Ilves: I hope the West is not over yet

Evelyn Kaldoja
Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Munich Security Conference.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Munich Security Conference. Photo: Müncheni julgeolekukonverents

Triumphalism in 1991, according to which the West had won, is largely the cause of its troubles 30 years on, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says in an interview given to Postimees at the Munich Security Conference.

You have just returned from listening to Emmanuel Macron who basically said that Europe must develop its defense to equipoise USA and pursue a Russia policy that is different from the Americans’. What emotions were you left with?

It was incomprehensible for me and for many others, I believe. But it is nothing new. He has said it before. Nothing has really changed since he came out with his new vision that, frankly, made you scratch your head.

Saying that Europe is responsible for what happened in Ukraine in 2014 is incomprehensible. And his second statement – “I’m neither against Russia nor for Russia, I’m for Europe” – is a rhetorical game void of meaning, as put by Edward Lucas.

If we think back to the Emmanuel Macron who was very cross when Russia meddled in presidential elections in France…

He mentioned that too. “Yes, it happened, but then the Americans did it too.” There is a big difference in that those were some radical right-wing groups or individuals, it was not state-level activity. Saying that both the Americans and Russians meddled… it was not the case!

There were a few Americans, individual extremists who did try something one the one hand and a Russian special service breaking into his server on the other. There is a big difference. It’s like when Donald Trump was asked during an interview whether the fact that the Russians are killing people bothered him and he said,” well, we did it too.” It doesn’t mean anything from an intellectual perspective.

Security of elections is something we’ve been preaching for years now. One example is Macron after elections tampering in France who seems to have forgotten the lesson. How is the bigger picture looking?

We have been talking about European defense for the past 70 years. It has always concerned military defense and caused problems as it comes off as something to supplement NATO. Nothing has come of seeking such military capacity on the European level. The latest vision is dubbed PESCO. It will also come to nothing.

Looking at the threats Europe faces, we need not fear a massive invasion. Rather, what we have seen from Russia in the past five or six years is the growing realization that it makes no sense to conquer Europe. Occupation is hugely expensive

Besides, why conquer if it will cost you your laundromat? I’m serious, they’re all sending their money out of Russia because they don’t trust the state. They much prefer to keep it in Cyprus, Latvia, Estonia, real estate in the U.K.

The grand old man of the history of Russia in the United States, the late Richard Pipes wrote in his book “Property and Freedom” that the problem with Russia already back in Czarist times was that even though criticizing the queen cost you your head in England, your family was allowed to keep its property, while getting on the wrong side of the Czar in Russia meant losing everything.

Inviolability of property is one of the cornerstones of Western culture. Russia still has nothing of the sort.

Which is why it makes no sense for them to conquer Europe. However, if your goal is to destroy the EU and NATO, you can influence elections. And it can be done much more effectively today than ever before.

You used to have lunatics try to peddle communist magazines – Daily Worker, Morning Star or L’Humanite in France. The tools used today are far more effective. We have seen influence activity in almost all European countries and not just during elections but also to sow general chaos.

We have seen Russians promote anti-vaccination in Italy. We saw Russia work with Venezuela in Madrid’s conflict with Catalonia two years ago.

Different estimates put the share of inflammatory social media posts in Spanish written in Saint Petersburg but translated in Venezuela at 85 and 94 percent. Unlike English, there are very few Spanish-speakers in Russia.

These threats are present in every country. Influence tools range from hacking to disinformation and bribery.

Where I stand is that instead of reiterating that we need to boost Europe’s military capacity, we should accomplish the things we can realistically get done. We cannot create a parallel tank army. We have NATO.

We do not need another NATO. Rather, Europe should understand and do something where both NATO and the EU stand to be split. It is something that I believe the EU has handled dismally so far and that has seen virtually no investment.

The problem is two-pronged. One dimension is that we have dedicated units for computers, hacking and cybersecurity and then there are people, still largely on the civilian level, tackling disinformation. Additionally, we have the police dealing with bribery and money laundering.

Our adversary uses all of it as a single tool. It is based on a conceptual article called the Gerasimov [Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Valeri Gerasimov] doctrine, according to which it is all part of the same struggle pursued using different means. While we see it like faculties in a university, each doing their own thing.

The other dimension is that all European countries are tackling these things separately. Let us take Fancy Bear or APT28 (names of a Russian cyberintelligence group – ed.). They have broken into the Bundestag and think tanks in Germany, the Italian foreign ministry, the Dutch foreign ministry, U.S. Ministry of Defense and the Congress, the world anti-doping agency and who knows what else – we have a number of places they’ve successfully breached.

