Hannes Hanso «embarrassed» that soc dems wanted to cut defence spending

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Tairo Lutter

Defence minister Hannes Hanso (44 today, Soc Dems) says the main near term aim is finding a new deputy chancellor for the ministry, and a new chief for Information Board. As for anti-refugee statements by servicemen, he wants to put an end to that.

-As Soc Dems swapped you for Sven Mikser as defence minister, both reacted surprisingly alike: a pity to depart. Why did you accept the post, and in whose interests was the swap?

Let’s begin with the bigger political picture. Over a month ago, at the council of the party, it was being decided if we would stay in the government at all. I was for staying, but the votes were pretty tight.   

From there, I immediately went for a mission to Paris. As I returned, party board had already been convened and Jevgeni Ossinovski had decided to replace three ministers, defence minister included. My initial reaction was that in our faction we had people who have worked as ministers already and who know the domain.

Their decision was to first and foremost offer the post to me. I realise the minister would have been replaced anyway; it was just the issue of whether I’d assume the responsibility or not. To decide, I had 24 hours. I slept poorly but I do not know how many times in one’s lifetime proposals like that come. And then I did say yes.

It was the very defence ministry, actually, that brought me back to Estonia at all. For years I was abroad and had put my roots down in London both with career and family. It was there, in 2005, that I finished my Master’s and while that was going on defence ministry fetched me back (Mr Hanso served as adviser at defence ministry in 2005–2007 – O. K.).

As I was now introduced to the staff at the ministry, it was a bit like a school homecoming. Some people I had not seen for years, but I knew that I would not have to struggle to make it there. When it comes to Sven, we continue to get along well. As soon as possible, we found a way to meet and talk business.

-You have promised that you are not planning for major changes in defence policy – unlike among staff at the ministry...

All that is true. We have lots of vacancies. We need to find and appoint a defence policy vice chancellor – a competition, as you know, failed.

Another post of great responsibility is new information Board head. We are busy searching for the person, I am meeting the candidates. I am not prepared to name them yet. It is important for me that the agency vital for Estonia would get the best chief possible, and at the appropriate moment the public will know the name.

-Regarding Margus Kolga, removed from the competition amid a scandal – would he have been your favourite for the new vice chancellor?  

I know Margus Kolga for a very long time and he is definitely a great authority in defence policy. But that is in Riigikogu competency today, how to proceed with that. I have not seen these papers, but the Chancellor of Justice has voiced an opinion. I understand some infringements were discovered with the Constitution, but the remainder is in the competency of the constitutional committee.

-To the envy of other ministers, defence budget for next year grows by 9 percent to €449m. The largest investment of €56m is into infrastructure. What will be built, where and why?

We are at a breakthrough moment where Estonian defence forces are preparing for a quality leap. A glance at large procurements underway reveals the armoured CV90 combat vehicles order from Holland is for over €120m. This year, we will be receiving the initial sets of 3rd generation anti-tank systems Javelin from the USA. The new machines need the support infrastructure like module hangars and training grounds; all in all, the new military capabilities will swallow a fourth of the defence budget.   

When it comes to living conditions, 21st century requires maximal goodness of working conditions for conscripts and servicemen alike. Development of infrastructure is important to keep the army attractive.

There will be a large investment in Tapa: two large barracks, one for 240 conscripts and the other for allies. We are also developing training grounds for allies, and structures related to receiving heavy equipment. All told, defence will probably be the leading domain, near term, when it comes to procurements.

-Somewhat surprisingly, our three mine clearance vessels will get a whopping €30m worth of updates in near future. There must be a reason for that – will we seen these on the Persian Gulf in times to come, say?  

At the moment, there is no agreement for the sending of these vessels – to the Gulf for example. Since the beginning of the 1990ies when our mine clearance ships were built, the technology has simply become outdated. Now, our aim is to achieve world class capability in the niche. This also clearly correlates with allied needs – even at the moment, we have a mine clearance vessel out there with allies.

Absolute top technology cannot be purchased like on a counter at a store, pointing a finger. It needs to be custom built for each vessel an costs a lot of money. This will be going on every year, one vessel at a time, €10m per vessel. Essentially, all electronics will be replaced beginning with the sonar. After that, the earth will have none more contemporary mine clearance vessels than these.

-Remarkably, seven million euros will go into early warning and intelligence capacity. What will that be for?

Most of that will be topics we cannot open up in details. It is in our interests to know precisely what is going on behind our borders. I’d say we know that rather well today, but costs wise we are talking about the ultra modern stuff. It is in our interests to avoid any surprise whatsoever. Among other things, the costs include joint UAV (drones – edit) payments with allies, and purchases of all kinds of sensors and other means to protect the nation such we cannot specify here.

-The Soc Dems have traditionally liked to harshly criticize the two percent defence spending. As the security situation improves, will you return to pursue the policy?

It is very embarrassing for me personally that even my own party voices like that have sounded. I would never have supported a stand like that myself. Naturally, the state budget is under great strain, but I think defence is where we simply cannot afford to lower the standard. I also believe the society to have the same consensus.

Each party has its market niche you see... National defence isn’t perhaps seen as a soc dems foundation stone, but in view of actual activity by me or my predecessor Sven Mikser, then naturally we stand a hundred percent for maintaining the defence spending.

-When did you learn that Eston Kohver would be swapped?

About Mr Kohver, we talked with security police a few days before the swap. Regarding the swap, however, I had no indications – essentially, I learned about it at the same time as did the public. This serves to reflect the professionalism of our agencies – there is order in the house. If it is agreed that the circle is extremely limited, that’s the way it goes.

-Now that the topic of Mr Kohver is out of the agenda, what will be Estonia’s next major challenge as related to Russia?

Actually, these are the same. These past years, Russia’s behaviour is not acceptable by no normal measure. In foreign policy, it is our greatest challenge to maintain allied unity regarding the Russian issue. Every difference, each weakness and dependency will be momentarily seized by Russia, to drive a wedge between allies and between Europe and USA for instance. At the moment, Estonia is in no danger militarily.

-How will Estonia react if Turkey gets into trouble fighting ISIS and asks for NATO assistance like with real units?

We are NATO members and article 5 is also valid when we need to help others. Should the situation in Turkey be as critical as that, the agreement will naturally stand. Meanwhile, it must always be considered what our capabilities are. With air and probably naval forces as well, we would have nowhere to input in Turkey.

I still hope it will not get to that – Turkey is NATO’s second largest army by size. It is very capable itself and, in the meantime, allied Patriot missile systems have been sent there.

-Do you see a real possibility of our servicemen finding themselves, at Turkey-Syria border, in contact with Russian fighters battling for Bashar al-Assad – and if so, what would that be? Cooperation?

This is so hypothetical that I will not endeavour to speculate.

-This year, national defence has been hit by a string of scandals as servicemen have reviled refugees. Having returned from Jordan, your first message was that the myth as if refugees wanted to home to have it easy in Europe is amazingly incorrect. Do you feel you will have to do explanatory work in the organisation?

It has already been done. Naturally, statements like that are absolutely deplorable and I have publicly condemned these. Not just such as touch the refugee issue but comments concerning people who live here of whom the larger part are passport carrying Estonian citizens. We will definitely not be tolerating that. These are not topics for discussing what is right and what is not – we know what is right.