Security

European and Estonian security

Estonia’s defence spending: Upholding the NATO commitment

The primary goal of any nation-state is, first and foremost, to ensure its own security from internal and external threats. The Republic of Estonia is no different, with territorial integrity and the safety of its citizens ranking at the top of its list of foreign policy priorities. Today, as historically, the most effective way to accomplish those objectives is to ally oneself with friendly and trustworthy nations through pacts of mutual defence.

As a member of NATO, arguably the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world, Estonia has done exactly that. But the basis of any international organisation is a joint commitment to its principles and initiatives. In 2006, the NATO member states pledged to devote two per cent of national GDP to defence, and yet most of its European states have reduced their budgets in the following years instead. The Estonian government, however, is showing that this process is not inevitable; indeed, Europe can and should abide by its commitments and shoulder its share of the international security burden.

NATO took form during the long, tense years of the Cold War, when Estonia was still on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In that period, the ratio of the alliance’s defence spending between the United States and Europe was roughly 50:50. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkans still constituted a region that required military attention and investment. Thus, at the turn of the century, two per cent was still the norm. However, in the following half-decade, the success of the enlargement project may have caused the populations and governments of the nations of Europe begin feeling less threatened, at which point they started the gradual process of diverting state resources elsewhere. Of course, the threats never vanished; they just got more complicated. The potential effects of nuclear proliferation, organised crime, transnational terrorism and energy vulnerability (among numerous others) remained, but defence spending largely decreased. According to the NATO Secretary-General’s report, by 2007, 68% of NATO’s defence spending was provided by the United States, and four European states (UK, France, Greece and Bulgaria) fulfilled the two per cent commitment. By 2012, the US-Europe ratio had altered to a further 72-28, and while the UK, France and Greece remained on the list, a new and unexpected actor – Estonia – rose to that level for the first time in its history.

Pille Joala on a training flight
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To the casual reader, the two per cent of GDP may seem like an arbitrary benchmark. However, defence experts have traditionally considered the ideally balanced defence budget to be split into three between personnel costs (soldiers’ wages), investment costs (procuring new technology) and operating costs (maintaining current equipment, conducting exercises, participating in operations). The two per cent threshold is considered to be the lowest point at which such a budget can be achieved. If the budget is tilted, for example if personnel costs take up 50-70% (as they currently do in many European states), medium- and long-term military effectiveness suffers as the necessary modern capabilities are not purchased. Furthermore, it is crucial that the declared two per cent includes strictly military capabilities, and that states don’t bolster their defence statistics with tangentially related costs for the sake of public relations.

Unfortunately, the 2006 commitment quickly became unrealisable for most European NATO member states largely because the downward trend was further exaggerated by the economic crisis and the resulting austerity measures undertaken by so many of Europe’s economies. However, some countries are now turning the corner. According to a recently released Heritage Foundation report, “In a challenging global and regional environment, the Estonian economy has demonstrated a high level of resilience and achieved swift economic rebound.” That recovery may partially explain why Estonia was able to make the uncommon decision to increase defence spending for the 2013 fiscal year to an all-time high, and why it was able to maintain that level looking forward into 2014.

Now, numerous reports from international financial institutions are predicting a modest improvement in Europe’s general economic outlook. And the return of even limited economic growth is beginning to have an apparent effect. Poland is planning its biggest-ever increase in defence spending for the upcoming decade. Norway is another European NATO country that has taken a serious look at the effects of its defence spending levels and initiated the appropriate response. It may be that the next few years become a pivotal period for this trend. Certainly, there is no small number of analysts who have derided the state of European defence and provided ominous predictions about its future. However, Estonia’s decision may prove to be more than just a way for it to shore up its own security. Perhaps Estonia’s example, combined with efforts at the highest civilian and military levels to renew Europe’s global strategic outlook, will inject new confidence into recovering European national governments. It would not be the first time in recent history that the small country of Estonia has taken a bold step to show its commitment to an international organisation that was being derided by experts in the field. In 2011, Estonia joined the eurozone at perhaps the nadir of its financial crisis; three years later, Latvia is confidently making the transition.

