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Discussion on the changed security situation

16. October 2014 - 17:05

A speech by Urmas Paet, the Minister of Foreign Affairs

(Translation from Estonian, as delivered)


Dear Members of the Riigikogu,

Dear guests,

Today's discussion is primarily framed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but there are also many other threats in the East, as well as South of Europe, and that trend is clearly not a good one.

To begin with, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine – the conflict and the reaction of the West to it, has already gone through several phases. As we remember, the refusal of Ukraine’s previous administration to become closer to Europe caused great disappointment in Ukrainian society and the Maidan protests. These protests led to the fall of Ukraine’s previous administration, which in turn was followed by the commencement of Russia’s covert military aggression in February and March of this year. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in March caused Europe and the Western world to basically adopt a new and a more active approach to the crisis. As a response to the annexation of Crimea, first sanctions by the European Union were introduced. NATO started work on increasing security of its eastern flank. Cooperation with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council was suspended. Already in March, additional U.S. fighter jets arrived to safeguard Baltic airspace. In April, the North Atlantic Council made the decision to adopt immediate reassurance measures to advance security on the eastern flank, in the course of which, for example, the Ämari Air Base was employed as the base for Baltic Air Policing. As of the beginning of May, Danish fighters were present at Ämari, which were then replaced by German aircraft at the end of August. The U.S. land force units have been a continuous presence in Estonia since the spring.

The words of U.S. President Barack Obama, during his visit to Estonia on September 3rd, that the defence of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin, Paris and London confirm NATO’s dedication to further strengthen collective defence. For us, the NATO summit in Wales was a success, where the reinforced presence of the Alliance in our region was defined as the new baseline, the new normal. Our goals in Wales were to achieve the continued presence of allied forces in Estonia, to advance and strengthen that presence, to increase the rapid reaction capability of NATO forces, to make NATO planning and exercises more effective, and to increase defence spending of the Alliance. Work on fulfilling all these decisions in cooperation with the allies is currently in process.

The shooting down of the Malaysian passenger plane on July 17th and the entirely overt invasion of Russia’s forces into eastern Ukraine at the end of August induced the European Union to take more forceful action. This was first and foremost expressed through the strengthening of the sanctions regime against Russia. European Union sanctions are a clear signal to Russia and an expression of support for Ukraine. To be successful in solving the crisis, it is necessary to have a two-track approach – making efforts to reach a political solution and to apply constant pressure via the sanctions. These two must go hand in hand. We do not consider it right to prematurely ease the European Union's sanctions regime, until tangible results have been achieved, primarily the removal of Russian troops and restoring Ukraine’s control over its borders and territory.

It is necessary to avoid creating a new frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine in the course of finding political solutions in Ukraine. The fragile ceasefire concluded on September 5th must become a complete cessation of hostilities. Unfortunately, more than 300 persons have died during the ceasefire so far. We consider it important for the OSCE’s Ukraine mission to be completely staffed and fully able to exercise its mandate to the full extent, to monitor the ceasefire and the Ukrainian-Russian border. We also support the European Union’s mission in Ukraine, where two Estonian experts have been participating since the beginning of October. The UN Security Council has repeatedly discussed the situation in Ukraine.

In the near future, Ukraine has to simultaneously manage several difficult issues. In addition to the extremely serious security crisis and the economically difficult winter period ahead, including the energy crisis, Ukrainians have to find the strength to carry out reforms, organise parliamentary elections, secure democracy and the rule of law, as well as fight corruption. Estonia supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, we cannot forget the illegal annexation of Crimea. The occupying power is persecuting minorities, including the Crimean Tatars. Such a grave violation of international law must be met with unequivocal European Union non-recognition policy.

It is clear that a solution to the crisis largely also depends on what kind of solutions the administration of Ukraine is able to come up with. Due to Russia’s pressure, President Poroshenko’s options are unfortunately limited to choosing between several bad choices.

