«The Motivation of Ukrainians Is Above Any Expectations»: Interview with Estonian Defense Minister About Training Missions, Counter-Offensive, and Russian Threats

Interview with Hanno Pevkur — Minister of Defense of Estonia. Estonia’s military assistance to Ukraine has already surpassed 1% of the country’s GDP. Estonians help not only with weapons but also with the training of Ukrainian fighters in various directions.

Hanno Pevkur /photo: Estonian Ministry of Defense

At the beginning of this year, Estonia, setting a real precedent, gave Ukraine all its 155-mm howitzers. In 2023, Estonia provided the Ukrainians with a military aid package worth 113 million euros, which, in addition to the mentioned howitzers, included thousands of artillery shells, hundreds of anti-tank grenade launchers, and means of supporting artillery units.

In an exclusive interview for «Vchasno», the head of the Ministry of Defense of Estonia, Hanno Pevkur, told how, in addition to military assistance, Estonia conducts training for the Ukrainian soldiers, how the country strengthens its defense capabilities, and what threats feels from Russia.

«We are not interested in just conducting the training, but we have to be very sure that it is helping the Ukrainian army»

«Vchano» news agency: Estonia’s military assistance to Ukraine has already surpassed 1% of the country’s GDP. Why is it so important for Estonia to help Ukraine in this brutal war against Russia and Putin’s troops?

— We all understand that we share the same history, and we value a rule-based world a lot. Everybody who understands the values of democracy, freedoms, and human rights knows that Ukrainians are fighting first and foremost for that. Of course, also for your own land and territorial integrity, but nevertheless, we all understand that it’s much more at stake, and this is exactly why we are supporting Ukraine so much.

— Maybe the war in Ukraine affected Estonia’s approach to its security, so can you tell please more about some Russian threats that Estonia feels right now and how you counter them?

— Obviously, our goal is to bring every piece of information and every knowledge and lesson learned at the moment in Ukraine back here to Estonia to be ready for any kind of threat Russia could be posing to us. So this is why we are monitoring very closely and have a very good contact with the Ukrainian army and other counterparts to have this information. And I believe that one of the lessons that we have already taken from this war is that the Russian army has not changed a lot so they still use the same tactics and strategy which means that the long-range fire is still very, very important. They don’t care about their casualties. So they can always bring new people onto the front-line and they don’t care about them.

But regarding the defense, deep fire capabilities, air defense, and coastal defense are something we have already decided to increase here in Estonia and definitely we will continue modernizing our army and doing a lot more. So, in that sense, we are getting a lot of very useful information from Ukraine.

Photo: Ministry of Defense of Estonia

In May, the Ministry of Defense of Estonia concluded an agreement with the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the purchase of barrage ammunition / photo: Twitter Hanno Pevkur

— The memorandum on cooperation between the Ministries of Defense of Estonia and Ukraine was signed. So, can you tell me more about this memorandum? What does it include?

— Of course, first and foremost, it is about practical issues, and how we cooperate on the ministerial level. But nevertheless, all the defense cooperation is also linked to the training missions and sharing information. Also, we have to put the people and authorities in place who are responsible for the cooperation between our two countries so it’s working smoothly and without any problems.

Signing of the memorandum / photo: Twitter Oleksii Reznikov

«Ukraine knows the best how to prepare and what to do during this counter-offensive. It will be definitely a long offensive»

— You mentioned training. So how Estonia helps training Ukrainian soldiers?

— We have conducted already three different courses for the infantry with the basic training. The basic infantry training was the one we were conducting for the three companies. Additionally to that, training to medics, to snipers, and to many others, cyber, for instance. So all in all, we have trained approximately 1000 Ukrainian soldiers here in Estonia. When we take the GDP, once again, and the size of the country, this is one of the biggest numbers you can find around the world. And definitely, we are looking forward on how to make the new contributions. But first and foremost, we are looking for the Ukrainian needs. So we are not interested in just conducting the training, but we have to be very sure that this training, what we provide, is also helping the Ukrainian army.

— And what you can say about the level of skills of our fighters, I mean, are they already on the NATO level?

— I believe one thing that we have to say is that the motivation is above any expectations, which is also obvious that the motivation to protect and to fight for your own country, for your own families, and for your own people is very high. This is for sure.

