EERIK-NIILES KROSS It is not about the 1.6 billion, our development leap in national defense entails something else altogether

Eerik-Niiles Kross
, MP (Reform Party)
Eerik-Niiles Kross
Eerik-Niiles Kross Photo: Taavi Sepp
  • World peace is dear to us, but world peace without Estonia is unacceptable to us.
  • National defense thinking became more systematic only during the second government of Mart Laar.
  • For the first time in a hundred years, we are achieving a considerable independent defense capabilit

But Herem is right, the current defense posture, the kind of defense plan that our current armament allows, has become out of date by now. In defense planning, we have now reached an active defense stance that is similar to what Laidoner, Reek, Lill and others reached conceptually in the second half of the 1930s, writes Eerik-Niiles Kross.

The dispute over the financing of Estonian national defense that has erupted seemingly unexpectedly in the last few days is neither unexpected nor necessarily negative in terms of its result for those involved in national defense. Of course, it would be nicer if discussions about defense plans took place in the rooms where they must take place, but sometimes shock therapy gives society the necessary push to accept change.

Estonia is currently in the process of preparing a fundamental development leap in national defense under the leadership of generals Herem and Merilo and secretary general Salm. This could be compared to the transition from analog to digital communications or from fax to e-mail. Although the news of the last few days nearly exclusively covers the 1.6 billion euros, the task to be solved and the main issues that need to be decided are quite different.

The main issues

The first issue is whether Estonia is ready to implement a new, much more self-confident defense stance, i.e. to switch to the concept of active defense. This means that Estonia assumes the position that it will take the war into the enemy's territory itself, use preemptive strikes, in other words, give the theater of war a completely new and the enemy a several times more complicated dimension. This means that Estonia decides to develop an independent strategic strike capability, which also means independent targeting, high-level management systems and thinking on a completely new scale compared to before.

Equipping this concept with real weapons, intelligence and communications systems will turn Estonia from a difficult-to-defend NATO periphery into a considerable regional military power, capable of projecting strikes across a distance of hundreds of kilometers, helping its neighbors in addition to defending its own territory, and an attack on which would be immeasurably more expensive and painful than before.

Difficulties in financing this transition forced the society to decide whether or not to do it almost overnight. Experts and the press have found in a sudden unanimity that 1.6 billion is definitely needed for this, while politicians of all political parties are competing to prove that they are the ones who support the allocation of money more fervently than their competitors. If it is not a pretense, it is necessary to write this agreement into strategy documents and in an agreement of the parliamentary parties in order to sustainably finance such a leap in development.

An overview of the updating of the military defense part of the national defense development plan 2022-2031 was given by Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, secretary general Kusti Salm and commander of the defense forces Gen. Martin Herem. Photo:
An overview of the updating of the military defense part of the national defense development plan 2022-2031 was given by Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, secretary general Kusti Salm and commander of the defense forces Gen. Martin Herem. Photo: Photo: Teele Toova

As the last year in the Ministry of Defense shows, press releases are not enough. The active defense model is expensive. It certainly deserves to be implemented, it is certainly an investment that secures the future. But our politicians, despite the exemplary investment in defense in the last two or three years, have not shown excessive stability in these matters. Just a few years ago, those who talked about it were scorned as mad warmongers.

Russian aggression has likely served as a reminder of what every generation of ours has known for the past thousand years: you can survive next to Russia only if you are prepared for war in the best possible way and are ready to fight for your freedom.

Reading the news of the last few days, one may get the impression that without establishing new capabilities, Estonia is completely defenseless. This, of course, is an exaggeration by someone with the memory of a goldfish. In the last two years, Estonia has made a huge leap in defense capability. For the first time in our hundred-year history, we are achieving a considerable independent defense capability. But Herem is right, the current defense posture, the kind of defense plan that our current armament allows, has become out of date by now. In defense planning, we have now reached an active defense stance that is similar to what Laidoner, Reek, Lill and others reached conceptually in the second half of the 1930s. Until then, a repetition of the War of Independence, territorial defense, was planned in pre-war Estonia. Unfortunately, the concept of active defense was not guaranteed with weapons and ammunition before World War II, and what happened next we already know.

