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Interview with Lauri Lepik

Image credit: NATO

Image credit: NATO

As part of its interview series European Geostrategy has been undertaking a number of interviews with various individuals who are involved in thinking about European foreign, security and defence policies. In this interview, Stefano Matonte talks with Lauri Lepik about a range of issues including Estonian security, NATO, cyber defence, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, Ukraine and Russia. Ambassador Lepik is Estonia’s Permanent Representative to NATO.

SM: How would you describe the relevance of NATO for the security of Estonia?

LL: It is 100 per cent relevant. In North-East Europe, Estonia has always been one of the most integrated states, being part of both the EU and NATO since 2004, not to mention the Schengen area, Eurozone, OSCE, etc.  It is not a secret that our integration has been driven mainly by security concerns.

SM: Support for both NATO membership as well as the Estonian Defence Forces is high.

LL: We achieved the threshold of the 2 per cent of GDP required by the Alliance two years ago. The current Government is committed to upholding this pledge. With our commitment to provide ample Host Nation Support to the Allied forces on our territory the ratio of the defence budget is clearly above 2 per cent of GDP. In other words, Estonia is fully committed to fulfilling all obligations stemming from the Washington Treaty.

SM: Which are the major threats NATO is facing today?

LL: We are facing multiple threats. The first one is a threat to the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty of any state in Europe. This principle was violated by the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Everybody in NATO and beyond realises the gravity of the situation. The unpredictability of Mr. Putin’s politics has put the European security architecture, as we knew it, under question.

Secondly, there are several threats coming from the South. All Allies, especially those in the South, are worried about different kinds of menaces in the Mediterranean area. There is a conventional threat and therefore NATO Allies have deployed their Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to the Turkish – Syrian border; while other Allies are facing mass migration and human trafficking coming from Northern Africa. Libya in particular, which might at the moment be considered as ‘ungoverned territory’, is the bridgehead of these activities. We hope that the international efforts in Libya to form a government will bear fruit otherwise the consequences for everyone, including Estonia, could also be unpredictable.

Thirdly, in the last four years we have witnessed a worsening situation in the cyber domain. Cyber-attacks have increased in their scale, scope and sophistication and at the same time we do not do enough in building up our resilience and defences.

Finally, the debate is open in the international media and academic circles about whether ISIS should be primarily viewed as a terrorist organisation, or whether it is evolving into an embryotic form of governance of seized territory. NATO’s primary role in this increasingly unpredictable security environment is very clear: to protect NATO’s territory, population and values what we share. Therefore we need to start thinking hard how NATO should transfer from current reassurance measures (when fully implemented) to a more coherent and sustainable deterrence posture. Our second task is to project stability and increase resilience in our immediate neighbourhood. This is what NATO does in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova and we stand ready to engage actively in Libya and elsewhere when we receive a request. It is also important to know that all NATO Allies individually (although not a NATO operation) participate in the Coalition against ISIS.

SM: What is the strategic relevance of Crimea? And what does it mean for Russia?

LL: It is hard to say because it is impossible to read their mind. Based on information that has been widely reported in the international press, however, it seems quite clear that Russia has decided to heavily militarise the Crimean peninsula. If we think in territorial integrity terms it was the Cold War era, when East and West agreed the Helsinki Accords, which guaranteed territorial integrity and excluded the threat of the use of the force. By respecting those principles, it was possible to establish predictability and some reciprocal trust that today no longer exists. What Russia in essence seems to want is to renegotiate the whole European security system as we know it. This, however, is not a very good idea – we should not set about rewriting commonly accepted rules to suit the one party that has broken them. NATO’s role in the current situation is to counter Russia’s unpredictability as well as the turbulence in the South with its own predictability and transparency. NATO does not threaten Russia in any way and has no intent to do so in the future. We are a defensive Alliance, therefore we have to demonstrate our resolve and increase our deterrence posture. In my view that would be a responsible action, we have to be transparent about it and with such predictable behaviour so that NATO definitely will contribute to the overall European security.

SM: Estonia has a leading role in common cyber-defence. How important is cyber-warfare nowadays?

LL: Cyber-warfare is of growing importance because all the societies are using IT systems, and consequentially are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The challenge is: how to deal with it?NATO members agreed in 2008 to apply cyber-defence tools to NATO’s networks; today we admit that in case of need, NATO could send cyber defence experts to support the allies in their national situations. What we should try to do is to approach the cyber domain in a similar way to the traditional domains of warfare. We should also decide whether we can accept ‘active defence’ to be part of overall cyber defence. In this context it is important to recall Article 3 of the Washington Treaty which states that ‘Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity’.

