No. 5 - Sept. 1996
Vol. 44 - pp. 7-10

Estonian defence policy:
independence and international cooperation

Andrus Öövel
Minister of Defence of Estonia

Andrus Öövel
Andrus Öövel at NATO headquarters on 14 June to attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers with Cooperation Partners.
(NATO photo 24Kb)

Estonia has embarked on a path leading towards association with European and Atlantic security structures. To this end, it is pursuing the principle that international cooperation and assistance can only be relied upon if Estonia clearly expresses its intention to defend itself and if it possesses the forces necessary for self defence. It accepts that defence cooperation must be based on the principle of equal participation and shared responsibility, thus each state belonging to a military alliance must contribute its fair share for the creation of a united defence.

Estonia's national defence doctrine is based on two complementary and interdependent principles: an independent national defence capability and international military cooperation. In this way, Estonia's security is directly linked to European security.

The ultimate aim of international defence cooperation for Estonia is to ensure the country's national defence by means of security guarantees. On the one hand, a national defence system is a necessary feature of a nation's independence and sovereignty - of its existence as a state. On the other hand, a small state the size of Estonia, owing to its limited resources, cannot build up a defence system capable of entirely excluding any threat of aggression. Thus, the need arises for direct defence guarantees or, at a minimum, active international cooperation in defence.

In seeking security guarantees, Estonia's focus is on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO, at present, is the only Western collective defence organization with the means to guarantee security and collective defence, based on democratic principles.

Priorities in the defence field

Estonian defence policy today foresees the need for international defence cooperation in four areas:

  • Multilateral relations, through international security and defence organizations;

  • Bilateral relations, that is, defence cooperation with individual countries;

  • Baltic cooperation, among the littoral states around the Baltic Sea;

  • International participation in peace operations.

Our first priority in the creation and strengthening of our defence structures is to draw nearer to NATO. Contacts between Estonia and NATO have evolved since 1992, when Estonia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). Our relations with NATO intensified when we joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme in February 1994 - as only the fourth country to do so. PfP has become the main framework for our relations with the Alliance

The full potential of Estonia's national defence can only be fulfilled through international cooperation. Participation in the PfP programme is not a goal in itself, but we view it as part of a process leading to eventual NATO membership. Through participation in PfP, our armed forces are acquiring the ability to cooperate with the forces of NATO, which will demonstrate our ability to take responsibility in matters of defence.

Estonia's Partnership for Peace Presentation Document, indicating our proposals and aspirations for further cooperation, was passed to NATO in June 1994. Our Individual Partnership Programme (IPP), listing concrete areas of cooperation, was then drawn up. The most important areas of cooperation for us include the organization of air traffic control and airspace, participation in special studies with associated seminars and courses, language training, cooperation in peacekeeping and related activities, familiarization with NATO standards and equipment, the development of military and civil structures and entrenching the principles of civilian control of the military.

Estonia does not intend to be merely a consumer of security; it also intends to participate in creating security. To this end, our active participation in peacekeeping and peace support operations is essential. Estonian peacekeeping units participated together with Danish peacekeepers in the UN's mission in Croatia. Our servicemen have had the opportunity to assist in securing peace in the NATO-led IFOR operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as part of the Nordic-Polish Brigade. Moreover, the establishment of the 'BALTBAT' Baltic peacekeeping battalion represents an important undertaking in peacekeeping and Baltic defence cooperation.

In defence of a small state

Meri & Solana
Estonian President Lennart Meri (left), visiting NATO headquarters last March, is welcomed in the Council by Secretary General Solana, the Council Chairman.
(NATO Photo 28Kb)
In developing an independent defence system, we must take into account the fact that as a small state, any possible enemy force would likely be vastly superior and thus we cannot exclude a defence scenario involving the partial occupation of our territory. Because the size of our armed forces does not enable us to create a continuous front to stop an attacking force at the border, we must rely on mobile and territorial defence tactics. Estonia's armed forces must be able to undertake independent resistance throughout the whole of our territory.

The aim of mobile defence is to resist an invading army's advance from tactically favourable positions on the principle of "attack and hide". Such tactics would slow down the enemy's advances, while ensuring minimal losses to the defending forces and maximum to the attackers. The mobile defence forces consist of the best trained and equipped, and most mobile units of the Estonian armed forces.

Carrying out home or territorial defence is the task of the territorial forces, which as a rule, operate in their assigned regions. Their task is to stop and destroy the enemy in their specific regions, separately from the course of battles elsewhere in the country. It makes the total destruction of the national defence system difficult and would impose heavy losses on the attackers.