Secondly, we have seen skills on a very different level because we have had people who have no experience with the military before. We have seen people who have some military experience. And we have seen people who have some experience, for instance, from the police. It varies a lot so we cannot bring out one group, but we can say that Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom. This is why we are more than glad that we can give our share to your fight.

Ukrainian military personnel on training in Estonia in September 2022 / photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

— Training is a part of Ukrainian preparation for the liberation of its territory, for the counter-offensive of which everyone speaks about now. So in your opinion, can Ukraine make decisive actions this year to liberate its territory, of course, with the help of international partners including Estonia?

— Well, one thing I’ve said many times before is that we cannot put any pressure on you, on the Ukrainian army, because you know the best how to prepare and what to do during this counter-offensive and also in the next coming months, because it will be definitely a long offensive for Ukraine.

And you need to have as much help as we can provide collectively from the West. So this means that what we can do and what we have done should give you all the necessary skills to provide a successful counter-offensive. How it goes, we will see in the coming weeks and months, probably. But nevertheless, we have at least given everything we can to prepare your soldiers, to prepare your staff, to prepare your high-rank officers for that, to plan and to execute this plan.

— What are the plans for Estonian help to Ukraine for 2023 and maybe some future?

— This will be discussed together with my very good friend and colleague Oleksii Reznikov. We are in very good contact almost on a daily basis and we are looking very closely at what is important for the Ukrainian army.

Definitely, we have to look very deeply at the training, what kind of it we will provide regarding any other assistant. Then we are looking all together in the «Ramstein» format what is the need because one thing that we have understood already in these months is that there is no need to send just one equipment or something, which is not linked to the other capabilities. So what we have to do is to send capabilities. We need to coordinate closely with our friends here in the West to put together the capabilities. So this is why I will not name any specific assets or means that we can and will have sent, but I can assure you that we will continue helping Ukraine.

«Russia was, is, and will stay the biggest threat to the NATO countries»

— If we’re talking about some long-term things, after the end of hostilities in Ukraine, do you think Russia will remain a threat to the European countries and the Baltic countries? And what the West and the free democratic world should do to prevent this big threat?

— Well, Russia was, is, and will stay the biggest threat to Western societies and also to the NATO countries. We have seen before that they don’t accept international law. We saw that in Georgia. We saw that in Crimea. We saw that with the escalation of the Ukrainian war last year.

So we have no illusions that Russia will be somehow a democratic country. There are no signs of that, unfortunately. Of course, everyone is waiting for that moment one day when we will see a democratic Russia. But in the nearest future or in the coming years, there are no chances for that, in my opinion, which means that we have to be ready as much as we can. And this is why not only helping Ukraine but also making ourselves stronger is very crucial. Of course, collectively NATO will do its steps. We’ve seen already that Finland is a member of NATO and Sweden will be a member of the alliance very soon.

So, definitely, this is what makes us stronger and maybe it is not very nice to say but in reality, we see that the war in Ukraine has made NATO as an alliance stronger and more united than ever.

— Speaking about Ukrainian membership in NATO, do you think Ukraine should become a NATO member before the end of the war or after the end of hostilities, it’s also a very big question for discussion right now?

— Well, of course, you know the Estonian position. Estonia supports Ukraine’s membership and there are no doubts about that.

I believe the Ukrainian people and President Zelenskyy understand that this war has to be ended. And Ukraine has to be rebuilt. I really hope that this war can be over as soon as possible, and then we can come back immediately to the question how quickly Ukraine will be a member of NATO. And we don’t have to discuss the question «Will Ukraine be a member of NATO?» We will only discuss the question «When Ukraine will be a member of NATO?».

Hanno Pevkur in Kyiv / photo: Facebook Oleksii Reznikov

— You visited Ukraine, and you’ve been to Zhytomyr oblast and Kyiv oblast, so what impressed you the most during your visits to Ukraine?

— I've been in Ukraine after the escalation of the war three times, and most probably will come again. But, you know, I’m not saying impressed, because still, it was extremely difficult to see all these atrocities and all these damages that the Russian army has done. But one thing is to destroy a building. But the other thing is to destroy a family or abuse a four-year-old child or conduct all these war crimes. There is no justification to that. And this is why everyone responsible for these war crimes have to be taken accountable. And this is why also we are supporting heavily this process. We try to push as much as we can also on international level so the people responsible for these war crimes will be taken accountable.

The interview was recorded on May 15, 2023

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