Defense minister: Ministry asking for bare minimum

Toomas Kask
, Saatejuht
Minister of Defense Jüri Luik.
Minister of Defense Jüri Luik. Photo: Tairo Lutter

Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (Isamaa) criticized Minister of the Interior Mart Helme’s (EKRE) claim from Sunday according to which national defense is lacking on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast on Tuesday.

“Mart Helme definitely should not have said that Estonia lacks defensive capacity. We need to emphasize the strength of our defenses lest we tell the enemy we’re weak,” Luik said.

If Estonia’s defense spending were to fall due to the recession, what kind of figures would we be talking about?

We are talking about a noticeable gap. Defense spending would fall by €50 million next year, €47 million the year after that and €41 million in 2023.

I believe these expenses are vital as they have been planned down to the last detail and that cuts would deliver a serious setback in terms of developing our defensive capacity.

How much money or what percentage of spending would be required to maintain current defense spending?

We should stick to what we planned for in 2019. The government’s position is that other ministries will also keep to previous plans. Of course, this means that fiscal deficit cannot be avoided.

If we want to keep defense spending in absolute terms, how much would we need to spend?

Estimates suggest it would require a defense spending of 2.29 percent of GDP next year.

Does the government still have consensus in terms of maintaining a defense spending of at least 2 percent of GDP?

No one is contesting that. What we’re talking about is that the Ministry of Finance has proposed a €50 million cutback. The finance minister believes we could afford it using national defense loans.

The loan was meant for technological solutions and specific investments. It is very important for new solutions to be compatible with the existing national defense system, which decisions need to be based on advice from the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF). We cannot just decide on a whim as the sustainability of purchases needs to be guaranteed over a longer period of time.

Buying a device is one thing, while maintain it is another, talking about everything from upgrades to stockpiling. If we acquire an air defense system and missiles, we need to have a special warehouse where to keep them. Every major procurement is often made up of various fixed costs, including infrastructure developments etc.

If in addition to 2019 expenses, we want to borrow to further develop national defense capacity, the ministry, following recommendations from the EDF commander, has a number of priorities we can discuss.

Provided the coalition fails to agree and secure funding on the 2019 level, what are the ministry’s options?

My actions today are based on it proving possible to ensure 2019 funding levels. Any alternative scenario would see us cut into crucial programs in terms of our defense forces.

I believe that what we have is the bare minimum we need to maintain. It has traditionally been the situation that national defense matters to all political parties despite all manner of skirmishes.

Coming now to the interior and finance ministers’ criticism on their Sunday talk show, what are the gaps in Estonia’s defensive capacity?

Let us look at our potential opponent – Russia if we’re being honest. Comparing the defense forces of Estonia and Russia, it is entirely clear we have all manner of gaps simply because ours is a very small country. Even though our defense spending is considerable in our GDP, it is modest in absolute terms and international comparison.

We inevitably need to concentrate on certain things, such as infantry brigades. I would emphasize the importance in terms of defensive capacity of our two reserve army-based infantry brigades. They should be beyond all manner of criticism.

How tense will budget talks become after father and son Helme’s Sunday talk show? Have you exchanged choice words with the interior minister in the past?

I’ve known Mart Helme for a long time, from back when he was still working at the foreign ministry. I know his flamboyant style. That said, I believe we should be very cautious here. We can argue over whether we think various investments have merit, but Mart Helme should not have said on live radio that Estonia lacks defensive capacity.

Firstly, it is not true and, secondly, deterrence makes up an important part of that capacity. The latter means emphasizing the strength of one’s defensive capacity as letting the enemy know you do not believe in yourself speaks of weakness. We are not weak and should not send out such signals.