BRUSSELS and WASHINGTON — Jüri Luik, Estonia’s permanent representative to NATO since early October, has been a potential presidential candidate, foreign minister, defense minister, an ambassador to the U.S. and later an ambassador to Russia.
He spoke with Defense News twice for this interview: first on Oct. 21 at NATO headquarters in Brussels after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Black Sea region; and then by phone on Nov. 23 as tension between Russia and the West hit a new peak.
Luik shared his perspectives on the tension, the Biden administration’s deliberations on nuclear policy, allied perceptions of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Estonia’s and NATO’s military modernization efforts. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief says Russia has more than 92,000 soldiers surrounding Ukraine and is readying an attack by early February. Is Russia preparing for a new attack against Ukraine? If so, would the U.S. and NATO come to its aid?
It is always very difficult to say what Russia’s final intentions are, but the situation is very serious. There have not only been those statements but very stern statements from the U.S. secretary of state, the NATO secretary general and other NATO leader about putting Russia on notice that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable and would have serious consequences. These statements are not usually made lightheartedly. It’s code that they’re taking the situation seriously.
Why do you think Russia’s doing what it’s doing?
The final intent of Russia can be stated only after after the fact. But the situation is so serious that it has warranted very strong attention from both NATO and the United States. The U.S. has communicated it not only to President Vladimir Putin but to the whole Russian security community. And the visit to Moscow by CIA Director William Burns was a prime example of that.
President Putin makes the final decisions, but it is also important that his surrounding staff understands that this is no laughing matter. In addition to this dramatic situation around Ukraine, we are closely following the situation on the Polish and Lithuanian border where Belarus is conducting hybrid attacks toward these countries.
Estonia recently held snap drills and erected barriers. Talk about that in relation to the migrant situation in Europe.
While Estonia has not been directly attacked so far, it’s important for us to be as well prepared as possible. An important part of those snap exercises was the ability to use our army — and the armed forces in general — to erect barriers on the border because if this kind of hybrid attack starts, then it might already be too late.
We also sent a unit to Lithuania to help our allies ― a surveillance unit with drones — and we are sending a number of units also to Poland. This is mainly engineering, surveillance and nonlethal activities.
What steps should the West take to avoid a conflict with Russia and alleviate tension?
Finding the off ramp is something the West always tries, and it often doesn’t succeed. If asked, Russia would probably respond: “We can find an off ramp for you.” The clarity and unity of allies is the best signal to Russia. It should cease its illegal activities and [Putin should] rein in his “ally” [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko ― which no doubt Putin could do.
U.S. allies are reportedly lobbying President Joe Biden against changing American policy on the use of nuclear weapons amid concern he is considering a “no first use” declaration. What is Estonia’s message to the U.S. on the matter, and what are allies communicating to the administration?
I don’t want to get into the details of our discussions with U.S. allies, but our position is very clear: We’ve stated many times we believe that the present posture, which is similar to NATO posture, should be maintained.
For Estonia, if you look at our threat picture, the likelihood of a conventional attack is higher than the likelihood of a nuclear attack. We believe that the present policy maintains the unpredictability of a response, including a nuclear response, which forces the adversary to think. It would create another layer in making the decision to, for instance, attack Estonia or the Baltic states much more difficult and much more challenging.
When the Estonian Defence Ministry’s permanent secretary, Kusti Salm, met with the U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Mara Karlin, in October, what was Estonia’s message to the U.S.?
Our main message is that U.S. involvement in European security is crucial for us. The U.S. has unique capabilities, which no other ally has. And since our main aim is to deter Russia, we believe that we should have overwhelming capabilities that would deter any temptation for aggressive action from Russia. For us, NATO is an instrument of peace and stability. And the U.S. is the only country which can deliver to the table an overwhelming deterrent, and we believe it’s crucial.
We are looking forward to what the [Pentagon’s upcoming] Global Posture Review says about the U.S. physical presence in Europe. It is very important for the U.S. to maintain its presence in Europe. It plays an important role in creating a credible deterrent. And it’s very important for us that while the U.S. is pivoting to Asia, it would maintain ― as they have said they will ― their focus also on the European arena. NATO has said quite unequivocally that Russia is a threat. The word “threat” is crucial to Euro-Atlantic security, while the allied position on China is, let’s say, more general ― excepting all the negative consequences of Chinese actions.
It seems there’s fresh nervousness from some Eastern European states. Is that about the U.S. focus on China, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, provocative actions from Russia or a combination of those?
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is not something which we can specifically point to as a matter of concern. We were there together. As somebody who has dealt with NATO for a long time, I know that we all sign the decisions, including the decision to withdraw. Obviously none of us foresaw the collapse of the Afghan forces. So in that sense, we were in the same boat. But obviously we had a warning from the United States when President Donald Trump signed the agreement with the Taliban. There were dates already there. So I think this issue is somewhat overblown.
Is there talk about a permanent U.S. troop presence in Europe? If not in Estonia, somewhere else?
The United States has three brigades in Europe, it has formidable Air Force capabilities and the Navy’s 6th Fleet. There is a lot of hardware already, but we believe it would be good if some assets would be drawn more to the east. We have always indicated our own readiness to accept U.S. troops in Estonia. We believe that presence in the Baltic states ― which are, let’s be perfectly blunt about it, probably the most vulnerable part of the alliance ― would be a strong, strong message of deterrence.