In the cyber domain Estonia is clearly acting in line with the spirit of Article 3. We have put a lot of resources in our resilience and ultimately defence against cyber-attacks. It is a clear national priority and necessity as Estonian way of living is essentially dependent on public and private e-services. Estonia also wants to share its experience and do more. For example Estonia has established a national Cyber Range where training and exercises take place. Estonia has offered this national capability to NATO and to all Allies for training and exercising. We believe that through such common activities we achieve the required interoperability in cyber domain. We are glad that Allies in NATO have accepted our initiative and we are working hard that at the next Summit we can announce the inauguration of NATO’s Cyber Range.

SM: What is the purpose of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)? Why is it important to seek the participation of NATO’s non-members?

LL: Readiness became a key word for NATO after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and after analysing Russia’s growing capability to undertake military actions without almost any warning or notice. We are facing a situation where Russia is massively investing in its military modernisation programmes and enhances the readiness of their forces. They have demonstrated the use of military power against neighbouring states. What Russia’s long-term political intent might be is anybody’s guess. Their anti-NATO and anti-Western rhetoric combined with nuclear messaging is unprecedented.

NATO’s VJTF is a multipurpose tool: it will be in the Alliance’s toolbox for crisis management, but it also could work as a deterrence measure. In essence, the VJTF is a quick reaction multipurpose fighting force. One of the questions related to the VJTF is our decision-making process, i.e. if we have a force that can be deployed in hours, how long would it take to make such a decision. We are working hard to find the optimal balance between the high readiness capability of the VJTF and political supremacy to decide the deployment. There is some parallel between the VJTF and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) for instance. In relation to the BMD the timeframe to make a political decision to counteract is in minutes. Therefore there is a need to make a political decision to pre-authorise some decisions to NATO’s military leaders so that they can take a timely action. In the VJTF context we are not speaking about minutes but the formula remains similar.

Estonia welcomes the participation of all Partners in NATO activities. We think that the more partners familiarise themselves with how things are done in NATO, the better for them and for us. There are different forms of participation – the best example of course was the ISAF operation where partner participation had a clear added value and is highly appreciated. It is also clear that blurring the difference between partners and allies is not beneficial to anyone. I think that partner participation in the VJTF depends on the situation. If we are dealing with the crisis management situation outside of NATO’s area of responsibility I imagine that partner nations will participate fully if they so wish. Collective defence situations are clearly a prerogative for the Allies but I would not exclude participation of able and willing partners. The bottom line is that we have to be flexible, adoptable, have a tailored approach to different situations and most importantly give partners an opportunity to be interoperable with the VJTF.

SM: How do you see an enlargement of NATO’s membership to Ukraine, Georgia, Finland and Sweden?

LL: NATO decides to invite country X to join the Alliance upon that country’s request. I would definitely welcome membership of all of those countries you mention as well as membership of Montenegro and other Western Balkan aspirant countries.

SM: What is your opinion about an ‘EU Army’?

LL: It seems to be more a political vision rather than a practical project. I think that the vision reflects the growing understanding in Europe that we ourselves have to do more and invest more resources in defence. At the same time we should not forget the role the US and Canada play in European security, and that better coordination and eventually close cooperation between NATO and the European Union in security and defence matters is beneficial to all. Time will tell if we need an European Army or not. What is important, however, is that meanwhile positive trends are taking place in Europe. Nations are sticking to their defence investment pledge made during the NATO Wales Summit: to stop the decline of defence spending and over a decade reach the 2 per cent spending target. It is quite understandable that one cannot fulfil the 10-year pledge in a year or two. However, the political signals coming not only from Berlin and London but also from other European capitals are significant – nations have decided to invest more in defence and this is a most welcomed development. It is increasingly clear that the time of the ‘Peace Dividend’ is over not only in words but also in deeds.

SM: Estonia has a relevant minority of Russian-speakers. Do you think it could represent a threat to domestic security?

LL: First of all it is important not to stigmatise any nation or national minority. If we do so, the consequences might be devastating to all. I believe that the integration process of different minorities into Estonian society has been fairly successful and it certainly has and will continue. I do not see my Russian-speaking compatriots as a threat. That said, and keeping in mind how events unfolded in Crimea, one cannot exclude a possibility that the presence of Russian speakers in Estonia could be used as a pretext by Moscow.

The concept of Russkii Mir (the ‘Russian world’), which allegedly gives Russia the inherent right to intervene wherever it wants ‘to protect the rights of Russians’, is a classical justification for imperialism. In essence the ‘protection of the rights of Russians or Russian speakers’ is used as a pretext to change the political order in another country. We see these attempts happening in Ukraine and Estonia has its own experience with the unsuccessful Bolshevik coup d’état in 1924 and with the Soviet annexation in 1940. At that time ‘proletariat’ replaced ‘Russian speakers’ but the aim, intent and methods have remained the same. The most terrifying aspect to all that is that innocent people died because of such ambitions.

SM: Thank you for your time in answering these questions.

Vol. 7, No. 55 (2015)

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