The territorial forces are based on reserve forces, called the Kaitseliit or 'Defence League'. The Defence League is viewed as an evolving and changing national defence organization according to current needs. The Defence League's main task in national defence is to contribute to forming battalions of territorial forces, as well as conducting training and ensuring their fighting effectiveness. During peacetime, professional servicemen, non-commissioned officers, officers and volunteers make up the Defence League, and during times of war they would make up the principal part of established military units.

The role of the armed forces

Nordic-Polish Brigade
IFOR peacekeepers in the Nordic-Polish brigade.
(EPA/Belga 45Kb)
Taking into account the essential requirements of national defence and the role of the different military units, the primary branch of the armed forces is the infantry, the creation and management of which is considerably cheaper than air or naval forces. At the same time, infantry scattered throughout the country is the most reliable defence. Infantry units are hard to locate and destroy, and invasion of the territory would demand sizeable forces from the enemy, with a high probability of unacceptable losses.

The main types of armaments required for the infantry are rifles, mortars, short and medium range anti-tank weapons, and short range anti-aircraft weapons. The acquisition of such armaments for our infantry battalions is a high priority. Modern communications equipment is also essential to effective operations.

Estonia's naval forces help maintain the military balance in the region. The naval forces are suited to the special conditions of the Baltic Sea and their purpose is the defence of territorial waters. In case of war, the navy, including vessels at the disposal of the coast guard in peacetime, must be capable of defending coastal areas and territorial waters against enemy naval forces and to prevent landing operations. Special attention must be paid to the effective use of, and protection against, mines.

In peacetime, the Estonian navy must be ready to participate in international search and rescue operations and to help in the fight against environmental threats. Its peacetime duties also include helping to maintain order at sea and carrying out oceanographic research. All this presumes a high level of expertise, preparedness and experience in international cooperation. The long-term objectives for the navy's development are thus enhanced professional training, leading to a proficient technical level and the ability to cooperate with the naval forces of neighbouring states.

The role of the air forces is to secure control of the country's airspace and provide air defence of strategic sites. The air forces include air surveillance and air defence units, as well as a unified civil-military air traffic control system. The task of the unified civil-military air traffic control system is monitoring airspace, search and rescue missions, and military transport flights necessary for national security.

Our air forces must be established in a manner which ensures the maximum degree of integration with other national defence and civil structures. At the same time, we must prepare for cooperation in an international air defence system of the Baltic region and possible integration with the air defence systems of NATO. We are also seeking to work more closely in the field of air traffic control, in order to be compatible with NATO standards.

The United States has put forward a Regional Airspace initiative for the Baltic States to help each country to develop a strategy for modernizing its air traffic control system and peacetime elements of its air defence system. At the third Central and Eastern European Regional Airspace Management Conference in September, final reports of the study are to be presented to each Baltic State.

Civil-military relations

Training exercise
A training exercise by soldiers of the Estonian peacekeeping company.
(Estonian MoD 59Kb)
In a democratic society, civil control of the armed forces is a basic principle. This means a legally regulated system in which democratically elected legislative and executive bodies decide on the use of the armed forces, organize their financing and control their management and status. The keyword here is the civil-military relationship, which can either be one of mutual cooperation or of conflict. Therefore politicians and civil servants must understand that, in decisions concerning national defence, the advice of the armed forces must be taken into account, and not just considerations of economic rationale or Party policy.

At the same time, the military should realize that their duty is to obey decisions made by civilians, even if these civilians are not experts on military issues. Decisions should be influenced by discussions of the issues, not by public criticism or argument. Getting into debates with politicians would inevitably lead to politicizing the army itself, which could mean replacing the idea of defending the state with the idea of defending certain political ideologies. The armed forces must remain a bedrock of democratic stability, not a source of instability.

Civil control is more than just the result of some declarative decision and cannot be established merely with an act of legislation. In a democratic society, civil control must arise from a process of establishing certain obligations and rights together with the unification of civil and military factors and normalizing relations between politicians, civil servants and the military. All political parties must understand the necessity of the existence and activities of one another.

In Estonian society, a consensus has been reached on the necessity of substantially increasing the resources for national defence. In addition to developing different branches of the armed forces, solving questions concerning equipment and logistics, training, education and social guarantees for servicemen, we understand the importance of increasing the efficiency of the army and civil structures together with the establishment of civil control typical of a democratic society.

The defence of Estonia, as a small state, cannot be based on military might alone. The maintenance of our independence relies above all on the ability to estimate quickly and adequately situations in the changing world, react flexibly to international events and maintain good relations with other countries. Our goal is for all countries to benefit from the existence of an independent Estonia.

Readers may obtain further information on Estonian
defence policy from Victor Polyakoff, Senior Public
Relations Officer at the Estonian Ministry of Defence,
Sakala 1, EE-0100 Tallinn, Estonia.
Fax +372 640 6001;
E-mail: polyakof@kmin.ee.

Back to Index Back to Homepage