At the same time, countries are reacting individually, raising the alarm when they get hacked. Everyone is looking at it from their point of view, domestically, while isolated capacities are inevitable limited, especially for smaller countries where cyberdefense is still taking baby steps.

We are seeing the same characters from Saint Petersburg in France, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Greece. Europe should have corresponding capacity. It is where Europe should extend beyond national borders and institutions. It is simply moronic to try and view these things separately, on the level of member states.

Looking at how much money Russia, Iran and others are spending on developing such methods and pursuing influence activity in our countries, our response is a drop in the ocean. If we want to protect Europe against new threats, we should not be talking about armored corps – let us talk about this instead.

That would be a summary of the lecture I will give.

Has the lecture been heeded?

So far, the reaction has been, “yes, yes – you’re right, Ilves.” We shall see. A measure of awareness is emerging, but it is slow going as a lot of countries find it very difficult to say they will cooperate, for example, in cyberspace. Because that area has grown out of an entirely different tradition – signals intelligence.

The only cooperation there has involved the Five Eyes: U.K., USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – the Anglo-Saxon countries. They do not share their information with others. The fact they are sharing signals intelligence between themselves is already a major breakthrough.

We need to achieve the same thing on the European level. It is alien to us. We do not share intelligence information, and even when we do, it’s based on separate agreements where one country might share a particular piece of intelligence with another.

The intelligence tradition is so strong in the entire cyber domain as to be very difficult to break free from. At the same time, it’s crucial, at least when it comes to signals intelligence.

We need to share a lot more information in a situation where the main players – Fancy Bear, Cozy Bear, APT28 or whatever we call them – are attacking everyone. We need to recognize a certain pattern when it comes to these attacks.

Things have improved, while I remember that when we discovered malware in Estonian networks ten or more years ago and took it to NATO, their reaction was, “Really, you too!” That is the wrong reaction.

We discovered the malware on our own. I believe this pattern of countries discovering something and taking it to NATO only to be told, “You too!” has happened before.

I’ve been told things are much better now. Thinking back to 2007, no one except the Americans and Brits took us seriously. Only the two countries with the most advanced signals intelligence understood what we experienced.

When all of it was happening, I received a call from [U.S. secretary of state at the time] Condoleezza Rice telling me that I would receive a call from president [George W.] Bush the next day. They understood.

But the others did not. Thinking back to replies and comments in April-May of 2007 after we brought the matter of cyberattacks to NATO’s attention, there were those who didn’t understand the first thing about cyberspace and said, “You’re an Eastern European country, you’re Russophobic and how do you even know?”

These days, it is no longer necessary to explain what a DDoS attack is, how they are organized etc. But back then, cyber-awareness was virtually nonexistent.

It still sometimes seems Estonia is the only country to have suffered a cyberattack, while the others are just maintaining a low profile.

I believe it was smart to come out with it right away. The usual modus operandi in such situations is to keep it under wraps lest someone thinks we’re vulnerable. For as long as mankind has existed, the history of cyberwarfare begins with Estonia in 2007. Not because there had been no cyberattacks before, but because they had all been kept secret. It was the first open attack by a country. We have seen all manner of such attacks since then. For instance, when North Korea attacked Sony.

But to recall [Prussian military theoretician Carl] von Clausewitz saying that war is the continuation of policy with other means, this was the first time von Clausewitz’s definition of war took place in cyberspace.

In the end, even if we look at the short perspective, it proved immensely useful. The opening of the cyberdefense center of excellence in Tallinn alone was an own goal for Russia following the 2007 attack.

Ever since joining NATO in 2004, Estonia said that while it has all manner of centers of excellence – recently, the figure was 82 and included some truly specific examples, such as the Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters in Kiel) – it has nothing for the cyber domain. We were told to take a hike in 2004-2007.

Then came cyberattacks, and suddenly our application shone in a different light. Russia had really shot itself in the foot. They wanted to wound Estonia, perhaps undermine its already formidable digital reputation at the time, while they ended up achieving something else entirely.

The United States has entered another elections cycle now. Can we say they’ve learned from previous attempts to meddle in their elections?

They have and haven’t. The FBI and electoral committees are at times very aware. However, serious questions arise from the fact that Republicans have used their Senate majority to block three Congressional bills aimed at rendering elections more secure.

