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Estonian Defense Minister: 'Russian army has not changed in 100 years'

by Theo Prouvost March 18, 2023 6:01 PM 8 min read
Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur speaks with the Kyiv Independent in Tallinn on March 6, 2023 (Theo Prouvost)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Estonia, a country of 1.4 million people bordering Russia, is one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine. It's also one of the West's front line states facing an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Before Russia launched its all-out war, Estonia was among the handful of countries that provided Ukraine with military aid, including anti-tank missiles and financial support.

Since February 2022, Estonia has been among the frontrunners in supporting Ukraine, making it Kyiv's largest donor in terms of percentage of GDP.

In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Independent, Hanno Pevkur, the Estonian defense minister, talked about the threat Russia poses to Estonia and why his country is so eager to support Ukraine.

According to Pevkur, Estonia and other NATO members are responsible for assisting Ukraine because it's fighting for the free world. That's why the Estonian army has trained Ukrainian soldiers, including infantry soldiers, sharpshooters, and medics, and provided over 370 million euros in aid.

Even though the Russian campaign in Ukraine has sputtered and failed to meet most of its military and political objectives, according to Pevkur, the war is far from over, and heavy artillery and long fire is still much needed for Ukraine.

"We made an initiative that we should procure together one million rounds for 155-millimeter howitzers," says Pevkur, adding that his country, together with allies, is constantly looking to do more.

Estonia, home to around 300,000 Russian speakers, is also constantly on alert when it comes to combating Russian influence.

"We all understand that Russia is still capable of threatening NATO because they still have enough firepower," says Pevkur.

"The threat is still there."

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The Kyiv Independent: As of February, Estonia has provided military assistance to Ukraine worth 370 million euros, or more than 1% of its GDP, making Estonia's assistance the world's largest in this term. Why is Estonia the frontrunner when it comes to supporting Ukraine?

Hanno Pevkur: I could also ask why the others are not doing as much as Estonians. Because we all understand that Ukraine is not fighting only for itself and for the Ukrainian people. They are fighting for a free world and a rule-based world. So this is why we have to help Ukraine as much as we can. Of course, we know that Ukraine needs that help desperately.

The Kyiv Independent: What has been the practical impact of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Estonian defense forces?

Hanno Pevkur: The practical impact is that Estonia has also brought a lot of new equipment to its military. We invested 1.2 billion last year into Estonian defense, and most of it is for the heavy artillery.

We are buying new K9 self-propelled howitzers and new anti-missile systems, rockets, which have a reach of 300 kilometers. We are also buying new anti-tank systems and new air defense systems (short-range and medium-range are in the process of procurement)

We are procuring new multiple rocket launchers (HIMARS). So we are developing our army.

We are also doubling the voluntary defense league. At the moment, we have 10,000 people. It will be increased to 20,000.

So we are doing a lot in terms of having the best possible army that we can.

The Kyiv Independent: Can you tell us how many Ukrainian soldiers the Estonian army has trained?

Hanno Pevkur: We trained 600 Ukrainian infantry soldiers. We have given training to one company at a time, three times. On top of that, there are medics, sharpshooters, and some more. I can't tell you more precisely.

The Kyiv Independent: What have you learned from this whole year of war?

Hanno Pevkur: What we see from the battlefield is that the Russian army has not changed in 100 years. During the First World War and the Second World War, they used the same tactics, which are unimaginable atrocities and war crimes. They are raping kids, they are killing civilians.

So in that sense, nothing has changed in the Russian war system. And on the other hand, of course, we see that heavy artillery and long fire are still much needed. When we thought that whatever the new war would be, like a high-tech war, it's not. It's still a heavy artillery fight.

The Kyiv Independent: Why do you think the Russian army is less powerful than predicted?

Hanno Pevkur: The answer lies in their Second World War mentality.

The Kyiv Independent: In what ways do you think Russia is a threat to Estonia and Baltic countries?

Hanno Pevkur: Russia is a threat to NATO as an alliance. In Madrid last year, NATO collectively said very clearly that the existential threat to NATO as an alliance is Russia.

And we are the front line countries on the eastern flank.

We have to understand that when the front door is open, then everybody is vulnerable inside the house. When the front door is locked, then everybody can feel safe inside the house. So this is why we have to keep the front door of NATO protected.

The Kyiv Independent: You insist that if Russia is ever going to attack NATO, it will be here in Estonia?

