Lennart Meri Lecture by Jüri Luik, Minister of Defence of Estonia
Lennart Meri Conference 2019, Tallinn 18th May 2019
I don’t know whether I was worth the secrecy of several days for you waiting for somebody really important, but you’ll have to live with me.
Well, dear Friends.
I’m very honoured to provide this Lennart Meri lecture and indeed, we were very close friends with Lennart. And, you know, I often think of him, because the times are complicated and I often wonder what Lennart would say during one or the other crisis, during one or the other challenge. He had this unique opportunity and capability to see through – he had a laser-like focus – the bull, through the mist of crises. Those who know him, know what I’m talking about. And today in these confused times it would be great to have him around. You know, he was pretty young. I mean, he was 74 when he left us. For a statesman this could easily in the West be the start of the second career. But, he had been in Syberia, he had lived with a flare and fire which probably none of us could replicate. And this tears down even the strongest man. So, but we have his speeches, we have his thoughts and most in this room also remember him. So I think if there is a moment of Lennart every year in Estonia, this is the moment. Let me sort of continue by saying that personal life story had taught Lennart how fragile is Estonia’s security. How quickly can quiet and idyllic life change into killings and a road to Syberia. Be vigilant – was his message. And let us take his advice and look into things that keep us awake today or at least ruin our sleep. Things we must deal with and focus on every day and we don’t even have a luxury of labelling them as important or vital or whatever adjective we would come up with. They are routine, so to speak. It’s security, so to speak.
My intention today is to address Russia and the security issues related to Russia. I am aware there are many fine pearls by Lennart Meri regarding our neighbouring country but I chose something little more abstract, something that correlates quite well with the overall title of this Conference – One past, many futures.
“The thing with the Experience is that you can only find it in the past” – is a quote by Lennart Meri.
The thing with Russia is that you need to know its past because it’s most likely very similar to its future. This is not a quote.
The Conference has addressed Russia very extensively for many years and it has returned in waves corresponding to the aggressions, actions and misbehaviour by Russia. And I must say I was pretty shocked by decision of the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe in its decision to restore the voting rights of Russia in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. As a former ambassador to Russia I can understand the rationale that we should provide Russian dissidents the ability to complain about the Russian court. But the fact is that this is a very slippery slope down to forgetting about Georgia, forgetting about Ukraine. I’m pretty sure that somebody will raise the questions of sanctions next. [Applause] It is obvious. So we should be very cautious here. And we are making the same mistake we have made I don’t know how many times again. Couple of years of quiet, couple of years where Russia hasn’t attacked anybody and we are so immensely happy that we’re feeling, now is the time to reward Russia. And I simply find it staggering.
It is known for many that according to Russia’s military thinking the Third World War in a way is already ongoing and it revolves around natural resources. What must concern us most is the long-term strategy towards NATO or the West in broader terms. For the horizon 2030 I believe Russia has two primary objectives vis-a-vis West.
First, it is to develop their own military capability that needs to be modernised to the extent that it can be competitive against NATO allies. Despite all failures eventually they will deliver.
Russian research and development in defence has doubled during the recent years. Moscow pays particular attention to digitalisation and cyber security of the communication and weapon systems; development of weapons of the next generation; and the introduction of unmanned systems on the battlefield.
Secondly, they are placing their bets on NATO’s weakening over the coming years. We know that they are actively involved in the process by using a range of soft power tools to expand beyond the supposed sphere of influence to meddle in the internal affairs of the Western nations.
It is also evident that Russia is re-establishing the global reach the Soviet Union once had that was lost during the turbulent times after the collapse of its Empire.
It is not only in the Middle-East or Northern-Africa where we find Russia’s DNA evidence, it is also in the countries like Central African Republic or Venezuela. And they all have a common denominator – countries on the verge of collapse. Weak, torn and easy to manipulate. Moreover, there is the reverse of the coin and it is the natural resources – the objective of the Third World War was already mentioned by me.
