WASHINGTON — As one of the three Baltic nations, Estonia represents NATO’s front line in any potential conflict with Russia. And while each of the Baltic states has its own individual defense priorities, it is widely accepted that any conflict would involve all three — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Maj. Gen. Martin Herem, the chief of Estonia’s Defence Forces, believes it’s time for the nations to start thinking regionally instead of parochially. He talked to Defense News about this and other security issues during a February visit to Washington.

From an Estonian perspective, what are you looking to see come out of the Defender Europe 2020 exercise?

The most obvious and the easiest thing that will be achieved already is a message. In Europe we have discussions on where America is. Are they are moving away from Europe, [abandoning us]? Or, will [the U.S. support us] against the threat from the east? And this is definitely a message, that tens of thousands of people deploy to Europe — that costs money, but that also shows attitude. And it is not just to protect the American interests. So that’s very clear.

Second thing, which may be the more important for me, because I have no doubts that America will support us if it is needed — it is that we will exercise our capability to receive the reinforcement. From our side, we have a possibility to exercise our command post and our headquarters. So we’ll get a much better understanding of what we have to do to receive reinforcement. And hopefully in future exercises, we’ll have a better understanding what kind of conditions we must create militarily.

This exercise differs a little bit — a lot, actually — from many other exercises, where we just deploy the battalion or brigade to some area, then they do the live-firing exercise, we cooperate, different nations are cooperating, we enjoy the crowd and international environment — but we can do it in New Zealand or Greenland or wherever. It doesn’t exercise the reinforcement of this region. This Defender ’20 definitely will do this. And that’s, again, very important. It will train, or educate, us.

NATO and its European Union counterparts have spent a lot of time talking about military mobility. We’ve heard complaints that the effort isn’t moving quickly enough. What’s your take on where it stands?

I think maybe the main development has happened in our brains. I think there is not too much to do in the physical world. I mean, yeah, there are problems that we have too narrow roads or too weak bridges or our railway system has certain limits, but we can do it anyway. The most important [part] is that we understand where we have to put a bit more something, and then how to regulate when we give the order to civil society that says, “Don’t drive here, just a few days when you must hold back your activity,” which is OK.

Huge impact to economy, usually, but that’s, again, the kind of mindset — that if we need, then we do it. But, again, all these PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] studies and things — we have now mapped roads, bridges, railways, seaports, airports, and we understand much better the capacity of this, of this infrastructure, and what we have to build.

We have also some understanding of how much it costs. But the main developments, again, have happened, I think, in our knowledge, in our understanding. We are changing very slowly ... there are a lot of things to improve. But if you ask: Can we physically do it? Then I say, yes. But are we ready to do it? Are we ready to change our priorities in daily life?

In an essay for Defense News last year, you wrote that nations in the region “must learn to let go some of the authority over our national military forces or even certain political ambitions. We must overcome our fears to achieve success.” What does that look like in real terms?

It’s very sensitive. Basically, resources are limited in the area. And when we talk about the Baltic region, always, if we will see any kind of aggression from the east, then all three of us will be involved. So I think we can achieve something when we unite our resources, our forces. But if you do so, then we obviously give up in some areas. As an Estonian, I have my interests. I don’t care about Riga, the capital of Latvia; Tallinn is most important. But as a divisional commander, [Riga may be more important strategically]. I think, militarily, that’s a right way to move because that’s how we can defeat the opponent. If we’re trying to save all [domestic interests] in our territory and if we seek for the integrity of our territory, then [there will be no] main effort, we will not take risk, and we will just lose piece by piece.

The point is, there are different nations. They speak different languages. They have a bit different culture. They have different economical, political interests. And that’s something we must get over. I think today, we in the military have the knowledge. But the military solutions or options we present to politicians are already prepared to be acceptable by politicians. They are not the best military solutions. So we must do something else. We must do the right thing. And of course politicians, they have the right to cancel our thing — that’s a civil control. Then, yes, I will do it a different way as they would like. But at the beginning, I must give them a military solution, not a political solution. And that we can do only when we join our resources, our activities, and we say: “OK, in the Baltic states we want to achieve this, in NATO framework, of course.”

So we must take the first step. We must be very, very decisive when we do this. We can [do] it only when we have a common plan.

Lithuanian soldiers take part in a military exercise with NATO allies, including Poland and the other two Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)
Lithuanian soldiers take part in a military exercise with NATO allies, including Poland and the other two Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

It’s a big idea, but the political realities of each nation having their own interest would make that incredibly difficult, no?

Yeah, but it’s very, very human, you know? It’s like the houses on one street; and then, suddenly, one house owner would say: “You know, this weekend, all of our street will spend to repair my roof.” We all have something [we need done], but we should do it because maybe tomorrow I need something, and then we will [pitch in for] my house. So it’s a very simplified example, but that’s something we have to do.