Hanno Pevkur: We all understand that Russia is still capable of threatening NATO because they still have enough firepower.

With the Navy and the Air Force, they can restock their army quite fast. And this means that the threat has not gone anywhere. The threat is still there.

And this is why NATO, as an alliance, has to bring its muscles to the best of conditions.

The Kyiv Independent: Are you ready if the Russian Federation launches an attack on Estonian territory?

Hanno Pevkur: We are part of NATO. Of course, we are always prepared, and NATO has a common understanding that one for all, all for one.

And there is no doubt about that. NATO is stronger than ever, and Russia is more isolated than ever.

The Kyiv Independent: How has Estonia pushed the agenda in NATO and the EU to help Ukraine and reinforce the eastern flank of NATO?

Hanno Pevkur: Estonia launched an initiative to send as soon as possible one million, or at least one million rounds of 155-millimeter rounds of artillery, to Ukraine. And I truly hope that we can get a political consensus there.

But this is not the only thing we have done. During the Ramstein format, I believe Estonia has the right to say out loud that we need help to build more because we have proven we can do it. And we all understand what is at stake at the moment.

The Kyiv Independent: Can you give us further details about this million rounds of artillery delivery?

Hanno Pevkur: Yes, we made an initiative of the level that we should procure together one million rounds for 155-millimeter howitzers. We passed it, and now we will come up with an idea of how to conduct this. So there are several options for that, but I hope we can go through that this week and give more comments.

The Kyiv Independent: What kind of weapons does Ukraine lack today to win the war?

Hanno Pevkur: We all know that heavy artillery is something that they still need ammunition for. And, of course, on top of that, they need training. So this is what EUMAM (European Union Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine) is established for.

First and foremost, heavy artillery tanks are what you can use for the big breakthrough. So, this is why we are sitting together in the Ramstein format and looking for solutions.

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The Kyiv Independent: What about fighter jets?

Hanno Pevkur: The common understanding not only among NATO countries but also in Ukraine is that we cannot only send fighter jets or tanks, we need to send capabilities to maintain them. With tanks, it's a bit easier.

When you take fighter jets, you also need to have the airfields, you need to have the maintenance, you need to have the repairs, you need to have the training, you need to have the personnel who are ready to maintain the fighter jets. You need to have fuel for that. You need to have tankers, so you need to have air defense. It's a complex measure.

So it's not so easy that you just take one fighter jet, and that's it.

The Kyiv Independent: According to the Global Cyber Security Index, Estonia is one of the leading powers in the world concerning Cybersecurity and Cyberwar, mainly due to the cyberattacks of 2007 committed by Russia on Estonia. In the context of the war in Ukraine, what measures is Estonia taking to prevent future attacks from Russia?

Hanno Pevkur: Estonia was the first country to face a full-scale cyberattack from Russia in 2007. And since then, we have built up our cyber capabilities. We have NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence here in Estonia and even Cyber Central Intelligence Expertise.

We have built this capability even in the civil field, we also have, in our defense league, the so-called Cyber Defense League, which means that if necessary, we have also volunteers coming to help the country.

So I believe, yes, we are prepared, and Estonian Cyber defense is on a very good level.

The Kyiv Independent: Because cyberwarfare is one very active front, have you trained some Ukrainian soldiers in cyberwarfare? Do you have any contact with the IT army of Ukraine?

Hanno Pevkur: We have contact, but I will not go more specific about what we are doing together.

The Kyiv Independent: If Russia launched a major cyberattack against Estonia, can it be treated as a direct attack on a NATO country?

Hanno Pevkur: Why do you say "if." They are doing that constantly, every day. So it's just a matter of the scale, but there are constant cyberattacks and attempts on our system.

The Kyiv Independent: How do you think this war might end?

Hanno Pevkur: This war will end when the Ukrainians get their victory.

Of course, every war, at one moment, needs a solution on the diplomatic level. But at the moment, Ukrainians are fighting for their land, for their sovereignty, and as long as they haven't taken back their land, I believe there is no option to talk about the end of the war.

So, of course, we all hope that this war will be over as soon as possible. But we all have to understand also that it is not so easy because both sides have dug deep into trenches, and it might take some time.

The Kyiv Independent: And what about Putin's regime?

Hanno Pevkur: It's up to the Russian people to decide. Of course, when it's up to Putin, he will never step down or resign, and he's controlling all the means to be in power.

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