Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo


Jaak Aaviksoo

His Excellency Jaak Aaviksoo,
Minister of Defense of Estonia


When “Security in the Baltic Region” was given as a title for this panel, I thought at first, What is meant by the Baltic Region? Is it the three Baltic States and some of the surrounding territory, or a much broader and more extensive Baltic Sea area? It is hard to address the issue of security in the Baltic Region on its smallest scale if we do not see the area in its broader context. If we put together Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania population-wise, we reach more or less the same size as Sweden. If we add to the three Baltic States the populations of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, all eight countries together are smaller than Poland. If we take Poland and add it to those eight, this sums up to a little bit less than Germany. And if we sum up all the aforementioned countries, this becomes a little bit less than Russia. So I think this hierarchy shows how complicated these relations around the Baltic Sea might be.


The second point I would like to make is that, whenever we discuss security, a fundamental concept is threat perception. This is increasingly true in the case of democratic countries where the threat perception of the population directly and indirectly influences the political decision making and the formulation of a security policy, a defense policy, international cooperation and so on and so forth. This means that threat perception in the minds of the millions of people in our countries is a strong consideration, if not the most important one, in devising security strategies. To be straightforward, we have to acknowledge the fact that many people in the three Baltic States are afraid of Russia. Vice versa, it is a somewhat surprising fact that, if asked, many people in the Russian Federation will say that they are afraid of Estonia, Georgia, NATO and the United States. If this is true, we have to address the problem. I think that dealing with the differences in threat perceptions is a very complicated issue and most probably this was the most complicated task that the twelve wise men and women had to tackle when devising recommendations for the NATO Strategic Concept. If some people are afraid of lions and others are afraid of mice, it is very hard to agree on a defensive policy.

So I think that we have to live with the reality of these differences in threat perceptions. Within the Nordic region around the Baltic Sea, these differences are reflected in the very different histories of these countries during the last large scale conflict, namely the World War II. Just look at the track records for Denmark, Norway, neutral Sweden, and go alone Finland, who was forced into a friendship with Germany. Then there were the three Baltic States who simply lacked guts or maybe had too much in the way of brains and not enough guts to fight the Russians, after Hitler and Stalin had agreed to divide Eastern Europe into zones of influence. These perceptions still remain, I think, in the minds of people among the different nations around the Baltic Sea area. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are perhaps the ones who are the most united in their threat perceptions today.

In addition to this historic experience, our threat perceptions concerning security and defense issues are shaped by the way in which our people understand the modern world. We have particular problems understanding the new threats, especially asymmetric threats, in a modern globalizing world which is getting smaller and smaller security wise. At the same time, we have too many people who still do not understand and do not want to understand what we are doing in Afghanistan. They do not even understand what we are doing off the Somali coast. If they do not understand the dangers coming from these areas and if it is not in their threat perception, we are running into a strategy problem. So a lot has to be done to bring those different national threat perceptions closer together, to build public confidence on threat perceptions. Let’s take for example North Korea. I am sorry to be blunt but I think Estonians do not care about what is happening in North Korea. At the very least, North Korea is not on their list of top security threats as they understand them. And I am afraid that the same thing is true in the case of European vis-à-vis the American threat perception concerning North Korea. This may or may not be true, but I think there is a difference. In any case, I do believe that over the last ten to twenty years, the three Baltic States, now members of both NATO and the EU, have built a threat perception of their own that is increasingly close to the way the Europeans at large and especially European countries in NATO perceive the threats around them. Maybe we could all have a more positive view if it were not for exercises with 40,000 men that were held last year 200 km from the Estonian border or the armed conflict in Georgia two years ago, which shifted back what we had achieved over the last ten to twenty years. Another argument may be important to know: On May 9 of this year, we all celebrated on Red Square the end of World War II that, as formally stated, ended sixty five years ago. Nonetheless, some countries, particularly Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, welcomed the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in 1994. So for us, World War II ended sixteen years ago.


How do we address this security situation around us? How do we decide what is important? What do we have to do (and what must we not do) under those circumstances? I think that the most important thing is to build a rational, open, forward-looking, self-confident understanding of our national interest. It is not an easy thing to do taking into account the fact that all our three countries, with a minor difference in the case of Lithuania, had only twenty years of independence between the two world wars. And even now, as I said before, we have enjoyed our regained independence for less than two decades. This means that we have to solve our internal problems and provide a safe environment for our citizens and all inhabitants in our three countries since we inherited a large proportion of non-nationals on our territories. And we must build our own self-defense in order to be able to solve minor problems. As the old saying goes, “Pray to Allah but tie up your camel yourself.” This also means spending a fair amount of our national wealth on defense. We are trying hard to reach that 2% goal. Some countries are more successful than others but I think we have a strategic commitment to meeting that goal. It is just part of our self-confidence, our self-perception. If we are able to deliver that, then we can be sure that this is reciprocal.
Secondly, history has shown that none of our countries can “go alone.” Finland did just that and paid a huge price. This is no longer possible, even for Finland, which is the nation that is the most committed to its national defense. Of course, in the case of our three states, who have joined NATO and the EU, NATO is the number one security guarantor and I think it is more or less true all across the area. Equally important is the increased regional cooperation. One may devise a collective defense of three Baltic States uniting their armies. At least technically, that would be a wise thing although practically, it would not be an easy task. But there is no other area of cooperation among the three Baltic States that is as well-developed as the field of national defense. There are also joint educational institutions, joint maritime projects, and joint air surveillance as well as policing together with our NATO partners. Moreover, a number of other projects are on the way.
We also see increased Nordic cooperation in the field of defense. Despite the fact that some countries are EU members, some are NATO members, and some do not belong to either, our cooperation is deepening. The first steps, in the form of a Nordic Baltic Eight, have been taken. They are very promising and I am sure that this cooperation will be deepening in the future. So I will conclude by saying that the Baltic Region, the broader Baltic Region around the Baltic Sea, is probably one of the safest and calmest areas in the world today. However, I will quote the conclusions of the report to the NATO Strategic Concept: “Conventional military aggression against the Alliance or its members is unlikely but the possibility cannot be ignored.” With that in mind, we invest in our national defense and in cooperation at all levels because this possibility, however small it may be, can be further minimized through our joint efforts.

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