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LMC 2021

Kersti Kaljulaid: The Impact of the NATO Battlegroup Has Been Enormous

According to President Kersti Kaljulaid, establishing a NATO battlegroup was ingenious. And she often reminds her colleagues that their strategic patience should at least match that of their political ancestors, that is, 50 years.

Indrek Kannik
Indrek Kannik

Director, International Centre for Defence and Security

President Kersti Kaljulaid and Indrek Kannik, director of the International Centre for Defence and Security talking in the garden of Presidential Palace in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Office of the President

You were elected President of Estonia a few weeks before Donald Trump moved into the White House. How much did Trump’s shadow affect your term of office? 

Every nation’s choices are their own. Estonia has to work with every administration. I am not talking about just the US, but also Germany, France, Finland and Latvia. We have to be able to work with everyone, and to look for a direction or a path that will align us in the best possible way. With the Trump administration, for example, the Three Seas Initiative was something they supported very strongly. It became clear quite quickly that they were interested in promoting the US economy, which also had a significant impact on their foreign policy and everything else. 

The Three Seas Initiative enabled us to establish a work-related collaboration that helped to get small and practical things done. I actually felt relatively comfortable with that administration: we managed it well. 

In general, it probably cannot be said that the Trump administration took any steps in security matters that were detrimental to Estonia or our region?

All in all, our region continued to receive the same good value-based US foreign policy. From Vice President Mike Pence’s visit and the Three Seas Initiative to meeting Trump at the White House, where he said very clearly, “We shall never let you down”.

However, elsewhere where the problems were more acute, the preferred solution to the problem was often to cut the Gordian knot. We were simply lucky that nothing was happening in our region at the time that warranted such a response, and that they did not have time to resort to such measures in Ukraine. Let us consider, for example, the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula.

It has become clear to me at the UN that the task of medium-sized and small countries is to always maintain international law and balance.

Meanwhile, it has become clear to me at the UN that the task of medium-sized and small countries is to always maintain international law and balance. The larger countries occasionally make unusual attempts to end long-standing stalemates in the world. Sometimes, they are successful. This clearly shows the difference between the role of smaller countries and larger countries in the international arena.

In that sense, it cannot be said that Donald Trump actually withdrew the US from its global position, because he did try to find solutions to the Israeli–Palestinian issue, for example. 

Or regarding Israel and the Arab world. He achieved a remarkable breakthrough with the so-called Abraham Accords. 

Exactly. That is an example of how things can get done when you try something completely different. That is feasible for large countries, and the US tries to play its part responsibly.

Coming back to Estonian security, there was no NATO battlegroup here at the beginning of your term. How much have the allied forces contributed to Estonia’s confidence? In 2014–2015, Estonians were very worried, with some even talking about selling real estate, there was a slight panic.

I remember that too, the expatriate Estonian community was also worried. I was still living in Luxembourg when the crisis in Ukraine broke out, and certainly the war in Ukraine moved something in us. Although I kept thinking that NATO has a 100% track record: no NATO member has been attacked.

At the time, a member of a Nordic government said that the Baltic Sea as a “sea of war” could have a detrimental effect on the economic environment and investments – that is how great the concern was. The situation is much better today, of course, and the NATO battlegroup definitely had an impact on that.

However, this is only one aspect of the NATO battlegroup. The deployment of allied forces in the Baltic countries and Poland was, in fact, a brilliant move in a situation where defence spending was low in Europe. A total of 19 countries joined NATO battlegroups, to delve into the problems in this region.

I can see, for example, that in southern Europe, there is now a much better understanding of what is happening in this corner of the world. I also set myself the goal of establishing closer ties with Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal: I visited these countries, I talked with and met with people from these countries. Our diplomacy must take advantage of the fact that these countries now have a presence in north-eastern Europe, and we must also actively explain to them the current situation in our region. It has actually worked quite well, and journalists from southern Europe no longer ask, “Is Narva next?”

In other words, the impact of the NATO battlegroup has been enormous. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others put together a brilliant thing with minimal resources.

However, the security situation in this region is still not ideal, as we saw in spring when Russia was threatening Ukraine. 

That is unfortunately true. NATO’s umbrella is not something you can keep opening and folding. NATO’s umbrella means that the higher the risks and the higher the threat assessment, the more actively we manage these risks. That is what a higher deterrence threshold means.