This begs the logical question of whether they are hoping for new attacks like the ones that helped them win the presidential election last time.

They are talking about state versus federal rights. Usually, when it comes to national security, state interests are steamrolled.

We’ll see. Elections security is abysmal in some states. We do not know whether Russia changed something in the elections register. We do know that they made observations in every state. And if you can observe, you can also make changes.

A peculiar aspect of U.S. elections for us is the fact you need to register to vote. They do not have a population register. Registered citizens automatically get the right to vote here. There, you have to register yourself.

And this allows all manner of tricks. Recently, tens of thousands of people were removed from the elections register for failure to vote in three recent elections. A citizen is free to decide whether they want to vote or not. You should not be removed from the register because you decided not to vote on three occasions.

Another aspect of U.S. and Anglo-Saxon elections is single-mandate districts, a so-called winner takes it all system where the winner gets a huge majority in the parliament even though election results might have been quite close. Most European countries have a proportional system that leads to more balanced results.

Looking at it another way, a non-proportional system hurts smaller parties and leaves you with just two. In our case, we would only have the Reform Party and Center Party. Perhaps some people would like that. I believe having most views proportionally represented in the parliament is better for balance.

How do USA and Europe compare today? To what extent is the Zeitgeist that has given us Trump present here?

The rise of populism and steamrolling of democratic traditions is the same in America and Europe.

Germany is an exception as they regulate everything with laws. But most countries have a lot of things thar are not regulated on the legislative level. Instead, there are simply democratic customs that have told parliaments how to behave and cope for decades.

The general understanding that has ensured the longevity of these traditions is that no one will rule forever. And if I go medieval on the opposition, they will go medieval on me the next time they win.

It seems the Republicans in the States and some parties in Europe are behaving as if they’ll remain in power forever. Without realizing all of it will be paid back with interest. And it’s especially sad looking at USA where revenge will likely be sought against the Republicans, meaning that this polarized air will persist.

The Democrats are screaming bloody murder, while the Republicans just say, “too bad.” It is rather likely the former will be back in power one way or another soon – they already have the majority in Congress and might get the Senate, while we don’t know how the presidential election will turn out.

I would not like to see recent opposition steamrolling continue. It will probably be very difficult to hold them back should the Democrats win. And that means things will continue as they have.

This is also present in a lot of European countries where campaigns to stick it to the opposition can be seen. It is not wise. Democracy is not just legislation, it is also made up of certain ways to behave. If these traditions are discarded, everything will fall apart.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said here [at the Munich Security Conference] that the West would prevail. Will it?

It was quite provocative, considering the topic of the conference is Westlessness.

Coming now to the broader issue of whether the West has won, it constitutes triumphalism a la 1991 – we have won! And that is precisely what has landed us in this mess 30 years later. Everyone believed we had won, while it turns out now that we were winning then but aren’t anymore.

The entire conference hinges on the question of what the West is. Is it a case of China versus the U.S. today, and if so, then where is Europe in all this? If we fail to take action in the cyber domain or other such fields, we will fall apart. We must do something. The question is that of the West and of USA, but where is Europe in all this?

I hope the West is not over yet, but these are trying times.

We heard quite a lot about U.S.-European relations from the Americans. Interestingly enough, neither the state nor defense secretary mentioned the president who is busy railing against Europe. Europe’s top brass is present here, and they are not fools. They can read what is being said about Europe. And then they [Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper] come and say everything is fine and dandy. It is not.

The Estonian foreign minister gave his foreign policy speech recently (last week – ed.). What is your opinion of Estonian’s foreign policy course?

It is difficult to say because years when we’ve had a foreign minister who knows something about the field have been few. If you have spent years reading materials and perhaps writing something yourself, instead of having the policy planning department put things on your desk, you can navigate these waters.

But what we have… It is the weakness of many parliamentary countries, not just Estonia, that the post of foreign minister goes to the chairman of the runner up, not to someone who actually knows something. We have seen plenty of people in that office who have been completely clueless.

It was a major personal disappointment for me when, after growing up thinking that foreign ministers are the crème de la crème of governance, I learned upon becoming foreign minister in 1996 that my colleagues were simply heads of parties that had come second in elections.

The level I encountered was simply… [Made you want to ask:] “Have you ever read anything?” What came out of their mouths was…

I believe it is good, especially for small counties, to have a foreign minister who can swim these waters.

Translated by Marcus Turovski.