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LMC 2024

Speech by President of Estonia Alar Karis: We Are Shaking Off Our Mistaken Strategy of “Deterring by Restraint”

Speech by the President of the Republic of Estonia Alar Karis at the Lennart Meri Conference 2024.

Alar Karis

President of Estonia

When I think about the security challenges that our free world faces, and what the future calls for, one word in particular comes to mind – adaptation.

Adaptation to a changing world.

Maybe it is the developmental biologist in me speaking. Because in the world of nature, adaptation is the cornerstone of survival for plants and species. Plants build their defences – like growing thorns or developing chemicals – to adapt to the changes in their threat environment.

Species do so separately, but also collectively. Whole ecosystems adapt. Trees, for example, that make up a forest are deeply intertwined with each other through their roots, through which they share information and nutrients, thereby helping each other, and the forest as a whole to survive. A tree cannot grow high in high winds, but a forest will.

What is our western world but a forest, an assembly of interconnected entities, an ecosystem? An ecosystem which is still trying to cope with the change of an era.

That change was forced upon us by Putin’s blatant attack against a sovereign nation, Ukraine. As such it was also another and so far, the most audacious attack against the transatlantic security order that has been in place since the end of the Second World War.

As we have hit the snooze button too many times in reacting to Russia’s aggression against its neighbours, the current war has become also test for us. Authoritarian regimes worldwide are judging the real strength or weakness of the democratic world. And bolder attacks from autocrats around the world have indeed already started.

Alas, the change has begun and our free world has to adapt.

Any adaptation, by definition, requires us to change. First and foremost, in the way we have grown accustomed to think.

I am happy to see that we have come a long way in this regard. And although not every Western country has yet gone through their own version of Zeitenwende, the realization of not being able to go back to a pre-2022 world is nevertheless widely accepted.

We have been able to break our own taboos in relation to our weapon deliveries to Ukraine and we will hopefully continue to do so, until there are no restrictions left. Step by step we are shaking off our mistaken strategy of “deterring by restraint.” Russia is the one escalating each day. In Ukraine and beyond.  Thus, our fear of escalation paradoxically encourages it.

Europe, above all, has witnessed the widest awakening. Increased defence spending is now considered politically acceptable, and even unavoidable. Every corner of Europe speaks about the need ramp up the defence industry production. And the idea of a 100 billion Euro defence fund, which three years ago might have sounded utopian, is now looking like the only way forward.

A tougher attitude towards Russia is in itself a strong show of Western integrity and resolve.

But appeals cannot stay only statements. After a mental adaptation it’s now time to put our words into deeds. To act – as the theme of this year’s Lennart Meri conference encourages us to do.

Our first task, of course is to help Ukraine win the War. Lasting peace can only come about if Ukraine prevails and Russia’s aggression is defeated.  It’s a war of independence. Russia has forced an unjust war upon Ukraine, no one can force an unjust peace upon Ukraine.

We have to act on the 0.25% of GDP initiative as well as the Czech ammunition initiative. Let’s give Ukraine all the weapons that it needs to hit all necessary targets, even if these are inside Russia. Let our F-16 fighters and ATACMS missiles do what they were built to do.

All new initiatives and bold ideas are welcome. Let’s discuss all the options like presence in non-combat roles in Ukraine, if doing so would free up Ukraine’s soldiers to focus on their main effort – to beat Russia on the battlefield.

Russia can also be defeated beyond the battlefield. For example, by enforcing sanctions and taking a zero-tolerance attitude for business-dealings with Russia. By finding a way to punish the leaders responsible for this crime of aggression.

And of course, the defeat of Russia in Ukraine will become the clearest when Ukraine will be able to join the European Union and NATO – alliances to which it truly belongs.

We need to do all that, because Russia’s defeat in Ukraine has to be convincing first and foremost for Russia’s leaders themselves. Otherwise, we will not be able to break the cycle of Russia’s aggressions against its neighbours.

This cycle is continuing as we speak. Right now, on the streets of Tbilisi the Georgian people fight for their rights and freedoms. Rights and freedoms, that are being suppressed by Russia’s machinations. Russia is the sole source of this instability. We need to deal with the source. Because how this and future conflicts evolve, depend directly on how strong or weak Russia is.

We can hope for a better Russia, but we have to be prepared for the worst one. A desire for domination and expansion is deep rooted within Russia. Russia’s expansionism is not something we can talk Russia out of. It is like the coronavirus – it spreads until it is contained. 

To contain, deter and defend, we need to build a robust combat capability. Only real strength is a convincing deterrent to our adversaries. We need to adapt our individual and allied defence readiness. And do so quickly. Because unlike plants, we do not have millions of years to grow thorns, we need an adapted defence already today.

As I have said before – our strength is a path to peace, while our weakness breeds more war.

Our NATO collective defence plans as well as the European Defence Strategy are a good starting point. It is now time to add the flesh to the bone. It’s now time to build all the combat capabilities and forces, stocks and ammunition, as well as logistics and command systems that these plans require.

The EU has a lot of potential to help in that regard by increasing the defence industry capability of Europe and thus increase the defence readiness of its members.

All this of course in turn means further and broader financial commitment. Further, because most likely more than the agreed minimum of 2% of GDP is required. In Estonia for example we are even discussing a 5% option. And broader, because Europe needs to do its fair share.

Currently EU countries account for only 25% on NATO defence spending. To achieve our financial and capability ambitions, Estonia is suggesting an Allied Capability Delivery Commitment for the NATO Washington Summit.

The need for adaptation further concerns the international community as a whole.

The United Nations need to adapt. The inability of the UN Security Council to defend either the spirit or the word of the UN Charter is painfully obvious. Russia, a veto power, has violated already the first sentence in the preamble of the UN charter.

The change of the veto practice in the security council may seem impossible, but it is not. Especially when one of the solutions is even written into the article 27 of the UN charter itself. If there has ever been a right time to reform the UN and security council, it is now. 

To sum up my remarks, please allow me to come back to my earlier analogy of trees connected by roots. For countries of the free world the roots that connect us are our values – human rights and freedoms, equal rights before the law and self-determination of peoples.

Let’s allow these values to unite us, to strengthen our alliances and to defend us. Because such values are the roots that an authoritarian forest does not have.