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TALLINN, Estonia — At a time when many of Russia’s neighbors are growing increasingly wary and investing more in their military capabilities, Hannes Hanso became Estonia's minister of defence on Sept. 14.

Hanso, 44, has served as mayor of Kuressaare, as an adviser in the ministries of defence and finance and in the diplomatic service of the European Union in Beijing and Mongolia. Last year, he was elected to Estonia’s parliament Riigikogu where he chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee before taking his current office.

In an interview with Defense News, Hanso outlined his views on defense spending levels, Estonia’s weaponry needs, the country’s role in NATO and relations with neighboring Russia.

Estonia was the first Baltic state to achieve the 2 percent defense spending-to-GDP ratio advocated by NATO. Latvia and Lithuania have stated their ambitions to reach this level too. How difficult a challenge is this likely to be?

I commend them for it. There was a need for changes within their budgets which are always sensitive. Latvia is increasing defense spending by a little under 40 percent in 2016. In the case of Lithuania, the defense budget is due to increase by around 30 percent in 2016.

I am very proud that Estonia has not had this particular issue for some years now. We have a broad political consensus on defense spending. Estonia has a ruling three-party coalition, and six parties in the Parliament, yet the need to keep defense spending at a level that meets our NATO obligations is not questioned by any of them. There was a time when Estonia alone spent more on defense than Latvia and Lithuania combined. This was neither natural, nor normal. Our southern neighbors came to realize that their defense spending must increase.

Estonia plans to substantially strengthen its defense budget as part of a long-term development plan for the armed forces. What are the core steps?

We are working under a 10-year defense plan which will continue until 2022. We conduct four-year reviews, the next one in 2016, and if changes are needed we will implement them. Our defense budget for 2016 will be about €450 million. Although this is modest by international standards, it is set to rise year-on-year by around 7 percent, and I believe this trend will continue.

The money being spent on defense, and our investment in our military is substantial when you look at the size of this country and our population. We are currently looking at improvements in our defense infrastructure and strengthening host nation support. Spending for the [NATO] presence here is on top of the 2 percent of GDP allocated to the defense budget.

What new weapons and military equipment procurements are included in the defense-strengthening program and parallel projects to reinforce force capabilities?

Our defense capability strengthening and acquisitions will include CV90 infantry fighting vehicles and third-generation anti-tank systems Javelins. The infantry fighting vehicles are being purchased from the Netherlands. This is a large project with a total cost, including training and munitions, of €200 million (US $218 million). The weapons systems to be acquired will add a greater level of firepower and have a serious deterrent impact on potential adversaries.

Once the four-year review ends, we will need to make a fundamental decision in this country regarding a mid-range air-defense system. However, the cost of such a procurement project would be very significant. We may also decide to invest in heavy armor, like tanks. We also plan to develop out cyber defense capabilities. These are decisions where I believe political interference should be minimal, and where military advice is critical.

Is Estonia likely to continue to rely on NATO and its rotation-based pan-Baltic Air Policing mission? Is there a future possibility that Estonia could expand the Army’s Air Wing to include multi-role combat aircraft?

Acquiring fighter aircraft is definitely one investment we will not be making. Obtaining a reasonable fighter capability would simply be too costly for a small nation like ours. We are very happy with the level of air protection afforded by NATO with the Baltic Air Policing mission.

The mission also has another dimension. The NATO allies who are here benefit from a unique training experience. They are faced with real-time action in scrambling to shadow Russian military aircraft in often incredibly dangerous circumstances. Russian aircraft frequently fly with their transponders switched off so they become invisible to civilian radars. They change formations mid-air, some fly higher, others lower while some de-accelerate. This is provocative behavior. In effect, they want to test and evaluate our responses. What they are doing is very dangerous.

In practical terms, what has Estonia gained from its cross-border defense cooperation with neighboring Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania? Does potential exist to enhance collaboration and joint operations even further?

The threat perceptions are identical whether it is for our Baltic neighbors Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, or our Nordic neighbors Sweden, Norway and Finland. We are all concerned about one thing and that is the behavior of our big and unpredictable neighbor Russia.

In this light, we very much see eye-to-eye with out Baltic neighbors. We operate common projects like the Baltic Defense College, the BALTNET air surveillance network and the joint Baltic Battalion. We also share intelligence and cooperation in cyber defense.

For Estonia, it is very important that NATO maintains the momentum in our area, and that we have a common approach to supporting NATO in our region. Baltic cooperation, and coordinating our positions, means that we have a united and stronger voice in NATO. It is important that we work very closely together.

The original concept of Nordic Defense Cooperation has been expanded to become Nordic-Baltic Defense Cooperation. How important is this development? Does belonging to this enlarged defense partnership add an extra layer of security and protection for the Baltic countries?

Regarding the Nordic countries, the matter of who is and who is not a member of NATO should not stop us cooperating at any level. There is a clear understanding about what we need to do together, and how we can work together. Any dividing lines, which in my view are artificial when it comes to security, are disappearing.

There have also been encouraging signals recently from both Finland and Sweden concerning real interoperability issues, and the need to exercise more together. For example Swedish forces will for the first time ever take part in the Estonian-NATO Spring Storm exercises in 2016. This is the Estonian Armed Force’s biggest annual exercise.

