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EXCLUSIVE War in Ukraine

“All Loopholes with Russia Must be Closed” — Estonian Defense Minister

Weapons – yes, training – yes, F16s – not yet on the table. Meanwhile, new sanctions have to be effective at limiting Russia’s ability to assemble new arms.

KyivPost: Are you ready for World War 3?

 Hanno Pevkur: I believe there is no necessity for that. I believe that Ukraine can win this war without entering World War 3.

 KP: Well, in a hybrid form, economical form, in the form of alliances that are built on both sides, it looks like 1937. So, it looks like we are on the brink of a wider conflict. And your intelligence, Estonian intelligence, suggested that over the midterm perspective, you are at risk. It was this surveillance intelligence report that was published two weeks ago, based on research from 2022. But how do you feel right now, when the Russians have already started pushing forward on the Ukrainian Eastern front? Have you changed your perspective, your vision of how close we are to these rising alerts for Estonia, for the Baltic states?

 HP: Well, for us, nothing has changed for many years. Because when you take that we had this hybrid cyber-attack in 2007, from the Russian side towards Estonia, you know, we already then saw that there is huge potential that Russia might poke us, or test NATO countries. So Russia went into Georgia in 2008, to Crimea in 2014. So, basically, we see that the Ukrainian war has already lasted for eight years, even more. Now we are entering first anniversary of the escalation of the war since February 24. So we know that the biggest threat has always been and will be Russia. We have tried to explain that to our Western allies for many, many years, and now we see that many of them have said that yes, we should have listened to Estonia and other Baltic states earlier. So, this is why I also believe that the Madrid summit statement that Russia is the biggest threat to the alliance is right. And we also see the new steps that NATO is taking to protect the alliance. But at this very moment, of course, we all have to protect Ukraine to win the war. Because as it was stated here, in NATO headquarters, many, many times today, Ukraine is not only fighting for its freedom, its people's freedom, but Ukraine is fighting for the rule-based world.

 KP: Kaja Kallas (Estonian prime minister) made this groundbreaking statement almost a year ago, revealing, I would say, a potential weakness of the strategy for defending Baltic states, saying that we cannot wait these 180 days until the help arrives because we will face another Bucha, another genocide, another massacre. Has NATO changed its pattern, its strategy, its principles on defending Estonia and the Baltic states after Kaja Kallas’s statement went viral about that?

 HP: Yes. A lot has changed. Not only helping Ukraine, because, you know, many months back, there was a discussion about tanks. Many were speculating that it is too early, that we could not send something. Now we see that tanks are rolling to Ukraine. The same also applies with the Eastern flank of NATO. So yes, there will be a new regional plan not only for Estonia, but regional plans coming out from the SACEURs office in April and we really believe and hope that at the Vilnius summit, we can approve also at the political level these new regional plans. And these new regional plans will take into account all the new threats and will be based on the threat assessment which was made quite lately and also taking into account all that is happening at the moment in Ukraine.

 KP: Are you able to reveal any details of these plans before they are approved? Or can you give us a couple of hints of how NATO would step in, reinforcing Baltic defense?

 HP: We see some of the steps already. After Madrid, there was a clear shift to forward defense, and we see that Estonia has made a new roadmap for this year together with the U.K. And we see new troops from the U.S. and Estonia. We have the HIMARS unit; we have the new battalion coming to Estonia, and half of it is already in Estonia. So we see that the footprint of NATO is much stronger today already. And obviously, when the regional plans come out, this will also continue in the same way. Yes, the footprint of NATO would be stronger at the Eastern front of NATO and, as I always said: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Eastern flank of NATO is like the front door of NATO — when you close it, then it’s quite comfortable to be inside the house. But when the front door is not locked, then it’s a bit difficult to live inside.

 KP: A bit chilly, eh?

 HP: A bit chilly or also, you are open to people that are not wanted.

 KP: Estonia is doing an absolutely marvellous, fantastic job of supporting Ukraine. Sending whatever resources are available and needed to Ukraine. Do you plan to send any troops to the Ukrainian frontline?

 HP: Well, we all know this is not something we can discuss at the moment. If at all. Because the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian army is strong enough to fight. What they need, and what you need, is the equipment, the training, and of course, all that kind of help that your army is asking from European allies, from world allies. And this is something we are focusing on at the moment. Also, we are giving training in Estonia to Ukrainian soldiers, and this is the best help we can give to Ukraine at this very moment. And what I also said here today, we all can do more when we double the efforts of what has been made so far; then, we can only go up to 100 billion. When we take the same share of what Estonia has done helping Ukraine, then this amount could be 500 billion when we take the same GDP per capita. So, there is huge potential for Western countries to put more help to Ukraine.