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Former US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, recently pointed out that European states are working together (in the EU format) to develop critical enabling capabilities, like medium- and high-altitude drones, air-to-air refuelling, satellite communications, cyber defence, as well as to strengthen the defence industry. However, as Daalder said, “this will affect Europe’s overall defence capabilities only at the margins… On the real issue – more spending – the silence of Europe’s leaders was deafening.” To honour their ongoing commitment to NATO, the United States and each other, European countries and their leaders need to muster the political will to raise the necessary military expenditures and contribute more fully to international peace and security. Estonia has shown that it can and should be done.

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Cover photo: The foreign secretaries of NATO member states meeting in Tallinn, Estonia in 2010.

Estonia and the US: paving a way forward in cyber security

At the sidelines of the NATO ministerial meeting that took place in Brussels in December, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and US Secretary of State John Kerry signed a landmark agreement regarding cyber cooperation that, except for a few articles recycling press release text, went largely unheeded by both the general public and the (cyber) security community. Taking more than a year to negotiate, the “US-Estonian Cyber Partnership Statement” serves not only to highlight Estonia’s prominent role in today’s international cyber security policy arena but also as an indication of the way forward in terms of global collaboration in the cyber field.

The cyber partnership between Estonia and the United States is the first of its kind, marking the beginning of a trend of bilateral cooperation at a time when the world’s states are becoming increasingly polarised in terms of their approach to information technology in general and the internet in particular. While there is no shortage of international organisations that have come to play some role in this sphere, including and especially the UN, none have been able to broker a common set of “rules of the game” under which all countries can interact with each other with some degree of predictability, stability and shared rationale.

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The advent of the cyber age, therefore, has brought about a new and insecure dimension to international relations. The countries of the world, in broad strokes, have aligned themselves along a spectrum with two extremes. On the one hand are the liberal democracies, which see cyberspace and the opportunities it presents as an economic tool to encourage efficiency and development as well as an instrument to promote the free exchange of ideas. On the other hand there are the “cyber-sovereignty” advocates (most prominently China and Russia) who fear the influence of the virtually unlimited access to information and ideas that it provides as a threat to their state, economy, culture and way of life and seek a “balkanised” internet with state-level restrictions to content access. Given this polarisation, which shows no signs of availing itself to a global “grand compromise”, a security dilemma has emerged in which countries from both sides are mobilising increasing resources and manpower and acting in hostile ways through either intelligence agencies or non-state proxy organisations. This process is counterproductive and, in the long run, leads to greater overall system insecurity.

This is exactly where the unprecedented Estonia-US partnership comes in. At a time when there is so much insecurity, especially in the wake of the well-publicised Edward Snowden [the NSA whistleblower] revelations as well as the attention-grabbing instances of Chinese subterfuge, it is increasingly important to encourage and incentivise trust, collaboration and stability. The ambitious agreement between Estonia and the US does exactly that. It addresses virtually all of the important elements that are grouped under the umbrella of cyber policy, including but not limited to:

  • Defending the exercise of human rights such as freedom of expression online
  • Protecting critical infrastructure such as power plants and water systems
  • Combating the prevalence of cybercrime through law enforcement cooperation
  • Enhancing cyber defence through information sharing and joint exercises
  • Optimising research, development and entrepreneurship through academic exchanges
  • Instilling confidence in democratic e-governance through capacity building in third countries
  • Promoting the applicability of existing international law and norms of behaviour in cyberspace
  • Encouraging the input of civil society to ensure a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance

It remains to be seen how this multidimensional and enterprising partnership will be implemented in practice. However, its importance cannot be underestimated. Since no comprehensive global accord seems to be in sight, two-sided agreements between like-minded partners appear to be by far the most fruitful way forward. And, while talks about such broad-based agreements have also begun between the US and global economic heavyweights such as the UK and South Korea, it is especially telling that Estonia was the first country to successfully conclude one with the United States, who undoubtedly remains the world’s premier political, economic and military power. This just goes to show that the following quotes from the US State Department and Estonian Foreign Ministry were more than just diplomatic niceties; they were matters of established and indubitable significance:

US: “Estonia is a key ally of the United States and a recognised leader on issues of cyber security and internet freedom.”