One potential advantage of Nordic-Baltic defense collaboration is possible savings through collective joint equipment purchases. How significant is this component of cooperation likely to become going forward?

Equipment needs tend to differ from country to country. We have already bought radars and munitions jointly with Finland. Joint procurements can be complicated. If they weren’t, we would be doing a lot more of them. That said, the more we engage in joint procurements, the more trust and experience we can build. We see a clear future trend here. Enhanced value for money can be achieved collectively to improve our bargaining position on joint procurements.

In Estonia, we have decided to create a new legal entity to manage all military equipment and materials procurement from 2017. This will pursue obtaining better value for money. This new agency will also have the role of looking at opportunities to secure cost efficiency benefits by purchasing equipment jointly with the Nordic and Baltic countries. Estonia will spend €1 billion (US $ 1.1 billion), or perhaps even more, on defense procurement by 2020.

How would you describe the state of Estonia’s political, security and economic relationship with Russia?

The current state of affairs is quite sad in this 21st century world. Estonia always knew where it belonged in the 1990s. We belonged in the West. That was and is our identity in a value-based Northern European democracy with all the freedoms that go with this. This was a natural thing for us.

We had this hope that Russia would one day become another normal, rational and practical country that we can work with. Geographically located where we are, we always took a more realistic view of Russia than perhaps countries in Western parts of Europe. We recognized the signs and saw the problems of what was going to happen somewhat earlier than others.

The aftermath of the war in Georgia in 2008 actually encouraged Russia. It got away with it. We took events much more seriously than other countries in Europe and in NATO. When events started to happen in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, we recognized a pattern that Crimea and Ukraine were not one-off events.

To what degree are domestic issues, such as a weakening economy, dictating how the Kremlin is both conducting its foreign policy and connecting foreign policy to its military muscle-flexing in the wider Baltic region and High North?

The psychological gap between Russia and the West is growing and not narrowing. If we look at internal Russian politics we see that the legitimacy of the regime is built on confrontation with the West. This is now the new normal, which is troubling and disconcerting. All of this affects our relations with Russia. We still try to work and cooperate with Russia in areas where there is no disagreements, but it is not easy.

However, we can’t just return to business as usual with Russia. Values must come first and before trade. The sanctions have been demonstrably useful in limiting Russia’s aggression and it is incredibly important that the EU remains united, maintains unity on this issue and extends the sanctions to curb any potential relapse. Russia will continue to try and drive a wedge between the EU member states. This cannot be allowed to happen, for it will only encourage Russia even more.

What in your view is the underlying motivation for Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s decision to play a more forceful military role on the global stage, as we are now seeing in Syria?

What Russia is not doing is explaining its motivations and methods to the rest of the world. Instead, it is constantly addressing its own domestic audience. There are domestic problems that Putin wants public attention taken away from. Russia has a third-world economy. That is sad to say, but it is true. Russia is like an African and Middle Eastern resource-driven economy, and it’s not sustainable. Whipping up exaggerated patriotism and nationalistic feelings helps Putin to domestically maintain the regime and give it legitimacy.

Then there is the question as to who are Russia’s friends. In Estonia, we could frankly say we are friends with more than 40 countries. Russia can claim Syria is a friend, and possibly Venezuela, and maybe Iran. Is China a friend of Russia? I would say not. Yes, it shares common interests with Russia. Is Tajikistan a friend?. It is a poor country, and has little choice. Is Kazakhstan a friend? I do not think so as it has no other option. Is Belarus a friend? I doubt it. Russia’s friends have been bullied into this position or they are given no other option.

Estonia and neighbors Latvia and Lithuania want permanent NATO and US troops stationed in the Baltic states. So far this has largely been confined to NATO and US heavy equipment storage depots. Are you confident that permanent troop bases will be established?

It has been our goal to increase the allied presence here. It is needed for reassurance, and clearly also as a deterrent. We do not describe it as a permanent presence, more that of a continual presence. The three Baltic States would like to see the numbers increase even further since that would enable us to train and work together even more closely. A battalion-size unit in every nation is our goal. This is a natural part of the process whereby NATO member countries support other allied states to ensure that they are safe, sound and secure.

It is not only about having a permanent US presence. Britain plans to increase its military presence in the Baltic states. We are still working on the details. Germany has announced a similar plan. There are between 600 to 700 [NATO] troops here – army, navy and air force – at any given time. Units come and go, but this figure is maintained.

Against the backdrop of the existing security landscape in the greater Baltic region, how vulnerable does Estonia feel as a nation that is committed to protecting its sovereignty? Is Estonia confident that the modernization and strengthening of its own armed forces, coupled with the support of NATO, can provide a long-term and effective deterrent to possible future threats?

I would not say Estonia is nervous about the current situation in our neighborhood, but we are concerned. Many things are working well for us, including the NATO Response Force and our response plans. Our professional Army, together with our reserve forces and our volunteer-based Defense League, are all working well. Combined, this gives us a substantial defense force. So our own forces, along with the commitment of allies, provide a credible deterrent

Naturally, we have historically very painful memories of being occupied by the Soviet Union, and that makes independence and sovereignty even more valuable for us. The security situation could always be better, but we are making the best of our situation. Our economy is growing, and Estonia is a safe and attractive place to invest in and conduct business. Our tax system is very favorable, and corruption levels are very low.

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