Estonia will continue to provide active support to Ukraine. The assistance provided as development and humanitarian aid is about to reach almost a million euros by the end of the year. Victims of unrest on the streets of Kyiv, as well as victims of hostilities in eastern Ukraine have been brought to Estonia for medical rehabilitation. Food aid from Estonia is also being transported to Ukraine. We will also continue with earlier cooperation projects, including the e-government development projects.

Dear Members of the Riigikogu,

I will now draw some conclusions of the crisis in Ukraine for current security policy considerations. Firstly, the events that have taken place this year have helped to consolidate the transatlantic community’s views of Russia. The NATO Wales Summit communique begins with the statement that Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have posed a fundamental challenge of our vision of Europe as whole, free and at peace. Just a year ago, such a collective message would have been almost unthinkable. In the past, we have tried to treat Russia as a partner. Unfortunately, these attempts have not been fruitful. If the use of military force against a neighbouring state has been adopted for resolving differences, we are clearly facing a new situation.

Today it can be said that discussions in NATO and the European Union have reached the point where the views of Estonia and likeminded nations have become the mainstream of European security policy. This is an important development.

In the Europe’s current security policy debate, especially in light of the upcoming OSCE Basel Foreign Ministers meeting, the question is whether the current crisis has led to the collapse of Europe’s security architecture. For more than twenty years we have been building a cooperative security system in Europe, which is based on the principles of the avoidance of use and threat of force, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, the inviolability of borders, the right of states to freely choose alliances and allies and the comprehensive protection of human rights. These principles are enshrined in the UN Charter, but more particularly, in the underlying documents of Europe’s security; first of all in the CSCE Helsinki Final Act and the CSCE Charter of Paris, but also in the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Indeed, Russia has breached these principles by attacking Ukraine. And yet I would consider that such a breach of the principles by one state does not mean the end of Europe’s current security architecture. The breach of agreed principles by one party does not mean that the principles are thereby null and void. Paradoxically, the crisis has made Europe more united and thereby stronger. Common positions by the European Union, the persistent presence of NATO in our region and even the revival of the OSCE as an organisation speak of this. Europe is making efforts to uphold its values, peace and security. And hopefully this will yield results.

Despite the fact that the fundamental principles of Europe’s security architecture are still valid, the security environment as such has changed. Force has been used to alter state borders; the general predictability of international relations has been substantially reduced. All this will be taken into consideration when implementing the NATO Readiness Action Plan, adopted at the Wales summit.

Our bilateral and multilateral ties with allies will provide us with the opportunity to make our own choices free from external pressures. Estonia’s open economic environment, Estonia’s image as an innovative state continues to be attractive to foreign investors. Estonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO, Estonia being integrated into Europe and the world has provided us with security for the future. Although within recent months, states in our region have had to experience the effect of several inconvenient steps by Russia, whether they be repeated breaches of airspace, including  in Finland and Sweden, reopening more than 20 year-old court cases against Lithuanian citizens who refused to serve in the Soviet army, or the abduction of Eston Kohver from Estonia’s territory and his illegal detention in Russia, we have undertaken substantial efforts together with our allies in ensuring our security. To quote President Obama: “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.” Estonia’s security is guaranteed.

A separate issue is Europe’s self-perception. So far we used to think of the European Union as a clearly non-controversial soft power. Europe’s integration and accompanying reforms are aimed at improving the general living standard and increasing the competitiveness of economies. In its earlier or more recent rounds of enlargement – not to mention the associations – the European Union has practically never met with any serious external resistance. Who could have anything against Europe’s values and its wellbeing on offer? And yet the current conflict has made clear, that in eastern Ukraine, Europe’s soft power has encountered Russian arms. This is an entirely new situation for Europe. We need a very frank and serious discussion at the upcoming European Union meetings on how to proceed from here.

Dear Members of the Riigikogu,

I mentioned that Europe stands ready to protect its values. They are the sanctity of human life, individual liberties, including freedom of expression and consciousness, complete protection of human rights, democracy, and adhering to agreements. There are forces in our vicinity, to the East, as well as to the South, which question and undermine such values. Collective beliefs are supposedly more important than the liberty of an individual; traditional creeds more important than the protection of human rights. There are all kinds of attempts to restrict freedom of expression, including freedom online, and free media is being replaced with propaganda. The interests of those in power are considered superior to the protection of private property. We can ask whether we are about to enter into a new phase of ideological confrontation, where on one side of the ideological dividing line stand democratic values, on which our current well-being is based, and on the other side is some kind of great-power civil religion, which serves the interests of strongmen and tradition? It is important that we are on the right side of such a dividing line.

