Russian offensive revives painful past for Estonians

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments
Estonian army scouts from the 1st Battalion practise their defensive manoeuvres during Exercise SIIL/Steadfast Javelin in May 2015.

Estonian army scouts from the 1st Battalion practise their defensive manoeuvres during Exercise SIIL/Steadfast Javelin in May 2015.

I joined the Estonian foreign service in 1993, an exciting time for my country. On my first day, as I awaited my first assignment, a colleague suggested I find out how much military equipment the Russians had transported back over the border that month; this was prior to their full military withdrawal in August 2014. I could not have imagined, back then, that 20 years later, I would be reading headlines in Canadian newspapers speculating that the city of Narva, on Estonia’s eastern border, could be the Russian Federation’s next target. Or worse, that there would be a discussion about how long Estonia could withstand an offensive in the face of real aggression.
None of us wanted to believe we would ever have to worry about the Russian military machine rolling across the border again. Or that journalists would interview Narva’s people to gauge their desire to break away from our country. Or that Russia would have positioned massive military forces behind Estonia’s eastern border. Or that there would be war in Ukraine — a war that is euphemistically referred to as a conflict; a war that, for many, is thought of as someone else’s war. Diplomats do use euphemistic language so as not to offend anyone, but are we not perhaps confusing diplomatic finesse with indifference? We delude ourselves if we believe our own security and safety remain unaffected when cities in Europe are hit by Russian missiles. This is a complete abandonment of international law and the foundations of the peace that has reigned on our continent since 1945. There is no better defence for a small state than the unwavering force of international law and the predictability of the international order. If these are lost, we are all left to fend for ourselves.

There’s speculation that the city of Narva could be Russia’s next target.

There’s speculation that the city of Narva could be Russia’s next target.

In September, author Ernie Regher noted in Embassy newspaper that “vulnerability to military attack or interference is much more a product of political weakness than military weakness… Preserving national sovereignty and defending against foreign predators — in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — dependof much more on the quality of governance there than on military preparedness and defence. The Baltics are basically well-governed spaces that enjoy political stability. Each sustains a strong national consensus in support of independence and the prevailing political order. They score high in global peace and prosperity indexes, and it is the legitimacy of their governments and public institutions that radically reduces their vulnerability to Russian ‘help’ for their Russian-speaking populations.”
I agree with this assessment, but unfortunately, the logic of the academic world does not always apply in real life. A chessmaster’s refined strategy is useless if he is hit over the head with a club. Our historical experience will not allow us the luxury of waiting to see what happens. We must prepare. Now.
The unpredictable decision-making of our eastern neighbour and the permanent stationing of significant military forces and unfriendly activity in the closest proximity to the Baltic States require a quick reaction from NATO, which will only be possible with a real military presence on its eastern border. It is crucial for us that the deterrent be strong. You can only convince others of what you are sure of yourself.
The foundation of our defence policy is NATO. A year ago, at the summit in Wales, NATO allies approved the Readiness Action Plan and made a number of related decisions aimed at enhancing the alliance’s military presence on its eastern borders. Throughout recently turbulent times, our allies have ensured their presence in the air, on land and at sea. Solidarity among the NATO countries has shown us that we have valuable and trustworthy allies. Canada is firmly one of them.
Canada has been a principled and staunch ally for Estonia, and its clear stance is widely recognized and greatly appreciated. Canadian fighter jets patrolled our skies last year and a Canadian military ship sailed in the Baltic Sea. It is good to have an unwavering ally.
Estonia knows that defence begins at home. “We are NATO,” our president, Toomas Hendrik Ives, is fond of saying in response to impatience with NATO at home. Estonia is one of the members of the alliance that allocates two percent of its GDP to defence spending. I am sure that our country could also find many other places to invest this money, but in addition to having a strong tradition of keeping our promises, Estonians believe that this two percent demonstrates our political will and readiness to contribute to our common defence and security.
The defence forces mobilization exercise that took place in spring 2015 involved thousands of reservists, members of the Defence League, conscripts, members of the Estonian Defence Forces in active service and NATO troops, proving that the Estonian mobilization system works and that Estonians are committed to defending their country.
In autumn 2015 in Spain, Estonia participated as part of the Baltic Battalion in Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise to be held in the past 10 years. Twenty years have now passed since the Estonian Defence Forces took part in their first operation abroad and today, more than 2,500 men and women have participated in operations all over the world. For their nation, many of them have put their lives at risk in various war zones. Estonians know the price of security.
In the summer of 2015, Estonia’s ambassadors who are posted around the world, gathered at Tapa military base in Estonia, where our U.S. and British allies are stationed. There, Lt.-Gen. Riho Terras, commander of the Estonian defence forces, spoke about the security situation. When asked how long Estonia could withstand an attack, Terras replied, “as long as necessary.” Then, after a long, strained pause, he added emphatically, “and even longer.” Only those familiar with the battles in defence of Estonia in 1944 understand what “and even longer” really means. Strangely, this comforted me. Now I know Estonia can withstand aggression as long as necessary, but we need the presence of our allies to ensure that the price of this endurance will not be irreversibly high for our tiny nation. We need the presence of our allies to ensure that no one will ever have the courage to try to make us pay such a price.

Gita Kalmet is Estonia’s ambassador to Canada.

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Gita Kalmet is Estonia’s ambassador to Canada. Reach her at (613) 789-4222

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