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Speech to NATO Reserve Officers At the Interallied Confederation of Allied Officers Mid-Winter Meeting 1 February 2024 NATO HQ, Brussels

H.E. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia 2006-2016 19.02.2024
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Some two centuries ago, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the preface to his The Philosophy of Right, wrote “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings to take flight only with the falling of the dusk" . What he meant by this, with the owl traditionally representing wisdom, is that we only come to understand an historical era as it begins to end.

I suggest that we are now approaching dusk; that what we are approaching is the end of an era. With its established ways of thinking and seeing the world and acting upon what we see, this era has reached its end. Some, especially among those still often called the “new allies” saw the end of the era years earlier. Others still have not quite yet understood and pine for a return to or a continuation the Good Old Days.

The era, whose end we see as dusk falls on a 35 year period in our history is, of course, what we have called, for want of a better term, the Post Cold War World.

A stand-off between East and West began at the end of the Second World War as it became clear that the Soviet Union was not satisfied with what it had grabbed in the name of liberation. A series of coups d’etat that violently deposed democratically elected governments in Poland, the erstwhile Czechoslovakia and 2 Hungary, together with the Berlin Blockade finally nudged the West out of its illusions about its former ally, the USSR.
The UK Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, sufficiently alarmed by these developments wrote his colleague President Harry Truman about an aggressive USSR threatening Europe. Truman’s response, as we know, was to creat the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, along with the crucial step in 1949 to put the O into NATO, making it an organization and indeed the powerful alliance it has been since then.

There are ever fewer people who remember the terrifying period we call the Cold War. I do recall practicing crawling under our desks in the air raid drills in my elementary school in suburban New Jersey. Yet a child born at the apogee of the war during the Cuba Missile Crisis in October 1962 would be be 61 today, yet only know about it from reading history books. Even senior politicians and policy makers today are younger than that.

Mercifully, the Cold War ended peacefully as the Soviet Union collapsed under its own instability and inability to keep pace with Western development. COCOM and other technology transfer regimes kept the USSR from obtaining the technology they would have needed to keep up. A politician who went to work for the Soviet regime would have been considered a traitor and sent to prison. For all of its terror we can at least say that during the Cold War, the West had a clear understanding of the threats it faced and a firm moral compass, something sorely missing, today, as we unfortunately know.

The post-cold war era

As the despotic regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the DDR like dominoes fell one after another, the West rejoiced. Mordor had been vanquished, the Nazgul destroyed, the Orcs would become pastoral Hobbits. Communism was dead, and with it, died our vigilance. We got our Peace Dividend. Military budgets were slashed. Russia was our friend, Boris Yeltsin a democrat. His successor according to the German Chancellor even a flawless democrat. Those in Central and Eastern Europe who had genuine experience with the Russian-led Soviet regime were considered paranoids, russophobes, possessed of “ancient tribal hatreds”.

Coupled with massive spending cuts in military expenditures, the West also experienced for almost thirty years an unprecedented period of growth with unheard of low interest rates. Meanwhile, though retaining CCP’s authoritarian grip on its population, communist China adopted capitalism wholesale and became the manufacturing hub of the world. Almost as if in a dream, ding-dong, the wicked witch of the East was dead and we had entered the Post Cold War era.

This clearly is not the place to describe all of the changes of the changes since 1989-91. As far as security in the transatlantic area goes, however, we ceased to believe it was an issue. It was “out of area of out of business”. True, we had the Balkan Wars as well as the GWOT or Great War on Terror but we thought a peer-on-peer war on the continent, involving NATO allies and Russia was no longer possible. The US pulled the bulk of its troops and materiel out of Europe, European allies reduced defense expenditure to absurdly 3 low levels, far below the suggested 2 percent of GDP. NATO was so at peace, the so-called Old Allies even refused to give new allies Estonia and the other two Baltic countries defense plans, something every other ally had, but not us. Why, I was asked in 2007 when I raised the issue with NATO, would we ever need defense planning? Russia, after all was not a threat. We of course know who was behind the veto rendering us second tier allies, something no one would ever admit was the case.

This was at the same time when ambassadors in the NAC who I doubt could tell the difference between a laptop and a toaster oven refused to believe and indeed rebuked us as “russophobes” for saying the massive DDOS or Distributed Denial of Service attacks against my country’s digital networks in 2007 were the work of Russia. Already then Estonia was what it is today, Europe’s digitally most advanced country. But they knew better than we.

Nor did Russia’s invasion of Georgia alter the calculus of a new era of Kantian perpetual peace. The EU’s Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Russia was restored after a month, ignoring the Russian’s refusal to leave the territories they had occupied. The Obama administration instituted its “Re-start” policy and Nordstream 1 continued apace.

