Esteemed ministers and Chief of Defence, veterans, ladies and gentlemen,
Two weeks ago, the last Estonian flag still flying in Afghanistan was lowered at Kabul International Airport. The last Estonian military policemen and medics arrived home in time for Victory Day. This marked the end of a mission that had lasted for almost two decades; one which had a lasting and at times devastating impact on thousands of Estonian soldiers and their loved ones.
Their mission came to an end, but the wounds they brought back from Afghanistan, both visible and invisible, will be with them and many people in Estonia for decades to come. This was not merely the Afghans’ war, or the Americans’ war, or our allies’ war. It was also Estonia’s war; the longest in our modern history.
We have not left behind the Afghanistan we were hoping to see when we launched the mission 20 years ago. We must be honest with ourselves: the international community today has no cast-iron guarantees that the country will become a stable and peaceful place that is able to cope on its own. It was with these same conflicting feelings that I saw off a unit of the Estonian Defence League on their way to Baghdad in May, to serve on a mission that was originally launched for much the same reasons as the mission in Afghanistan. A mission which proved fateful to Master Sergeant Arre Illenzeer. A mission which we have already once declared ended, around 10 years ago. Our responsibility before the thousands of Estonians who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq behoves us, here and now, to give a clear answer to the question: Where those missions worthwhile? Was what was gained from it worth the losses? We have to be able to both ask questions and answer them, especially in the knowledge that we are constantly making new decisions about where to raise the Estonian flag.
Losses are always irreplaceable. What you have gained is often difficult to comprehend. Weighing things up is impossible. There is only one way of seeing how those weights can be balanced: that is through the eyes of a soldier, whose job it is to protect their country and its people. Their work is fraught with dangers that people in other jobs will never understand. Forbearance against such dangers takes, among other things, an ideal: the ideal of Estonia’s freedom and independence.
And in that sense lucky is the soldier who can take a stand for their homeland far from home. That luck is something we have experienced for the past 30 years, thanks to our powerful allies and to the fact that for our part, we ourselves are always doing everything we can.
Inevitably, in the course of this, we have lost soldiers whose luck has run out. They have fallen for Estonia. But our country has allies. And Estonia has now military personnel, soldiers and officers of all ranks with actual combat experience, who can trust themselves and one another, in line with the best traditions of 21st century warfare, to not only be prepared to die for their ideals, but to fight in a way that a soldier’s work is done and lives are saved.
All of those who have fallen for our country have made the Estonian Defence Forces what they are today. Our forces know that their size must match their resources, so that every single soldier is as well equipped and as well trained as possible.
All of those who have fallen have given us an officer corps which knows what war is, without the rest of us having to.
And of course, the loved ones of the fallen also know what war is; they feel it, etched deep into their hearts and souls.
All of the loved ones of survivors and those who have returned intact know what it feels like for war to be etched into their hearts and souls. All of the returned soldiers and officers as well.
This is the price we pay for our defence, for our own ability to defend ourselves. We have a confident and skilled Defence Force that values the life of every soldier and therefore the best equipment, the best tactics and the best strategies. This is what we have gained for Estonia from the price you have all paid.
This includes our allies. But however powerful your allies may be, they can do little to help you if you yourself are weak. If you yourself have no faith. If you yourself have no skill. The Estonian Defence Forces have offered our allies a sense of security that we know what we are doing and that we have the courage and the desire to do it.
Being brothers in arms is not a case of quid pro quo. Yes, it is of course the case that we are seeing the fruit of our soldiers’ labour and of the contributions of those we have lost in the NATO Battle Group in Tapa, in the US Special Forces on Estonian soil, in the Air Policing jets of our allies patrolling our skies. I deeply doubt whether these developments, which have contributed so much to Estonia’s security, would have gone without saying had we made easier, cheaper or safer choices in planning those earlier foreign missions. Those choices ended up being victorious.