But the big picture is still not very good. Other heads of state have been persuaded to be vigilant due to the fact that the size of the Russian forces just beyond the borders of our region in peacetime and under normal circumstances now exceeds the level present during the last but one Zapad exercise. Everyone’s ears prick up when they hear that there is a military exercise right on our doorstep every day. That makes other heads of state take things seriously and, of course, the war in Ukraine raised a lot of awareness throughout southern Europe.

And regarding the two per cent defence expenditure (i.e. for NATO), the awareness of the heads of state, and their will to make changes, has increased a lot. However, real changes take time, and inflation in the defence sector went up very quickly after talk about the two per cent. 

What we could focus on is the defence cooperation in the EU. The Council of the EU convenes and discusses the development of the defence capabilities of the member states. For the fifth year in a row, we are sitting in Brussels and stating that the Baltic countries, including Estonia, spend more than two per cent of their GDP, but still do not have a medium-range air defence system. Does it make sense to get together again in the sixth year to simply acknowledge the same facts, or instead, to create a mechanism to redistribute these costs? If we were ready to move on with this, EU support for NATO could be very high indeed. If we are not prepared to move on with this, there is really no point in talking about EU defence co-operation seriously. 

Do you think there is a readiness to move on?

Things like that can take 10 years, maybe even 15.

However, there is something that the EU is better at than NATO, and that is redistribution. If the EU wants to contribute to something, it can use money from the Cohesion Fund.

I have tried to explain to the Americans that the EU could be useful from this perspective. Otherwise, there was a fair bit of edginess in the air when the EU started talking about strategic autonomy and the like. It is very important to alleviate and control these tensions at all times. 

The size of the Russian forces just beyond the borders of our region in peacetime and under normal circumstances now exceeds the level present during the last but one Zapad exercise.

In general, Estonia is quite sceptical about strategic autonomy in the EU, because it is hard to believe that it can actually be done. 

But let us offer possible solutions for making it work. After all, it does not mean that the EU would be working alone and without an ally like the US. It could mean that the EU would be able to organise, for example, an operation in Libya without having to call on NATO and the Americans immediately. At his first Munich Security Conference, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that if you want to be a key player in foreign policy in your region, you need capabilities. Capabilities are simply a must. 

We have to make it known that talk is cheap, and instead offer things for the basket that suit us: military mobility, the implementation of a redistribution mechanism. Estonia should not position itself between the ambitions of the Americans and the French, but instead try to find areas where these ambitions do not collide and are mutually beneficial. 

Now focusing on our causes of concern, Russia and China. During your term of office, the role of China has also received attention in our region. In the United States, it has been clear for some time that things have been getting worse, but in Europe, it has only become apparent particularly in the past five years.

In my opinion, it is very easy to explain to the western allies how dangerous Russia is by comparing it with China. China’s economic strength is growing. They have not reached their economic peak yet, because they also have a problem with their population, external debt has risen sharply and the pace of their economic growth is starting to slow down. However, it is certainly not a declining economy. China has plenty of time to wait, to take over economies and increase its influence.

But with Russia, it is the exact opposite. Russia’s problems are a shrinking population, a poor economy, and the ability to sustain its defence spending only at the expense of education and health care. For Moscow, this is a closing window of opportunity, and they know it. That is why Russia does small, cheap, asymmetrical things: Salisbury, Georgia, Ukraine, communication bubbles, interference in the democratic processes of other countries. These incursions are not very expensive and Russia can afford them, to maintain its position as a great power for as long as possible.

On a larger scale, Russia is becoming a regional risk in Europe. Regardless of what Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Joe Biden have said, Europe has to be more involved in its regional risk management, so that our great ally will have more resources, time and free hands to deal with this new, large and growing non-democratic power that has not yet made its intentions clear. 

Do you think sanctions against Russia work? 

I once asked a politician who was very patriotic towards Estonia if they could remember in what year they had talked about a possible visa waiver with Russia. The politician guessed 2007, but it was actually in 2011. Only a few months after the war in Georgia, normal communications were restored.

I can picture it very well: the Kremlin decision-makers are having a meeting before the Crimean operation, and the more diplomatic ones of them say that it will become a long-term mess, and maybe they should not go ahead with it. But others say not to worry, nothing will happen, for example in Georgia, everything was just fine only a few years later. This time, it might take three, four or five years – but it does not matter, we can handle it.