The history of the development of national defense

Defense planning has gone through about the same development cycle since 1991 until now. The 1990s were largely wasted in the establishment of national defense when it comes to the material side. Just as in 1938, our ammunition stock was mostly what was left over from the War of Independence and new ones were purchased too little and too slowly, so until the late 1990s our armaments consisted of randomly acquired pieces and alms given by allies. In planning, the demand for total defense by Kaitseliit volunteers and some officers clashed with the desire of the newly established Ministry of Defense to build a "mission force" recommended by NATO and to abolish conscription altogether. This would have almost succeeded during the time when Sven Mikser and Margus Hanson were defense ministers.

At the end of the 1990s, the plan for the wartime operational composition of the defense forces was 16,000 men, there were practically no weapons, and the defense budget was around 1 percent of GDP, while the border guard was also financed from it. If we look deeper than the beautiful speeches of that time, the plan included the inevitable loss of territory and sporadic Forest Brothers movement, as well as the hope that this time someone would perhaps come to help. Of course, there were no opportunities for much more then. Fortunately, the potential opponent was temporarily weak and occupied with its own internal problems. Estonia used this time to build a capable foreign service, intelligence and counterintelligence agencies and, most importantly, an effective rule of law.

National defense thinking became more systematic during the second government of Mart Laar, when aspiration to join NATO turned from an idea into a planned action and 2 percent of GDP for defense costs was agreed upon as a "goal". Yet the 2000s were much more successful in foreign policy and alliance building than in defense capability development. Joining NATO is, of course, historically so important that next to it, perhaps only the development of the last few years can bear comparison. In terms of national defense, it is nevertheless worth remembering that in 2004, when we joined NATO under the leadership of Jüri Luik and Toomas Ilves, with the support of the same diplomatic corps built up in the 90s, the defense budget was 1.4 percent of GDP, or about 145 million euros. That's a tenth of what it is now.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the major military exercise Kevadtorm. Photo: Headquarters of the defense forces
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the major military exercise Kevadtorm. Photo: Headquarters of the defense forces Photo: Kaitseväe peastaap

In retrospect, one must admit that we got into NATO because of the lucky use of a small window of time. Nobody in NATO, except for others like us, believed that the Russians were a threat, and the Russians were not yet able to prove the opposite. Although we pride ourselves on our great wisdom not to abolish conscript service and not to underestimate the possibility of a war threat, as old Europe did, this wisdom was by no means so common in Estonia in the 2000s. In 2003, a serious attempt was also made in Estonia to abolish conscript service. It would have almost succeeded during the government of Juhan Parts and under the leadership of Sven Mikser and Margus Hanson. Yes, the Reform Party also has a karmic debt here, which we have fortunately been paying carefully in recent years. Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

Defense planning, initially unsystematic and patchy procurement plans, emerged at a professional level during the 2000s. Within a decade, we were able to create a defense force that was lightly and sparsely armed, with little mobility and marginal firepower. Now, figuratively speaking, we were planning a repeat of the War of Independence, where the territory must inevitably be surrendered, maybe the enemy will be stopped somewhere, and maybe the allies will come to help after a few months.

The military defense strategy valid until 2006 stated: “The military defense of the country is based on the concept of territorial defense, according to which defense activities cover the entire territory of the country, starting with military resistance in the border areas. Strategically important areas are firmly protected, slowing down the enemy's advance in secondary directions, to give time to launch the system of international anti-aggression measures and sanctions. The fight with the enemy continues even in the areas that are temporarily under its control." Indeed, at least a partial loss of territory to the enemy was even written into the strategy documents.

At the time, the political debate also revolved around whether the stance that we will go to war, no matter what, is too ambitious or not, too naive or not. When I wrote the sentence "Estonia will not surrender" in the national defense strategy in 2000, both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some in the Ministry of Defense wanted to remove it, and Enn Soosaar wrote in Päevaleht that "the implementation of total defense is the readiness to allow a large part of the people to be killed in a situation with no way out".

However, this was nevertheless an improvement from the attitude of the 1990s, when a large part of the so-called political elite, not to mention the cultural elite, thought that Estonia did not need either a defense force or a Ministry of Defense at all. However, in NATO, when we got through its door in 2004, there was still a view for many years that making defense plans for the Baltic states would be too provocative. These began to be made in earnest only after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. The understanding that it may happen that NATO actually has to go to war with Russia also in the Baltic states began to spread more widely after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Although since 1999, the "goal" of all governments had been to bring defense spending above the 2 percent of GDP agreed upon in NATO – Jüri Luik was the minister of defense then and even the establishment of such a goal was a genuinely great achievement at the time – we reached 2 percent for the first time only in 2012. Let's put this in context, as a reminder to those who are now calling for an immediate doubling of defense spending. It took 13 years to raise defense spending to 2 percent, with it falling from 1.21 percent to 1.08 percent in 2001.

