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‘We cannot change our neighbor’ Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur on the threat of Putin’s Russia and preparing for the worst

Source: Meduza
Kiur Kaasik / Delfi Meedia / Scanpix / LETA

Two years ago, Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine had a dual impact on how European countries were thinking about their own security. On the one hand, Moscow’s brazenness shattered the illusions of many leaders for whom the prospect of Russia bringing war so close to NATO’s doorstep had been unthinkable; on the other hand, many hoped the invasion would prove to be a fatal mistake that would quickly spell the end of the Putin regime.

Fast forward to 2024, and that outcome seems less likely than ever. The front lines in Ukraine have largely solidified; Kyiv’s largest supplier of military assistance, the United States, appears unable to get another aid package through Congress; and Russia’s ramped-up arms production has its economy growing. Meanwhile, European leaders have begun sounding the alarm about the possibility of war with Russia within the next decade — and Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for the White House this year, has threatened not to honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member states to defend their allies in the event of an attack.

None of this has been lost on Estonia, a proudly democratic country that reasserted its independence from Russia within living memory. For years, Moscow has been sending spies to infiltrate Estonia’s institutions, targeting its citizens with disinformation and influence campaigns, and waging cyber attacks on its online infrastructure. More recently, in a stunt that was first uncovered by the outlet Mediazona earlier this month, Russia put Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (along with dozens of other European politicians) on its federal wanted list.

With the prospect of a total Ukrainian victory looking more distant than ever, Vladimir Putin’s revanchist rhetoric at an all-time high, and Washington’s future willingness to defend its NATO allies in doubt, Russia’s Baltic neighbors have no choice but to take seriously the possibility of Moscow invading their territory. To learn what measures Estonia is taking to protect itself against such an assault, Meduza in English senior news editor Sam Breazeale sat down with Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur on the sidelines of the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels last week.

This interview has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.

Mediazona reported this week that Russia has put dozens of European officials on its wanted list, including Estonia’s prime minister. What message is Estonia taking from this and what steps is it planning in response?

I believe that the main message to take from this is very simple: we are doing the right thing. In a way, it’s a compliment for our work, for what we have done in support of Ukraine. And of course we will continue what we have done so far. It’s not the proper way to address the leaders of other countries, but nevertheless, as I said: the main message for me is that we are doing the right thing.

How much of a strain does aid to Ukraine put on Estonia’s budget and its defense resources? And how do you strike the right balance between sending weapons to Ukraine and keeping enough to ensure Estonia’s own security?

There is very strong support in Estonia for helping Ukraine. So there’s no doubt that every [piece of] equipment, ammunition, and [all] other military assistance we are sending is strongly supported by our population. And of course we are looking at what the most urgent need is in Ukraine and what we can send. You probably know that we sent all of our howitzers to Ukraine last year. We sent a lot of javelins even before the invasion started, before February 24, [2022]. So we are sending what we can and of course we are [conscious of the fact that] we still have to be able to protect ourselves and defend ourselves. We are in very close contact with Ukrainians, and they know what we have and we know what we can send. We are picking these assistance packages very carefully.

How likely does Estonia think it is that Russia will invade its territory in the coming years? And how are you preparing for this possibility?

Well, one thing is for sure: [in that scenario], it’s not [only] aggression towards Estonia, it’s aggression towards NATO. Because we strongly believe that the “one for all, all for one” principle is very valid — more valid than ever. Just coming from the NATO council, there’s a clear, very strong message that we are united, and there is no doubt about that.

We’ve said already two years ago, in Madrid, that Russia was, is, and will be the only threat for us. And all together, collectively, we also said that Russia is the main threat for NATO as an alliance. So let’s say we are quite pragmatic in that sense. We know that we have to prepare ourselves. We take Article 3 from the NATO treaty very seriously — that first and foremost, you have to be ready yourself, and then [you] also rely on your allies. So it’s nothing new for us. We’ve been living with Russia all the time. And we know that we cannot change our neighbor. So we have to adapt. And we have to be prepared. And this is why we are investing more than three percent [of our GDP] in defense.

Estonia and its neighbors have been sounding the alarm about Russia and encouraging its allies to take the threat it poses seriously for many years. Do feel that France and Germany, for example, are finally taking this threat more seriously than they were, say, 10 years ago?