Putin’s Russia is a keen and focused learner; learner from the lessons that others have gained but not always learned from recent conflicts.
Wagner the notorious so-called Private Military Company is a lesson learned combined with a spoonful of cynicism, deception and denial, to the extent of expendability as we witnessed in the Battle of Khasham in Syria. The use of Special Forces and PMC-s to operate covertly but often also openly in order to demonstrate Russia’s regained military might is a growing phenomenon.
Moving closer to our geographical location.
Russia continued the military build-up along its western border in 2018. The Russian armed forces formed seven new manoeuvre regiments, all based less than 50 kilometres from the border.
Most of these units are located near Ukraine and Belarus, but the Pskov Division near the Estonian border became the first division of the Russian Airborne Troops to be reinforced with a third regiment. This shows that in the western direction the Russian armed forces are preparing for a possible conflict along a very wide front.
There is clear evidence that Putin’s regime is prepared to use military force
against other countries. In post-Cold War Europe, Russia is the only country
that has launched a military attack against a sovereign state that it itself
has recognised. Over the past decade, Russia has done so twice, and the military occupation following the invasions of Ukraine and Georgia is still ongoing as we know and as the President of Georgia reminded us all yesterday.
Russian Federation has multiplied its military presence in Crimea during the last four years with an immense speed and quantity. From 22 to 122 airplanes, from 27 to 78 ships, from 0 to 40 tanks in four years. Occupied Crimean Peninsula is not just a military stronghold to keep the neighbouring countries and the rest of the region on their toes. It is a vital hub for the expansionist strategies Russia is fulfilling.
Now, couple of observations regarding Russia’s information warfare.
The unity of the West is the centre of gravity for the Russian information warfare and their grand strategy in general.
It is clear that Russia has identified populist and extremist movements all around the West as bridgeheads to the western societies. It is a cheap way of operating compared with the magnitude of the potential results that Europe might suffer from.
I also believe that the political establishments in the West must take a deep and self-searching look into the mirror. The rise of populism is not the rise of far right or far left only but it is a vessel of the anti-establishment sentiment. Now, this is important. I was not able to participate in this populist debate which apparently was very lively. I think one of the important aspects of fighting populism is also that we have to inoculate our own societies against it. We have to create circumstances where it would be difficult for the populists to make their points and gain popularity. There are various aspects, I won’t bother you with all of them. One of my concerns is the political debate or the political mechanisms of elections. You know, we talk about Cambridge Analytical, for instance. I think the crucial question for me is, would the mainstream parties say “No!” to the data provided by Cambridge Analytical. Would they say “No, for us it’s not interesting. We don’t want to know how to influence the inner thinking of the voters.” I doubt that. I am pretty sure that mainstream parties actually have use Cambridge Analytical. I’m also pretty sure that the level of political debate which has now landed in the realm of social media with symbols, pictures, slogans where people don’t even presume that any of these ideas will ever be fulfilled by the political parties. Sometimes, people ask, why wasn’t the Brexit crowd in the debate of the Brexit. Why weren’t they called, because they clearly made very stupid statements, very stupid assumptions which were wrong as we all know and in a way misled the voter. But the reason is of course – everybody knows this – that the mainstream parties always do that. I’m bringing you an example, I don’t want to go to politics, but there is an Estonian party which promised years ago that Estonia will be one of the five richest countries in the European Union. I can bring examples of other parties as well. Basically all parties have promised something like that. For instance my own party has said, happiness is not about money. You image a political party – my own – saying, happiness is not about money. And so, all these statements, they sort of reduce the political debate to the bare minimum and then suddenly people don’t expect any more. The quality, the sort of standard from the political parties. So, I think we have to find populism. I’m sure Lennart would have found excellent sharp words about the far right parties, about the populist parties. I have no doubt about it. But I think we should also think about how we can improve our system so that some of the election tricks which we use as mainstream parties, when the populist comes, they add a hundred times of it but often use the same trickery. And that’s dangerous. We should fight them, we should also think how we can inoculate our own societies.
