KAAREL PIIRIMÄE The allies' contribution to Estonia's defense is neither fair nor sufficient

Kaarel Piirimäe
, associate professor of contemporary history at the University of Tartu
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From the first day of joining NATO, the allies have provided air policing to Estonia. The Baltic states would not have the capacity to maintain this capability on their own. F-35 fighters at the Ämari Air Base.
From the first day of joining NATO, the allies have provided air policing to Estonia. The Baltic states would not have the capacity to maintain this capability on their own. F-35 fighters at the Ämari Air Base. Photo: Konstantin Sednev
  • Burden sharing within NATO should be fairer towards the border states.
  • We should convey to Western European countries the knowledge that the protection begins here.
  • The NATO units stationed here do not have enough personnel.

The commander of the defense forces, Gen. Martin Herem, is doing what is the duty of the military leadership by asking for money for national defense. Ammunition is definitely needed. However, it is also certain that a frontline country like Estonia will never have enough money to be able to protect the entire West-centric international order on its borders. A fundamental change of perceptions is needed, and to achieve this, much more ambitious diplomacy is needed, historian Kaarel Piirimäe writes.

Gen. Martin Herem is doing his job by presenting the defense forces' capability gaps to politicians and asking for more resources. One can be certain that the needs have been thoroughly analyzed. They have probably also been discussed with the main allies, especially the British and Americans, who are already strengthening the border of the Western world with technology and manpower.

However, no politician wants to admit before the elections that Estonia does not have such sums. And it doesn't have to, because a small country like Estonia should not be protecting the entire Western world and the international rules-based order when protecting its borders. It would be like obliging Kiel to defend Germany alone or making Nebraska responsible for the entire security of the United States.

NATO's current defense policy is outdated. After the enlargement of NATO, the opinion prevailed that nuclear deterrence is sufficient to protect Central and Eastern Europe. In the worst case scenario, when the aggressor has penetrated, for example, Narva, NATO will concentrate its forces and repel the enemy.

Time and extent of the achievement of military readiness of NATO forces

Up to 10 days – 100,000 troops

10-30 days – 200,000 troops

30-180 days – 500,000 troops

In total 500,000 troops

Source: www.nato.org

The plan reflected the death of the strategic thinking ability of the post-historical Western world, because of course the aggressor would have escalated and threatened a nuclear war, after which the conflict would have been frozen and the loss of the territory (Narva) would have been acknowledged. Fortunately, NATO realized the mistake and decided to fight the invader at NATO's external border, much like the Roman Empire defended its borders against barbarian invasion.

There is too little NATO in Estonia

However, instead of concentrating sufficient capabilities on the eastern border, there are only a handful of soldiers here. Moreover, the NATO forces, most of which are made up of our own units, which have been stretched to the final limit, do not have enough equipment or ammunition. Estonia is forced to buy it in large quantities with its limited resources.

Actually, Estonia could limit itself to the current national defense spending and, in the long term, even lower it to the level agreed in NATO. Estonia should not become impoverished so that the rest of the West can live safely and enjoy the benefits of an international rules-based order.

Estonia should not become impoverished so that the rest of the West can live safely and enjoy the benefits of an international rules-based order.

Looking further back in history, it has of course been assumed for centuries that located on the fringes of civilization are remote and miserable provinces serving as hotbeds of ever-recurring wars. Realists naturally call them buffer zones, where hostile superpowers and empires fight for supremacy. Old Livonia fell into this role in the 16th century. What followed was 150 years of wars until the Tsarist state imposed the Russkiy Mir, which lasted for 200 years.

World War I marked a turning point when an attempt was made to build a more just and democratic system of nation states on the ruins of empires. It did not last for more than two decades because the West was not ready to militarily guarantee the security of the new Europe.

The Dutchman Mark Rutte, who will soon take over the chair of NATO secretary general from the Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, comes from a country where the Russian threat is perceived as something distant.
The Dutchman Mark Rutte, who will soon take over the chair of NATO secretary general from the Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, comes from a country where the Russian threat is perceived as something distant. Photo: Odd Andersen

It was only in the 1990s that there was a realization that the West's own security and the survival of the world order depended, among other things, on Central and Eastern Europe. Integration of the countries that had been part of the Soviet peace and «the friendship of nations sphere of influence» into the West-centric international system started.