The Post-Cold-War era was in full bloom. Russia could do no wrong. Only those East Europeans were curmudgeonly skeptics, if not psychologically damaged. When asked her country did not protest the invasion of Georgia when Estonia did, the president of Finland replied, “Finland is the Easternmost Nordic country, not the Northernmost Baltic country”. She followed that up for some reason, with the claim that the Estonians protested against the invasion of Georgia because “they suffer from a Post-Soviet Traumatic Stress Syndrome”.

We were, after all, Post-Cold War.

Nor did the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 change the mindset. When at the opening panel of the Brussels Forum that year I pointed out that in occupying and annexing Crimea after a fake referendum (just as we had been in 1940), Russia violated the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act (both forbidding use of force to change borders) and the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine, then Italian Foreign Minister and soon to be EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, replied, “So, what do you want to do, bomb Russia?”

Meanwhile US president Obama forbade sending weapons to Ukraine and in 2015 to great hoopla, Germany signed the Nordstream 2 agreement.

Defending the pipeline deal, President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmaier two years ago did Central and Eastern Europe a genuine pedagogical service making clear to us Germany’s understanding of the history of us pesky Zwischenländer, the “inbetween lands”. Germany, Steinmaier said, owed Russia the NS2 pipeline because of what Germans did to Russia in WW2. He apparently forgot that in Germany’s and the USSR’s commonly agreed upon 4 carve up of Europe Germany killed far more Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians than Russians. The former were owed nothing.

It took the full scale invasion of Ukraine three weeks short of two years today to get the leading members of NATO to think perhaps we might be entering a new era. After 30 years of dismissing Central and Eastern European concerns and warnings, Western Europe has grudgingly admitted that Russia is not a peace-loving Kumbaya La-La-land or a promising El Dorado for its business community. It took a while to reach that understanding, and in the case of France and Germany, not until after 24 February 2022. Recall that in September of 2022, even half a year after we all had found out about the horrors of Bucha, the French president was still calling East Europeans warmongers.

But Minerva’s owl had taken flight. While there are those who still champ at the bit to get back to Wandel durch Handel, that is make money in Russia, it does seem we no longer think we live in the post-cold-war era but indeed in some new era we have yet to name. It feels a lot like the Cold War. But with threats by Russia to invade new ally Finland as well as the Baltic countries and Poland, to drop a nuclear bomb on London and in all its magnificent plethora of possibilities to remind everyone of the pre-Cold War era, proudly festooned tanks, cars and posters with the 1945 slogan za Berlin!

The question we all face now is what are we going to do about it? The war in Ukraine continues and shows no sign of letting up. The Ukrainians are rationing ammunition and artillery shells. Promised tanks and armor have not been delivered or if so, not in their promised quantities. The ATACMs they’ve received are of the short-range variety lest they be used on Russian territory, while Russia has no problem firing missiles, some of them given up by Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum from deep inside Russia. And of course, No Tauruses, no F-16s.

Then there is funding. In NATO, despite a complete change in the security environment of the continent, of the 31 nations of the Alliance, only the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia reach the 2 percent of GDP spending goal set N.B! eighteen years ago in 2006. It is noteworthy that of these 10 countries, only the US, UK and Greece were members of the Alliance before its first post-Cold War enlargement in 1999. All the other countries that do meet the 2% goal border either on Russia or Ukraine. We should also keep in mind that all the NATO allies agreed upon the 2% goal of defense spending when we were deep in Kumbaya mode, when Russia was not considered a threat, indeed this was even before the famous 2007 speech by Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference that for the space of a week got Western countries worried about the direction Russia was taking.

Yet despite a dramatically changed Russia, a brutal war in neighboring Ukraine and constant threats against NATO allies, here we are in 2024 and no country on the European continent West of Poland is meeting a goal set in 2006.

It is not just a matter of spending on defense. NATO allies had better come up with a more serious policy of helping Ukraine win instead of just not losing. A little more than two years ago in 2021, when Russia began to escalate its anti-Ukrainian and anti-NATO rhetoric I wrote a short piece for the Center for European Policy Analysis arguing 5 that if Russia invaded Ukraine, we could see some five to seven million refugees in Europe. That basically is today what we have got. Fortunately these refugees have been well integrated and the problems we faced in the 2015 immigration crisis failed to develop. Eastern Europe was especially welcoming in this regard. In Estonia, our population increased by seven percent from Ukrainians fleeing the war. Of course the assumption was that unlike the 2015 immigration crisis, after the war the refugees would return.

After the horrors of Bucha, Irpin, the torture chambers in Kherson and elsewhere and the mass rapes across Russian occupied territories, Ukraine losing the war would most certainly mean the remaining population of Ukraine – some thirty five million people, will come streaming into Europe. Between the semi-official threats to put the entire Ukrainian population through “filtration camps” and the more genocidal rants of official media, and with what the Ukrainians already know about what the Russians have done, do we seriously think anyone would remain?

