«NATO finished when not helping a member state»

Evelyn Kaldoja
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Amazingly, after a career of 18 years at defence ministry and mainly dealing with NATO, Sven Sakkov is still proud of a newspaper article written in 2004 headlined «Headed towards Nordics» and rejoices that we are closer to the non-NATO Nordic neighbors than ever before.  

«I wrote that the Nordic and Baltic defence cooperation should gradually integrate. And, see, 11 years later we are still edging closer, step by step,» beams Mr Sakkov to head cyber defence centre starting September 1st.

-After the Ukrainian crisis erupted, a prevailing idea has been that had the situation been like this in 2004, the Baltics would not have been taken into NATO.  How important, do you think, was for Estonia’s admission into NATO that the times were relatively serene and the people in the West quite optimistic?

What definitely helped was that we were able to use the window of opportunity which emerges, opens and closes.

I do think it is true: in the current security-political situation, it would be very difficult to imagine the Baltics becoming members of NATO. But back then, the situation was a bit different.

Interestingly, we have opportunities open for us every ten years. All we have to do is to make use of them. In 1994, in connection with removal of Russian troops from Germany we had a window open to get rid of foreign forces. And we did. In 2004, it was possible to enter NATO and EU – we used the opportunity. In 2014, we succeeded in bringing NATO here, and so now we are awaiting 2024.  

-You skipped over 2008 when, in the wake of the Georgian war there was louder talk about Baltics having no defence plan. Did this feel like a problem to begin with, as we asked to get into NATO, or were we in fear and trembling just to get in?

According to our knowledge and skills, we have always pursued basically the same policy in NATO from 2004, as we have been able to be present.

Certain events make certain things possible, but we need to work to be ready to grab the opportunity. As the opportunity opened up to bring NATO air policing to Ämari after Lithuania’s Zokniai base, it was built on the work done since 2006 to even have a working airbase. Add to this our long-term desire and will to get NATO air policing here.

They say that politics – especially foreign policy – is the art of using opportunities. Opportunities come and go, they appear and disappear. But they need to be prepared for. One must start running to jump across the bar.

-Zokniai or Ämari – towards the end, the issue seemed to boil down to Lithuanian-Estonian confrontation. How fast would the solution been found, had it not been decided in 2014 to bring additional planes to the area?

That’s hindsight speculation. I would not be claiming we had no hope. But the process would definitely have been more complex.

NATO air policing and allied presence are often seen as one. Actually, NATO air policing is a specific function, just a part of the overall NATO presence and deterrence package.

-Judging by Lithuanian media, it felt that Vilnius was rather bitter during the airbase debates. Did that take a toll on the broader Estonia-Lithuania relations?

In all major NATO issues we agree with Latvia and Lithuania, with slight differences of style. With Poland, too, of course, but Poland is in another weight category.

-Should Latvia get their Lielvārde airfield completed, will there be planes for them as well?

To have some spare airbases is prudent, granting increased options. Again: this must not necessarily mean increase of air policing home bases, but there are other forms of NATO presence – surely for Lielvārde as well.

All told, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are one region. If something is added to Latvia, it will not mean our situation grows worse. The situation in the region grows better.

If we’d keep counting what will Estonia get and what will Latvia and Lithuania get, then we’d see single trees and not the forest. It would be weird to imagine a situation that one of the Baltics will be picked out for attack – as they have less of the NATO stuff. NATO is all over the place here.

-Are we the best pupil in the class then as we might sometimes feel – that we had Barack Obama come around, and the new President of Poland came here first?

Naturally, such visits matter. But that should not be the measure of our success, counting these visits.

Should we measure, we have had as many weighty defence related visits in the past 18 months as the past 15 years put together. But that would not mean we have become 15 times as successful; rather, it means that this NATO region is under much stronger scrutiny than before.

Rather, the measure of our success is if we will be able to achieve our goals in the present situation. Our proportion in NATO is a few percentage points. Our influence in NATO is way above that.

-Don’t you fear undesired attention that may bring along? Mr Obama’s visit was immediately followed by kidnapping of Eston Kohver.

If success creates hazards, that’s the risk we will have to take.

-Perhaps we could get everything done, whatever is necessary, but in a manner more quiet?

The smaller a country, the better it needs to work, word, feature in allied national capitals to be n the picture at all. This can’t be done unnoticed.

In the end, our security is the stronger the more there are allied decision-makers with personal links to Estonia, for whom this is not just sole plot of ground on the map but who have been here. This cannot be done quietly, that would not make sense.

-How then can we spark and interest towards in such allies as Portugal or Greece? How will we charm them?

No need to charm. NATO is a transnational organisation, but security is still ensured together. Immediately, that creates interest and a bond.