So they claim. [Laughs.] No, [but] seriously, when talking to [French Defense Minister] Sébastien [Lecornu] or [German Defense Minister] Boris [Pistorius], I have no doubt that they have a very clear understanding of the real situation. And when everybody sees that Russia is conducting war crimes in Ukraine, that they are raping women and children, that they are deporting children, killing civilians, violating every international law, it’s obvious that we have to take this situation seriously. And I believe every country at the moment, as a member of NATO, acknowledges this threat and also acknowledges that there will be no change in Russia after these elections — or I would say “nomination” or “selection,” not elections — of the president. This is why we will face the reality that after the presidential nomination in Russia, Russia will continue as previously.

After Donald Trump’s comments last weekend, don’t both Estonia and Europe as a whole need to prepare to defend themselves without help from the U.S.? Even if Trump loses the upcoming presidential election, this strain of NATO skepticism may remain in the Republican party until the next election.

Well, I’ve said this a couple of times, but I’m ready to repeat it again. There is no point in taking out the crystal ball and starting to speculate. First we have to wait for the election results. But even without the election result, I’m quite confident that the U.S. will remain as a member of NATO. Because the U.S. needs European allies as much as the European allies need the U.S. So it’s a two-way [street]. We have great cooperation with the U.S., and it’s beneficial for both sides and for all the allies.

That’s why, looking back into history, we saw a very solid footprint of U.S. troops here in Europe during Donald Trump’s last presidency. So I do not believe that there will be some major shift. Of course you can see some changes. It’s normal that every president has the right to make his own choices. But first and foremost, let’s wait for the U.S. elections, and then we can start to see what their real impact is.

But in a pessimistic scenario, where, say, the U.S. suggests it’s not going to come to the defense of certain countries — although I know Estonia pays well above the two percent threshold — how confident are you that the rest of Estonia’s NATO allies will come to its defense in the event of a Russian invasion?

There’s a very simple answer to that. We have all, [by consensus], approved new regional plans in Vilnius. And these regional plans are executable already today — with some risks, obviously, [though] we are taking or removing these risks day by day. But these plans are executable, and every NATO member has given their input on these plans. […] My understanding is crystal clear, that yes, every NATO member acknowledges the need to help each other. So Estonia is also ready to go and help other NATO members if there is a need for that. And this is the point of one for all, all for one.

If Russia did cross NATO’s borders, what NATO procedures would come into effect? What would the immediate response be?

Well, of course, I cannot [reveal] the regional plans and what is in them, but the very simple message is that we will start fighting from the first centimeter on. We will not let [anyone] take away our territory. 

Also, Estonian forces are NATO forces. And we have the British-led EFP [Enhanced Forward Presence] battalion in Estonia, which is integrated with our own defense plans, and we have the Brits as a framework nation, allocating one special additional brigade to protect us, to defend us. 

The very simple answer is that there will be an execution button for the regional plan. Simple as that.

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What is the exact size of Estonia’s armed forces?

Our wartime structure is around 44,000 men. But of course our professional army, which is on duty every day, is around 4,000.

But our structure is a bit different because it’s similar to the Finnish one. So we have the reserve army, which means that we will do mobilization if necessary, and we have the [land] forces. Then we have the voluntary Defense League, which [basically] covers territorial defense.

And in addition to that, two brigades, plus the EFP battalion, plus the British brigade.

And this is led by the Estonian Division. So this is our structure. And as I said, all in all, we have in our wartime structure around 44,000 combatants.

Given that you’re confident Estonia can depend on its allies, do you think all of these countries are doing everything they need to right now to prepare for a worst case scenario?

We are pushing, of course, all of us, to do more. And SACEUR [NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Christopher G. Cavoli] said very clearly today that we need to do more. And we know that. Everybody, even Estonia, which [is investing] 3.2 percent [of its GDP in defense] this year, knows that we have to invest more. Estonia is investing in capabilities by the biggest margin in NATO at the moment.

So if the average is around 28–30 percent, then Estonia is investing around 50–55 percent [of its defense budget] in new capabilities, depending on the year. This is the absolute minimum that you have to do [when] living next door to Russia. But of course, every member of NATO knows that we have agreed on the regional plans — and we have to allocate the forces [necessary] to execute them. So this is our common responsibility, and this is how we have to take it. 

There’s a long history of Russian spies infiltrating Estonian institutions. What operations or programs does Estonia have in place to combat this?

I believe that we have Russian spies — and I know that we have Russian spies — in every European country. And this is the modus operandi that Russia [has always] used: they use agents and try to get as much information as they can. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen that in many countries, including Estonia, there are people who are bought by the Russians and who are working in our state services. But this is why you have counterintelligence and this is why we have been quite successful in our counterintelligence work.

So when you take last year’s [figure] of how many Russians we [expelled], I believe this is the best example of that. We are doing what we need to do in order to avoid any leaks of our state secrets.

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