Riho Terras: Trump’s unpredictability a strength

Vilja Kiisler
, erikorrespondent
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European Parliament elections candidate Riho Terras.
European Parliament elections candidate Riho Terras. Photo: Erik Prozes / Postimees

Former defense forces commander, current Isamaa European Parliament elections candidate Riho Terras believes that while Estonia will not be able to get a billion dollars from US President Donald Trump, increased military support could be realistic.

We do not know you as a politician….

To be honest, I don’t either.

… but please list your strengths as a politician.

I try to stay calm – which is something I cannot always manage; speak my mind – which is a disadvantage rather than a positive thing for a politician I’ve learned. But I have no reason to beat about the bush.

What do you mean when you say you cannot always manage to stay calm?

I’m an emotional person and lose my composure at times, but it is important to know how to ask for forgiveness and realize one’s mistakes.

It is Europe Day today (yesterday – V. K.) that we have known as Victory Day for a long time. A part of Estonians will take flowers to the base of the Bronze Soldier monument today. To what extent do you understand them?

I would not take flowers to the Bronze Soldier or invite Marine Le Pen for a visit. I understand that Estonian people who speak Russian want something to unite them. And it would be perfectly normal were this not a politically charged and managed topic. It would be insensible to try and fight it. But I do not understand people who praise the Soviet Union and the repression of millions.

When Andrus Ansip relocated the Bronze Soldier in 2007, he adopted a lot of IRL’s agenda. What would you have done differently at the time?

I believe the Bronze Soldier was removed too late. It had become a tool for driving a wedge in society and its eventual removal caused a split. It would have gotten worse had it been left where it stood.

Even before 2004, then IRL prime minister Juhan Parts removed the Lihula monument that depicted a man in a German uniform. What would you have done in Parts’ shoes?

I cannot really place myself in that situation, but I believe that Estonian men who fought in the Blue Hills wearing German uniforms are worthy of respect and veteran status.

You’ve emphasized that Europe is part of Christian culture. At the same time, Europe has always valued diversity. How should the EU treat non-Christian Europeans?

By ensuring them equal civil rights. No religion is harmful as long as it is not practiced at someone else’s expense. I often had dealings with Muslims in Iraq. When I told them I could not accept what they offered me because I was fasting, they found it much easier to understand me. All faiths have been welcomed in Estonia; religious freedom is absolute, which is the European way.

Where would we be today if we were not a NATO and EU member?

I have a phrase that fits perfectly, but it is not fit to print. Things would be very bad.

The first steps of the new government and the utterances of Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) ministers have made world news. How would you explain to your colleagues in the European Parliament these “good mood signs” and describing the president as an “emotionally riled up woman”?

All manner of hand signs, whether we’re talking about Oudekki Loone’s no pasaran or something else, work against the government’s goals and are damaging. Explanations as to what they mean at any given time are worthless as people can decide for themselves the context in which they are perceived.

Were you still commander of the armed forces, how would you explain to allies stationed at Tapa that we still share their values?

One cannot measure a government that I believe hasn’t even been in office for a week based solely on what is written in the press. (The government was sworn in on April 29 – V. K.)

Has the press misrepresented anything?

It has overreacted, definitely.

What could be the lesson from Brexit for Europe?

Support for the EU has increased in all member states. EU members stood up for the interests of a small country – Ireland. This suggests the union is working. Deciding by such narrow margins spells trouble. I don’t know how it will end, but it is bad for Europe and the UK.

What are the chances of there being a referendum on whether to remain in the EU in Estonia?

The result would be that of the Brits’ first referendum. I recently learned the UK had a referendum in 1979 where 67 percent of people found the country should remain a part of the EU.

You have said that one of Europe’s unpleasant truths is what President Trump has suggested: subpar defense spending. Estonia’s spending already exceeds 2 percent of GDP, while we’re aiming at 2.5 percent. What should it buy us?

Estonia’s defense spending is modest, but no country can endure much more. No matter how much money we allocate to defense – let’s say 10 percent – there will always be things we cannot afford. Also, it is not so much about spending as it is about people. We cannot find enough recruits for the defense forces. Air defense is the next thing we need, and it is singularly expensive. We can split the bill with Latvia and Lithuania.

How do you interpret Germany’s decision to keep its defense spending down? The promise to reach 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025.

Comparing the defense spending of Germany to that of France and the UK, they are more or less similar when it comes to conventional weapons. The French and the Brits have nuclear weapons that Germany is not allowed to have, and it is a very expensive capability that makes up much of their defense budgets.

France has said it will boost defense spending by 40 percent by 2025, while they would still remain below 2 percent of GDP. There are historical reasons for that too.

They are cashing in their peace dividend. After World War II, the Americans were in control of processes. Back then there were fears that were not dissipated until the European Coal and Steel Community was founded. European countries were at war with each other a mere hundred years ago. Germany was armed to the teeth for the duration of the Cold War, but then everyone got the impression danger had passed. They were wrong. Now, countries are once more realizing that threats remain. Our existential threat is Russia that is prepared to deploy military force to achieve political goals.

To what extent do you understand Trump’s security policy?

Trump is fierce because he is unpredictable. He is unpredictable even for Putin that considerably boosts his security merit. Support for security in Europe has grown since the Obama era.

How to get Trump to pay Estonia a billion dollars for defense investments?

A billion dollars is probably unrealistic, but I believe increased support is possible because America understands we are willing to defend ourselves, while there are things we just cannot afford: aircraft, ships that are also very expensive.

What could be Estonia’s perfect relationship with Russia, considering geopolitics and under current leaders?

There is no hope as long as the leaders remain the same. KGB man Putin is simply using us. There is no hope for improvement in relations. He does not perceive Estonia as having as much sovereignty as other European countries. But Putin’s positions is wavering, and what comes next no one knows.