Sa, 23.09.2023
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Ilves: what deters is a functioning NATO, not 150 men

Argo Ideon
, poliitika- ja majandus­­analüütik
Photo: Toomas Tatar

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves thinks it naive to ask if 150 US soldiers are sufficient to deter Russia. The real deterrent is that NATO works.

According to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the European Union’s Lisbon treaty solidarity clause needs to be filled with content. Otherwise it might happen that solidarity with an attacked EU member state will be limited to sending them something like olive oil.

On May 1st, Estonia will have been in European Union for ten years. During the entire period of time, inhabitants of Estonia have maintained strong support towards the union. Thus, the EU must have given us something.

Even those who used to be sceptics think that. We used to have a certain bunch of farmers who were against the European Union. Recently, I have met many a farmer who has said he was against but now is very happy we’re in EU.

It was the same in Finland. A part of the farmers were categorically against joining the EU. Later, however, they found out they didn’t know why they were against – they like it a whole lot.

People do have the right to change their mind. John Maynard Keynes (a British economist – edit) once said: as I learn new facts, I may change my mind.

What’s the most important impact, for Estonia, from being in EU? Is it the financial support, the feeling of security, the outlet into world politics?

It’s impossible for me to say what is the greatest result. Definitely, to what you listed, we should add the opportunity to be in Europe, to go to Europe, to do there what want. 

The opening of the eyes has been a very clear phenomenon. I’d say that the Estonian mentality is much more open now than ten years ago.

We do remember the slogans used by political parties at European Parliament elections ten years back. Already then, it was obvious that these did not reflect an understanding of what Europe is. Some were outright funny. One went «No to the unitary federal state».

Looking at the battle in Ukraine now, we understand that a federal state and a unitary state are opposite concepts; but, back then, the understanding of Europe wasn’t very good here. Should anybody come out with a slogan like that now, he’d be a joke.

Surely, we have learned a lot. Our legal space is much more solid; but also the people’s understanding of what Europe is, what is and isn’t European, has cardinally changed.

This has actually been a predictable process. Very many people have been abroad, to study; they’ve come back, their attitudes have changed.

Estonia is a more tolerant state. Could be even more tolerant. But she has changed a lot.

Probably, the EU itself has also changed a lot – since the time you pushed our membership as foreign minister.

Well you know the old categories – Eastern-Europe, new Europe – still exist, in some places. But when looking back at the crisis we came through, then Estonia surfaced as a state that has been and continues to be responsible, that follows the rules. That gives us the confidence that we’ll make it.

Increasingly it is accepted that pitting Eastern Europe against Western Europe is no longer valid.  GDP per capita still differs, though, as convergence takes time. Even so, the a priori attitude that it’s bad in Eastern Europe – that’s rather an attitude confined to East Europeans themselves. 

During the hardships of these past years, there’s been much talk about EU about to break apart. This, in reality, has not happened.

Many predicted that, without knowing that the political will to avoid EU falling apart is so strong. For various reasons. One reason may be purely financial – we will compromise, for otherwise we don’t get the money.

But even security-politically the smaller states have been willing to compromise, as they understand that without the EU they’re just that – small states. There’s also the places where separation of its own state is desired; at that, however, it’s still considered important to stay in the EU.

According to polls, one party bent on leaving is quite popular, the UKIP (Independence Party – edit) of Great Britain. This expresses the view of a certain percentage of the local population; meanwhile, the British companies are very much opposed to exit.

Some claim it is also possible to be outside EU yet part of the single market. I do not believe this will work too well.

The Norwegians are outside EU but they have to keep all the single market rules. It cannot be that one can trade everywhere without customs tariffs, while not following the trade rules we don’t like. Norway, for instance, is keeping all the rules.

There are, as of, two opposing trends in Europe: greater integration, from time to time there’s the talk of a need for a core Europe that would integrate faster; on the other hand, Scotland and Catalonia for instance are seeking to break away from the parent country. What will all that lead to?