Estonia: “Estonia’s security is better than ever before, and this is largely thanks to US support.”

Military conflict in the Baltics – the worst-case scenario

It has been suggested that in the scenario of a hypothetical Russia’s attack on the Baltic States, it would commence with an attack on Lithuania, not Estonia or Latvia.

The Lithuania Tribune recently presented an overview of the possible attack, based on Lithuania’s defence analyst Aleksandras Matonis’ analysis. The original article can be found here.

At the peak of the Syrian conflict, it was suggested by the director of the Baltic division at the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries, Mikhail Aleksandrov, that Russia should attack the Baltic States if the United States attacked Syria.

According to the political scientist, the Russian invasion would probably be peaceful and the majority of the Latvian and Estonian populations should welcome the invaders with open arms. Although that seems to be nonsense, how would the Baltic States be attacked and defended?

It is almost clear that a military crisis in the Baltics would not last very long. Russia is in the process of implementation of a costly and ambitious programme to modernise its military capabilities by 2020. Despite that, NATO will remain the most powerful and best-trained military force, the potential of which will be based on the American capabilities. As a longer conflict would probably escalate and could lead to a nuclear catastrophe, the military crisis in the Baltics could only be local and short-lived.

It is not a secret that Moscow has plans on how to invade the Baltic States. In 2009, during a military exercise called Zapad (the West), the Russian and Belarusian military was practising to defend occupied Baltics from arriving NATO forces. The two states also practised to establish a corridor that would connect the Kaliningrad Oblast with Belarus at the time when the exercise Proryv (the Breakthrough) was taking place last year.

Today Russia has the same advantage over the Western powers as Germany had over Russia during the World War I. Not only is the Kaliningrad Oblast heavily militarised, but also remains very swampy – the only land route to the Baltics from the West lies in the northern Poland. Presumably, the aggressor will primarily aim to cut it off and, therefore, the only means to deploy NATO troops will be by air and by sea.

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The potential aggressor knows that. It is likely that surface-to-surface Iskander missiles, which are located in the Oblast, will be used for a number of preventive strikes against targets within a 500 km radius – those include Lithuanian military that is concentrated in Rukla, Lithuanian Grand Duke Algirdas mechanised infantry battalion, and arsenals in Linkaičiai and Klaipėda.

The strikes would be followed by land and air invasions. Depending on the operational targets, the aggressor’s armed forces would move from Kaliningrad to Kaunas and Klaipėda, and from Pskov, through Latvia, to Šiauliai and Visaginas.

It is hard to say whether Belarus would contribute to the military attack against the Baltics. In any case, Russia would probably be free to use the Belarusian airspace for military operations and territory for the purposes of transit.

The Lithuanian and Estonian armed forces would probably be reorganised and divided into smaller, very well organised and armed units, the fight of which would be based on guerrilla tactics. Ground, special and volunteer forces would be involved in operations all over the country aiming to cause as much damage for the attacker as possible. In the meanwhile, the navy, that has no real weapons, and armoured vehicles, standing in their garages, would remain ineffective and vulnerable.

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Estonian soldiers practicing guerrilla tactics. Photo by Esper Kaar.

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NATO reinforces would primarily try to eliminate the aggressors’ air-defence systems. After that, air strikes would be launched against its ground forces. The rest is predictable, if nobody uses tactical nuclear weapons.  The aggressor would be countered and destroyed, but the consequences of the conflict would be tragic for the Baltic States.

