Estonian Foreign Policy Objectives in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis
Thank you to CEPA for inviting me here today. And thank you everyone for showing up on Monday morning to hear me speak. I would like to start by focusing on the issue that has been foremost on our minds this past year – security. This is also the main focus of my trip to Washington.
You have all probably heard it stated many times that the security environment in Europe has changed fundamentally as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. For some, these changes have been mainly theoretical and have served as the basis for interesting intellectual discussions. For Estonia, a frontline state, this statement translates into a new reality (or, if you will, a ‘new normal’) that is both more unpredictable and threatening.
This new reality does not necessarily mean that my country is in imminent danger or that we are living in constant fear of being attacked. Indeed, in the past year, we have seen more NATO troops and exercises on our territory than ever before.
But we have also seen increased patrol flights by Russian strategic bombers, more frequent air border violations and an unprecedented high number of so-called snap exercises on the other side of our eastern border. (Mind you – such incursions have also taken place in other parts of the alliance). We have also witnessed the illegal annexation of Crimea, aggression in Eastern Ukraine and persistent attempts to destabilize Ukraine as a country. All of this has had a powerful, galvanizing effect on us, prompting us – and other direct neighbors of Russia – to continuously concentrate on our security.
It has also brought the issue of Baltic security back on the table in NATO and EU capitals. Not too long ago, we had to work hard – also here in Washington - to have our voices heard and our concerns taken seriously. Now – thanks to the Russia-Ukraine conflict - we are back in the spotlight. Our assessments are no longer discarded as paranoid and hysterical. Our allies are listening attentively to our concerns. And our requests for an increased NATO presence in our region are being met.
This last point is, of course, of key importance. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we have seen an increased and much needed allied presence in our region. Our allies – especially the United States – have been visible on land, on the sea and in the air. US F-15Cs, Spanish Eurofighters, Dutch armored vehicles and German submarines. All of these contributions and many, many more have sent our people a clear and reassuring message of solidarity and support. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted this spring, more than a year since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, 32% of Estonians said that they believe that our security situation was improving. This is up from 20% last year.
But what happens next? NATO faces challenges from the East as well as from the South. How ready is the alliance to meet them? How to adapt the alliance to meet the security challenges posed by an aggressive Russia? The Russia-Ukraine conflict has made more than clear that: first, Russia is ready to use force to further its foreign policy goals. And, second, Russia is highly unpredictable. And so, as much as we would like to, we cannot dismiss the possibility of further actions against neighbors in the future.
Let me preempt the question that many of you have in mind. Is Narva next? The truth is that we simply don’t know what the next flash-point after Ukraine will be. It could be Narva, although the possibility of an attack on Estonia’s fourth largest city is in my view highly (and I stress the word highly) unlikely. Yes, Narva’s population is mostly Russian-speaking, but not entirely Russia-minded. Various studies confirm that while many residents approve of Crimea’s annexation, an overwhelming majority prefer living in a European, rules-based, open society and have no wish to either return to or unite with Russia. Narva is not Crimea. And Estonia is not Ukraine. An attack on Narva – conventional or hybrid - would be an attack on the alliance making it an improbable target, too big a risk for Putin to take.
But as NATO Secretary General recently pointed out here in Washington, ‘Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine cannot be looked at in isolation. They are part of a disturbing pattern of Russian behavior that goes well beyond Ukraine.’ Russia has undermined principles of international law including the respect for borders and the independence of states and could well do so again.
We – the alliance - must respond by being as well-prepared as possible. How? By focusing our attention and resources on prevention, rather than prediction. We need to look beyond reassurance and start thinking about conventional deterrence in a more serious way. Essentially this means building up a more robust deterrence posture that will discourage Russia from acting. We know that in recent years Russia has made significant efforts and investments to improve its military capabilities. Russia is faster and more capable than ten or even five years ago. If we want to keep up, we need to make sure that our own capabilities along our eastern border are and remain credible as a deterrent.
A lot in this regard has already been done. A solid basis to work from is in place thanks to NATO’s assurance and adaptation measures adopted at the Wales Summit last September. And our goal in the coming months and in the lead up to the Warsaw Summit should be to make sure that these measures are properly implemented. However, given that the security situation in Europe regrettably shows no signs of improvement, we must ask – are these measures actually sufficient to discourage any possible aggressor?
We are doubtful. For exactly the reasons that I just mentioned – Russia’s increasing ability to act quickly and with greater skill. A company in each Baltic state simply may not be enough. And therefore we see a need for the existing measures to be both extended and expanded. How and how much exactly is something that we are currently discussing with our closest allies, including, of course, our greatest ally the United States.
We must also ask ourselves - have we, the members of the alliance, done enough individually to bolster our alliance’s deterrence? Despite repeated calls and pledges to increase defense spending, most recently at the Wales Summit last year, many allies still do not meet the 2% target and the United States must continue to bear most of the burden for ensuring European security. While the US contribution will always remain substantial (I hope), European allies must start to contribute more. 2% is essentially part of Article 3 of the Washington Treaty, which states that ‘separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, (allies) will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.’ It has been said many times, but I will say it again - we need to start taking these commitments and targets more seriously.
