Estonian Defense Chief: NATO Must ‘Neutralize’ Putin’s Perceived Advantage

.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser in Tallinn, Estonia, June 23, 2015. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

Originially published by RFERL

Estonia’s defense chief has welcomed the U.S. decision to preposition military equipment in the Baltics and other countries on the eastern edge of the alliance, saying that a strong presence is required to diminish the potential threat of a Russian attack.

Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser spoke to RFE/RL following a visit on June 21 from U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who announced the United States would store enough tanks, fighting vehicles, and other weapons to supply either a company of about 150 soldiers or a battalion of about 750 in each of six countries: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. Some of the equipment would also be located in Germany.

“The announcement by Secretary Carter of prepositioning equipment in Eastern Europe is truly significant,” Mikser, Estonia’s defense chief since March 2014, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on June 25.

Estonia and the other Baltic states would prefer a permanent troop presence — something that would anger Russia more — and this spring jointly asked NATO to deploy a brigade, some 5,000 troops, to their territory. But Mikser expressed gratitude for the current setup and the new plans.

“We do have a rotating American presence of uniformed troops in Estonia and in the other Baltic countries, and we are thankful for that as well,” Mikser said. “We believe that it’s important that in this new security environment, where the warning time of any potential crisis has been reduced to virtually zero, that allies be present all the time.”

Under Moscow’s thumb during the Cold War, the newer NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank have been deeply alarmed by Russia’s takeover of Crimea from Ukraine last year and what Western states say is its direct military support for pro-Moscow separatists in a war that has killed more than 6,400 people in eastern Ukraine. The concern is particularly high in the Baltic states, which gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.

Mikser suggested that NATO troops provide more than symbolic political value for Estonia. A NATO troop presence “is important in terms of political deterrence, but it’s also important that the presence is militarily significant so as to neutralize the perceived advantage of time that Russia thinks [it has],” he said.

NATO troops in permanent rotation provide reassurance, but their presence is less permanent than a base. The NATO troops currently on Baltic soil — most significantly the air-force units conducting Baltic Air Policing — don’t make up a brigade-sized presence.
Mikser said it was important for NATO to be able to act fast in the face of any Russian threat.

“We have very strong reason to believe that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin thinks that he has certain advantages or he sees certain vulnerabilities in our region, for NATO, as an alliance,” Mikser said.

“He’s intelligent enough to know that NATO collectively is way stronger conventionally, in conventional military terms, than Russia is, but he has troops permanently stationed next to our borders and he can make decisions and implement them very quickly because it is a very Putin-centric political system in Russia today.”

“We need to neutralize those advantages that he might think that he has, and by doing that we will minimize the risk of a strategic miscalculation on Putin’s [part],” he said.

NATO’s 1949 founding treaty states that an armed attack against any member state is considered an attack against all, and each is obliged to “take action” it deems necessary to restore and maintain collective security.

While a recent Pew Research Center poll showed a majority of Germans, French, and Italians opposed military action in support of a NATO ally, Mikser said Estonia firmly believed that NATO states would come to its aid if it were attacked.

“We know that our allies are ready to assist and help us if we need it,” he said. “But obviously the best way would be to avoid any potential miscalculation on Putin’s [part] and to prevent any crisis from occurring.”

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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