Russia’s neighbors hiking defense spending

Toomas Kask
, Saatejuht
Research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Martin Hurt.
Research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Martin Hurt. Photo: Madis Veltman

Research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Martin Hurt said on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast on Thursday that while fiscal balance matters, it is not as important as national defense.

The expert noted that like its neighbors, Estonia should hike defense spending instead. “The pandemic has hit the entire world, while states in our region are ramping up defense spending instead of dialing back,” he said.

You have served as the Ministry of Defense’s deputy secretary general in charge of defense investments and planning. Did it worry you to learn that defense spending might be cut?

It was likely the finance ministry’s starting point for future negotiations. It is easiest for an official to propose solidarity and a blanket cut. From there, it is up to politicians to decide which fields to prioritize.

National defense has clearly been a priority for Estonia so far. Are there any signs to suggest that might change?

I hope it will not change – the world is not moving in an encouraging direction today. If national defense was important 10-15 years ago, it should be all the more important today. I’m not just talking about military national defense but security more broadly – everything that matters for the state to exist not just on sunny days and in peacetime but also in crises beyond a pandemic. War being the worst such example.

National defense goes beyond the Ministry of Defense to ministries responsible for foreign affairs and the economy. Would cuts in the latter negatively impact national defense?

Military defense and other aspects of national security need to be kept separate in order for us to be able to handle crises and war. Every short-term initiative aimed at cutting costs for a year or two will affect the next five or ten years.

We learned planning when we joined NATO. It makes no sense to procure fighting vehicles we will not be able to maintain three or five years later (their useful lifespan is 30 years). This kind of back and forth – cutting defense spending for a few years before hiking it again – would have a detrimental effect on national defense.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said that Estonia will plot a course for structural fiscal balance. Could this be a good enough reason for cutting defense spending in today’s world?

I believe it would send a very unfortunate signal. We need to ask ourselves what is paramount today and in the coming years? While maintaining fiscal balance to avoid debt piling up is very important in an ideal world, we are still very well off in the European context. We cannot say we’re broke.

Did we have structural fiscal deficit in 1940? We remember 1940 as the year we lost our independence. While fiscal balance is no doubt important, is it paramount?

Our allies also find themselves in a difficult fiscal situation, while we cannot see anything to suggest they are about to dial back defense spending. For example, Finland has decided to proceed with its fighter jets procurement.

Indeed. They have been planning it for a long time. No one could foresee a pandemic ten years ago. While it has not deterred the Finns in terms of the procurement, the caravan keeps moving.

Let us think of countries contributing to our security – for example, the UK battle group in Tapa. The UK unveiled its new national defense development plan a few weeks ago that revealed they will boost defense spending.

We will find it difficult to explain why we need help, saying that Russia is bad and the world is moving in an unfavorable direction, while cutting out own defense budget and expecting our allies to pick up the slack and send us more troops. It just doesn’t make sense.

Joe Biden’s administration expects its European allies to continue boosting defense spending. One is tempted to ask whether Western allies are motivated enough to come to our aid should we need it.

Exactly. Europe is not in Washington’s good graces. Pouring oil on that fire would not be wise. Nearby countries that inhabit the same security environment as Estonia, such as Lithuania and Poland, made it a goal to reach 2.5 percent of GDP defense spending by 2030 years ago.

We should have a debate on how to show allies we are in a better security situation than Lithuania and Poland. I believe we will be able to convince no one that our reality is sunnier than that of the Lithuanians or Poles.

How many NATO allies are facing the same dilemmas today?

All of them, I dare say. Many countries were forced to update their national security development plans last year.

Several countries in our region, such as Finland, are in the process of doing so now. Norway and Sweden approved new defense plans last December and both are boosting defense spending.

The pandemic has hit the entire world, while countries in our region are ramping up spending instead of dialing things back.

Some countries have frozen defense budgets and are talking about cuts, but none of them are Russia’s neighbors. Their geopolitical reality is very different.