The Russian official doctrine includes a paragraph on the responsibility to defend Russian nationals living in foreign countries. However, the aggressor should be supported within the target state in order to begin the “liberation”. That requires certain preconditions in the target states, such as the use of force against national minorities, or the radicalisation of a government. Without a doubt, the Western powers would also try to solve the problem of state radicalisation, but, if their bureaucratic processes were delayed, Russia or its allies could become the only actors able to help the ones who need it.

An intervention without a gunshot would only be possible if Russia’s information campaign, which lasts for 20 years now, would succeed. Such factors as declining Western influence and values could also contribute to that.

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See Estonian World’s exclusive infographic about Estonian Defence Forces’ technical capabilities here.

Cover photo: The Estonian Air Force’s Ground Master 400 long-range air defence radar system.

EstonianWorld would like to hear comments and feedback from our readers – do you think that this scenario would ever be likely to happen again?

President Ilves in London: “Big Brother” vs “Little Sister”

President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, extolled the virtues of Estonia’s e-government infrastructure and IT systems and discussed trust and identity on Tuesday in a keynote speech hosted by the Legatum Institute in London.

The broad theme of Ilves’s speech was that of identity and trust. Making reference to Peter Steiner’s famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, he put forward that “it is the role of government to come in and provide you with a secure identity, there is no other way of doing it, unfortunately…in the same way, only the government is able to enforce traffic laws and food safety standards”. “Otherwise,” he added, “the banks don’t know if you’re really a dog or not”.

“Big Brother” vs “Little Sister”

He spoke of the difference in the way data is used by intelligence services compared with private sector organisations, who collect information via free apps or supermarket loyalty cards. “A lot of information out there is being used by companies and it has very little to do with the NSA or GCHQ or any of the other traditional “bad” guys. I prefer to call this ‘Little Sister’ as opposed to “Big Brother”. ‘Little Sister’ knows everything about you and then tells everybody.”

A key point was his emphasis on privacy vs data integrity. “A lack of privacy means people can see what you’ve said – but what happens when someone changes what you’ve said? When someone cannot just see what’s in your bank account, but change what’s in your bank account? I think that will be the big issue in the future that we have to deal with.”

When it comes to the future, Ilves wishes to see a “Lockean social contract for the digital world”, as opposed to the Hobbesian outlook of states such as Russia and Iran where the government ostensibly makes life safer by means of state control. “We need a contract between the state and the citizens. Hobbes’s view of life before government was as a war against all and that we need a strong sovereign. This is the view we see coming from people like Vladimir Putin and from places like Iran. ‘We’re going to make our country safe by making sure that we control everything.’ What we need to do in the spirit of our liberal democratic and enlightenment tradition is come up with a deal between us and government.”

On Monday President Ilves gave the opening address at the Chatham House conference “Power and Commerce in the Internet Age” and met with the UK Minister for Digital Affairs, Francis Maude.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania to form Baltic Battalion

Estonian Defense Ministry has released details of a planned joint battalion between Estonian, Latvia and Lithuanian forces, which would begin operating within NATO in 2016.

The Baltic Battalion would consist of Estonia’s Scouts Battalion as well as infantry companies, anti-tank units, military police, and air traffic controllers from Latvia and Lithuania.

The unit will be led by the commander of the Estonian Scouts Battalion, Maj. Andrus Merilo.

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The battalion will begin preparations in 2014, while training will culminate in 2015 as the unit takes part in the US-led Saber Strike exercise and the Trident Juncture exercise in Spain.

According to Estonia’s Commander in Chief Maj. Gen. Riho Terras, the joint unit is a sign of the great potential for Baltic cooperation. “The allies and partners view Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a single security space. Forming a joint battalion shows that we are capable of quickly uniting our forces and carrying out our intentions on both the staff and subordinate units levels,” Terras said.

