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Estonian report Estonian report
by Euro Reporter
2015-04-24 08:37:11
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Would we really go nuclear to protect Estonia?

The date is already forgotten, but its significance may return to haunt us. On March 29, 2004, Britain promised to fight for Estonia just as surely as we would defend the White Cliffs of Dover. That was the day when the Baltic country joined NATO and fell under the protective umbrella of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, obliging Britain and 26 other allies to defend Estonia with “armed force”. Did our leaders grasp the possible consequences of guaranteeing the security of a former Soviet republic with an eastern border only 100 miles from St Petersburg? At the time, Western governments probably assumed that signing up to fight for Estonia and its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, did not mean very much. After the momentous events of 2014, no one can entertain that comforting illusion any longer. In a Europe where Vladimir Putin has dismembered Ukraine, brazenly annexing 10,000 square miles of his neighbour’s territory, it should be abundantly clear that our pledge to safeguard the Baltic states is a deadly serious undertaking. Even the briefest visit to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, serves as an antidote to complacency. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told me of the “snap exercises” staged by the Kremlin near Estonia’s border, involving 40,000 to 80,000 troops. He described how Russian warplanes routinely probe his country’s airspace, adding that Mr Putin’s bombers had practised how to obliterate Sweden and Denmark with nuclear strikes. As Russia torments Ukraine and the Baltic skies fill with military aircraft, Estonians believe they have every right to be alarmed. The country has conscription and meets NATO’s target of spending 2 per cent of national income on defence. But, in a nation of 1.3 million people, the army consists of 5,300 soldiers. Through no fault of its own, Estonia is defenceless without outside help.

estonia_400_01And that is where the facts become profoundly worrying. You might have assumed that NATO forces were already protecting its most vulnerable members. In fact, not a single American or NATO combat soldier is based anywhere east of Germany. Back in 1997, NATO signed a “Founding Act” with Russia promising that no combat units would be permanently deployed on the territory of any new member of the alliance. Throughout Ukraine’s agony, NATO has kept its word. Today, one company of US infantry with 150 men represents the only foreign contingent in Estonia – and they are only present temporarily. American and British soldiers visit for exercises, but they always go home afterwards. President Ilves believes that NATO’s insistence on binding its own hands is mistaken. He wants the alliance to deter Russia by permanently stationing at least a brigade in the Baltic states. Yet NATO has turned him down, choosing instead to assemble a “very high readiness task force” of 5,000 troops, which could deploy in a matter of days. Mr Ilves is not reassured by this. During the Cold War, NATO planners assumed that any Soviet invasion of the West would advance across the Fulda Gap, a flat and tank-friendly expanse of Germany. Today, Mr Ilves thinks the “new Fulda Gap” lies between Russia and its exclave of Kaliningrad. In a war, Russia would grab a corridor of territory east of Kaliningrad, thus blocking every land route to Estonia and its Baltic neighbours. NATO’s “very high readiness” troops would never be able to arrive. “Great idea,” is the president’s verdict on this force. “But it probably is, in terms of the realities, just too late.”

So here are the sombre facts: no American or NATO soldiers are permanently defending the Baltics; these countries could not protect themselves; if the worst happens, NATO would not be able to reinforce them. Does this mean that Mr Ilves is right and NATO should permanently station a brigade while it has the chance? The problem is that Russia would regard this as a grave escalation. Before you start climbing the escalatory ladder, you must be sure that your adversary will not go three or four rungs higher. It’s safe to assume that Mr Putin would always be willing to climb further than the West, so Russia would inevitably win a game of escalation. Where does this leave us? During the Cold War, NATO assumed that a Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap could only be defeated by nuclear weapons. But the permanent presence of 200,000 US troops in Germany – along with 55,000 soldiers from the British Army of the Rhine – would slow down the onslaught and buy a few days, or perhaps weeks, for cooler heads to prevail before the terrible moment of decision arrived. Today, no such safety margin exists. If Russia were to invade the Baltic states, NATO would probably have one option – and one alone – to defend its members. America, Britain and France would need to decide almost immediately whether to use nuclear weapons. If they opted to abandon the Baltics, then NATO would be finished. Once a collective defence pact throws one member to the wolves, the game is up. At that moment, NATO would effectively be dissolved, leaving every European country with no choice but to ask Russia for gentle treatment. By moving against the Baltic states, Mr Putin could force us to choose between scrapping NATO or going nuclear. Does anyone believe the thought has never crossed his mind?

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Defence leagues on the rise

Voluntary defence leagues are on the rise in Estonia. The Ukraine crisis and fear of Russian aggression are driving many civilians to take up arms. About 15,000 volunteers have joined citizens' militias, which are headed by officers from the Estonian military.

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Estonia’s politicians unable or unwilling to improve the situation

It is not surprising that people feel that the country is run primitively, because politicians are unable to manage the processes that are shaping the nation either because of inexperience or lack of interest, says Estonian economist Heido Vitsur. Commenting the claims made by Ruta Arumäe, former economic adviser to PM Taavi Rõivas, that the government is running the country like an Excel spreadsheet, Vitsur said that there was nothing wrong with spreadsheets as long as they are prepared well and based on comprehensive research. “Otherwise, politician will not see the big picture and will run the country year by year, without looking ahead or paying attention to what is happening in the world ,” he added, speaking on ETV in “Republic’s citizens”. Vitsur said that Estonian development plans made 20 years ago correctly predicted a demographic crisis.

“We did not foresee that so many Estonians would leave to work for Finland, but it was clear that demographic changes were going to influence our healthcare, education and pension systems. Today, I don’t see a solution that is addressing these issues. Moreover, we cannot even draw up a programme which would help to increase productivity, ie how to make Estonian research, education and economy to work together to ensure that skills and knowhow is utilized to produce higher value,” he noted. “The reason why politicians are unwilling to manage these process is that they see that we have managed for the last five years and can probably manage another five years,” he said. Vitsur said that the problem is that Estonian politicians are accustomed to increase spending only by making cuts elsewhere in the public sector.

“Quite possibly, this may not be the right way to do things. Perhaps we should be increasing spending instead? This brings us back to the public debt. There are areas where public debt is useful,” said Vitsur. The economist said that one country that could teach Estonia a lesson or two is Singapore whose public debt is bigger than its GDP, but that has built up a great country. Vitsur added that he would suggest that, before elections, Estonia should select 2-3 main challenges facing the nation, for instance demographic situation and ways to produce higher value added products, and then demand that political parties offer solutions on how they would solve them.


         
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