While withdrawing from the Afghanistan operation, the United States said very firmly that one of the reasons is to have a stronger focus on standing up to Russia and China. So we are looking forward to see what moves there will be in that with the Global Posture Review.
How would you describe tension between allies and Russia, and what’s driving the demand for forces?
With Russia, it’s a continuous flow of provocative actions in various parts of Europe, including exercises and aggressive military moves, like bringing troops to the Ukrainian border this spring, ending with murders of citizens of other countries on their territory. The internal situation in Russia has gone from bad to absolutely horrible, imprisoning democratic opposition and stopping the work of [nongovernmental organizations].
We are certainly looking for a steady increase of deterrent power from the alliance. We also always emphasize the importance of exercises on our territory, together with our own forces, especially reinforcement exercises. It’s evident that to defend Poland and the Baltic states, you would need a sophisticated, powerful system of reinforcement in times of crisis, and this can only be developed via exercises. It cannot be developed sitting in staff headquarters and drawing maps.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took a trip in October to reassure Black Sea countries. Is messaging enough on its own, and how did Estonia see it?
It’s all very important. Political messages can indicate to the opposing party that we are taking the security of Ukraine and Georgia seriously. If made by the secretary of defense, it adds to the strength of such statements. But it’s also very important to introduce exercises. Romania is a member of NATO, which entails Article 5 guarantees, and it has U.S. presence. It’s not comparable to Ukraine and Georgia, which are different and have much weaker positions. We have to do the maximum we can to help them ― exercises; if not NATO, then multinational exercises.
The United States has provided weaponry to Ukraine. The United Kingdom is also now providing weapons to Ukraine. These are all steps which show our strong commitment. With Ukraine and Georgia, NATO committed in Bucharest to their eventual membership. There is no consensus for that today, but I think this should always be kept in mind as a strong policy statement of the alliance.
What are Estonia’s plans for defense modernization?
For the alliance, it’s very important that all allies have sufficient capabilities to do the maximum they can. Estonia is a small country, and that has to be taken into consideration. We cannot produce divisions, but we can exercise smart defense, which will be well directed, and use our capabilities to the maximum.
It’s extremely important that together with Latvia we have created a joint command headquarters, which is basically a division-level headquarters. The command and control is actually something which is of big importance because if you don’t have proper C2, it’s just disorganized capabilities.
Estonia is now going to purchase a number of coastal defense or anti-ship capabilities, starting from sea mines and including long-range anti-ship missiles from an Israeli-Singaporean company. That gives us a longer range and actually emphasizes the Baltic Sea as a joint battle space.
Estonia has created a cyber command, and because of our significant experience in cyberspace, we have specific capabilities we have given voluntarily to NATO. Those can be used for defense and offense as necessary.
Estonia seems to have an outsized voice on cyber issues. How has it been part of NATO’s discussions on disruptive technologies?
NATO allies have decided that we would need an approach perhaps similar to the United States, whereby you would focus on new and disruptive technologies. In Europe, the countries are much smaller, the capabilities are much smaller, the financial possibilities are much smaller. NATO is creating this innovation fund, and has a well-developed new policy when it comes to new technologies. Estonia has offered some of its capabilities to the mix, and cyber is probably our biggest strength. Estonia hosts NATO’s cyber range, which is a huge exercise platform and constantly used by the alliance, by allied countries, and by partners like Finland and Sweden.
The technological capabilities of our opponent are developing constantly, and you’ll see Putin bringing to the forefront new weapons every month or so. Some of these weapons are clearly prototypes, which don’t have immediate value. But it’s already clear the Russians are investing a lot, and NATO should take it seriously. There will be a discrepancy because some NATO allies, like the United States, develop their technological capabilities very quickly, but other NATO allies who are much smaller don’t have relevant capabilities. At some point, you might have the situation when our ally [the U.S.] is so much ahead of that, it will be an interoperability question. That’s why it’s very important that NATO has a common platform, at least to inform each other and to guarantee interoperability of various technologies. This gap is not a problem at the moment, but in the future it might sort of develop quite quickly.
Will the innovation fund mitigate that, or will more have to be done?
The fund is being created now, so it’s difficult to say what what role it will play. The European Union has also developed [Permanent Structured Cooperation] projects. Estonia is leading one of the future-oriented PESCO projects, which is for an unmanned ground vehicle. We see robots used more and more in the air and below the sea level, but not so much on the ground level.
At NATO’s meeting of defense ministers, Austin was expected to discuss Afghanistan, the Islamic State group and China. What are your observations?
When it comes to Afghanistan, we see terrorist groups popping up, and obviously the alliance has to decide what role, if any, it has in the future of the Afghan situation — whether the alliance will be part of this global anti-ISIS coalition. Since we don’t have troops on the territory, the fight will go on with precision strikes, special forces and capabilities that are used when there are no troops on the ground. I think it is still under discussion and partly dependent whether we find consensus in the alliance for any future activities. We are looking certainly to the United States as a leading power to put forward its understanding of how we should continue in Afghanistan.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.