WASHINGTON ― As a border state with Russia, Estonia is well aware it is ground zero for any potential conflict between Moscow and NATO. The country is hitting the target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, as requested by the alliance, and it is trying to modernize and build up its military capabilities. But like many nations in Europe, Estonia faces tough budgetary realities.
Jonatan Vseviov, the permanent secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defence, serves as the point man in directing those investments ― and per local news reports, he is on the short list to be the next ambassador to the United States. He talked to Defense News about those issues, as well as cyber challenges, during a June visit to Washington.
I want to start with the big picture. Estonia is going to the summit in a couple of weeks. What are some of the priorities you are looking at?
NATO is the cornerstone of our security. We expect a lot, not only from this summit but from NATO in general. NATO has been doing a lot of good work on defense and deterrence, bolstering up its presence in the Baltic states as well as in other regions in the eastern part of the alliance. I think that work needs to continue, and we expect a good number of decisions from the summit regarding the readiness of alliance forces, regarding reinforcement, the ability of the alliance to reinforce different regions.
Obviously burden-sharing is going to be a key topic for NATO. We, as you might know, are one of the nations that contribute more than 2 percent of our GDP towards national defense. That is going to be a topic that will be discussed, I’m sure at length, at the summit. We are obviously aware of the fact that output is as important as input. And what I mean by that is that what you actually get for your defense dollars or euros is what, at the end of the day, matters. But there is no output without sufficient input. So both input and output are important. We need to be impatient. We need to ask for more and faster results. And we’ve been doing that for the past few years, and I think we are on the right track.
One of the things that is expected to come out of the summit is standing up a new Atlantic Command. There’s been a lot of talk about something along those lines for the Baltic. Where is Estonia on the idea of a Baltic command? And can it happen, given how NATO resources are always constrained?
When it comes to, for instance, reinforcement, there are several key elements to that. One is the readiness of all forces. Military mobility, which has become a very famous topic, which is obviously crucially important not only for the Baltic states but for the alliance in general. Discussion on pre-positioning, for instance, as part of the overall military mobility issue. Planning and exercise: It’s something that we often talk about in the context of defense and deterrence and then obviously also command structure. The NATO command structure has been and will be adapted to make it more fit for the time we’re in right now.
There is also NATO force structure, which is crucially important. We do expect to see a divisional level or two-star HQ that would concentrate on the Baltic states. Discussions are underway between us and the Latvians and Danes to set up what is known as a Multinational Division North to complement what Multinational Division North East in Poland is already doing, to complement what the NATO force structure in general, as well as the command structure, is doing.
So I think our command structure needs to evolve as the challenges evolve, and as the forces that we have available for our defense evolve. I think we’re on the right path; and the Multinational Division North ― not only is it necessary, it is also a decision that will come at a very, very right time. There are no silver bullets when it comes to security in general ― no silver bullets in policy and no silver bullets and capability. It’s a complex picture, so we need to concentrate on alliance relationships.
Part of your job is to figure out investments for the money you’re spending ― the best way to build Estonian forces. What are some of the key investments that Estonia is making in the next couple years? And what are the areas that you’re hoping to start investing in the next couple of years?
Most of our procurement, a good portion of procurement, is relatively small stuff, but more than 20 percent [of defense spending] is major equipment. Some of the examples: We’re mechanizing one of our battalions, which is a lengthy process. It started back in 2013 [and] will continue for the next few years. We are investing heavily in infrastructure not only for our own purposes but for the purposes of hosting allies. We are investing in ammunition. All of our acquisitions are targeted at making sure that we are not creating a hollow force. And the most important element of making sure that you don’t have a hollow force is ammunition, whether you have it or you don’t.
So we’re spending a lot out of our procurement budget on making sure that we actually have the ammunition for the weapon systems that we have in the armed forces. Self-propelled howitzers, one of the latest developments that we are about to procure together with Finland, which is a good example of a joint procurement. We spent a lot of money on intelligence early warning both within the military as well as within the civilian sector, and we’re setting up a cyber command within the armed forces. We’ve been talking about cyber for a long time, we’ve been working on cyber. We are a very internet-dependent society, but only now are we creating a separate cyber command within the armed forces, so that will require additional investments. These are probably some of the key areas where we intend to spend our money on in the next few years.
Since you mentioned it, let’s talk cyber. If Estonia is known for anything worldwide, it might well be cyber capabilities. You’re also home to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. Where is NATO on cyber? Is it getting where it needs to be or lagging behind? How concerned should the allies be about where they stand on cyber?
I think we should always be concerned when it comes to cyber, and this is a very fast, developing domain. During the summit in Warsaw, for instance, the heads of state and government declared cyber to be one of the domains in security. I think that was a very important decision.
In theory, it could trigger Article 5 now.
Well, there is a good level of what I would call “constructive ambiguity“ built into the wording of the Washington Treaty and also Article 5. So Article 5 is what we decide to be Article 5, and that is very useful. We don’t want to give anybody a list of attacks that would trigger Article 5 because that would obviously mean that we automatically also create a list of potential attacks that would not trigger Article 5.
Cyber is certainly a new domain. We are, I think, still scratching the surface of what it all means. It took us several years, perhaps even several decades, to think through, for instance, the air domain after airplanes arrived on the horizon and were used in major conflicts. We still didn’t have an air force until, in most cases, in the late 1940s or 1950s. So it will take us time to figure out how best to operate, how best to organize ourselves in the cyber domain.
What is certain, though, is that the government alone cannot defend the cyber society, if you will. And will require not only a whole-of-government but really a whole-of-society approach. And secondly, obviously, the physical borders do not matter in cyber. So national initiatives are important, but they are nothing if there is no international component to our efforts. So figuring out all of this, thinking through the legal aspects, the policy aspects, is one of the things that the center of excellence in Tallinn does. We’re certain that we are again on the right path, in both NATO and the European Union, but I think it will take time for us to fully comprehend the best way to operate in this new domain.
But how well, in your estimation, are the NATO allies integrating with cyber?
I think there’s still a long way to go. Cyber tends to be a very sensitive area for obvious reasons, oftentimes also harnessed within intelligence organizations. But we’re making progress. There is more sharing, information sharing in NATO as well as between allies bilaterally, than there was a few years ago. So I think people are realizing that we need international cooperation; and without international cooperation, we simply cannot succeed in this new domain.
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.