Small in size, Estonia majorly invests in defense during war in Ukraine

Posted on : 2023-02-22 17:04 KST Modified on : 2023-02-22 17:04 KST
The Estonian Defense Ministry decided to increase its 2023 defense budget by a steep 42% from the previous year
A building standing at the edge of Freedom Square in the Estonian capital of Tallinn bears the flags of Ukraine and Estonia on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
A building standing at the edge of Freedom Square in the Estonian capital of Tallinn bears the flags of Ukraine and Estonia on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

The War of Independence Victory Column captures the eye upon entering Freedom Square in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the northernmost of the three Baltic states.

On the wall of a building on one side of the square, a Ukrainian flag hangs next to an Estonian one. The blues of the Ukrainian and Estonian flags, both symbolizing the sky, seem to melt into one.

It was as if the two countries, who are shouldering the same sky, were declaring their shared destiny in the face of a common security threat: Russia.

When the Hankyoreh visited Tallinn on Feb. 13 (local time), ahead of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the flags of the two countries could be seen all over the city.

Ukraine is approximately one-fifth the size of the Korean Peninsula, and its population is just 1.33 million, one-third that of South Korea. The tiny country shares a 300-kilometer (186-mile) border with Russia. When the Hankyoreh asked Eggert, a 34-year-old Estonian man, how things have changed in the past year after the Russian invasion, his face quickly grew stony.

“I thought we were done with war, so I never expected it to happen again. I knew from history books that Russia had invaded Estonia in the past. There are so many Russians living in Estonia, though,” he said, trailing off.

“Even though the war was started by Vladimir Putin alone, now I see Russia differently,” Eggert added.

To understand the complicated relationship between Russia and Estonia, you need to go back 105 years in time. After nearly 200 years under the rule of the Russian Empire, Estonia declared its independence in the midst of the Russian Empire’s collapse during the October Revolution. This was on Feb. 24, 1918. In November of that year, the country fought off a Soviet invasion and secured its independence in a peace treaty in February 1920.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) speaks with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, Latvian President Egils Levits, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17. (AFP/Yonhap)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) speaks with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, Latvian President Egils Levits, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17. (AFP/Yonhap)

However, the country had to live through the pain of becoming reincorporated into the Soviet Union in August 1940, during World War II. The country rushed to declare its independence once again in August 1991, when the Soviet Union showed signs of collapsing, and has remained independent to this day. Estonia only achieved the peace it enjoys today a mere 32 years ago, and the War of Independence Victory Column was completed 14 years ago, in 2009.

According to figures tabulated by the German-based Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Estonian aid to Ukraine from Jan. 24 to Nov. 20, 2022, amounted to 1.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP). That’s a higher percentage than any of the world’s 40 largest countries.

Other countries that have provided substantial aid relative to their GDP are Latvia (0.9%), Poland (0.5%) and Lithuania (0.5%), which all face a similar security environment to Estonia.

In addition, the Estonian Defense Ministry decided to increase its 2023 defense budget by a steep 42% from the previous year. That will push Estonia’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP above the NATO target of 2% to 2.8% this year and to 3.2% in 2024.

Recently, Estonia also ordered six more US-made HIMARS rocket launchers. HIMARS stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.

NATO has also been strengthening its defensive posture in Estonia, which sits on the alliance’s “front lines.” In 2016, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, NATO applied the principle of “enhanced forward presence” — referring to multinational combat units — to Poland and the three Baltic states.

A NATO combat unit led by the UK has been on rotational deployment since 2017. This combat unit includes the Challenger 2, the UK’s main battle tank, and the Warrior, its armored personnel carrier. Following the Russian invasion, Estonia has been asking NATO to make the unit’s deployment there permanent.

Things have played out similarly in Estonia’s neighbor Lithuania, which must defend a long border running 976 km altogether. That includes 679 km on the eastern border with Belarus, a country with which Russia professes brotherhood, and 297 km on the western border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Flags for the EU, Estonia, NATO and Ukraine fly outside the Estonian Ministry of National Defense in Tallin on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Flags for the EU, Estonia, NATO and Ukraine fly outside the Estonian Ministry of National Defense in Tallin on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Germany agreed in June 2022 to deploy a brigade in Lithuania, and the first units arrived in September. The US also decided in October 2022 to rotate units through Lithuania for a period ending in early 2026.

In March, soon after the war broke out, the Lithuanian parliament unanimously passed a bill to increase the year’s defense budget by 300 million euros. Lithuania also agreed to spend 500 million euros to purchase eight HIMARS launchers and the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System), a short-range missile with a 300km range that can be fired from HIMARS launchers.

These steps enabled Lithuania to achieve its goal of raising defense spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 ahead of schedule.

Lithuania is also discussing a plan to expand a partial conscription program for men aged 18-23 that began in 2015.

“Russia doesn’t scruple over the methods it uses to seize territory from countries that are nearby or historically connected. We must understand the challenge we’re facing and fight against it,” said Vaidotas Urbelis, head of defense policy for Lithuania, in a conversation with the Hankyoreh.

The third Baltic state of Latvia is also straining to bolster its defense readiness. Last year, the Latvian government decided to increase its defense budget from 2.2% of GDP last year to 2.5% over the next three years. It will also be buying six HIMARS launchers.

In Latvia’s parliamentary election last October, the pro-Russian party failed to get 5% of the vote for the first time ever. In contrast, the pro-European party saw its support triple, boosting its parliamentary contingent from eight to 24 seats for the first time since independence in 1991.

The three Baltic states met with the UK and Poland in Tallinn on Jan. 19 and pledged to provide “an unprecedented set of donations” for the defense of Ukraine. The move was aimed at pressuring Germany, which had been hesitating about giving Ukraine its main battle tank, called the Leopard 2.

The Baltic foreign ministers kept up the pressure by tweeting the following message on Jan. 21: “This is needed to stop Russian aggression, help Ukraine and restore peace in Europe quickly.”

Just four days later, on Jan. 25, Germany ultimately decided to send the tanks.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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