Today, the Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia) deliberates the matter of significant national importance “Sustainable development of national military defence”, initiated by the National Defence Committee.
In his speech, Chairman of the National Defence Committee Enn Eesmaa emphasised that national military defence could not and should not be a distant or complicated issue, but every person had their role and task in it. “Estonia’s military defence rests on the comprehensive national defence that increases resilience and readiness for any crisis in the whole Estonian society,” Eesmaa said. “National defence includes not only military national defence; the whole society from individuals to the Riigikogu and the President of the Republic must be ready to defend the country.”
In his report, Eesmaa pointed out the immediate helpfulness of servicemen and members of the Defence League in the COVID-19 as well as other civil crisis situations. “Nevertheless and in spite of everything, we must not forget the military defence and security of countries and peoples,” Eesmaa said. “Even in these highly complex times, NATO’s military budget is increasing and this has to be welcomed because today the world is also more turbulent than it used to be, due to military threats.”
Eesmaa pointed out that cybersecurity required ever-greater attention and contribution. In his words, issues relating to energy security and supply security were also of key importance. Eesmaa also underlined the importance of carrying out national defence studies in schools because defence will and the skills to realise it had to be underlined and taught from early on.
The Chairman of the National Defence Committee also mentioned that the national defence development plan for 2021-2030 was due to be completed in the near future, and therefore holding such a discussion in the Riigikogu session hall of parliamentary Estonia was an important milestone for the following decade in the further development of national military defence.
In his speech, Minister of Defence Kalle Laanet focused on the threat assessment, defence spending and capability development. He also spoke of defence cooperation and allied relations within the context of NATO and the European Union. Minister of Defence highlighted the range of issues relating to the comprehensive national defence and the COVID-19 pandemic and spoke of new technologies and cooperation with the Estonian defence industry.
When speaking of the threat assessment, Laanet said that the threat picture had not improved over the past year. “Russia is continuing an aggressive-style and essentially hostile policy towards the Western world, that is NATO, the European Union and their member states,” Laanet said. “COVID-19 has added vaccine diplomacy to Russia’s arsenal of influence operations in addition to cyber-attacks and information warfare.”
In the minister’s words, conventional warfare has not become obsolete either. “Russia is conducting regular exercises of a large-scale war against NATO from the Arctic to the Black Sea on the Atlantic Ocean and in other places. It has enhanced the capabilities of the Baltic navy in an attempt to gain control over the Baltic Sea,” Laanet said.
In Laanet’s words, Estonia must make even greater efforts in the coming years to strengthen its military defence, both independently and in cooperation with its allies. Estonia will also need to address the deficiencies and gaps in its key defence capabilities as soon as possible because vulnerability makes a small country a target.
Concerning defence spending, Laanet said that the epidemic and the accompanying economic downturn had significantly decreased the long-term forecast for the national defence spending. In his words, due to the economic downturn, the current defence spending rate of 2.3% of GDP is nearly equal to the 2% projected before the crisis in terms of financial volume. In the minister’s words, this only allows to maintain the existing defence capabilities.
According to Laanet, the calculations of defence planners show that defence spending at the level of 2.6% of GDP would be just sufficient to fill the gaps in the primary independent defence capability. He specified that, under filling the gaps, he had in mind acquiring coastal defence missile systems, naval mines and medium-range air defence systems, as well as merging naval fleets into a more optimal navy with better military performance in terms of command and cost. In Laanet’s words, the situation at sea was of growing concern to our allies as well.
In minister Laanet’s words, it is impossible to underestimate the role of allies in Estonia’s defence. In his words, every level of cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic countries, NATO allies and members of the European Union has its own specific role and benefits to offer. He noted that the interest of the nuclear allies US, Great Britain and France in Estonia’s defence and their presence in Estonia and elsewhere on NATO’s north-eastern flank was not allowing a security vacuum to emerge.
The minister also pointed out the committed and professional participation of the Defence Forces and the Defence League in international military operations, which motivated allies to contribute to Estonia’s defence.
In light of COVID-19, Laanet spoke of the comprehensiveness of national defence, which on the one hand means that the protection of the country begins from the contribution of us all. He also pointed out that the understanding of statehood and national defence and the building of defence will started from schools, if not from home, and that the Ministry of Defence supported in every way the national defence education.
The minister also touched upon new technologies and cooperation with the Estonian defence industry. He said that technology and innovative solutions played an ever-growing role in warfare. In his words, unmanned air, sea and amphibious and land equipment is increasingly more used in the armed forces of many countries.
Laanet said that, with the support of the Ministry of Defence, a defence industry had been established that had grown to be internationally competitive in the market of cyber defence solutions and autonomous weapon systems. He noted that Estonian companies were playing an ever-increasing role in the capability developments of the defence forces. “A high-tech breakthrough in warfare is ongoing, but the main platforms of conventional weapons – tanks, attack aircrafts, artillery weapons, etc. – will not lose their importance for a long time to come,” Laanet said.
To conclude his report, Laanet said that Estonia had to do everything in its power to ensure that the epidemic would not infect the core functions of our country, that the exhaustion caused by the epidemic would not make us lose our ambitions and determination in developing our national defence for the following decade.
Lieutenant General Martin Herem, Commander of the Defence Forces, gave an overview of the military national defence, from the threat picture to potential developments. He said that the Russian Federation continued to pose a military threat to its neighbouring countries today. Conventional military means play an important role in achieving the national ambitions of the Russian Federation and the development of conventional military means has not stopped even during COVID-19.
“Although society may tend to think of hybrid warfare, cyber-attacks or drone strikes, today as ever, a soldier with a gun and boots, a foot soldier on the territory of the other country is the main way to wage a war and to conquer the adversary. Only an equivalent conventional force helps against this,” Herem said.