 KP: This Ramstein meeting, what was really new there, what was the groundbreaking news, if there were any, during these hours you spent with your partners and with Ukrainians?

 HP: We had more contributions three weeks ago. And now we have to deliver these contributions that we made three weeks ago. Also, Estonia announced our biggest shipment so far, altogether 34 howitzers if I remember correctly, and some ammunition etc. This is exactly what we have to do now: we have to deliver all these pledges we made three weeks ago and still continue to find ways how to help with the most critical needs, one of which is air defense.

 KP: Is there a chance of accord within NATO today, tomorrow, to get the jets, to get F16s?

 HP: It was not on the table today. So let's see how things develop. One thing that we see and what was said many times today and what is of course, very obvious is that when we give something, we are not giving only the assets or equipment. We need to give capabilities which means that when we send, let's say, a tank, then you also need to provide maintenance, spare parts, etc. So you cannot take just one tank from the stock and send it to Ukraine. It will not help Ukrainians. That means that there has to be a full chain of equipment that will come together with this decision to send some new assets.

 KP: I totally roger that. But when you say: “today,” you mean today and tomorrow? So this Ramstein, this defense ministers session will not bring F16s, am I correct?

 HP: It's difficult to state that on the final stage, but I believe that at this very moment we are more concentrated on how we can increase the number of trained people, the training. How can we increase and speed up the training of tank personnel, how we can speed up these deliveries that have been done already by the governments. So yes, Estonia has sent the howitzers and in the coming weeks, we are sending the extra howitzers, but now it’s also important that these pledges have been made, that these pledges are implemented, that they will be in Ukraine as soon as possible, that we are not wasting time. And this is why it is more critical for the Ukrainian forces to get this help that was decided already.

 KP: On air defense. Definitely, we'd need more Patriots, and more air defense. Taking into account that Russians are still trying to use this scorched earth strategy towards infrastructure, the power grid, and everything, were there any big solid shipments discussed these days? To really boost Ukrainian air defense?

 HP: Well, there are many air defense capabilities that are still not being sent to Ukraine. This is why, as I said, we need to speed up. There are different ones – hawks, and some others which still have to be delivered. So this is why all the countries who have said that they will send air defenses also have to deliver this. And of course, we are looking for extra options… You have the BUKs or some other air defense systems and we can use maybe some assets, Western-made assets, to use additionally the equipment that you have at the moment.

 KP: I know that you are skeptical about the sanctions that could stop Russian military production to break its back. At least you said that a few months ago. But when we look at Russia's production now, when Ukrainians look at that, it seems that there are loopholes, for instance, with titanium and with the other stuff they need to boost their military production. Are you looking at other options to stop shipments of these kinds of goods? For instance, titanium? Russians are buying it from China, but not only from China. Can we look into this issue a little bit and give some more details?

 HP: All these loopholes have to be closed. For sure. And all the countries should look very closely at what kind of goods are going through their own countries and to where. And definitely, these sanctions that are in place, they have got to be executable, which means that every new sanction that we put in place it has to be effective. And I really hope that on a European level, together, globally, we will find new ways how to affect the Russian economy in order to reduce their possibility to feed the Russian army with what they need.

 KP: Was it discussed during these meetings, discussions, here, these days, in Brussels?

 HP: I said that. Yes. I said clearly that we have to put in place new sanctions, and the new offensive spring, if I may say, also on the sanctions level. Because this is very important and we see already the decrease of the Russian economy, we see they are already eating their own reserves. This is all that we see from the Russian economy. But nevertheless, we all know, especially Estonia and Ukraine, we all know that even when Russia goes into minus with its economy, it does not bother the Kremlin or Putin in making military decisions.

 KP: NATO is still reluctant, to say the least, to even mention the possibility of Ukrainian membership. Is it moving anywhere? Because with the ‘guarantees' but without the membership, Ukraine will never feel accepted to the club, being basically the spearhead of this club already? Is this discussion moving anywhere now in NATO, ahead of the Vilnius summit?

 HP: My advice is very simple: let's try to win this war. Firstly, because this is the most important task for all of us at the moment. And as was mentioned here, today, many, many times, Ukraine is fighting for all of us and Ukraine is fighting for the rule-based world. So this is the goal number one. When we achieve this, then we can take the next steps. Because when you focus on too many things, you cannot be successful in all these efforts, which means that lets focus at this moment on winning this war.

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