This period also includes Russia’s invasion of Georgia. By the way, it was Andrus Ansip's government, when Mart Laar was the defense minister and Mikk Marran was the secretary general, who finally “pulled off" the 2 percent. When Riho Terras, who is now demanding more billions right away, was secretary general (2008-2010), the defense budget was cut by 20 percent, one of the biggest cuts compared to other areas. I don't recall him arguing much with the government about it, let alone resigning. I don't blame him either, those were the realistic possibilities of the budget at the time and the government decided that way. During Terras’ time, the long-term development plans of the defense forces were drawn up for the first time, which for the first time provided some stability to national defense planning, at least we realized how damn few possibilities there are.

War in Georgia 2008. Men who have just been called up for service and received their equipment in Gori. Photo:
War in Georgia 2008. Men who have just been called up for service and received their equipment in Gori. Photo: Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

War in Georgia 2008. Men who have just been called up for service and received their equipment in Gori. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

However, the 2010s were "unprecedentedly" effective in developing the material portion of national defense. Back then, every subsequent government could once again declare that Estonia had never been so well protected as it was during their time. But let's put that in context, too. In January 2013, the government approved the Estonian national defense development plan for the years 2013-2022. According to this, the defense forces had to carry out three (!) major procurements over the course of the decade: infantry fighting vehicles for one brigade, self-propelled artillery (one battery, actually 12 were procured initially, six were added later) and third-generation anti-tank missile systems (Javelins were purchased). To Estonia's credit, it must be said that then, as now, we stood out compared to other NATO countries with extremely efficient spending of money.

For example, in 2012, 29.3 percent of defense spending went to procurement and 23.5 percent to personnel, while, for example, the same figures were 4 percent and 84 percent in Romania or 30.6 percent and 49 percent in France. Only the United Kingdom, Poland and France also had a relatively high share of procurement in this decade. In Belgium, for example, it was 4 percent (77 percent for personnel). During this decade, Estonia was also busy building. A modern complex was built in Tapa, new barracks were built for Kuperjanov, the Ämari air base was completed, etc.

The three aforementioned "major procurements" were also carried out. Their total cost was around 300 million euros and the last items arrived in Estonia in 2019. In comparison, since 2022, the government has allocated 340 million euros for the purchase of ammunition alone, most of which has already been procured. In 2023, it was decided to increase defense spending to 3 percent, which provided about 500 million in additional funds per year, the majority of which goes to procurement. In March 2023, the military defense strengthening package was approved in the total amount of 476.77 million, with which six such "major procurements" will be carried out within a few years, as was previously done in 10 years. While in 2018, 10 million euros were earmarked for the procurement of large-caliber ammunition (in the past, there were years when there was no money for this at all), then in 2024 it will be 124 million, etc. So much for those who cry that "nothing has been done".

The aforementioned national defense development plan 2013-2022, which was praised by the then minister of defense Reinsalu and the chief of the defense forces as ambitious and strengthening defense capabilities, came under severe criticism among members of the defense forces and opposition politicians when it was adopted. In a situation where the focus of the previous decade had mainly been on joining NATO and cooperation between the Ministry of Defense and the defense forces was traditionally adversarial, the defense forces were poorly armed, over-dimensioned and the plans did not meet the possibilities.

The result was an acceptance of harsh reality. The wartime compositions were reduced from 42,000 to 21,000 (with a later increase to 25,000), decisions were made to sell a large number of the assets of the defense forces, staffs were tightened up, the fleet was reduced, etc. This was also a strategic decision. Fortunately, Estonia had 10 years of peacetime to implement this plan, because such a reduction did not correspond to the threat picture. The chief of the general staff said at the time: "When analyzing the threat scenarios, we came to the same conclusions regarding the development of different capabilities as when making plans for the previous 10 years, but this time we took the available resources more into account." In short, it was decided to solve half the problem, but properly. At the time, former defense chief and politician Ants Laaneots sharply criticized both the development plan and the head of the defense forces Terras and defense minister Reinsalu.

After the annexation of Crimea, there was a decisive change of attitude in NATO. The defense of NATO's eastern flank became a seriously discussed issue for the first time since the Cold War.