Are we doing enough for our security is a question that we constantly ask ourselves in Estonia. The last thing that we want is for allies to think that we are simply sitting back and waiting for others to take care of our security. We are spending 2% of GDP on defense. We are investing into capabilities. And we are improving our readiness to act. Last month, an extensive military exercise – the largest ever in our country’s history - called SIIL (Hedgehog) was held in Estonia to test the combat readiness of our defence forces. In total, 13 000 soldiers - 1% of our population – participated in the exercise. 600 were from allied countries. Planning for this exercise started three years ago.
Let me now turn to the European Union and its reaction to events unfolding in Ukraine, an EU partner and a country located in the very heart of Europe.
The European Union is a political and economic superpower that does a lot of good in the world, but its foreign policy, is sometimes criticized for being reactive and slow, for lacking determination and unity. Admittedly, some of this criticism has been justified. Let’s face it - our Union made up of 28 different states is rarely the first responder when a crisis erupts.
Initially, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict began last year, we also witnessed some of these divisions and delays. Indeed, there were moments when we would have liked to have acted more decisively, more quickly. But it didn’t take long before the EU mobilised and took a united stand on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The EU responded both diplomatically and politically to the conflict, it implemented strong economic sanctions on Russia and it imposed travel restrictions on more than 150 individuals directly and indirectly responsible for Crimea’s illegal occupation and aggression in Eastern Ukraine – no small achievement for a union of 28 member states. Also of note – the EU and the US worked closely together to make sure that their steps were more or less synchronized.
According to the latest annual European Foreign Policy Scorecard put together by the European Council on Foreign Relations, ‘the European Union pulled together and demonstrated a lot of unity on the most critical issue of 2014.’ It received a respectable B minus (B-) for its overall performance on Russia and Wider Europe.
I am confident that in 2015, the EU will, at the very least, match last year’s score provided that we stay the course and stick to the current two-track approach of diplomacy, on the one hand, and putting pressure on Russia, on the other hand.
We also need to continue to support our neighbors, the so-called Eastern Partnership countries. The Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga at the end of May reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to these countries and the path that they have chosen. It also visibly demonstrated EU support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and for the implementation of the Association Agreement.
This brings me to the situation in Ukraine, which is worrying to say the least. Continuous fighting in eastern Ukraine, constant ceasefire violations, the persistent breach of the obligation to withdraw heavy weapons, the provision of military support to the so-called ‘separatists’ by Russia. And, of course, the major attack by Russian controlled ‘separatists’ on the town of Maryinka near Donetsk city last week, hopefully not a sign of what is to come this summer. All of this is taking place against a sinister backdrop of denial and Russian persistent claims that it is not a party to the conflict.
It means that sticking to the political path will be increasingly challenging and yet we must stay the course. We- the EU and the US – must not give in to Russian pressure or give up on finding a political solution to the crisis. The sanctions against Russia must remain in place until the Minsk agreements are fulfilled and
Ukraine has regained control over its eastern border. If we will witness escalations those sanctions must be strengthened.
At the same time, it is just as essential that Ukraine succeed as a unified, independent country and a valuable member of the international community. We need to do all that we can to support them. Estonia is spending more than 2 million euros annually on development and cooperation on aid to Ukraine. We are also sharing our reform know-how with them.
I don’t want to speak for too long but please allow me to now say a few words on cyber, a critical part of our overall security. (As the Foreign Minister of Estonia, I must at least mention it.)
I am pleased to say that Estonia’s dialogue with the US in this field is very active. Our cooperation is close and operational in many areas including the protection of critical information infrastructure and cyber defense. As like-minded countries, we are also working closely on promoting internet freedom, where we are united by common principles such as the freedom of expression and the multi-stakeholder approach.
Another important part of our overall security is energy security. For us, this is mainly a regional and European issue. But we believe that by taking an interest in energy developments in the Baltic Sea Region, the US can and does play an important role in encouraging positive developments.
While Estonia is 100% self-sufficient in electricity production, the region as a whole, as all of Europe, needs to work on reducing energy dependency. One of the solutions that we are making progress on is building new interconnections around the Baltic Sea. The other is to diversify and increase energy supply. The export of LNG from the US to Europe would greatly help in this regard and would also help promote more active trade between Europe and the US.
On trade - there is no doubt that the greatest game changer in transatlantic trade would be adoption of the TTIP agreement. Our wish is that tangible results be reached in the negotiations by the end of this year. This agreement has a great deal of strategic and global value. It is more than a mere trade agreement. It could potentially develop into a sort of ‘economic NATO.’ So we would not like to see serious delays in its adoption and implementation.
I started by talk by describing Estonia as a frontline state, which we, without a doubt, are. We are on Europe’s border, next to Russia, which has immediate consequences for our security. Yet I wouldn’t want to end on a gloomy note. Because, after all, geography is something that we cannot change. We know our situation, prepare and adapt. We must also focus on the positive, such as the fact that we are highly integrated into Euroatlantic structures and, as confirmed by numerous studies, Estonia continues to be an excellent place to do business in, invest and visit. So please come and visit! Thank you for your attention.