The Russian threat is not constant but depends on our own actions, believes new Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (IRL). One guarantee of NATO Article V is Estonia’s success in merging the allied battalion with its own defense forces.
You’ve said you became a minister out of sense of duty. What is your mission?
I’m not a classic domestic politician. Never have been, and domestic politics, in all its versatility, has never appealed to me. I have rather concentrated on foreign and defense policy. The advantage of these fields is broad-based, almost universal consensus in Estonian society.
Here you feel most clearly that you are pursuing the Estonian agenda - something that cannot be divided into individual party topics. With that in mind, when approached with such a proposal - especially considering Estonia’s EU presidency and complicated international relations situation - I simply couldn’t say no.
I’ve heard it said that one part of your mission was to save the Pro Patria Res Publica Union (IRL) the disappearance of which would have been likely with a weak government delegation.
The fate of a party never depends on a single member. Looking at election results, it is clear a universally strong team is needed. To attract superhumans to deliver a radical impulse… While an exciting fantasy, this never works in real life. I do not think I’m a magic wand in terms of IRL’s future.
Did IRL chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder employ that argument to convince you?
Let’s say that in my case it makes the most sense to use arguments that have to do with national defense, international relations, sense of duty. These form the only argument that can be used to convince me. I always prefer to work as a diplomat; however, I realize there are times one has to be of service in other ways.
Seeder said in the yesterday issue of Postimees that you agreed you will get on board with daily politics. This would include hunting for votes during elections and skirmishes with political opponents.
Every minister is in daily politics. As concerns participation in elections - these decisions need to be made separately.
Did you ask Mart Laar for advice before you decided to take the portfolio?
I keep in regular contact with Mart Laar. I cannot go into detail in terms of what we discussed; however, I see Mart’s role in Estonian society as extremely important, and he is a great example for me in many areas. I’m glad we have maintained very good contact. Our conversations are always between two friends.
How does it feel to be a part of a government run by the corruption-ridden Center Party and its two faces when it comes to Russia?
The Center Party has changed quite substantially. You have covered the Center Party’s new face extensively in your paper. Looking at Jüri Ratas’ activities if only in international relations - his meeting with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel - I believe a westbound course has clearly been set.
I was one of the people invited to partake in coalition talks when the new government was being put together. I was intrigued to hear what they would ask me. And questions were squarely and exclusively aimed at how to make sure, in the most steady and stable way, Estonia’s foreign and defense policy would remain unchanged. The concern was how to communicate that message to the people. I was left feeling quite confident.
Is Center’s cooperation protocol with United Russia okay?
I believe this agreement should be renounced. Or let us say torn apart. That would be the simplest solution.
The so-called dungeon briefings of the incoming defense minister usually take weeks. Is what you have learned about Estonia’s defensive capacity more positive or negative than you imagined?
The picture I’ve been shown during these numerous briefings is very positive. The ministry has aimed at clear formation of Defense Forces units over the years, at having a practical army. I’ve always been a supporter of this: we can have fewer units as long as they are truly battle-worthy. There is no gain in kidding oneself.
Having one’s own defense forces is hugely expensive. We are in the bottom four in NATO in terms of absolute defense spending. We tend to forget that in moments of perceived greatness. Even though we contribute a lot to defense in relative terms, weapons still cost the same they would for a major power.
What is our greatest deficiency today?
Everything is operational but needs further development. Additional financing we secured for munitions is of great significance. As is everything to do with the mobilization system. Our army is built on rapid and effective mobilization.
Our national defense acts include a lot that concerns the reserve army, while it is something we do not often think about. We all support a reserve army and general obligation for conscription; however, attitudes differ when it comes time to ask individual people about their level of preparedness.
We should discuss national defense duties. It is clear we cannot equip our reserve army with the latest that military technology has to offer in peacetime - it would be senseless. That is why the law prescribes the possibility of imposing duties on persons in a crisis or in wartime. For example the right to commandeer vehicles. How would something like that really work? What does it even mean?
While I’m sure people would be accommodating in a time of crisis, how the actual system of duties works is something that has been paid very little attention.