There’s no doubt that exposing Russia’s information campaign and fake news that are targeted the western audience is of vital importance. It might seem and feel like cleaning the Augean stables but there is certainly no alternative to it.
We must constantly remind ourselves that there are numerous fronts we need to defend. Information warfare is just one of them. In the background there is a speedy development of armed capabilities and employment of new technologies.
There are basic principles we have agreed upon, be it in NATO or the EU and questioning the viability of these principles is not a very smart thing to do. We all understand that the situation today is much more complicated than it was perhaps five years ago but this should mobilise us not split us.
Chaos provides options and avenues to our opponents. Unity on the contrary is tough to fight, let us not forget that.
When we look back to the post Second World War history of Europe, we see that the EU has been looking for great narratives every now and then. Let me remind you of towering figures with famous legacy like Helmut Kohl and his fight for single currency – the EURO.
I do understand the temptation of finding something grand but I think we should keep our heads cool because, for instance European Army might not be the remedy to regain the momentum in Europe. When we look for new narratives, we automatically and subconsciously doubt in the existing ones. Let us not doubt in NATO.
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, with your permission, couple of words about Estonia.
Estonian Defence Forces together with our allies provide the deterrence which is necessary for all of us to feel secure.
Our annual military exercise Spring Storm finished just couple of days ago. 9000 men and women from 13 nations trained and exercised mostly in the North-eastern part of Estonia.
It is a clear sign that security and defence of Estonia and the region in general is an important objective not only for us but also for our friends.
I believe that this type of exercises that are held outside the borders of military training areas are vital in order to study the terrain, the infrastructure and the people. I understand there are difficulties in many European countries to conduct so called open exercises but in the context of military mobility for instance, they are necessary. How else can we identify deficiencies, shortcomings and weak spots.
You know, for allied troops who come to Estonia the climatic conditions are really occasionally shocking. We have had many instances where people – not literally but figuratively – say “Oh my God! What’s happening here?” There are some units which come from the desert conditions, from in the middle of Africa. So, when they reach the Estonian cold icy forests they understand that they have to change their procedure, find new ways of fighting, but they also know that they are here to defend one corner of the alliance and the have to be capable of doing that, regardless of the climatic conditions. So, I think it is a vital training opportunity to our allies and I’m happy that we can help them because there are very few parts in Europe where there are even forests left! So, the opportunity to, for instance train in forest warfare is really quite unique.
In Estonia we also run no-notice exercises for our reservists for three years already. It has proved to be a great tool to measure the current status and learn the lessons to improve our initial self defence capability. For those who don’t know because very few of your countries have reserve armies, it is basically that you hear from radio, TV and get an SMS that your battalion has been called up and you should be starting to move ASAP. And really, in like 24 hours or even less everything should be ready to move! We’ve done it, we’ve been very successful and always tempt other countries who have reserve armies to do that as well. Some countries don’t because if the boys and girls don’t show up, it’s a problem.
The whole eFP experience is truly a positive one. Brits, French, Belgians, Danes have a plan and they exercise daily side-by-side with our troops.
For Estonia and for the rest of the so-called Eastern flank countries it is of utmost importance that NATO’s deterrence and defence posture gets stronger.
And, in the Baltic region we have demonstrated that we are serious with our commitments. We have increased the defence expenditure and we invest more and more to our own defence capabilities.
So, the best way to end this speech is with a quite from Lennart himself. Now, this quote is interesting – it speaks about Western unity but it is not from the last days of his life, it’s from 1997.
And, he says “Estonia is not an island where a politician named Robinson Crusoe lives. Today’s state is a social contract and the second party to this contract is international community. At least the real Robinson Crusoe knew that somewhere on the other side of the World, there is a City called London”. He probably didn’t know about the provision of troops in Estonia, but I thought it is a nice quote to conclude my speech.
So, thank you and enjoy the rest of the Conference.