Do not just accuse the politicians. It’s society. It’s actually society. How can I explain to my population that the euros we spend for the Navy, at the moment the conflict starts, you will not see? They will say: “Ah, general, you may have a very good plan, but my house needs to be protected.” The only way is, again, let’s do the real planning. Let’s do the planning without borders, without limits. Let’s imagine that there is no national interest, that there is a regional interest.

But it all brings us to the capability development. Just one example: During the last 20 years, we have developed an anti-tank capability. The sad thing is that if we decide to buy something next year, the Latvians need it two years ago. It’s very hard to buy a similar weapon to make it easier for training, ammunition, repairs, whatever. I have experts who will suggest that this company provides the best asset. Latvians have “better” experts. And they say, “No, no, no. This one is cheaper. We can maintain it later, in Latvia,” and so on. So there are completely different interests.

NATO deploys forces on a persistent rotational basis to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to demonstrate the alliance’s determination and ability to act as one in response to any aggression against its members. (Sgt. Timothy Hamlin/U.S. Army)
NATO deploys forces on a persistent rotational basis to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to demonstrate the alliance’s determination and ability to act as one in response to any aggression against its members. (Sgt. Timothy Hamlin/U.S. Army)

And also, a Latvian company might have a piece of another company.

Correct. There must be somebody who’ll say: “OK, the economical benefit or whatever is far behind from what we can achieve, if you have the common platform or common weapon. Because then we can buy ammunition later, even if it’s just support from other countries. That makes our military achievement much easier.”

And then how can I explain to my government, my society, that we took this decision to follow Latvians only because they already have this system? It’s very, very difficult. Because Latvians are our friends, but our experts are “definitely much better” than them, because they’re Estonians.

Latvia thinks they need better artillery. The Lithuanians think they need better air defense. But what if we [collectively] say the main gap in the region is electronic warfare, engineers, whatever — and then we say: “OK, let’s fill this gap first because it’s most critical and it’s also doable. Because that costs a few hundred million [in funds], and there’s three of us, maybe some other allies — Poland, for example — if you put money together, we will achieve the effort." Which is a bit wider than just the object within our state borders.

Latvia and Lithuania have been skeptical about joint procurement. So how do you make that happen?

[Right now] the main reason or purpose to do this is to politically show that three Baltic states are doing something together, or to save money. And if we do the common procurement, then, politically, we may have the will, but then we see that economically it doesn’t work. Somewhere in Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, we’re losing money because the maintenance will happen somewhere else [in another country]. If this is the reason or purpose [of joint procurement], then we will lose always. Forget about the economy. What is most important for us? Integrity, the defense of our state, and so on. If you focus on this, then it’s much easier to decide. So far we haven’t done the regional planning on a tactical level, on a strategical level, on a NATO [level].

I don’t think we have done it. We have done it only that we all need tanks. Let’s buy tanks. Whose tank is cheaper? Or whose tank do we like more? The Latvians think this is better. We think this is better. Then we have a lot of discussions. And finally, we don’t [end up doing] anything.

One big cooperative effort underway is a Baltic sea regional force. How is that going?

We know what NATO expects to develop from us. We are writing out the 10-year plan. And actually, Lithuania, Latvia, they do this same thing for [their respective] navy. So we are looking for capability development: What we can do jointly? Are there platforms we all need? Can we procure them together? Or maintain them together? Should they be the same type or similar? Can we later educate our seamen in the same school because the platforms are similar? And then, how are we going to command them? Where are we going to use them?

So far, [joint procurement], its purpose has been, to be honest, mainly to show that we are cooperating. But do we have a plan covering three Baltic states, and maybe also Poland, or maybe even a bit wider, where we say that that’s what we have to do, and that’s why we develop our capabilities that way? Look at missiles, for example. If you ask today what would you like to do to defend your coastal line, I would say: “Let’s buy some kind of coastal defense missiles with a certain range.” That’s to protect Estonia. If you say, “OK, what can you do in the region,” then I would buy, for the same money, a bit different assets because then I can defend Latvia from Estonian ground. Or to achieve a completely different result, which is achieving the sea denial on the Baltic Sea.

This is not aggressive. That’s very important. This is not aggressive behavior toward Russia. But what I see today, Russia behaves aggressively. And we are all the time in reactive mode. And we spend most of our money to defend my precious Estonia, not the region. When we cooperate, there is a mainly political or economical purpose, not military. And again we come back to this — giving up sovereignty. Who is going to command all these warships of these Baltic states, because somebody may decide that all ships must go to, I don’t know, Finnish Gulf, and not in Lithuania, including Lithuania ships. [Lithuanians will ask]: “Why did I spend money for these ships if they are going to defend northern Estonia?” Because we will achieve the end state — what we want to achieve — somewhere else.