The strength of one’s defensive capacity is usually determined by the ability to stay ahead of the enemy. To employ that ability here, should changes be made in national defense in light of recent events?
I believe that nothing to warrant a radical review of defense capacity has happened in the world right now, while there are circumstances that need to be kept in mind.
For the first time, NATO troops are stationed in Estonia. The question of how to merge the NATO component into the Estonian army and their cooperation requires constant practice. Also as concerns troops that are not stationed in Estonia but should reach us in a crisis. Looking at the Cold War era, the same model was practiced day in, day out throughout the entire period. The idea is for the system to operate without a hitch when that whistle blows.
How convinced are you that all decision-making and leadership processes would work flawlessly in that kind of a situation?
As former ambassador to NATO, I can say that the Article V issue is often over-fetishized, because if allies want to defend us, they will. The contract clearly states that if collective defense proves impossible, mutual defense will be employed.
Looking at Theresa May’s first public visit to Washington, she raised the subject of defending Estonia on numerous occasions. It is clear this was tied to the fact there are British troops in Estonia. I do not perceive major risks when it comes to political decisions.
A political decision will send soldiers into action. I believe that system is quite well-developed already. Of course no country will theoretically surrender full control over its forces. However, I do not perceive any practical significance therein as the troops will de facto be subject to the Estonian Defense Forces.
This fall will see Estonia’s EU presidency, Russia’s Zapad major training exercise, and local government council elections coincide. What are likely developments on the Russian front so to speak?
Looking from the defense ministry’s window, Zapad is definitely the most troubling period as Moscow will amass a great force. There is talk of up to 100,000 soldiers. These kinds of maneuvers are always a source of risk as history has plenty of examples of exercises used as cover for military operations.
That is why it is very important to maintain an early warning system and heightened NATO awareness. USA will be sending additional troops to the Baltic countries. They will not be substantial; however, it is a symbolic and political move - the United States have a presence on the other side of the river Narva.
Some assessments suggest Russia will complete the modernization of its military in five to ten years’ time. What then?
Threat assessments always have two sides: capacity and military intent. The latter can never be forecast in full. Those who do are usually wrong one way or another.
The most troubling fact for us is the political heading reflected in Vladimir Putin’s angry policy toward the West and military development. Its exact goal we cannot forecast. There is plenty of reason for observation and analysis. The Russia risk is not a constant. It depends on what we do - a united NATO as perceived from Moscow can considerably lower that risk.
A recent comment by the Washington Post said that it would be absurd for an American to die for Estonia. How are the difficult-to-defend Baltics seen in the West today?
Everything the U.S. has planned for defending Europe remains in place. The most outspoken proponents of this have been Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
It is fact that Donald Trump is not an ordinary president. His speeches are colorful. Perhaps we shouldn’t read into them for more than they hold.
It is very important that we keep raising this question and maintain communication in international relations. Under no circumstances can we adopt a sullen posture. It remains a fact that no matter how we count forces mathematically, real NATO deterrence is largely based on the United States.
Trump proposed a minimum NATO defense spending of 3 percent of GDP during the previous NATO premiers meeting. Would that be acceptable for Estonia?
It is politically highly unlikely. NATO is struggling to manage the 2 percent level - members have long-winding plans for reaching that target. I believe it was a good message from the Americans, while it will change little in terms of actual policy.
Tomorrow is Victory Day. What meaning do you attach to the date?
We won because we had a national force - people willing to fight a war against two overwhelming opponents.
It also holds a deeply personal aspect for me. I have been involved in decisions to send our troops to Iraq, Afghanistan in different offices. It is important for us to be there for the fighters who were sent there and hurt as a result of these decisions. It is our duty as a people.
These decisions have been made following the principle that if we want to be able to call on the aid of allies, we must be able to participate in missions to help others. Today we can say to these people and their parents: the Brits are here, the French are here. Two nations we’ve worked most closely with during foreign missions. That is actual solidarity, not a construct invented by politicians. I believe it will send a signal that these sacrifices have not been meaningless.
As defense minister I must make decisions regarding new international missions. The world never stands still; there are always new requests, operations. I want to be diligent in terms of dispatching our boys and girls only when we are convinced the mission has been carefully considered. That much I can promise.