War not the likeliest crisis

Indrek Sirp.

PHOTO: Tairo Lutter

The interior ministry will be sending citizens instructions for what to do in a crisis today and in the days to come. Director of National Defense Coordination with the Government Office Indrek Sirp talks about what kind of crises we are most likely to see and to what extent can we count on the state to come to our aid.

Have you already assembled a survival kit at home?

The honest answer is that I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I will definitely follow the crisis situation guidelines.

This means you are among most Estonians who, according to statistics, believe they are well prepared for a crisis but aren’t.

If a person has not experienced anything that calls for unusual solutions for a long time, it simply isn’t something they think about. Through the civilian defense concept, we have tried to manufacture awareness in that even though we have not had a major crisis in recent years, they are by no means out of the question. A crisis – of whatever kind – will occur eventually.

What is the likeliest crisis today?

Threats are versatile. We have seen a snowstorm, flooding and a serious traffic accident in recent years, while we have not experienced any direct military threat. It is impossible to forecast how likely any of these events are exactly. But civilian, natural or technological crises are probably more likely than the military kind.

You predecessor, Kristjan Prikk, gave broad-based national defense a C+ in 2014. What would that mark be today?

This reasoning would require us to be able to reach an A+ at some point. I would refrain from giving marks. I believe we are in a good place because we know what we’re doing and where we have shortcomings. Therefore, I would say broad-based national defense is doing quite well.

This means that President Kersti Kaljulaid was wrong when she said broad-based national defense only exists on paper?

I believe the president’s utterance meant she wants to see the next steps. The first national defense development plan from 2013 consisted of two separate documents: military and non-military. By today, we have a single document for planning of capabilities and operational planning. We have finished the “first round” and are heading into the second regarding both.

We have seen clear progress in civil defense. We have a concept that serves as the foundation for future decisions. For example, as concerns shelters. The government has decided that we will not be constructing special shelters but will use existing infrastructure. Mostly in major cities where it will more likely be needed. We need to pick and designate these places, so people know where to find them. Ideally, we would need to hold drills from time to time. This is what the interior ministry will be tackling now; finding people and asking for additional funding as necessary.

There was consensus in medical circles not that long ago that a major accident with 50 victims in critical condition would virtually cripple county emergency response. Where are we today? Does the health board have field operation capacity at this time?

I hope they have gotten there. Have we seen a leap in terms of quality compared to the period you were referring to – I cannot guarantee that. The medical system’s ability to handle mass casualties is something we need to work on.

The social ministry knows what is needed to boost that capability. We hope to secure funding one day. Could we handle a major accident with hundreds of casualties all by ourselves, without help from our neighbors? I’m not sure Estonia will ever be able to develop such capacity. We need to rely on our allies.

It has been said for six years that communications remains the greatest shortcoming in broad-based national defense. It is still the case. We have a development plan, funds have been allocated – why hasn’t this problem been solved?

Communications is definitely among critical elements. One reason is that we have a measure of fragmentation: separate ministries, IT houses. Cooperation has not been close enough. Today we have a single working group looking at the problem from afar so to speak. It has been realized that we need a considerable leap in the field – we cannot continue with what we have. We need to phrase what we want from companies that are in charge of much of telecommunications.

We expect them to work in crisis situations, but how would they do that without electricity? Do they have backup capacity, generators that can power cell towers etc.? Another important question is how to ensure communication with the rest of the world. If we do not have undersea cables or if they are not working for some reason, how can we communicate with our foreign missions and the outside world? The mechanism and process have been agreed on. We will have to see to results in a little while.

How are we on the state’s operational stockpile?

We have some of the stockpiles we need. Fuel is one thing we have enough of. When it comes to food stores, the rural affairs ministry has contracts with companies in charge of filling orders. Regarding medical supplies and staple goods, different ministries have commissioned analyses as to what and how much we need. Work is underway. Do we have enough stockpiles for any and all crises? I would say no. It is another field, besides communications, where I’m expecting a leap in terms of quality in the near future.

In her Tallinn University of Technology master’s thesis from last year, Maret Aarla-Kase modeled a situation where an armed conflict breaks out on the eastern border. The analysis concluded that 56 percent of people living in East Viru County would be trapped in cities and not be able to evacuate by themselves. She also says we have no plan for that.

I have not read the work. I believe the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) are much better prepared for evacuation today than they were a year ago. They have a plan. They have thought about how to do it, working with local governments. How to ensure housing, necessities, like food and water. The main question is how to organize it to avoid people blocking the roads, prevent traffic accidents.

It sounds like a lot of things are stuck behind funding. Is broad-based national defense underfunded?

The situation today is that we have gotten on average €7 million for non-military national defense annually for a total of roughly €47 million in 2016-2022. That is the current level of financing. What we want is greater stability and certainty in broad-based national defense funding. Those decisions rest with politicians.

There aren’t many options here – an agreement to transcend party lines and a fixed percentage.

Eventually. But what would be the ballpark? Where would it come from? That is what we want to pay more attention to at the Government Office. Will it change in the future? It is possible it will remain how it is now; that we will see additional applications for funding during state budget strategy deliberations. We have no certainty in terms of whether we’ll get €5 million or €8 million this year.

Have potential coalition partners who are currently in talks summoned you as an expert?

No, not so far.

One of the key politicians of the looming coalition, Martin Helme, claims that e-voting cannot be monitored or verified. Sounds like a security problem to me.

We would do well to trust the State Information System’s Authority (RIA) and the electoral service: it can be monitored and observed, and e-voting is working just fine. I share their position. The danger of someone hacking into our e-voting system to change election results… While nothing can be completely ruled out, that danger virtually does not exist.

It is very likely that one of our ISPs will build their 5G network using Huawei devices. Is that a problem?

It could become a problem at one point. The question is not whether Huawei devices have a backdoor built in or not. What matters is the supplier’s relationship with China. If a time comes when all the devices in our network are made by Huawei and China wants the company to do something or allow them to do something, it might be a problem. Estonia does not want its exchange of data to depend on a supplier’s decisions. The solution is out of our hands. It is in our interests for the European Union to take a stand. Rather, it is something for the new European Commission to discuss.

We might not have that long. We might find ourselves in a situation where the networks are up and running by the time decisions are made.

It is possible. However, it will take two or three years for the entire network to be constructed. We also need to keep an eye on whether Huawei-based networks are a problem for allies across the ocean. If they say we can no longer work with you because you have that company’s devices, then that will be something to consider in terms of national defense: can we afford it?