Estonian President: NATO must strengthen its eastern flank before it’s too late
The writer is President of Estonia
73 years ago, more than 22,000 people were forcibly taken from my country to Siberia. Half of them were women. A third were children. The youngest of the deportees was only three days old.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 left the Baltic states stuck on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Today we watch as Russia attempts to mend this divide. Ukrainian families caught in the middle of war are transported to a country that is not theirs. A six-year-old boy with shrapnel in his skull describes, without tears, how his mother was burned to death in their car after being hit by a Russian shell. This scene took place just 90 minutes flight from Tallinn, Berlin or Bucharest. This is happening in Europe, and Ukraine needs our help.
In a way, Vladimir Putin has already lost his war, as indicated by the vote at the UN General Assembly, where Russia was supported by only four countries and 141 others called for an end to hostilities. Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was never so isolated.
However, a Cold War-era economy is exactly what Russia is headed for due to far-reaching economic and political sanctions imposed by democratic countries. Our military assistance and weapons support Ukrainians as they defend their country, its sovereignty and their freedom. But they need more.
Above all, we can help Ukraine by refusing to accept this situation: a state sending its army to overthrow the legally elected government of another country and dictating its alliances cannot become the new reality in Europe.
As long as Russia continues to wage its war and until it withdraws its troops, we must prepare for changes in the ways of life to which we have become accustomed, of which Russian oil and gas are an integral part in many European countries. Every euro we pay Russia is spent directly or indirectly attacking Ukraine, fueling the war effort.
We also need to think about what to do if Putin’s war atrocities don’t stop. Will we continue to support Ukraine on the sidelines or will we be ready to take the next step to end the war? What could this next step be?
By demanding that NATO go back in time to 1997 and prohibit the alliance’s military units from being stationed in the new member states, the Kremlin seeks to erect a new iron curtain in Europe.
Estonia is one of 14 countries – nearly half of NATO’s current members – that have joined the alliance at various stages over the past quarter century. All saw membership as a way to protect against possible Russian aggression. We have been accepted into NATO, alongside Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, from Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. But some governments have not taken our warnings about Russia seriously. Now they see we were right.
The Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, when the Russian military overran the Georgian towns of Gori and Poti just outside South Ossetia, rattled the west, but it was soon forgotten. When countries on the eastern flank talked about strengthening NATO defenses, some dismissed it as a tiresome complaint. The wake-up call came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began providing military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. People began to realize that there might be some truth in the warnings issued by Poland and the Baltic States.
Western deterrence has failed in Ukraine. NATO must now be prepared for future threats. Let us recognize that Russia’s aggression threatens the entire democratic world, especially the countries closest to Russia. Let’s recognize that Putin poses a military threat to all of us.
There is only one answer to this: credible, visible and effective deterrence. Let us establish a reinforced and permanent Allied presence in the countries of NATO’s eastern flank.
In the Founding Act on Mutual Relations between NATO and Russia, signed in May 1997, Moscow promised to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states. It is also committed to respecting the right of all States to choose the means of ensuring their own security. Over the past month, Russia has violated this by invading Ukraine and seeking to dictate which countries can belong to NATO. It is time for us to declare the deed null and void.
Currently, a rotating Allied presence on NATO’s eastern border establishes a clear boundary for triggering the alliance’s Article Five engagement. However, we now have to move on to a new posture of deterrence that makes the red line for Moscow even thicker.
A permanent Allied presence will underline the fact that the Baltic States and Poland are just as equal as Germany, Italy or the United Kingdom – and that a forceful military response begins from the first centimeter of alliance territory. .
The British Battlegroup in Estonia is strong and effective, as is the NATO Air Policing mission at our Amari Air Base. Now, with new evidence of Putin’s recklessness, we need more military force to block him. This means a greater NATO combat-ready presence in all domains: land, air and sea, supported by essential enablers such as air defence. Our governments can take the appropriate decisions at the NATO summit this summer in Madrid.
The task of all allies who stand before the mirror of history is to act now to stop Putin’s war machine from going any further.