The first joint Baltic battalion was active from 1994 to 2003. In 2010, a join Baltic unit took part in the 14th rotation of NATO response forces.

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Source: Estonian MFA

Cover photo: Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian troops at Steadfast Jazz (Madis Veltman).

Estonian troops are taking part of large-scale NATO exercise Steadfast Jazz (video)

Estonia has sent 134 combatants on their way to Poland to take part in NATO’s exercise Steadfast Jazz.

Exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 takes place in a number of Alliance nations including the Baltic States and Poland. The purpose to train and test the NATO Response Force, a highly ready and technologically advanced multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and special forces components that the Alliance can deploy quickly wherever needed. The Steadfast series of exercises are part of NATO’s efforts to maintain connected and inter-operable forces at a high-level of readiness.

The exercise, taking place from November 2-9, will this year encompass 6,000 soldiers from 18 countries, including the US, France, UK, Germany and Ukraine, as well as 40 aircraft and 15 vessels. During the exercise, staff headquarters will be based in Adazi, Latvia while the main ground activities will be set in Poland.

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From Estonia, a mechanised infantry company from the Scouts Battalion and a mortar platoon from the Defense League will be involved, as well as a minesweeper and about another 150 people on the civilian side. It is the first time a volunteer unit from the Defense League is participating in a NATO Response Force exercise.

“The purpose of Steadfast Jazz is to make sure that NATO is ready to defend its member states. Our preparation has been thorough, the Scouts Battalion and the Defense League have had extensive joint training, they are ready to fulfill combat assignments and can effectively work together with the mechanised infantry units of other nations,” Commander of the Estonian Defense Force’s contingent, Captain Mart Sirel, said.

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Source: Estonian MFA

Cover photo: Estonian soldier at Steadfast Jazz 2013 (Sõdurileht)

More photos: Steadfast Jazz

Turning around the 2007 cyber attack: lessons from Estonia

Estonia’s experience in handling the cyber attacks of 2007 has positioned the country as a thought leader in cyber security. This article outlines the major lessons learned from these serious instances of ultra-modern warfare, as told by Lauri Almann, the Permanent Undersecretary of the Ministry of Defence at the time of the attacks.

Disclaimer: This article was first published by e-estonia.com.

A cyber attack against a country seems like something out of a science fiction movie. However, a perfect storm of political controversy and successful psychological warfare turned this into a reality in Estonia, when in 2007 the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial started an unprecedented unrest in the country’s capital that has later been labelled the Bronze Night.

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A group of high state officials, including several ministers and police chiefs, were watching the events unfold in a secure location near the centre of Tallinn. “It was on the second day of the unrest and the riots had begun to settle when the government’s press officer Martin Jaško suddenly stepped into the situation room to report that he was unable to upload press releases to the government’s web portal. We were about to dismiss it as a trivial hiccup,” recalls Lauri Almann.

In fact, the cyber attack had begun, with the first targets being different government web pages as well as the homepage of the Reform Party that led the coalition at the time.

Lesson 1: Have the mental readiness to accept the possibility of a cyber attack

“Estonia was extremely lucky,” Almann says. Namely, not long before the Estonian intelligence services had briefed the government on the possibility of cyber attacks. This had been in the context of risks related to electronic voting. However, this provided the mental readiness that was necessary to recognise the possibility of being under attack.

“The fact that all the leaders were aware of the reality of such attacks saved us a lot of time that otherwise could have been spent on turning around existing convictions about cyber warfare,” Almann argues.

Lesson 2: Cooperate with the private sector and think outside the box

While the attacks on government portals were of a symbolic meaning rather than attempts to hurt the normal functioning of the state, the next phase was still to come. With major online news portals beginning to get hit by the attack, the threat became more evident.

