US forces should remain in Estonia for “as long as needed,” since tensions between Russia and the West show no sign of abating, Estonia’s Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas told the Atlantic Council.
Describing the US military as having historically played a critical role in Europe, Rõivas said: “It is clear that the American presence continues to make a difference, to include President [Barack] Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative that includes several elements, such as the positioning more American equipment so it’s ready if needed, more training and exercises as well as an air force training center in Amari Air Base” in Estonia.
“From a deterrence perspective, an American infantry company in Estonia is more credible than a brigade in Germany,” Rõivas said on December 10.
Rõivas, who at the age of 35 is the European Union’s youngest head of government, said his top priorities are strengthening Estonia’s security, enhancing the transatlantic relationship, and ensuring a strong NATO.
NATO members have sought to plug gaps in the alliance’s Alliance’s air, land, and sea defenses amid heightened tensions with Russia. US and German forces are based at the Amari Air Base in Estonia to reinforce NATO’s Article 5, which states that an “armed attack” against one member is an attack against all members and sets in motion the possibility of collective self-defense.
US President Barack Obama, during a visit to Estonia in September, announced his intention to increase the US Air Force presence in Estonia for training purposes.
Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its provocations of the West as ties have worsened following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March and given its continued meddling inside Eastern Ukraine.
Rõivas said it is “very difficult to foresee change for the better in the European security situation.”
Russia is “very actively” doing military trainings in the Baltic Sea and flying its bombers in the Mediterranean, said Rõivas, describing Russian provocations that have escalated over the past year.
“We are seeing lots of this kind of activities that have not been there a year ago, which again demonstrates that the presence of NATO allies in all NATO territories is very much needed,” Rõivas said in response to a question from Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, who wanted to know in what ways Russia will continue to test the West’s resolve.
“We need to support our airspace to be sure that it is 100 percent protected. We need to have enough deterrence in place that nobody will even think of looking at one village of one NATO country as some kind of target. It is self-evident that every square inch or square mile of NATO is NATO — but once you have physical presence, those words are even more credible,” Rõivas added.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in November that there had been around 400 intercepts — 50 percent higher than in 2013 — of Russian military flights near NATO member countries so far this year.
Estonia has been at the receiving end of some Russian provocations.
In September, for example, Estonian officials accused Russia of abducting a security officer from inside Estonia. Moscow said the Estonian officer was arrested in Russia while on an undercover espionage operation.
The abduction came on the heels of a pledge by President Obama to protect Estonia against Russian aggression. At a press conference with the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in the Estonian capital Tallinn on September 3, Obama had reaffirmed US commitment to Estonia’s security. “That is a commitment that is unbreakable. It is unwavering. It is eternal. And Estonia will never stand alone,” Obama said.
Estonia was also the target of a massive cyber attack by suspected pro-Kremlin hackers in April and May of 2007. The wave of cyber attacks, which crippled government and corporate websites for weeks, followed Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet World War II memorial from downtown Tallinn that provoked an angry response from Moscow and violence in Estonia’s ethnic Russian population. Estonian authorities blamed Russia for the attack, but Moscow denied the allegation.
“We, in Estonia, fully understand that challenges may arise from other directions, including in the cyber domain,” said Rõivas.
“As much as we need to improve our warning and indicators in the traditional sense, we also need to focus on detecting and defeating cyber attacks before they can do real damage. Especially in a country that is so digitally advanced,” he added.
The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence is based in Tallinn.
US, Estonia, and Russia: ‘Not Just Bad Weather…This Is Climate Change’
Rõivas described the US as Estonia’s most important ally and the bilateral relationship as one his government does not take for granted.
He met US Vice President Joseph R. Biden on December 10. The two leaders discussed bilateral relations, NATO’s Readiness Action Plan, energy security, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the crisis in Ukraine, Biden’s office said in its readout of the meeting.
Rõivas urged the West to continue its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, but warned he didn’t expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down.
“This will only change when [Russia] perceives that the free nations of Europe, supported by our transatlantic allies, have the hard power and the hard will to stand up to it. The current security environment will be with us for a long time to come. This is not just bad weather – this is climate change,” he added.
Rõivas said Russia had made it clear that “there is no place for neutrality … you are either with Russia or against Russia.” Rather than labeling the current crisis a “New Cold War or Cold War Two,” the prime minister said he prefers to refer to it as “the Fake Peace” because the modern warfare tools used by Russia are not war in the traditional sense.
“Such kind of Russia’s double game to wage a False Peace or Fake Peace should be taken into account when forging a transatlantic strategy for the east of Europe,” he said.
‘Little Green Men’
Ukrainians coined the term “little green men” to refer to seemingly professional soldiers dressed in unmarked Russian-style combat uniforms and armed with Russian weapons who seized strategic points on the Crimean Peninsula earlier this year.
Rõivas expressed confidence that Estonia can defeat the “little green men” if Moscow tried to use a tactic it previously used against Estonia in 1924.
“Ninety years ago Estonia was smart and strong enough to protect ourselves from those little green men. I am certain that today we are even smarter and even stronger,” he said.
While declining to elaborate on whether NATO is doing any contingency planning for “green men,” Rõivas said the alliance “sees the threats adequately and is reacting to it.”
Rõivas also said:
On energy: Estonia’s goal is to start using liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative to Russian gas. Ships carrying LNG from the US to Europe would help wean countries off Russian gas and be a “serious game changer.”
On combating Russia’s propaganda war: A truly independent Russian-language news channel that “doesn’t rely on the Kremlin’s version of the truth” could be a “game changer.”