WASHINGTON — In 1994, Jüri Luik helped lead negotiations with Russia on the withdrawal of troops from Estonia. Since that time, he has served in a variety of positions for the government in Tallinn, including stints as foreign and defense minister and as ambassador to NATO, the U.S. and Russia. His third stint as minister of defense began in 2017, and comes at a time when the Baltic nation is rushing to upgrade its capabilities in the face of Russian aggression.
During a trip to Washington for the funeral of Sen. John McCain, Luik spoke exclusively to Defense News about Russian relations, NATO capabilities and defending Estonian airspace.
You were head of delegation during negotiations with Russia in 1994 to remove troops from Estonia. Is that an experience that can help inform the situation today?
Well I think we have to keep in mind that the negotiations in ‘94 took place in very different circumstances. I cannot say that they wanted to withdraw their troops — I mean, there is always a streak of imperialism running through every government of Russia, including the most democratic ones. But in the end we managed to implement this withdrawal. This was done greatly with the help of President [Bill] Clinton, other Western leaders, because at that time, for [Boris] Yeltsin’s government, these [Western] leaders, their views had meaning and they were capable of influencing the Russian government.
President [Vladimir] Putin has taken an entirely different position, essentially an anti-Western position. Anything the Western leaders are pushing for is almost automatically something which Russia considers as alien or foreign or negative. So it is very unlikely that one can negotiate in a way that one was able to do with the Yeltsin government.
I think with Putin’s government it is more important to keep the channels open on different levels, so that the diplomats can meet, that there would be a dialogue so everybody would understand each other’s reasons and each other’s intentions. There are steps which could be made, but since President Putin has made the anti-Westernism kind of the internal ideology of the Russian regime — mobilizing its own people, the Russian people, around this idea of West being negative — it is also very difficult for him to properly negotiate with the West. Because he has created this enemy picture of the West. So at the moment I think the best ways is to keep the channels open, and the hope that perhaps the situation in Russia will improve at some point.
Do you think there is a threat of Russia invading your territory in the next few years?
I mean, I — it’s difficult to quantify the threat level.
What I would say is that any Russian threat depends on what we do. Because if we are firm, if we are clear, if we are strong, then the likelihood of Russian threat goes down immediately. If we are weak, if we show hesitation, then the Russia threat goes up. So it’s very much dependent. We cannot change what Russia does. But we can be sure that what we do really corresponds to the needs of the Western alliance and to the security of the Western allies. So I think some of the steps which have already been undertaken, like positioning NATO troops on the Baltic territory, NATO air policing — these are all extremely important. But there is a lot of stuff which still needs to be done.
There has been interest from Estonia and neighbors about taking the NATO air-policing mission and making it an air defense one. Is it realistic to get those countries to change their minds and change the mission set?
From the technical point of view, it’s entirely realistic. The question is really, first, the political will and, second, you have to have additional resources if you want to talk about the serious air defense capabilities. It’s not only changing rules of engagement. If you want the capability which would be capable of “defending,” in the classical sense of the word, then of course you have to put in more resources and develop it in a way that it could be called “air defense.” It’s not only that you would say to a fighter plane doing air policing that “if necessary you can shoot.” You have to have a lot of communications and radar and other additional capabilities. It’s not only with a flick of a switch that you can change the system. But if there is a political will, it’s doable, quite easy.
But is there a political will?
Well, that remains to be seen. But I must say that since we have already brought a sizable air capability to the Baltic states, I think it would be sad if we wouldn’t use it to the fullest extent. Because it’s already there. I mean, it’s not that we would start from zero.
You recently signed an agreement to buy Mistral SHORAD capabilities. That's one piece of air defense, but what's the next step?
Well, logically the next step — and probably the only step which is even theoretically available to our country with our defense spending — would be medium-range air defense. Our Lithuanian colleagues have already bought a small capability [from Kongsberg]. So I think this is a good start. We would probably, at least at the beginning, look more or less at the same system or the same approach — I wouldn’t say the same system, but the same approach.
Isn’t there a benefit to getting the same system? Having multiple systems in the region doesn’t make much sense given the size and the interconnected nature of airspace.
You are exactly right. I believe any purchases which you do, which have regional meaning — and of course air defense has regional meaning — should be, as close as possible, coordinated with the three countries [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania], but not only the three countries but the alliance because the alliance operates daily in the Baltic airspace.
Are you talking to the U.S. or other allies about putting their air defense or missile defense capabilities in Estonia as a stop-gap measure?
There are constant discussions going on when it comes to air defense gaps. Unfortunately at the moment it would be very early to say what is possible, where these discussions would end. However, I have to say with sadness that very few NATO countries actually have proper air defense capabilities. That is one of the areas which was gravely mismanaged or was not under any attention. For a long time there was no consideration that you would actively have to close the airspace at some point. So NATO countries have very weak air defense capabilities. I think this is one of the priority systems or priority areas which every [of the allied] countries should develop. I think that was a total oversight. But of course it was based on the idea that the era of big power tensions is over.
There is discussion about Estonia spending 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Is that realistic? If you got that plus-up, where would you invest the increase?
We are rapidly approaching elections, so it’s always very difficult to say where things are going. Defense spending in Estonia is not a classical election issue. It is more solved by consensus, where parties come together and try to make as a rational decision as possible, as responsible a decision as warranted by the country’s security interests. So I would believe that after the elections, the parties which form the government of Estonia will then come together and try to negotiate some type of [defense] budget. But what exactly would be the percentage, it’s really difficult to say.
But would expect some sort of raise? You don’t expect a cut or to be flat?
No, no cuts, certainly. I would hope for a raise after the elections, but it’s very important to keep in mind that while some parties propose the raise — for instance, my own party has proposed the rate to 2.5 percent — it is very unlikely that this will be a huge election issue where people will fiercely debate that. It is more that the parties will show their positions on this issue, but the actual negotiations will be when a coalition agreement is signed.
Through the European Union’s Permanent Structure Cooperation program, you’re working with Finland and Latvia on an unmanned ground system. Why go after that capability?
The aim of these projects to create new capabilities which would have added value both from the point of technology but also, of course, helping the industry. And while the UAV [market] is a very well-developed sector, the ground-based unmanned vehicles is really something where Estonian companies have made great strides already. There is a lot of international interest. While we have proposed this project with three countries, we already hear that many countries from different parts of NATO would be ready to join. There’s a lot of potential in it — this would make the armed forces, the land forces much more effective because nowadays not everything has to be done with a simple truck and a driver; you could do a lot with this kind of machinery.
What could it mean for Estonia’s local industry?
We have a quite well-developed defense industry, but it is obvious that we are not talking about huge production lines. This is a small, sort of high-tech industry which works in conjunction with bigger firms in western Europe and the United States. So there’s no doubt that should such a project be fruitful, this would be adding value also to the Estonian companies.
There was a new law passed recently that lifted some constraints on Estonia’s defense companies. What has changed, and what does it mean for your office?
Basically where Estonia had very restrictive laws was working with ammunition. Essentially, with something which can blow up, there were very strict security rules which essentially made it difficult or almost avoided the possibility that we could build, for instance, our own ammunition.
Of course, that was illogical. There were some historical reasons for that. Now this law has been changed, and we have many more possibilities in both pre-building our own ammunition but also possibly selling ammunition to other countries. Ammunition is very important, and I would caution other countries as well that it’s all fair and good to buy big stuff, shiny objects. But if you don’t have simple ammunition with them, essentially it’s just a monument to waste. Because it’s just not usable. So I think ammunition is a very important priority. This is something which everybody has to keep in mind.
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.