However, the gravest moment arrived when Swedbank, the leading bank in the country, suddenly became the target. “Targeting an important financial institution had real potential for creating widespread civil unrest. With people unable to get to their bank accounts, the ensuing bank run could have brought the country to its knees and created the havoc that the attackers wished for,” Almann explains.

It would have been quite difficult to tie the attacks together and tackle them as one, would it not have been for the cooperation agreement that the state had recently signed with some of the biggest private sector enterprises in Estonia. (The agreement was initiated by the current director of the Estonian Information System’s Authority Jaan Priisalu, who was chief of Swedbank’s IT security at the time.)

The attack was eventually mitigated by disabling the top domain for Estonia (.ee) temporarily. “It was effectively an internet kill switch for the country, so nothing that a private sector company would have been able to do on their own,” says Almann, who believes that the cooperation between the public and private sector helped to defy the attack in a matter of hours, not in days or even weeks.

Lesson 3: Be public about the issues

According to Almann, there were moments during the process of handling the attacks when things could have taken a different turn. Going public with the attacks turned out to be the right thing for Estonia in a number of ways.

Firstly, it saved the government from having to come up with mock explanations about what was going on and allowed it to be more efficient in mitigating the attacks.

Secondly, it became the foundation of Estonia’s e-service boom by creating the basis of trust that is necessary between the state and its citizens.

Thirdly, while it seemed to be a severe blow to the country’s reputation as an e-tiger, it actually launched a new episode in Estonia’s success story by positioning the country as a thought leader in cyber security.

Today, Estonia is home to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence as well as the EU agency for large-scale IT systems. “The reason why we are being heard today on the matters of cyber security is that we decided to be open and public about our own matters,” Almann believes. In today’s world, where little remains secret, this looks like the only way forward.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

Target: Estonia – Britain’s nuclear plan for Tallinn, Tartu and Viljandi

While Estonia was an unwilling member of the Soviet Union, from a military perspective it was a legitimate target in the event of a Soviet nuclear first-strike attack on the UK or its NATO allies.

I will never forget the first time I saw a Vulcan bomber take-off. Standing next to the runway at RAF Boscombe Down (as it then was), wearing ear protectors far too large for my small ears, I watched its majestic and graceful frame ascend into the sky with a dexterity not normally seen in heavy bombers. I was awestruck. Despite the Vulcan having already retired six years before, it was (and still is) chilling to think of the destruction these aircraft might have unleashed on the world had the chess-like brinkmanship of the Cold War played out differently.

Vulcan bombers

During the 1960ies, the Vulcan bomber formed the backbone of the British nuclear fleet and, at any given moment, a certain number were at a state of permanent readiness. In times of heightened tension, they could be airborne within two minutes – the shortest warning given of a Soviet nuclear attack was estimated to be three and a half minutes. Once airborne, they would have flown at over 40,000 feet over the North Sea to southern Norway until they reached the “positive release line”, beyond which they would not fly unless a given a positive command to do so.

Once this invisible line was crossed, the bombers would fly around the coast of neutral Sweden until they were over the island of Gotland where they would split up and head for their individual targets in the Soviet Union. In the first set of strikes, three bombers would have been dispatched to attack Tallinn, Tartu and Viljandi.

While Estonia was an unwilling member of the Soviet Union, from a military perspective it was a legitimate target in the event of a Soviet nuclear first-strike attack on the UK or its NATO allies. Extensively militarised and part of the Baltic Military District, it was home to at least six air interception squadrons, heavy bombers and units of the Strategic Rocket Forces.

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The British Vulcans were armed with Blue Steel stand-off missiles (“stand-off” meaning they could be deployed at a safe distance for the Vulcan to be able to escape the resultant explosion) which had an explosive yield of approximately 1.1 megatons. In comparison, “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, had an explosive yield of just 0.16 megatons.

350,000 people would have been killed

There is no doubt that the effects of these strikes on Estonia would have been devastating. Approximately 350,000 people would have been killed just from the explosion itself. If you factor in the human cost of nuclear fallout for the surviving population (had there been one), this figure can be safely doubled. Fallout from the bomb dropped on Tallinn would also have reached Helsinki and Southern Finland.