Reinsalu, who ended up in the opposition some time later, then called on political parties not to drag the defense forces into party politics. For example, on November 10, 2014, in the Riigikogu, he said the following about Laaneots’ criticism: “This is a rather unprecedented statement both in Estonian political culture and from the point of view of the understanding of democratic civil control in Europe. After all, especially in the current security situation, we must look for common ground that unites us, especially in the implementation of the long-term goals of national defense.” So, let's all try to follow Reinsalu's advice from 2012, not 2024.

Although the 2012 development plan benefited the financial discipline and procurement culture of the defense forces, in reality, the War of Independence was still being planned with such a force, while even a repeat of it was hopeless. There wasn't really any realistic scenario to stop the opponent somewhere and establish a front. There was talk of a “green security carpet covering all of Estonia”, which was a metaphor for giving the tasks of the defense circles to Kaitseliit without the necessary resources.

Until 2014, it was quite unclear when, which and in what way the allies could come to our aid if the Russians came. NATO claimed that they wouldn't come anyway, and we pretended that if they did, we would resist as long as necessary. After the annexation of Crimea, there was a decisive change of attitude in NATO. The defense of NATO's eastern flank became a seriously discussed issue for the first time since the Cold War. An allied battalion was deployed to each Baltic state. The British unit arrived in Tapa to stay, the fighter jets of NATO countries arrived in Ämari, and work on the defense plans of the Baltic countries began in earnest for the first time ever.

Until then, our real defense plan had been the hope for NATO's deterrence and the decision that come what may, we will fight. Now, the so-called fuse plan took a more realistic shape in NATO. It provided for combat contact as soon as the Russians cross the border, with the participation of the allies at that, the inevitable loss of territory and, after the concentration and preparation of NATO forces, the "recapture" of it.

From around that time, Estonia could start planning a repeat of 1944, only one where the Estonian units have at least some heavy weapons and can count on the help of the allies. The experience of 1944 showed that it is possible to maintain the Narva front even against an overwhelming opponent. The Russians did not break through from there. If Latvia and Lithuania could also hold the front, we could manage for a while.

The year 2022

The attitude in NATO changed radically in our favor from February 2022. The defense plans of the Baltic states were laid out again and by the Madrid summit it had been agreed that the plan was not to hand over and take back territories, but to defend them from the first meter. Just as Estonia had always envisioned its defense. A major breakthrough in the thinking of the US was the shifting of units closer to here from the Suwalki corridor.

The NATO accession of Finland and Sweden gave us a kind of strategic depth for the first time, radically changing the situation in the Baltic Sea in our favor. Estonia, which had been counting on a real defense plan for years, got it, but with the obligation to fulfill its part. In the spring of 2022, we increased our wartime formations back to 43,000, where they had been according to the threat assessment of the 2012 development plan, the government allocated 800 million in additional funding for the purchase of ammunition, Kaitseliit was increased by 10,000, and some much-needed major procurements were quickly carried out. The Estonian defense forces started to look real. However, there is still a significant lack of ammunition to implement the defense plans.

In addition, of course, it is a public secret that at least the ammunition warehouses of the NATO countries of Europe are proportionally emptier than ours and quite a few of the allied capabilities provided for in the defense plans of the Baltic states have not yet been manned with real units. However, the attitude has changed radically since 2022.

However, there is one problem here for Estonia that has arisen from Ukraine’s experience. NATO has become very cautious under the Obama and Biden administrations, turning from a proactive force during the Cold War into a de-escalator. Without wanting to distrust the allies, it is an existential question for Estonia that in the event of a military attack there are no political hesitations about when, what and how far to fire back. Hence the need for active defense in a political sense. Of course, all the capabilities that Estonia has now decided to acquire are available in the arsenal of the allies. They have also been written into the defense plans. However, Estonia wants to be able to decide for itself, in order to protect its sovereignty, whether it is necessary or not at that very moment to shoot at a target located on Russian territory.

A strategic strike capability in Estonia's arsenal and the intention to use it without hesitation written in strategic documents serve as a deterrent to the attacker, but also as an argument for the allies. We are telling the world that if we are attacked, we will immediately start a full-scale war. It is no longer necessary for others to think about it. 1.6 billion to begin building this capability is nothing. World peace is dear to us, but world peace without Estonia is unacceptable to us.