The View from Estonia

Last week, I attended a talk by the Estonian Ambassador to the United Stated, Jonatan Vseviov. I traveled to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the three Baltic States, in 2016, and was very impressed. I was interested to see what the ambassador would say. It was one of the most interesting talks I have ever attended, and I learned a great deal about transatlantic security. Ambassador Vseviov, unlike many ambassadors, was not a lifelong diplomat or political donor but a bureaucrat who rose through the ranks of the Estonia defense department. He was blunter than other ambassadors I've seen, and he displayed what the woman next to me called "steely resolve". Below were some of his main talking points.

First, Estonia learned two lessons from WWII. First, that, "Not fighting is not the safer option." In 1939, the USSR asked Estonia to allow Soviet military bases to be built on Estonian soil. Estonia knew that this would be a precursor to eventual annexation, but felt that given their size and lack of allies, fighting the Soviets would just lead to their destruction. Unfortunately, once the Soviets took over they pressed thousands of Estonian men into the Red Army, many of whom died defending a country they did not want to be a part of. Thus, Estonia learned that not fighting and giving in does not guarantee the safety of their people.

Second, Estonia learned that being alone is not an option. Since they regained independence from the USSR in 1991 they have "joined every western institution possible." The EU, Eurozone, Schengen Area, NATO, and countless other regional initiatives include Estonia as a member. By building as many ties as possible, Estonia is making sure that countries around the world want an independent Estonia.

The ambassador then listed three questions that must be answered yes to prevent a war. He didn't explicitly say that this war would be one of Russian aggression, but that was the obvious subtext.

1) Will Estonia fight?
Yes. In 2015, when an Estonian general was asked what Estonia would do should "little green men" come across the border, akin to how Russia captured Crimea in 2014, the general responded, "You should shoot him". People in the room at first thought he was joking. He was not. Estonia has been preparing to fight since their independence, and especially since the large-scale 2007 cyberattack on their government and industry, which is now viewed as a test run for the 2016 Russian interference campaign in the US presidential election. According to Ambassador Vseviov, Russian war games have made clear that they plan on sweeping through the Baltic States and cutting them off from the west. They will be ready to fight.

2) Will the fight be international?
Yes. Thousands of NATO troops have been deployed to the Baltic States. Each country has been assigned a partner, in Estonia's case the United Kingdom, and NATO troops have been integrated with local forces. Therefore, if Russia were to invade Estonia, English troops, as well as French and Danish, would be under fire as well as local Estonians. This means that Russia knows if they attack the Baltics, it will immediately be a worldwide conflict with soldiers from many NATO countries in harm's way.

3) Is there a pathway to NATO victory?
Yes. In the past few years, NATO has devoted significant resources to bolstering Central and Eastern Europe. Ambassador Vseviov did not give details for obvious reasons but said NATO has planned for many contingencies and is willing to devote significant resources to defend their allies. The Defender 2020 war games, a NATO effort that will take place later this year, will be one of the largest military exercises in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The ambassador also stressed this is not a one-way relationship. Hundreds of Estonians have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dozens have lost limbs and are permanently disfigured. Eight have lost their lives. Small numbers compared to the total, but a significant outlay for a country with a population smaller than Memphis.

Finally, the ambassador closed with an old saying, "In order to not be forgotten tomorrow, you must be noticed today."

Steely resolve, indeed.

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