[Exclusive] Coming weeks, months may decide war in Ukraine, says Estonian defense chief

Posted on : 2023-02-22 19:17 KST Modified on : 2023-02-22 19:20 KST
The Hankyoreh sat down with Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur to get a closer look at how the war in Ukraine has changed the security landscape for the Baltic state
Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s minister of defense, stands for a photo for the Hankyoreh at the Ministry of Defense in Tallinn on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s minister of defense, stands for a photo for the Hankyoreh at the Ministry of Defense in Tallinn on Feb. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

With a population of a mere 1.33 million and a territory of 45,228 square kilometers, Estonia is the least-populated and smallest of the three Baltic states. Despite that fact, it provides the highest amount of aid to Ukraine relative to gross domestic product in the world. Six days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Estonia sent US-made anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Ukraine. Of all NATO member states, Estonia’s parliament was the fastest to ratify the membership bids of neighboring Finland and Sweden.

How has Estonia, a small nation that shares a long border with Russia, viewed the war in Ukraine? The Hankyoreh sat down with Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur at his office in the capital of Tallinn on Feb. 13. Pevkur said that the “next couple of weeks and months” will likely decide how the war will play out, adding that the biggest enemy as of now is “time.”

Hankyoreh: Did you expect Russia to invade Ukraine before the outbreak of war last year?

Hanno Pevkur: Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014; Crimea and part of Donbas were already occupied in 2014. This is why it was not a very big surprise. We collected some intelligence, and we all know, here in this neighborhood, how Russia can behave. We all hoped that it would not happen, but it happened anyway.

Hankyoreh: Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, does Estonia feel that the Russian threat has come closer to it and other neighboring countries?

Yes. And especially when we take into account the last years and decades, we see that Russia’s behavior toward the West and toward NATO has always been very aggressive. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, then in 2014, it invaded Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. Then, last year we saw a full escalation of the war. And although we have managed to live for 50 years without war in Ukraine or in Europe, we see that Russia, unfortunately, has started a war in Europe on a large scale.

Last year, after the outbreak of — or escalation of — the war, at the summit in Madrid, all the countries in NATO stated that Russia is the biggest threat to the alliance. Russia has built its military power for a long time. When we compare the situation now to that 40 years ago, during the Cold War, globally the average defense expenditure was approximately 3.5% to 4%. In the last 30 years, it’s been much less — below 2% or even below 1% in some countries. What that means is that there is a huge gap here in Europe in what we have accumulated over the past 30 years. I believe that now is a critical time for countries to rebuild their armies and be ready to tackle all threats.

Hankyoreh: What specific measures has Estonia introduced to eliminate these security threats?

First, even before the war escalated, we sent our first aid package to Ukraine: Javelins in January. Secondly, at the moment, Estonia is the biggest contributor by percentage [relative to GDP -Eds.], helping Ukraine with military aid. And thirdly, we have invested a lot in our own security. We have acquired a lot of new weapon systems, anti-vessel rockets, and have doubled our territorial defense forces. Our defense expenditure this year is 2.8% [of GDP], and next year we plan for it to be 3.2%.

Hankyoreh: In February 2022, in response to the build-up of Russian forces around Ukraine, the UK deployed an additional battlegroup to Estonia. What does their presence look like now, and what is needed?

From the beginning, it was a temporary solution. We have come to an agreement with my colleague Ben Wallace on a clear roadmap for this year. This meant that in January, we had Chinook helicopters coming to Estonia, and in March we will have Apaches and an extra battalion coming to our Spring Storm exercise. [UK Typhoon] fighter jets will be brought in for air patrolling. The UK has always been the leading country in our EFP [enhanced forward presence] battalion, which means that they will help us establish our own division.

Additionally, we have managed to reach an agreement with the United States for their battalion to be here. Approximately 300 Americans are here at the moment. In addition, a HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] unit with more than 100 people is here. When we put all this together, we have at the moment more firepower than we had a year ago. And we have also Danes here with tanks at the moment, and French troops here. Of course, we have to be ready to invest more in ourselves. We will do the maximum we can to give Estonians security.