But should we actually need to defend our home, it will all come down to the forces we have at our own disposal, how willing we are to take up our own defence and our ability to forbear war alongside our allies, since they must not be left to fight on our fields of battle alone. Only we know how in fact our country must be defended.
As the supreme commander of Estonia’s national defence, I have the courage to say here today that we have made the right choices. They have been made by the heads of our forces on the field of battle, alongside soldiers who have become more skilled and better equipped all the time. The luck of our soldiers has grown through the experience and skills they have attained.
The right choices have been made by those politicians who have taken policy decisions to contribute to foreign missions despite it being such a difficult decision to take at the basic human level. But they have had the mettle to make these decisions, and to make them responsibly, ensuring that our soldiers always have the best that the global military industry has to offer and that our coffers will allow. The gap between what our soldiers are equipped with and what the world’s fiercest forces carry has been bridged. In speaking of greater abilities, we are better defended the more adequately we are able to assess our own strength and financial sustainability. Dreaming too big would come at the cost of the smaller needs that every soldier has. Proper medical supplies, comfortable load-carrying equipment and individual members of our special forces don’t generate the same headlines as tanks and jets and anti-aircraft guns. But all of you here know that it is often the little things that determine the outcome of war, often for the best.
In weighing up the risks taken on missions and the good gained from them, we sometimes tend to forget the fate of those on whose land we have been defending our own freedom. We tend to forget that in spite of everything, every Estonian servicemember has made their own contribution to making the world a slightly better place. Thanks to us, thousands of girls in Afghanistan have been able to go to school; women have enjoyed the support of midwives. In visiting Kabul in April, even the most sceptical forecasters admitted that Taliban will not would return to power in the same way they did 20 years ago. The changes in Afghan society – particularly among women and the young – have been too great, are too irreversible, for that to happen. This does not constitute victory, but it is an achievement of which we can justifiably be proud.
A similar opportunity to make the world a somewhat better place is enjoyed by those Estonians fighting on the diplomatic front. We instigated our candidacy to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council with a security argument as well: that it would make us more visible to the rest of the world and therefore better protected. But it also represents an opportunity to stand up for values that Estonia subscribes to Estonians’ fight in and for Afghanistan goes on, and right now the pen is in our hands which will write the future of the Afghan people in the UN. Working with Norway, we are leading agreements on how the UN can continue in Afghanistan now without NATO. I know that every Estonian diplomat who holds that quill in their hands is aware of their responsibility before all of you.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am sure that all of the veterans of the Estonian Defence Forces who have served on missions over the last 26 years also turn their thoughts to the security of our country and to human values. But I know that they are always spurred into undertaking missions for another reason, too: their sense of responsibility before their fellow soldiers, their squad, their unit. Before the men and women they have trained and served together on previous missions. Soldiers call this ‘unit cohesion’: a sense of duty that does not allow them to abandon their fellow fighters on the battlefield, or head off on a mission without those they have fought alongside to date. It is this sense of responsibility that drove many veterans of the Afghan campaign to go on a third, fourth or even fifth mission to the country, even during the most difficult years, and that drove the severely injured to return to the battlefield. It is hard to find anything that speaks of what makes us human more eloquently than this sense of responsibility our soldiers feel before one another.
We bear the same sort of responsibility as a society. We do not abandon a single soldier on the battlefield. We do not leave a single loved one of a veteran to deal with their problems alone. With the state’s veterans policy we guarantee them the treatment and support they need if they are injured. Should soldiers fall in battle, we guarantee support for their loved ones. Through charities, we raise donations to improve the rehabilitation options available to veterans and to support the education of the children of soldiers who have been injured or died. The donations raised by the Carolin Illenzeer Fund in the last year in spite of restrictions and events being cancelled clearly show that Estonian society has not forgotten its responsibilities before its heroes. Thank you, everyone!
I know that those watching on from the other side today would say to us: “Be brave and never give up!” Let us all cherish Estonia!