WASHINGTON — On the front line of any conflict with Russia sits the Baltic nation of Estonia. Kadi Silde, Estonia’s undersecretary for defense policy, visited Washington in May to sign a new defense road map with the United States. While in town, she sat down with Defense News for a wide-ranging interview.
Estonia in May became the third Baltic nation to sign a new road map with the U.S. However, the details are thin. What do you think of the agreement?
The idea is to have a bit more of a systemic approach to defense cooperation with a five-year time horizon. The cooperation is already excellent in basically all the areas that are mentioned in the road map. But to really help us put a little bit more focus on our cooperation, we thought signing this road map would be a good idea.
We have ideas already in which directions we’ll go. For example, in cyber, one of the important areas has been exercises, and this would continue going forward. Another area that’s mentioned is defense assistance, which we like to rather rebrand as defense investment, which is basically U.S. defense assistance to Estonia to further develop our capabilities.
The point we’ve made is that every taxpayer’s dollar that goes into a certain area, a certain capability in Estonia, we match with our funds. Normally it’s that one American taxpayer’s dollar is met with 2.6 from the Estonian side. So for us, this defense investment, as we prefer to say, is really an accelerator to help us develop these capabilities quicker than we would be able to do on our own.
In what areas should we expect to see U.S. investment?
Cyber is one of the areas; communication equipment in general, it’s ammunition, it’s maritime domain awareness. The road map, it doesn’t just [affect] defense capabilities. It sort of has a whole-of-government, comprehensive approach, so it’s also issues like police and border guard that are included in the road map. Which is how we approach defense in Estonia, so it’s good that the approach that we have between us also sort of mirrors that approach.
Following Russian activity in Ukraine, there was fear Moscow could make a move in the Baltics. That fear spiked again during the Zapad exercises 18 months ago. But Russia hasn’t made territorial grabs in your direction since. Do you view Russia as somewhat stable, for lack of a better term? Is this the new normal, and are you confident it’ll stay that way for a while?
I think the thing we have to bear in mind with Russia is we’ve constantly been underestimating them in terms of their ability to surprise us. So every time [that] we’ve thought we’re good, we’re not expecting any fundamental changes from their policy, they have a way of surprising us.
I think what we’ve seen and what we continue to see is that they continue to prioritize the development of the Western Military District. You could call it standardizing. Both in terms of quantity and quality, their armed forces in the Western Military District are getting better. At the same time, we’re also seeing that they are able to handle more than one theater. Back some years ago, people would say they are not really able to be active in more than one theater. Now we see they are active around the borders of Europe. They’re active in the Middle East, Venezuela. So their ability to handle more than one theater has been proven quite well.
In a way it’s stabilizing, but their capabilities are becoming better and better all the time. And again, one of the things that everyone has been saying for years is economically they’re in so much trouble so they can’t really cause us that much trouble. Again, economically they’re slowly bouncing back as well. So we remain vigilant, but I think this is a shared understanding among NATO nations that they haven’t really shown that they have changed their course. Their strategy, their aims, have not changed. They are dissatisfied with our security architecture, and they are trying to change it. And I don’t think it’s in the interest of us, Estonia, or NATO, or the U.S. for this to change.
We hear from the region that the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence program is great, but what everyone really wants is a permanent U.S. military presence. Is it fair to say that is Estonia’s stance?
That’s the wrong understanding, I think. What we want is to have meaningful military activity that is based on the plans we have for the defense of the region. So we’re not in the area of “the more the merrier”, and we’re not going around asking for permanent presence. What we want is to have, as I said, meaningful military activities based on plans that exercise the things that we would need to do in crisis times. I think exercises are a way to both train for the contingencies that we need to as well as having a regular presence of ally troops in our country.
There’s always things you can improve [in terms of local presence], but the majority of that has been implemented and is in place and is working very well. And there was always an agreement from the three NATO summits that dealt with the issue that there would be presence complemented by reinforcement. And there’s significant progress still to be made on the maritime domain and on the Euro dimension. There’s also significant progress to be made [toward] military mobility, [whatever] you want to call it. So this is our focus now in NATO — to get the other side of the equation ready as well.
Estonian officials have spoken about the need to get the NATO air-policing mission turned into more of an air defense mission. Is that still a priority?
Yeah, the air dimension is one that is really a priority for us this year, and one of the areas where we feel maybe progress has not been made quite as quickly as we would have desired. Which is not to say that much hasn’t been done. The steps taken on air policing after Crimea, these are appreciated and important, but we also have to think about how to transfer in a crisis time. Because in crisis time, air policing will not be sufficient. We will keep pushing for more concrete results this year.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.