Hankyoreh: Have there been any difficulties in beefing up Estonia’s security capacity?

The biggest challenge for us at the moment is time. You can always buy more modern technology, more modern assets. But you also have to see that the producers, or the factories for ammunition for the weapon systems, are ready to deliver. Currently, countries are all having to buy more from the industry. When we have a contract in place, the industry will provide, but it takes time.

Hankyoreh: What are the EU and NATO doing to eliminate security threats Estonia faces?

For one, there is a special funding mechanism called the European Peace Facility. Some other measures include what has been discussed lately just last week among the leaders of the countries: Maybe there should be a pool of money put together by the European Union to order ammunition from the manufacturers. (Prime Minister Kaya Kallas proposed on Feb. 10 that, like with COVID-19 vaccines, EU member countries order weapons to supply to Ukraine. -Eds.) We have a clear common understanding of what it is we have to do to help Ukraine and how we have to do it. But still, it’s a battle against time.

Ukraine is arguing that they will win back the whole of their territory, including Crimea and Donbas. Do you think the Western countries will continue to support Ukraine until they achieve that goal?

Of course. In 1991, when Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania and other countries regained their independence, the borders were set. We don’t have any option or any right to tell Ukrainians to give up their territory.

Hankyoreh: What do you have to say to people who think that, in reality, there is little chance that Ukraine will be able to reclaim all of its previous territories?

Tell me, “in reality,” if Russia were to take part of Alaska away from the United States, would the United States accept this? No. This is the answer to your question.

Hankyoreh: What is your position on fighter jets being sent to Ukraine?

It's very easy, because months back, it was not considered very realistic to see Western tanks in Ukraine. Now, that decision was made. When Ukraine needs different help, then it is necessary to give them that kind of help — whatever helps them to win this war.

Hankyoreh: What do you have to say about delays in providing munitions and weapons being produced in the West to Ukraine?

I'm quite certain that NATO members can find a solution here.

Hankyoreh: What is Estonia’s position on Ukraine’s accession to NATO?

We have been quite supportive. Of course, first, we have to end this war. But when we look at this militarily speaking, Ukraine has definitely shown that they have the capabilities. Before joining NATO, there are not only military conditions, but many others as well. We have said of not only accession to NATO, but also the European Union, that when all the criteria are fulfilled, then each country has the right to decide whether it wants to join an organization or not.

Hankyoreh: Estonia’s neighbors Sweden and Finland are both seeking NATO membership, but the process has been challenging. What sort of influence do the two states have on Estonia’s security?

For us, it’s very critical that these two countries join NATO. Estonia was the first country to ratify on a parliamentary level the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. I believe that it's just a matter of months or weeks before Türkiye and Hungary will ratify. And I don't see any reason they have to say no, because Sweden and Finland are fully capable of fulfilling all the criteria for being members of NATO.

When you take a look at a map of the world or Europe, you understand this very easily. The Baltic Sea is strategically very important. The Baltic Sea has to be controlled by NATO countries. Also, when we consider the possible routes to Estonia, from allies, then Sweden and Finland are playing a big role not only politically, but also militarily. Moreover, our countries cannot share all the information we have because of the different regulations and rules. When they become members of NATO, we become freer to share all our information and cooperate.

Hankyoreh: How do you anticipate the war will end?

My estimation is that the next couple of weeks and months will show what the war theater will look like. And from this, we can make a better prognosis of how this war will continue. We have enough information to know that Russia is preparing for a large-scale attack. Even just considering the situation on the battlefield, nature is just playing a role: battlefields are starting to be drier. And there is a possibility for big maneuvers. There is a big threat and possibility that we will end up in a very long war. When you take from 2014 to 2022, it’s been eight years in which a war has been ongoing. But the next couple of weeks and months will show if there will be any progress toward a possible negotiation or not.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

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

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