So to a great extent, it was us who taught it to the Russians after the aggression against Georgia, and that is exactly what I have been saying to my Western colleagues. That is why things went as they did in Ukraine, and that is why it is crucial to continue sanctions against Ukraine. Not because we can return Crimea to Ukraine in five years, but to keep communicating so that the Russians will not feel as if they are escaping with impunity.

We can draw parallels here with the predecessors of today’s politicians. Our political ancestors had 50 years of strategic patience. To my colleagues, I keep saying that their patience simply cannot be less than that of our political ancestors. 

In 2019, you went to Moscow. In Estonia, your visit did not arouse sharp criticism, but there were questions nevertheless. 

I think people were mostly worried that maybe we would be treated badly in some way.

That visit actually had an important purpose which was not located in Moscow. Namely, I had noticed how other heads of state visit Moscow and ask the Baltic states beforehand if there is any message we would like them to pass on, or anything they could say on our behalf. In my opinion, this was neither right nor adequate. Estonia is a country that can speak for itself. The goal was to become an active participant in the discussion and it worked.

Today, Estonia is one of the countries that discusses the issue of Russia with other countries, and determines future courses of action. We are no longer the country that is being told, “We are having a discussion here by ourselves, do you have anything to add?”. We are now an active participant in the discussion.

Cooperation with Estonia is pleasant, useful and safe. It seems to me that in global competition, it is also important who actually controls the connections. 

Coming back to allied relations. We were also able to establish normal relations with the Donald Trump administration. The relationship between western Europe and Trump was highly problematic at times. This danger is probably no longer as acute? 

I think that regarding trade relations, the competition between the two major economic zones will remain. Neither the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership got very far under President Obama, nor are they moving quickly now. Value-based agreements are definitely better now. 

In spring 2019, when the names of the US presidential candidates were already circulating, Jonatan Vseviov, the Estonian Ambassador to Washington at the time, kindly arranged for me to meet with potential candidates, including Joe Biden. It was supposed to be a 40-minute meeting, but in the end, we sat down for two hours, discussing world affairs.

Joe Biden is one of those politicians who makes policies to make the world a better place. To improve American life, to improve the lives of people all over the world. Politicians tend to be self-centred, but Biden feels a sense of obligation regarding his presidency, for his people and the world. He does not get up in the morning and say, “Great, I’m the President. Oh goody!”, but rather, “I’m the President. What can I do to improve my country and other countries?”

His starting position was significantly better compared to previous presidents, as he was already familiar with the nuances of international politics when he took office. 

Absolutely. I have great faith in us having an “old-school” relationship. I like politicians who do not act in the interests of self-promotion and who are not frivolous, but instead have a sense of vocation and duty. Joe Biden is definitely one of those politicians. 

On the global scale, Estonia has had a strong position regarding cyber issues for almost 15 years. Is Estonia in danger of losing its role of a digital giant?

Something massive and visible, such as the shutting down of online voting one day, would certainly give a relatively final blow to Estonia’s reputation as a digital giant. 

But today, the sales volume of our digital companies is driven by Estonia’s reputation, I am absolutely convinced about that. There are courageous companies like Nortal who take out loans so that they can conquer the whole world with the help of this reputation. Or Cybernetica which is involved in developing the healthcare system in Yokohama. There are plenty more examples like that, and more keep coming.

That is the so-called Estonian Nokia. Fortunately, it is not just one company, but an entire sector, and it does not require a lot of manpower. Entering a foreign market always involves visiting the country and hiring locals: if you are building an e-government for others, you need to understand the culture, the laws and the language. 

This is also one of my selling points to colleagues abroad: the Estonian e-government is not like Microsoft who will come and say, “Here is my product, now adjust your requirements.” On the contrary: we have everything tailored for others, and we do not operate without you, but give impetus to the development of the sector of start-ups and smart companies in your country as well. Estonian companies are small; they need partners. We are not like China who can say it will build a railway and bring its own workforce to do it – that would not do much for the local economy. 

Cooperation with Estonia is pleasant, useful and safe. It seems to me that in global competition, it is also important who actually controls the connections. 

