Tallinn, Estonia. 1 April. The Estonian Foreign Ministry building here in Tallinn proudly flies three flags at its front. The flag of Estonia is flanked by the EU and NATO flags, acting as symbolic sentinels guaranteeing the freedom of the people of Estonia. Together those three flags state clearly Estonia’s sovereign choice and its twenty-first century sovereign identity. The job of Estonia’s many friends and allies is simple; to keep all three flags flying until the Estonians decide otherwise.
Yesterday, I had the honour of sharing a platform with the impressive Estonian Foreign Minister, Her Excellency Marina Kaljurand, at an event organised by the outstanding Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association and moderated by the British Embassy. The passionate defence Minister Kaljurand gave of her country’s liberty and its memberships of both the EU and NATO was uplifting.
For me it is always a pleasure to come to the Baltic States. This is not simply to enjoy the stunning beauty of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Such visits also help to clear my furrowed strategic brow, render me seized again of clarity and purpose, and just for a moment allow me to escape from the self-deception, denial and strategic conceits which are slowly subsuming much of Western Europe’s political elite.
My speech was as ever an attempt to burst the bubble of conceit. To point out with I some hope systematic precision the dangerous gap that exists between the rhetoric of leaders and strategic reality. A gap that is sucking the ‘credible’ out of the credibility of a credible security and defence – be it under an EU or a NATO flag.
First, the NATO flag. Yesterday, the US unveiled more details of its European Reassurance Initiative. The ERI is package of investments and activities that commits a further $1bn of US taxpayer’s money to defence modernisation in Europe. As such, the ERI is a typically generous gesture at a time when America’s own armed forces are suffering from sequestration. It is also a hope that such largesse will encourage European NATO allies to finally move towards spending the 2% GDP on defence and the 20% of defence budgets on new equipment that was agreed at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit.
Something else happened yesterday which should help reassure my fellow European citizens in the Baltic States that the rest of us are beginning to stumble towards matching words with deeds and vy so doing align our ends, ways and means – the stuff of effective defence strategy. General Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) announced that in the face of an aggressive Russia the Alliance will switch from ‘assurance’ to ‘deterrence’.
This is an important decision because recent NATO exercises have demonstrated that efforts to support the Baltic States through ‘rapid reinforcement’ simply do not work given that some 120,000 Russian troops effectively encircle the three small EU/NATO members. Indeed, NATO’s last major crisis management exercise revealed the true gap between the stated mission of the Alliance to defend the Baltic States, and the worrying reality. Indeed, to be rendered credible in the face of threat NATO's new Article 5 collective defence will need a mix of forward deployed expeditionary forces, defence-in-depth, cyber and hybrid defence, reinforced by force protection,
Much of the debate here in Tallinn concerned the upcoming NATO Warsaw summit and the need to really embed what I call forward deterrence in the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture. Moscow will of course scream blue murder and no doubt cite this as further evidence that yet again NATO is breaking a 1991 ‘commitment’ not to expand to the East. In fact no such assurance was ever given and it is Russia’s behaviour which make such deterrence necessary.
Second, the EU flag. Whilst NATO’s move to ensure effective forward deterrence is to be welcome it is also likely to lead to increased Russian usage of hybrid warfare or strategic masikirovka, and against Estonia in particular. It is nine years to the month since Estonia suffered a massive cyber-attack back in 2007. The lesson is clear; hand-in-hand with NATO’s forward posture vital work also needs to be done to make all Allied and Union societies more resilient in the face of such attacks, particularly against critical infrastructures.
To that end, another vital item on the agenda of the Warsaw Summit will be enhanced NATO-EU relations. However, whilst much good work is being done between officials of both the EU and NATO, and in spite of a charm offensive by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, my well-informed EU sources tell me there is a problem. Apparently, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini is repeatedly vetoing plans for a substantive EU-NATO relationship.
Two concerns, I am told, appear to be foremost in the mind of Signora Mogherini. First, Rome does not want to offend Moscow. Second, she is worried NATO will dominate the relationship. If true both concerns are nonsense and Signora Mogherini needs to get her act together quickly. It is too dangerous to continue playing petty elite institutional politics.
Why? Well, the central message of my speech yesterday was blunt and to the point; the greatest defence is afforded not by systems and structures important though they are, but by solidarity in strategy, policy and purpose underpinned by firm and consistent political will.
What is important about those three flags flying outside the Estonian Foreign Ministry is not simply that they are there, but that they are there together.