere near the edge of an abyss. "That which we are experiencing today is comparable to windy weather or a stormy sea," he said. "This is not an abyss that we are about to fall into, but rather a plane shaking somewhat due to turbulence. But we know, of course, that while we may experience turbulence, in most cases it isn't dangerous."

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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