This spring, President Kersti Kaljulaid visited the largest annual military exercise of the Estonian Defence Forces, SPring Storm, which brings together various units of the forces. This year, a total of almost 7,000 servicemen from Estonia, the United States, Latvia, Poland, Italy, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom participated in the exercise. Photo: Estonian Defence Forces

What about Estonia’s cyber security and cyber defence capabilities, do they work? 

In 2016, a discussion was held in the National Defence Council on what needs to be done to improve the security of e-Estonia. At that time, the investment deficit was EUR 100 million, and the situation has not improved much since then.

Estonia’s big issue is that we have done a lot with EU funds, but as we know, EU funds are only meant for creating new things, not for repairing old things, i.e. maintenance with EU funds is not allowed. It is like a coral: more is growing on top, but the base should be dealt with separately. I believe that the government will focus more on this in the coming years. 

One of the topics important to you has also been the application of international law in cyberspace. Are you pleased with the developments in this field over the last five years? 

Extremely. First, at my initiative, we managed to bring together people from different ministries in Estonia to declare how our own cyber legislation and international law apply in cyber conflicts. Some countries had already made such a declaration, and the people of the NATO Cyber Defence Centre asked why Estonia had not. We finally got around to it and now it is done. It is very important. 

Second, I am very pleased that one of Estonia’s election promises when applying for the temporary membership of the UN Security Council was to bring cyber issues to the table. I remember someone at a human rights conference in Tallinn saying to me that small countries can perhaps stretch the Security Council’s agenda only a little bit here and there, and not to be disappointed with that.

I sputtered in response that small countries have no time for small goals. Estonia has so few resources that if we decide to do something, it must have a significant impact. And one of our promises was to bring cyber issues to the UN Security Council – and we did it!

How? Not by using traditional methods, of course, but the Estonian way: we took advantage of Russia’s cyberattack against Georgia in late 2019 and brought it up in the Security Council under any other business. Of course, the British and the Americans were supportive, but we could not do anything more at that time. Immediately afterwards, we held an unofficial discussion, because the permanent members did not agree to having an official discussion.

The member states have agreed on the Green Deal and it is coming. It is no longer just an agreement in the EU, but one of many similar agreements that now cover 60% of the world.

Eastern Partnership countries are undeniably important to Estonia from the perspective of security policy. To be cynical, as long as they are not under complete Russian control, the Russians have less energy for us. The other aspect is supporting Eastern Partnership countries in building their own countries: the rule of law, the development of democracy, and fighting against corruption. How do we find a good balance between these aspects? One the one hand, we must definitely support the Eastern Partners, but on the other hand, we must draw a line somewhere when corruption is rampant or journalists and minority activists are ruthlessly beaten up on the streets.

I am less cynical. We simply do not have the moral right to shut the bus door and drive away. Yes, the Eastern Partners made some choices in the 1990s that did not allow them to take advantage of the window of opportunity at that time, but it does not mean that we should not be trying to help.

I have always tried to go to Georgia and Ukraine, to participate in events and to tell them that they need the rule of law not only to join the EU, but also to create a better state for themselves. This way, they can wake up one morning to find that the window is open. And if they have made sufficient progress in terms of the Copenhagen criteria, even at the eleventh hour, they will get in. But if they only start moving when the window is open again, they will miss out. That was the experience for Estonia that we can share. 

That is what I keep saying at conferences in Ukraine and Georgia, and to the Balkan countries as well, of course.

The European Green Deal: do you think green topics have finally been adopted in Estonia or do a large number of people think that while something has to be done, we should do as little as possible, and simply wait and see if it passes? 

I am very worried. I am worried about the cynics, because I can see how the main issue of local elections in Ida-Virumaa today seems to be whether the Green Deal is coming or not. It is extremely cynical, because we might wonder: if it is not coming, then what? Estonia will then leave the European Union. It is a very dangerous game that is being played there today. 

Why? The member states have agreed on the Green Deal and it is coming. It is no longer just an agreement in the EU, but one of many similar agreements that now cover 60% of the world.

Given that 70–80% of the Estonian economy is related to exports, we cannot count on further economic success without the Green Deal. After 2050, nobody will want products, services and goods from a country that is relying on a brown economy. Nobody would want things from Estonia anymore, and Estonian companies would no longer hold a monopoly anywhere. It would be extremely easy to give it up.

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