When speaking of deterrence, Herem said that the aim of deterrence was to convince a potential aggressor not to carry out an attack by demonstrating to them the unacceptably high price of such an activity or the unattainability of their aims. “This means using general deterrence, that is, the demonstration of everyday capabilities, their readiness and presence, or immediate deterrence, that is, carrying out specific activities in response to the increased aggressiveness of the aggressor. Today, Estonia is able to carry out general and immediate deterrence both alone and together with its allies,” he said. “Undoubtedly our allies are part of both deterrence and defence. The allies who are staying in Estonia today have been integrated into the activities and plans of the Estonian Defence Forces and they are ready for military action in defence of Estonia and of the whole region.”
In Herem’s words, with its existing and developing military capabilities, Estonia is able to cause remarkable damage to a potential aggressor and to create more favourable conditions to support its allies with both forces and effects. “However, in a case of aggression for example against one of the Baltic countries, none of the three is capable of supporting others beyond its borders. Neither with forces nor with effects,” Herem admitted. “Today we are the ones who expect assistance. Undoubtedly, we are very costly for our adversary in the case of aggression.
Herem said that, in the case of defence spending, there were three development scenarios to choose from. “If defence spending remains at 2% as per today’s forecasts, we will be less dangerous for our adversary than we are today and we will have to reduce our Defence Forces. Defence spending at 2.23% of GDP means that we would continue to be hurtful and dangerous to our adversary but only within the limits of our own territory. Defence spending exceeding 2.3% means that we are able to influence our adversary beyond the borders of our country and we are able to contribute to NATO’s collective defence with military capabilities,” Herem described.
In Herem’s words, complete development of the capabilities as a whole or in parts at the currently agreed level will mean raising military national defence spending to up to 2,6% of GDP as soon as in the coming decade. “In the case of regional development, the likelihood of receiving financial support from our largest allies will increase,” Herem said. He emphasised that this would not simply be increasing the independent defence capability but this would be a regional step to achieve credibility and better cooperation in the eyes of NATO allies.
In his speech, Indrek Kannik, Director of the International Centre for Defence and Security, spoke of the regional security situation. He described Russia’s politics and the activities of the Russian authorities and the consequent threats to Estonia and to our allies.
Kannik also spoke of the importance of allied relationships in combating threats, and the People’s Republic of China that has been acting noticeably more vigorously also in our region over the recent decade. In the conclusion of his report, he discussed other threats to Estonia’s security and stability.
In Kannik’s words, over the recent decade Russia’s military thinking has returned to the plans of the Cold War time that envisaged readiness for a full-scale military conflict with NATO, and the West has clearly been a priority direction for the development of its army.
“Historically there has been much discussion and the discussion continues to this day in the West as to whether a weak Russia could be even more dangerous for the rest of the world than a strong Russia,” Kannik said. “That is, to translate this into today’s language, could the Russian leadership undertake yet another military operation against one of its neighbours to resolve its domestic problems?” Kannik recalled that Putin had succeeded in significantly increasing his popularity with the annexation of Crimea. In his words, the history of recent decades however shows rather the opposite. “In the times when Russia has been doing badly in economic terms, it has also lacked the strength to militarily bully its neighbours,” Kannik said. “The attacks on both Georgia and Ukraine were undertaken in a period of time when the Russian economy was doing strikingly well.” He noted that the Russian economy was undergoing a crisis.
In Kannik’s words, the Russians know that they are unable to be a competitor to the West as a whole. Consequently, they are trying to create distrust between the Western allies and this is nothing new in Russia’s policy.
In his speech, Kannik also touched upon vaccine diplomacy. In his words, Russia is lacking the ability to produce a sufficient quantity of Sputnik even to vaccinate its citizens at a more or less satisfactory pace at best. “The Russian propaganda which is sowing doubts regarding vaccines produced in the West is most of all causing irreparable damage among the Russian population here,” Kannik said. “People who watch the Russian propaganda channels were afraid to be vaccinated with Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna and are waiting for a large white ship in the form of Sputnik which will very likely never arrive or if it does it will not be a large white ship but a grey rubber boat.”
In Kannik’s words, it is clear that, for the coming decades, Russia will remain the number one security threat for Estonia, in particular due to its geographical proximity, but he also pointed out the threat of China. “The mentalities and behavioural manners of the Russian and Chinese leaderships are similar in many ways, but compared to Russia, China is in another, a higher league above all in terms of economic potential and consequently also more dangerous to the West as a whole,” Kannik said.
Concerning threats, Kannik also mentioned terrorism as well as too strong internal confrontation in society. “Too vigorous, even if rhetorical confrontation disrupts society and also distracts from focusing on external threats,” he said.
“The world around us is in a fairly nervous state and unpredictable. The modernisation of the forces of at least some European allies will very likely slow down due to the economic pressure resulting from the pandemic. We are going to have to make all the greater efforts to manage in the security environment that has deteriorated over the past 10–15 years,” Kannik concluded his speech.
During the debate, Madis Milling took the floor on behalf of the Reform Party Faction, Jaak Juske on behalf of the Social Democratic Party Faction, Jüri Luik on behalf of the Faction Isamaa, Leo Kunnas on behalf of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party Faction and Oudekki Loone on behalf of the Centre Party Faction.
Siim Kallas (Reform Party), Kalle Grünthal (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Uno Kaskpeit (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) and Raivo Tamm (Isamaa) also took the floor.
Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)
Photos of the sitting (Author: Erik Peinar, Chancellery of the Riigikogu)
The video recording of the sitting will be available on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)
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