To the south of Europe, a movement is gaining ground, which in the most implicit way opposes democratic values and uses the most brutal and inhumane methods to transmit its message. This is the terrorist movement Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or in short ISIL. This movement has adopted violence as its slogan, executing prisoners and civilians, indiscriminately using terror against everyone different from them. This must be decisively confronted. Estonia belongs to the international coalition against ISIL. We have decided to support forces fighting against ISIL with ammunition. A permanent solution in Iraq will certainly not come only through military action, but it is important to have an inclusive political process where the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are genuinely involved. In recent years, we have donated a total of nearly 1.4 million euros to help alleviate the humanitarian situation in the whole region.

I do not believe that this conflict is too far from us. Donetsk is half-way between Tallinn and Baghdad. Yet, more important than geographical distances, is the speed of the spread of extremist ideologies and the increasing ability of individual terrorists to commit crimes. It is known that from Europe, including from countries close to us, hundreds, if not thousands of fighters have joined ISIL. It is clear that radicalisation is not directly dependent on the level of well-being. This does not necessarily take place in the poor suburbs of the Middle East, but also in European countries with high living standards. Europe, with its open internal borders, has to be twice as attentive in order to prevent such risks, while preserving the rights and freedoms of all Europeans. Estonia is about to review its legislation to prevent the movement of foreign fighters to the Middle East, as well as the financing and supplying of terrorists.

In the medium and longer-term perspective, developments south of Europe leave no doubt that security risks originating from that area are about to increase. The Arab spring, which also brought about many positive changes, has left a difficult legacy in the form of internal conflicts in several countries in the southern neighbourhood, primarily in Libya and Syria. The flow of refugees into southern Europe show no signs of decrease. While the current conflict in Europe involves states whose population is aging and diminishing, the demographic trends in the broader Middle East and Africa are quite the opposite. According to UN data, at the current rate of growth, the population of Africa could more than double by 2050. This might mean an increased struggle for resources, including water, the rise of new megacities in Africa and growing problems in Europe´s southern neighbourhood. We consider it necessary to support the European Union border agency Frontex and to assist those who stand on the front line of the refugee problem. At the same time, it is critical that Europe is able to work with African countries to implement changes that are necessary for the prevention of possible hardships ahead.

Estonia has participated in military operations in Mali and the Central African Republic this year. It is clear that with the end of the Afghanistan operation the greatest challenges of a global nature are to do with Africa, which may necessitate also involving our relevant capabilities there in the future.

The deadly Ebola virus is mainly located in West Africa. The number of those infected is growing each day and the number of victims is more than four thousand as of today. If the spread of this virus cannot be contained and it continues to spread in the current tempo, the number of those infected could exceed 1.5 million by the end of the year. The first cases of infection have been already registered in Europe and the United States. Estonia has contributed to fight the spreading of Ebola with a total of 100,000 euros this year – we have contributed to the relevant UN fund and via the World Health Organization. An Estonian doctor was active in Monrovia, Liberia as part of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team.

Dear Members of the Riigikogu,

In conclusion, I would like to say that our efforts to improve Estonia’s security situation this far have yielded results. In the changed security environment, it is also necessary to review the underlying documents of our foreign and security policy. There is a need to update the National Defence Strategy, as well as the national Security Policy Concept, which has been in force since 2010. The new National Defence Strategy will be completed this year and the Security Policy Concept will be discussed by the new membership of the Riigikogu.

We have to consistently work for our security. This means an active foreign policy, including in international organizations, a solid transatlantic bond, contributing to various international missions, as well as keeping up defence spending at home, fostering relations with our neighbours and above all, advancing European values. If we fulfil our international obligations, if we care about Estonia, then Estonia is protected.

Thank you!

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