I wouldn’t know; but I’m convinced that should Livonia, for instance, seek to break off of Estonia, it would wish to automatically stay in EU and not hold new negotiations. That’s the clause everybody is wanting, but the plea hasn’t been answered yet.

A typical assessment to EU reaction towards the Ukrainian crisis is that the response is weak.

Yes, at the moment the issue of foreign policy solidarity is vital. I believe that Estonia has the right to say that we supported, via EFSF (European Financial Stability Fund – edit), the states that were richer than us and didn’t follow the rules. I believe we might now expect more solidarity ourselves. Not so that while you caused trouble by your own behaviour and now you’re able to say that no, we are not supportive of a stronger response to Russia as our economy would suffer.

Meanwhile, we suffered, we helped others when they were having trouble. Therefore I’m not happy when some take that kind of a stand.

Is Europe’s answer weak because it’s hard to agree between 28 states? Or is it just the interests being so different?

Recently The Telegraph published an interesting diagram showing the positions of nations regarding sanctioning Russia, compared to their economic dependence on Russia. It revealed how the «hawks» are rather more dependent on Russia, yet still ready to act. Then there are some weird states which are against any sanctions while not having overly much dependence economically. However, certain lobby groups do have huge leverage towards governments. Naturally, I may not name the countries here, but you can take a look at the graph.

Will Europe still manage to agree and present a more effective response to the Ukrainian crisis, one which would better protect Estonia’s interests as well?

This is where our definite interest lies, as the world order has changed. We see it is dangerous if state borders are allowed to be changed by force; but there are also the states that have accepted it.

In this, I see a greater change than many a person in some other state, perhaps. I do very sincerely believe that if old rules no longer apply, nothing is excluded any more. The principle that borders aren’t changed by force has been the basis of the entire post-WW2 geopolitical structure of Europe.

In reality, almost every country has had their borders change as compared to earlier times. German and Polish borders have shifted towards the West, at both ends; Italy; Kaliningrad, etc. The desire to change borders has been the cause of wars.

Then we agreed that we will not be changing them by military force. Now, however, that has happened; meaning that all these former agreements are gone. In our part of the world, this is an important issue.

Would isolating Russia solve anything?

As a term, isolation means nothing. It’s too easy to say that hey you want to isolate us. Russia needs to understand that if you break the rules, it has consequences. Towards the beaker of rules, business as usual should not continue. That let’s sell, do stuff, all is normal. It’s not.

Continuing with isolation – employees of Russia’s power structures were banned from travelling to 150 states. That’s reckoned to be three million people. Nobody has put them in some Magnitsky list or anything; it’s Russia itself telling then not to go abroad.

In a CNN interview, you told Christiane Amanpour that you cannot see into Vladimir Putin. But: what scenarios should Estonia be preparing for? What must we be ready for?

I believe we have gotten quite a lot done, already. The most important component is deterrence. NATO has reacted relatively fast, and will be reacting some more.

We know what the NATO history is like and ho, even in the North Atlantic Treaty, it was agreed to help one another. But that wasn’t our NATO yet. NATO as an alliance also protecting its members militarily only came into being as the organisation and its activities were determined.  

EU has the Lisbon treaty provision – the solidarity clause. But what does that mean? Let’s say somebody attacks Italy. Out of solidarity, do we then send them fish?

We have no procedures, no plans. These are totally absent. At the moment is may be that country X is attacked and some state closer by may also help militarily, but some others will say we’ll send olive oil as we have an abundance. That ain’t too strong...

We have the security policy challenge, to do something about the EU treaty so as to have a structure in place. NATO works, that’s what we are happy about. But with EU, it’s absent at the moment.

Will the deterrence of extra planes, some ships on the Baltic Sea, and the 150 US troops visiting us for a while – is that enough for Russia?

It is. As it is, the US troops will be here till 2015. Then we’ll see what happens, depending on the situation. There will be more of them. But the main thing is to show that NATO works. According as the situation will escalate – hopefully it won’t – thence the counter measures.

It is naive to ask what do the 150 soldiers give us. Deterrence means that should danger ratchet up, additional things will be done on top of that. Often the people who pose in media as experts or analysts do not understand how long it takes for certain troops to fly to Estonia, from Ramstein, Germany.

