We sat down with the Estonian Ambassador to Denmark, Märt Volmer, to hear about the Danish/Estonian relationship and about the challenges regarding Estonia’s foreign policies.
By Morten Monefeldt Ludvigsen and Sebastian Boelskov Meyer
IPM: What’s it like to be an ambassador situated in Denmark and what is the main focus for your work here at the embassy?
MV: The short answer is that it is probably one of the best jobs you can get in the Estonian foreign ministry, because Denmark is close, sort of similar and it is easy to work here. Many interesting subjects every day. No limit to what you can do here with trade policy, cultural policy etc. I think it is as good as it gets for an Estonian diplomat to work here.
IPM: One of the places where Denmark and Estonia are going to work together in the future is in the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, located in Estonia. How important is cyber security, especially for a country that is as digitalized as Estonia?
MV: The cyber centre in Estonia is a very important part of the cyber defence strategy and joint activity in NATO, and we have been looking forward to welcoming Denmark there for a long time.
The reason this Centre is in Estonia is deeper however, and takes us to the mid-nineties, when Estonia regained independence after the Soviet occupation, and we had pretty much nothing. That contains two moments: On the one hand, it is a very desperate state, but on the other hand it gives you all the possibilities – you can go in any direction you want. We were lucky to have very visionary leadership in the nineties and they choose to take the newest technology existing already then, the internet that started to appear in the end of the nineties and to build as much as possible of a digital society in Estonia. Today we are close to have the most digital society in the world. Especially if you are working within the government. We still need to do more on the business side. But in the public sector, everything is digital. Even elections.
IPM: The New York times wrote in an article that President Trump have discussed with his advisers about how to quit NATO. So, with that in mind, where do you see NATO today and what are the future perspectives for the alliance?
MV: I think this is the place where Denmark and Estonia are very like-minded. We are both small countries. For countries like ours, international laws and all the international frameworks we participate in are the key factors in security. That is why our first instinct is to make those organisations and systems as stable and efficient as possible, both regarding security and NATO and in all other fields like the EU. It is in our natural interest to keep those organisations functioning as well as possible. The signals from the U.S lately haven’t been very clear, and can sometimes be quite confusing, but I think we have to be patient. I think the majority of the U.S establishment and government doesn’t think they don’t need NATO, so we are pretty confident that it is a bit of a temporary confusion and that the main understanding of the transatlantic security has not changed. The U.S is still the central part of the security system and our partnership is key. I am sure it will continue in the future that way.
IPM: Estonia is geopolitically very close to Russia which we have seen acting more aggressively towards Ukraine and other places. Do you see Russia as a threat, and how should we cooperate with Russia?
MV: You should always cooperate as much as possible, and diplomacy and embassies are meant to find solutions to even the most difficult situations. Russia is our neighbour, and we have always kept the dialogue going. But of course, if a country is violating international law, attacking, occupying and incorporating countries in Europe, from the war in Georgia to the war in Ukraine, then there is a level at which you limit your contacts. On a western world, the unity on this issue has been quite strong. We limit our high level contacts with Russia during those actions which are not acceptable. But I think there is a balance now. We have the sanctions and we have the dialogue, and we need both. We have to be quite strong in keeping up this sort of international agreements, especially in the security field. But in other ways, we have been in Russia’s neighbourhood for as long as we have existed, for thousands of years. Historians argue, that our ancestors moved to Estonian territories 3000-4000 years ago, the Russians have always been our neighbours, so we know how to coexist. When you look at the Danish debate, many people seem to think that security in Estonia is different to security in Denmark. But the whole idea of NATO is that NATO is united, and on security of NATO is indivisible. You can’t say that in one part of NATO there is more security, and in another part of NATO there is less security. That would be the end of NATO. Each square-meter in NATO is defended equally. In this sense, we don’t really feel threatened, we don’t wake up each morning, thinking “will Russia do something?” And that is how NATO works – on prevention and deterrence. When I listen to the debate in Denmark, I hear “the security in Estonia is weaker, so we have to send our soldiers there”. That is not exactly what we would say in Estonia. We have to show that NATO is serious in what we say and how we talk. And there is a presence along the Russian border, but not because there is a bigger danger, but because NATO has to be behind its words.
IPM: Russia argued that one of the reasons they intervened in Crimea was that there was a large minority of Russians. And I know that there is a minority of Russians in Estonia.