Estonians are a nation very sceptical. Rightly so, one needs to be very sceptical, not naive.

The old question is: will we be helped? In my opinion, the answer is very simple: for member states, NATO is a vital organisation and all know that when NATO does not help a member state it is finished. This means that, immediately, every member state’s security concerns worsen a lot. For USA, that would mean loss of influence in Europe. As well as in the rest of the world, as their allies in Far-East and elsewhere would see it. I think it is unimaginable that it would enter anybody’s head to not go help another NATO member. This is totally unthinkable.   

-How much could we count on partners outside the alliance? Like with Australia – there’s been a lot of talk of their increased ties to Europe after Afghanistan, as well after flight MH17 was shot down.

Australia was a very important ally in Afghanistan. But, naturally, we can securely count on NATO partners. With them, we are tied by the foundational NATO treaty. Unlike Australia or Finland, for instance.

-Do you believe that someday the treaty will also be linking us with Finland?

This is not an issue of faith. I sure hope so. Both with Finland and Sweden. This is very clearly in our interests. In my opinion, it is also in the security interests of these nations, as the security of the entire North-Eastern Europe would be stabilised and fortified remarkably. By that, they could minimise the likelihood of unfavourable military developments in the region.

In Sweden by the way, the debate is in. God knows…

For Finns, there is the comforting aspect that EU treaty somewhat involves the collective defence clause. In Lisbon treaty, where it has also been added that EU members which are NATO members shall be defended via NATO. Regarding the others, it has not been stated how the defence would work.

There used to be the Western European Union  -a house where they held meeting. NATO, however, means an organisation, a joint structure of forces, joint procedures and standards, cooperation capacity, joint exercises etc.  

In the EU, all of this is weaker. However, the EU is doing remarkably much in Africa, for instance. Even so, as compared to other topics, defence has been paid less attention in EU.

-Do you think it should be paid more attention? There are the allies who say this is duplicating NATO. They have the red light on as soon as anybody starts speaking about EU defence policy.

If it is duplication, the red light is needed indeed. The issue is: there are very many things that cannot be viewed as duplicating NATO but strengthening NATO.

It would be easiest if NATO and EU memberships would gradually converge. Then, lots of problems would fall off. Coming back to Finland and Sweden – in my opinion that would be the simplest way to solve the problem.

-To which degree has the immigration pressure been reaching the defence ministers’ tables from those of interior ministers, in Europe?

To the degree there is the need to use defence ministry related resource such as navy of the Mediterranean.

The problem is very very large. It would be bigger if the EU would not be doing what it is doing in Africa – like Mali or Central African Republic. These topics are clearly on defence ministers’ tables.

-Next week, you will start at a new job. Are cyber defence and cyber attacks a NATO article 5 – collective defence – topic?

In NATO, whatever North Atlantic Council says is Article 5 topic is Article 5 topic.

Like what happened on September 11th 2001? Civilians hijacked civilian aircraft and flew these into (mainly) civil buildings. The consequences being severe, it was qualified as armed attack. This, up to now, has been the only case where Article 5 has been cited.

NATO cyber defence policy and summit communiqués provide for a clear basis for incidents in this field to be treated as collective defence issue. Naturally, in collective defence the same rules apply as with any other defence: proportionality, the effect of the attack etc.  

Since Bronze Night, Estonia features NATO documents as an example of a victim of extraordinary cyber attack. Does that mean that meanwhile there have really not been any comparable attacks?

In hindsight, the cyber attacks of 2007 look rather primitive. The issue is, this was the first time that the entire information infrastructure of a state came under attack. There have been much more sophisticated attacks. Even the war in Georgia was waged on land, in air and water, and in cyber space. But even 5o years from now, the 2007 attack against Estonia will be the first time an entire state was attacked in cyber space, and it will be in history textbooks.

-What can the cyber security centre do for NATO to be protected in a manner more effective?

My usual question is: how many tanks does NATO have? Zero. The member states have tanks. However, NATO makes the single member states to sound in harmony in several areas.

When it comes to cyber capacity, several NATO member states are at the global top, but they are all there by themselves. The cyber defence centre can make it all harmonise. In other words, the cyber defence centre must be competent and useful for member states (16 allies and partners). In cyber creativity, the centre must be several steps ahead of NATO, it’s avant-garde – that’s the idea.

Sven Sakkov

Born September 14th 1971, in Tartu

Married, raising a son and a daughter

A graduate of University of Tartu in history, Master’s at Cambridge in international relations

Has studied at UK Royal Defence College, St Lawrence University (USA), and NATO defence college, Swedish defence college, and the Marshall Centre (Germany)

Starting September 1st 2015 – head of NATO cyber defence cooperation centre