Estonia is ready should the NATO meeting to be held in Brussels tomorrow, participants of which will include U.S. President Donald Trump, decide to ask members for increased contribution for anti-terrorism missions, Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna promised in an interview that took place at the Al Asad military base in Iraq yesterday.
What is the idea of Estonia's current Iraq mission?
The idea of the mission is to work with allies to train Iraqi security forces. Their military training is outdated. Our troops have said that Iraqis who have already participated in battles were last trained three years ago.
It is not a battle operation. Our soldiers serve as instructors working with Latvians and Lithuanians as part of a Danish unit training Iraqi troops. The goal is to give Iraqi troops the ability to fight and protect their territory, borders once ISIS has been evicted, as well as stage military operations if necessary.
Our Defense Forces members are not participating in direct military operations this time.
We also have a soldier in Baghdad. What are they doing?
Having this strategic view position is also important for Estonia. That person is tasked with making long-term plans. Putting together Iraq's defense development plan for the next two years. The aim of which is to think about how to continue building up the country once military operations – retaking of Mosul for example – are concluded. However, it is always very difficult to make plans in this region. When we make plans, we imagine we can follow them; here that is very often the case only with help from God. However, that is not enough – one has to make plans oneself.
How successful have you found the training mission so far? It seems inspectors from the West have also come across the attitude you described.
It is a matter of culture. I like our troops' attitude, according to which it is very good if the training they provide can help save a life or allow Iraqi troops to act a little more organized in battle. When it is no longer said that if you cannot hit your target at 50 meters it was God's will; that you need to practice yourself.
I understand full well why Estonian soldiers are respected and called the best in the world.
What is the status of this training mission and the one in Mali?
Things have taken a turn for the serious in Mali. A few days ago we received news of an attack on a base where our Defense Forces members serve. Luckily our soldiers were not at the base at the time.
Looking at the bigger picture, our EU presidency will have to address the question of how to use our EU fighting units (battle groups – ed.). We have them, they have been armed, and are standing by; however, we haven't used them once in the past ten years.
Having our guys in Mali, the fact we managed to react so quickly [to the EU's mission call] definitely helped bring French troops to Estonia. Our troops are working with Danes here in Iraq, and Danish troops will come to Estonia on January 1. The Brits, whom we visited today [in the Al Asad base], are in Estonia and are pursuing very serious cooperation with us.
From Estonia's point of view, it is one thing what the coalition is planning here – a major challenge the end result of which we do not know because it greatly depends on the people of Iraq. It is another that our guys are here literally defending Estonia. Estonia is better protected than ever before, talking about the military dimension. As reflected, if only, in the Spring Storm exercise. NATO troops are present in Estonia – the nations we have worked with the closest during missions.
Training missions in Iraq and Mali will continue?
I believe it is necessary for our soldiers to participate in missions. This kind of a security contribution is quite a thing.
It is another thing that members of our Defense Forces want to partake in these missions: obtain experience, training, work with others in real-life situations. A professional soldier wants to go on missions. These men will come back, take up their posts, and organize training based on invaluable experience gathered here.
A small country cannot afford closeness and introversion. We must remember and remind everyone that the years 1939 and 1940 cannot be allowed to return. We can never be alone.
You will leave for Brussels, for the high-level NATO meeting with President Trump from here. I understand Americans will ask allies for help in the fight against terrorism there. What is Estonia prepared to facilitate?
Everyone is eager to meet with the president of the United States. One of the main topics is financial contribution, sharing the burden, which is where Estonia's position is strong – we spend 2.2 percent of GDP on defense.
The fight against terrorism will definitely also be on the table. Estonia is prepared to contribute more. We have thought these things through. However, it needs to happen in the conditions of knowing very clearly where we're going and with whom. Estonia will not undertake missions independently; we are always with someone.
The preparedness is there; however, what it is we'll be doing and with whom remains a matter of discussion.
Do we have enough resources to send our soldiers on missions?
Yes. We don't have any major foreign missions at this time. We have smaller contingents in several areas.
We have the capability and preparedness; we have considered the options we can employ. However, it first requires a very clear political understanding of necessity as sending troops on missions always entails risk. We will not send our guys out on a whim. It has to be very carefully considered logistics, a system to make sure we are really wanted there.
No matter who you talk to in this base – Danes, Latvians, Americans – our footprint is considerable in the world of defense – much bigger than we are ourselves. We owe it to our highly professional Defense Forces members who are representing us.