Martin Hurt, ICDS
Mikk Salu wrote about Estonia’s and Latvia’s defence capabilities in Postimees on November 6. The article presents to the public issues that have been discussed behind closed doors for several years, namely Latvia’s and Lithuania’s limited willingness and readiness to contribute to NATO’s collective defence efforts. Behind the scenes, the Estonians, together with NATO’s more influential member states and high-ranking officials, have drawn attention to this fact for years already.
In principle, the article makes a sound judgement on Latvia’s national defence which mostly suffers from political indifference towards national security – a condition that is further aggravated by a hope that stronger allies will shoulder the responsibility for the country’s future. Latvia’s yet another pledge to raise the level of defence spending to 2% of GDP is not credible against the backdrop of its previously unfulfilled commitments and the recently revised deadline set for the year 2020. National defence clearly is not a key priority for Estonia’s southern neighbour. According to Mikk Salu, the Estonian Defence Forces must be ready to defend not only Estonia’s Eastern border, but also the Southern border because of the poor quality of the Latvian Armed Forces.
At the political level, Estonia has demonstrated greater willingness than Latvia to contribute both to its independent defence capability and collective defence. This is a matter of political choice at which Estonia and Latvia have opted for different priorities. If you state this in public and fairly examine the inevitable consequences, it should not cause any harm to anyone, yet it has triggered a painful reaction in Latvia.
Salu’s article, however, had a fundamental weakness – it contrasted Latvia with Estonia as if the latter were a model state. You need access to classified information to write an objective analysis in this field. It can only be hoped that such information was not disclosed to Salu, meaning that this time the journalist who has always been meticulous and thorough in all his stories had to rely on expert opinion without the possibility to check the accuracy of the data he was fed.
The manpower of the Estonian Defence Forces does not currently reach, and will not reach in case of mobilisation, the level of 35–40,000 troops. This goal was not defined even in the Estonian Long-term Defence Development Plan which has lost its pertinence due to the economic downturn. It is not a valid comparison if the number of youths conscripted for a few days, weeks or months is weighed against that of a country whose armed forces only include professional personnel.
If the number of troops is used as the sole basis for assessing the defence capability of a state, the results are simple and unambiguous on the one hand, and completely trivial on the other. Defence capability is defined in the international arena as the ability of the armed forces to perform their set tasks in the event of different contingencies which are estimated to be more or less likely. Human resources represent one input to a nation’s defence capability, but without other inputs – equipment, combat supplies, individual and collective training – there is no defence capability, just a bunch of men.
The diehard tradition of explaining everything with numbers dates back to Soviet times when the vital statistics of the army included only one figure – the number of men. Estonia’s independent defence capability still rests on the assumption that the state will provide military training to its citizens, but equipment and supplies should somehow transport themselves to the battlefield for free immediately when Estonians need them. While the defence forces and the ministry of defence continue to make intense efforts to get rid of the units planned by General Laaneots existent only on paper, it would be wise to face up to the truth and admit that the acquisition of a real defence capability also presumes new thinking in Estonia. We are still facing the task of developing and sustaining a relevant and capable defence force and pointing the finger at Latvia does not contribute to its achievement. It is high time that Estonia starts to take defence of the Eastern border seriously before looking south.
Who Defends Estonia’s Eastern Border?