With all the dithering of Western leaders over arming Ukraine, lest military assistance “provoke Russia” or would somehow hurt business after a hypothetical end to the war, I am utterly perplexed that no one has thought of the social disruption a sudden influx of thirty-five million on top of the seven million who have already come, would cause to Europe. That’s a seven percent increase in the continent’s population.

Leaving aside the – to me at least – the incomprehensible refusal to give Ukraine everything it needs, NATO ally leaders need to get over their fear of Russia losing. The current state of purgatory to which Ukraine has been consigned, suffering torment not yet knowing that their fate will be will come back to haunt us.

Finally, Ladies and Gentlemen, any discussion of the security of the Alliance must take into account the state of transatlantic relations after the US elections. And their implications for our own commitment to defend NATO territory.

There is an extremely high chance the United States will elect a president this November who has consistently doubted the utility of the alliance and has done so since 1989 when he bought a full page ad in the New York Times calling on the US to leave NATO. Thirty-five years later that position seems not to have changed much, as allies at NATO summits have witnessed.

Pre-emptively the US congress has changed the law so that renouncing the Atlantic Treaty would require the approval of two thirds of the Senate. This is a good step but it doesn’t give much. Were an Article Five conflict arise, requiring NATO troops to defend an ally, we need not even fear a US veto. It is completely in the US president’s competency and purview to refuse to commit military resources or to offer minimal participation. I don’t want to dwell on the probability of such an outcome nor to engage in wish-casting about a situation with so many unknown unknowns, to coin a phrase, but we must soberly consider this possibility.

I do, however, want to raise the issue of NATO readiness to respond in case the US chooses not to get involved in an Article Five conflict. Would we be ready? We already are short of artillery shells to give to Ukraine. The “Peace Dividend” optimistically proclaimed thirty five years ago at the end of the Cold War was spent decades ago. Our 6 militaries in much of the alliance remain woefully underfunded and undermanned. As Robert Kagan wrote 25 years ago, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”. Venus was Minerva’s sister but a very different goddess.

Wars are for other people. We abhor conflict. As the past third of a century has shown, our political leadership does not even want to contemplate the prospect. Or how else to explain that 18 years after agreeing to raise defense expenditure to two percent, only the so-called “new allies” have done so. Vegetius’ maxim, Si vis pacem, para bellum is remembered only by those who remember their past experiences with Russia.

Finally, no discussion of this, NATO’s 75th anniversary year would be complete without a word on the next Secretary General. As I guess we all know, it’s a stitch-up. The quad – the US, UK, Germany and France have already decided who it will be and so I guess, like the Thucydides Athenians and Melians, when the strong do what they will, the weak will do as they must.

Nonetheless, it has been a quarter century since the first members of the Eastern flank were brought into the fold, that’s a third of NATOs lifetime. The large enlargement that brought in nine new members in 2004 was twenty years ago. In a quarter of a century no one from a country from the so-called “new allies” has been chosen for the post of Secretary General.

From the various comments one hears or reads, it is better to have someone from a country that has no experience whatsoever with the primary threat to the Alliance. It is better to have someone in charge of NATO from a country that to this day, including the new secretary general’s fourteen years as leader of his country, has not met the 2 percent goal. Better than some leader from the East that has succeeded in meeting a core requirement of the Alliance. I am sure exhortations to raise defense spending that come from a SecGen who has failed to do so will especially inspiring.

No, I want to address a more fundamental and to my mind utterly disastrous attitude for transatlantic security: that the new SecGen cannot a priori come from one of the countries that actually knows something about Russia.

The juxtaposition between experience and bias and the victory of ignorance and prejudice is best by the statement of the Vice President for Climate Issues of the European Commission and one of the more consequential politicians in Europe today. He claimed Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas is certainly qualified but cannot be appointed Secretary General because she comes “from a country bordering Russia”. This is certainly a rather odd disqualifier especially when the SecGen position for the past ten years has been held by Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, a country that everyone here knows has bordered Russia ever since it was a founding member of the Alliance seventy-five years ago at the start of the Cold War. So is it the border? Is it that she is a woman? Or that she was the one to come up with the plan to produce a million shells for Ukraine? Or that she is one of the most expert critics of Russia from an Eastern ally who knows not only her European geography but knows about as much about Russia as any leader in Europe.

So Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish I could give you a rousing conclusion, but these are not times for self-congratulatory speeches on NATO’s illustrious past.

Rather, these are just some of the fundamental security issues NATO will have to grapple with in the coming year and I fear, for years to come. The Owl of Minerva has taken flight but it seems her sister Venus has yet to take notice.

Thank you.

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