MV: Yes, we are clearly aware of this possibility. Though some years ago it was a more theoretical discussion, now we can say that Russia has interfered into the domestic affairs of the United States. They have interfered into the domestic affairs of France, Germany, probably also Denmark, but it is not very well known how exactly they do it. And for us that is not new situation. Actually, for us, we have always known of the possibility of Russian interference, so we have been ready for that, which makes it very difficult for them to actually interfere. Especially in the information-warfare, cyber-warfare, you are very easy target if you don’t know that you are attacked. You are vulnerable. But if you are prepared, it’s a challenge – and we have always been prepared.
But the Russians living in Estonia, we consider them our people. We don’t think they are Russians; they are people living in Estonia, whose mother tongue is different, but they are our people. And Kremlin or Russia don’t represent them. The difference between us and Crimea is that the standard of living in Estonia is very high, compared to everything in the east. We are getting closer and closer to our Nordic neighbours. I think one of the arguments in Donbass from these Russian ‘green men’ was that “you are earning 300$ a month here in coal mines of Ukraine – if you support us, you’re going to earn 400$ a month”. In Estonia, the average monthly salary of a miner is around 1600$. So, it is very hard for the “green men” to say, “join us – now you will get 400$, instead of 1600$”. The whole equation is totally different. The things they could use in Ukraine and in those areas could never work in Estonia. And the Russians that live in Estonia, they do visit Russia, and they see the difference. I doubt they would support changing what they have now. Free movement in Europe, the high living standard, freedom of media and all other freedoms.
We are aware of this threat (from Russia, red.) and they probably try to find their ways, but it is very, very difficult for them.
IPM: Estonia is one of the few NATO countries that uses more than 2% of its GDP on its defence budget. Do you agree with President Trump, that more countries should pay 2% – Denmark for example?
MV: Yes, we definitely agree. It should not come from President Trump, but from Europeans, when you look at the changes of the international security picture. You have Russia who is pretty much doing what they want, including in the Middle East. With the changing of power level and the confidence of China, and how the European influence in the world is decreasing, in combination with BREXIT, and we had the euro crisis as well, Europeans should somehow realize that the peace dividend is over.
For us it is very clear that we have to take care of our security. Denmark is a great ally to us, the Danish reasoning that you are being efficient with smaller percentage of GDP spent but a large output, it is understandable, and we value the cooperation. The Danish soldiers were in Estonia, you policed our airspace, so it’s all excellent. But of course, if you also increase the level of input, the output will increase even more. So, it is clear logic that we would very much like to inspire everyone to follow us and get to the 2% or more. We spend 2% on our own defence development, and then we have increased on top of that 2% because of the large NATO presence in Estonia. The Danish troops they need modern barracks, fields to practice in, and so forth, so we had to put many expenses on top of the 2%, so now I think we have reached 2,2 percent of GDP going to defence.
There are actually a lot of voices in the political sphere saying that this is not enough, we should use more. It is not because of president Trump, but because the world around us has changed, so we have to be ready for that. Within military sphere, you cannot change very quickly. It takes years to build up the training, procurement, scientific research and so on. When things go bad, it is too late to start building up the defence. You need to have it ready beforehand.
IPM: It seems so me that we are seeing a major shift in global politics these years. China is getting more confident and, as we talked about, it seems like the US is stepping back from taking global responsibilities. Where does that leave small states like Denmark and Estonia?
MV: The only thing that small countries like ours can do is to cooperate even more. And it is not only Estonia and Denmark. There are the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, many others, I mean most of those countries are pretty much in the same position of being relatively small, developed countries that need to preserve the international security order. We need to stick together and try to make our voice in to this discussion even stronger.
Who is Ambassador Volmer?
Ambassador Volmer is an Estonian diplomat with extensive experience from a number of positions in Estonia and elsewhere. Prior to the position in Denmark he served as the foreign policy adviser to the Estonian Prime Minister, coordinating foreign and security policy activities, advising and supporting the PM in external relations. He has also been the Estonian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan, as well as represented Estonia at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the Deputy Permanent Representative. Ambassador Volmer spends his free time in a peculiar way – racing in cross-country ski marathons. Obviously, there is no snow in Denmark, so one can spot him on the weekends or evenings strolling on roller skis either in Kagerup forest, Hørsholm, Dyrehaven or other places.
Ambassador Volmer just finished one cross-country ski marathons on February 17 in South Estonia – 63 km Tartu Marathon (C) Märt Volmer
Sebastian and Morten are both students of Political Science at University of Copenhagen.