While in 1939 the British guaranteed the security of Poland, while in reality being unable to do anything for Poland, the United Kingdom is now on the territory of Estonia with its troops and ready to defend the West-centric world order where it is threatened. The United States, which in 1939 seemed to think that the rest of the world was none of its business, is also present. But US willingness to play Europe's policeman is being undermined by the continued post-historical slumber of many allies. It is no wonder then that the Americans are hesitating, despite the fact that they stand to gain the most from the preservation of the current order.

Unfair results of the geographical lottery

Estonian diplomacy has done a good job explaining the importance of preventing Russia from winning the war in Ukraine. However, it is now necessary to be more ambitious and explain that the protection of international order begins at the border of Estonia just like the protection of Rome began at Hadrian's Wall and the security of East Asia in Taiwan.

It is not fair that peace and economic prosperity are being paid for by the frontline states. Meanwhile, those luckier in the geographical lottery, like Germany or Belgium, not to mention Ireland or Iceland, can claim a peace dividend. While the Athenians told the Melians that «the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must», then the collective defense of the liberal West of today could be summed up with the words «the heartland milks as much as it can and the periphery pays as much as is needed».

We should not be afraid to say that Gerhard Schröder's policies in the 2000s were worse in their cynicism than Neville Chamberlain's conciliation policies in the 1930s.

The situation is all the more cynical if we remember that the West itself caused the current situation by fattening the Russian state budget for decades and financing Vladimir Putin's war machine. The same has been done and is still being done with China. According to the NATO 1.0 logic, we, the ones who were against this policy from the beginning, must bear the costs.

We should not be afraid to say that, for example, Gerhard Schröder's policies in the 2000s were worse in their cynicism than Neville Chamberlain's conciliation policies in the 1930s. Chamberlain did not have the strength to simultaneously deal with Japan, Italy and Germany, while Russia's appeasement was motivated mainly by self-interest. We could learn from President Lennart Meri, who, referring to Yalta, pushed the buttons of humiliation diplomacy often and quite successfully.

Article 3 is not intended for border states

NATO's current logic, according to which the member states, relying on Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, invest in their own armed forces in order to thereby support collective defense, is outdated. Countries like Germany have great difficulties in increasing the defense budget, because a country that has disarmed itself both technically and ideologically does not have the ability to increase the military to the required extent. In any case, no one knows whether the German army can even fight anymore.

Many others, especially neutral countries, have no intention of paying anything for peace. But why should military infrastructure be developed in, for example, the Netherlands, which is not on the front line of the Western world and whose capabilities would be of little use anyway, even considering the greater mobility of today's military equipment? Much of the investment is going into infrastructure anyway, which would be a complete waste of money. Rome also did not gather legions in Rome, but in the provinces to repel the barbarians where they were.

We are witnessing the transformation of Estonia into a military defense wall, a kind of bastion or cordon sanitaire, which some strategists of the interwar period dreamed of, but which at that time remained nothing but a utopia.

Estonia should not increase military spending, but it should by no means reduce diplomacy either. Right now, we should be making a special effort to explain to the allies basic defense policy principles that would meet today's requirements. NATO 2.0 would be an organization where everyone would pay equally, but money would be allocated primarily to collective defense and primarily where it is really needed.

Buying ammunition for Estonia as a matter of urgency is the least that NATO 2.0 should do. Even better if the way of thinking is adopted by the extended West as a whole, involving Japan, Australia, Israel and many others, neutrals included.

The 20th anniversary of Estonia's accession to NATO was recently celebrated. Picture: The Pipes and Drums orchestra of the British Army performing on Tartu Town Hall Square.
The 20th anniversary of Estonia's accession to NATO was recently celebrated. Picture: The Pipes and Drums orchestra of the British Army performing on Tartu Town Hall Square. Photo: Sille Annuk

We are witnessing the transformation of Estonia into a military defense wall, a kind of bastion or cordon sanitaire, which some strategists of the interwar period dreamed of, but which at that time remained nothing but a utopia. Unfortunately, the new strategy of the Western world, or NATO 2.0, will lead to the construction of defense facilities, barracks and expanding training grounds, which of course will be a great burden for the people of Estonia, similar to the burdens that the Roman state placed on its border provinces to protect itself from barbarians.

In order to prevent Estonian residents from becoming victims, it is necessary to introduce completely new principles of collective defense. Until there is an understanding that by protecting Estonia, the entire Western world and the international rules-based order are protected, the integration of Central Europe and, in the future, Ukraine into the West cannot be considered complete.

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