Martin Hurt, RKK/ICDS 27 November 2014
Over the past few weeks, various former high ranking members of the Border Guard and Defence Forces have criticized the extensive changes that have been made to the two organisations over the last several years. The kidnapping of the Estonian security officer Eston Kohver from Estonian soil by Russian special services at the beginning of September has provoked a wide-ranging discussion over how to guard the state border. At the same time, the Russian military attack on Ukraine has once again given rise to questions about Estonia’s defence capability and the leadership of the Defence Forces.
Former border guards, many of whom helped to refound the organization, have come out in support of the idea of re-establishing a militarized border guard as a separate organization. They do not understand the decisions made in the middle of the previous decade, which first turned the border guard into a civilian force before then merging it with the national police. They are of the opinion that the new joint Police and Border Guard Board is suitable for the conditions of a thousand years of peace, not the current security situation.
Replacing one set of epaulets with another will not in itself strengthen the nation’s ability to guard its borders. It is difficult to understand how recreating an independent border guard board would bring more personnel and equipment to the border. Additionally, there is no need to create a third organization beside the Defence Forces and the Defence League to carry out combat duties. That said, the existing structures do need to start cooperating more effectively and coordinate their activities in the spirit of comprehensive national defence. One example of necessity for closer cooperation is specifying the activities of healthcare institutions taking into account society’s wartime needs—but this does not mean that the head of a hospital needs to become a colonel, nor that its doctors become majors or the nurses non-commissioned officers.
Retired General Ants Laaneots, the former chief of the Defence Forces, has also often expressed disdain with the National Defence Development Plan that the government has enacted. As advisor to longtime former prime minister Andrus Ansip, he had ample opportunities to express his opinions to the other members of the cabinet. Even if he did so, the government still decided to follow the advice of the current leadership of the Defence Forces and the Ministry of Defence, and enacted the development plan in January 2013.
Disputes over the new development plan reflect in many ways differences between two generations of officers, which happens from time to time. The older generation is largely made up of those with a Soviet military education or who undertook crash officer training courses in the 1990s, a large part of which has retired by now. Many of them favour a military structure that is impressive on paper, but (at least until the enactment of the new development plan) remained seriously understaffed, with equipment remarkably worse than that of the so-called separatists fighting in East Ukraine. The younger generation, whose military education has largely been obtained in either Estonia or elsewhere in the West, does not see any point to such a paper tiger. They prefer a defence force that is ostensibly smaller but comprised of actually existing units, staffed with adequately trained personnel and equipped with modern materiel.
The issue of abolishing regional commands is just one example of the conflict in views between the generations. The Defence League naturally does not have enough resources to take over all the functions of the former regional commands, just as the Defence Forces and the state as a whole lacked resources to fulfil all the previous tasks. Carrying out tasks of a considerably lower level of ambition should be feasible for the Defence League, although that remains to be seen. Should the Defence League not be up to the task, the solution does not lie in upping the ante in terms of ambition; quite the contrary, it should be lowered to correspond to level of available funds and personnel.
It is doubtful if Estonia would be a member of the EU and NATO if the founders of the Border Guard and the Defence Forces had not achieved so much during the years after Estonia regained its independence. However, the current security situation does not favour large-scale reorganization in the Defence Forces and Border Guard, because every reform brings about temporary disarray and turmoil. During the years of 2014–2015 it would be reasonable to focus on fine-tuning the existing structure and preparing for worse times by staffing the last unfilled positions and obtaining new equipment and stockpiles—measures that will increase Estonia’s security immediately, not in five to ten years’ time. We will have ample time in the future to discuss whether to move forwards or backwards.
Forwards or backwards?