Simultaneously, nuclear weapons would have been dropped on strategic targets in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and, of course, Russia. The scale of devastation would have been catastrophic.

So next time you’re are on a plane, enjoying the sights of Estonia and the Baltic Sea from the air, remember this article and try to imagine the view with the terrifying overlay of nuclear fallout and mushroom clouds.

A note on the illustration

In creating the illustration, I have made certain assumptions. Firstly, that the Vulcans that were to target Estonia were equipped with Blue Steel “air-burst” nuclear stand-off weapons – this is the most likely scenario. Air-burst nuclear weapons detonate in the air over their target and the amount of fallout is reduced. Secondly, the number of casualties from a nuclear blast is difficult to calculate.

The figures here should be regarded as reasonable estimates, but necessary assumptions were made, especially with regard to the daytime populations of Tallinn, Tartu and Viljandi. Any mis-calculation is likely to result in an under-estimation of the human tragedy involved. It is also important to note that neither the short nor long-term effects on health from nuclear fallout have been taken into consideration. Fallout is shown on the map by the opaque clouds, shaded according to the relevant nuclear target.

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Cover: A Vulcan B.2 of the Royal Air Force.

Estonian firm floats a new idea to combat naval piracy (video)

Despite a decrease in global piracy during 2012, almost 300 vessels were boarded, hi-jacked or fired upon while sailing on the high seas. In the worst affected areas, such as the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, warships from a coalition of international navies are on patrol to act as a deterrent and come to the rescue of those ships under attack.

The best defence against piracy is, of course, to prevent it from happening in the first place but this isn’t always possible. So what can you do? At the DSEI arms fair in London, I asked an officer of the North Korean navy and his response was, “Most importantly you need to buy time – then you can raise the alarm and organise your defence. Successful pirate raids are those in which the captured vessel has been caught off-guard.”

The principal weapon is radar – enemy vessels can be spotted and tracked before they are within visual range. But not all civilian radar platforms are able to detect the small and fast moving skiffs that pirates use – in some cases there is only a couple of minutes warning that an attack is about to take place. There are numerous defensive measures that can be employed, such as ear-drum bursting loudspeakers, slippery foam to deter boarding and walls of electrically charged or very hot water but they are all close-range weapons, used when the enemy is already too close for comfort.

Of course, unless you are a military vessel, it is difficult to keep pirate craft away but as my North Korean friend says – you need to buy time. This is the rationale behind Estonian company Mentorplast’s “rotating floats” – keeping the enemy at a distance for as long as possible, giving the crew time to react and plan defensive measures.

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A rotating float.

The principle of using floats to deter and obstruct pirates isn’t new, but Mentorplast’s are the first to come with sharp, steel jaws which rotate in the water as the floats do. It is difficult enough to try and navigate a vessel under or around older style floats, but when they come armed with steel jaws, the task becomes even more treacherous. The resistant and sturdy construction of the floats also makes the job harder – while they aren’t indestructible, they do take a lot of damage before being destroyed.

This acts as a deterrent in two ways – firstly, pirates will be unwilling to waste scarce ammunition and explosives in destroying armoured floats merely in order to approach their target. Secondly, it wastes precious time – time which could be used to send distress signals to military vessels and to co-ordinate a robust response to the pirates should they get within attacking range of their target vessel.

The floats do not only have a role in protecting ships from piracy, but also in protecting ports. A long chain of floats can be run some distance away from the port entrance, giving security forces the ability to channel all vessels into a specific area and help thwart attacks on moored vessels.

The company behind the floats, Mentorplast, is part of the larger Vesimentor company, which provides 45 different products, all made from different types of plastic. In addition to being a member of the Estonian Defence Industry Union and the Estonian Chamber of Commerce, the company holds ISO accreditations and meets NATO quality assurance requirements.