Article 5 means that is a member state is attacked, all are attacked. That’s the reason NATO is hated, elsewhere. Otherwise, Estonia would be an easy morsel to swallow. 45,000 square kilometres, a city when it comes to population. But now they need to consider what would happen on the territory, in the cities of the one who attacks. That’s deterrence.

Article 5 is what deters. It’s not us having the 150 pairs of American boots – though it’s a mighty powerful unit, these guys are.

Americans proved faster than the rest; but, immediately, the Brits and the Danes said we’re coming also.

A lot is being said about the Russian propaganda right now, and for good reason. How do you see the idea to create in Europe a Russian language TV channel, a bit like your one-time Radio Free Europe on TV screens? Would that help?

Maybe. Definitely the idea to compete with the 24/7 entertainment filling the bulk of Russian programmes should be discarded?

That will not work. The big Russia can do programmes much flashier than the three Baltics or even a larger bunch of nations. We’d not gain these viewers.

It’s another matter if we’d do news programmes. Back when they decided to stop interfering with Free Europe, in November 1988, we had audience of 15–25 percent, sometimes 35 percent; during the total crisis in January 1991 and in August of the same year, 80 percent of the people tried to listen to us.

So that’s worth thinking about. But to compete with more than news, that’s hard. Also, the Russian news programmes are very entertaining too.

Even so, Estonian media is also largely entertainment. I’ve been talking to every editor over the past 20 years, they’ve told me that «foreign [news – edit]» don’t sell. Foreign news is not what brings the clicks. If that be true, why would the Russian audience differ from the ones with whom the «foreign» is said to not sell? Maybe they aren’t interested in that.

In Russia, of course, a peculiarity is developing – a deficit of free information.

Sure. But how many are really interested in it, there?

At the same time, I do not believe we should start banning Russian channels or programmes here. If they do not directly instigate hatred between nationalities, and violence, then in the Western liberal democracy a ban is no solution. Then we would become like them, and as we know, the best revenge is not becoming like them.  

Pavel Durov, founder of the Russian social network VKontakte, said he is leaving Russia and seeking a suitable country where to work with his team. The state should have little bureaucracy, lots of freedom, a strong legal system etc. Could Estonia be it?

I believe Estonia fits his criteria better than many others. In spite what the Russian propaganda says, he’d be freely able here to have his children in a Russian school. Estonia is strong on freedom of speech and freedom of Internet. By a slight amendment in the law, Iceland did pass us by; but in Internet freedom we are world No 2.

This, actually, is a broader phenomenon: in spite of all the Russian propaganda, there are plenty of reasonable people there who have moved or are about to move to Estonia. I cannot name names, by quite a few of well-known liberals have bought an apartment here. For the liberal Russian intelligentsia, and the business circles, Estonia is a good place.

Still, just a small slice of the elite could probably afford coming...

It’s a bigger bunch, though. They come for the very reason that they aren’t so rich. If you’re rich, you go to London, or Paris. But a typical university professor, for instance, could not afford an apartment in London or Paris. Perhaps, he can buy one in Tallinn.

The other issue is that very school issue – they are seeing Estonia is a place where their kids could go to school, in a Russian environment – but without the brainwashing.

We are having our European Parliament elections campaign. What would you like it to contain? What would you like to hear from those who are running?

Definite proposals are on a much better level than with the previous two campaigns. I do believe that having now been in EU for ten years, people should have enough understanding to come out with things that are intelligent, no longer talking about «federal unitary state».

I hope no-one will set up a circus as we have seen before, regrettably, before elections.

Not true that Estonia cannot get anything done, there. While a MEP, I served as vice chairman of foreign committee; I was the permanent rapporteur on association agreement of Albania; and I initiated the Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, now an official Estonian and EU programme. For EU, that was a first macro-regional programme ever, ratified after I left the European Parliament. And it was finished up by Alex Stubb who went on to be foreign minister of Finland.

The approach that nothing can be done, as if... that’s disparaging, while also serving as a kind of an excuse.