My North Korean naval friend was suitable impressed when we paid Mentorplast’s stall at DSEI a visit. “You see,” he said, “this is what I mean. If you have a choice of vessels to attack, you attack the one without these [the floats]. And even if you do decide to attack, it will be much, much more difficult. Can I buy one for my yacht?”

Estonian NGO contributes to the future of young Syrian refugees

Syria has been dominating the headlines of international media channels for quite some time now. It seems the conflict that has been going on for two years has little left to astonish us with. Nonetheless, amid the political debates and discussions on the appropriate international response to the civil war in Syria, the human side of the story has perhaps not always received as much attention as it deserves.

Even though the conflict is mainly perceived as a political issue, it has also evolved into a large-scale humanitarian crisis. As a direct outcome of the civil war, there are currently 4.5 million internally displaced people and two million refugees.

While the end of the conflict does not seem to be in sight, a growing number of people are gathering in “temporary” refugee camps, waiting for a chance to return home. Camps like these can be found in all Syria’s neighbouring countries. The biggest one is situated in Jordan. The number of Syrian refugees who have entered this neighbouring state is more than 500,000. From these Syrians, about 130,000 live in the Za’atri refugee camp, which makes it the fifth largest “city” in Jordan and the second largest camp in the world.

KoolihoovAbout half of the population in this camp is less than 18 years old. These boys and girls left everything they knew in Syria and went to Jordan with a new distorted understanding of life. Life that is full of violence, frustration and hopelessness. In these conditions it is clearly difficult to develop or maintain high ambitions and expectations for the future. One of the indicators of this attitude is the number of children who attend school. Statistics show that from all the registered school-aged refugees only 23% go to school. Even though there is a lot to be concerned about, it is a worrying figure that might cause long-term implications that could last decades after the end of the conflict. Not only will an entire generation grow up with psychological scars, they will also have great difficulties with coping in the job market.

This issue is recognised and UNICEF is cooperating with the Jordan Ministry of Education in order to manage official schools in the camp. This, unfortunately, has not proved to be enough to get the school-aged camp residents to the classrooms. In addition to other international humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, an Estonian NGO called Mondo is working in Za’atri to alleviate the situation of the young Syrian refugees. The project which focuses on the education sector is funded by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented in cooperation with Finn Church Aid and Relief International. This project consists of a number of activities that are aiming to empower the youth and benefit the children in Za’atri.

KlassiruumOne of the activities this Estonian NGO is involved in is setting up a computer lab in order to teach young people skills that are valuable in the job market and thus, provide them with knowledge that can have a great impact for their future. Computer literacy is taught as part of extra-curricular activities and all the successful participants will be given a certificate at the end of the course. In addition, computer classes are in high demand in the camp and therefore are a fantastic tool for making teenagers interested in attending school.

Mondo also helps develop learning materials for afterschool catch-up classes that support those Syrian students who are struggling to cope with the Jordanian curriculum. Learning materials are also provided for classes aimed at those children and teenagers who for different reasons have never had an opportunity to go to school and thus have to start from the basics.

One important reason why children do not go to school or, while in school, are not able to pay as much attention as they should, is because of an empty stomach. At the moment Mondo is providing a school snack consisting of an energy bar and a pack of juice for 220 students. Mondo also has initiated a campaign for gathering donations in order to increase the number of children who could benefit from the school lunch.  (For more information about the campaign visit www.muudamaailma.ee)

All these actions hopefully lead to an increasing number of Syrian refugee children who find that attending school is necessary. Only this way can they benefit from education and hence stand a bigger chance for a better future. A better life for them would also mean a brighter future for the region.

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* Mondo is an Estonian NGO dedicated to organising and delivering humanitarian aid, managing and intermediating development cooperation, public education and development education, and educating its members and the general public on the issues of humanitarian aid and development cooperation.

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