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ukraine crisis

Ex-Estonian Defence Forces chief: 'Neutrality is a luxury only rich countries can afford'

Major General Meelis Kiili, spoke to The Journal about Neutrality, NATO and his country’s plan to fight Russia.

THE FORMER CHIEF of Staff of the Estonian army has said that neutrality is a “luxury only rich countries can afford” and said his home country is ready to fight the Russian military in the event of an invasion.

Estonia is among four small countries with a border with Russia on the Eastern fringes of Europe – Finland lies to the north with Latvia and Lithuania to the south. 

The Baltic sea state has a history of invasions and oppression from the Russians – it suffered horrifically under Soviet occupation for much of the 20th century.

Major General Meelis Kiili is the National Military Representative of the Estonian Defence Forces to NATO’s European command. He was chief of staff of the Estonian Army from 2005 to 2006 and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 2006 to 2007. 

Kiili was in Dublin in recent days to speak at the ‘Future of Irish Defence’ summit organised by non-profit security group Slándáil.

The officer has a long history in military life having served first in national service when his country was in the clutches of the Soviet Union. 

But following the restoration of Estonia’s independence in the 1990s he joined his country’s Defence Forces and rose up through the ranks. 

In an interview with The Journal Kiili said that geography no longer protects countries from aggression and spoke about neutrality and the importance of a well-developed indigenous defence strategy. 

He also had a stark warning for Russian soldiers massing on his country’s border – “Go home and live”. 

“I think it is the wrong perception that only Estonia and the neighbourhood of the bordering countries of Russia are at risk, everybody’s at risk,” he said.

Kiili, who has been educated at the US Army War College, the NATO and Baltic Defence Colleges, said that modern warfare, with its combination of lethal weaponry and hybrid cyber tactics, is a threat for every corner of the world. 

He said his State has been preparing for a Russian invasion since it became independent in the 1990s.

“The Ukrainian invasion in February, nothing really changed for Estonia. In terms of Russia, we knew that it was going to happen. And we have prepared for that since we restored our independence.

So we didn’t look there were some times we were sometimes taken as being paranoid about our eastern neighbour. We were just realistic. I think the entire free world is at risk today. The battlefield it is in Ukraine but the conflict is between western society – the transatlantic world versus Russia. 


In speaking to Finnish and Swedish experts The Journal has discovered a similar theme – one of pragmatic necessity in defence. Estonia is no different and Kiili takes that a step further.   

“We’ve been pragmatic. Our task is also to educate our allies, like minded nations, to understand that there is no point calling to Mr Putin. He’s using different taxonomy.

“The basic principle is we need to have a very clear understanding of their way of thinking. It is very different. It is alien to the Western world,” he said. 

Kiili said that he was “surprised” at how often Western states have fallen for Russia’s deceptions in negotiations – he was particularly critical of western Governments who are dependent on Russian energy.

“Europe became dependent on the Russian gas but on the other hand, Russia is very dependent on the income from the European Union.

“We just pay the price now and that’s the money but Ukrainians are paying in blood and with their lives,” he added. 

tactical-air-control-party-personnel-with-the-oklahoma-air-national-guard-146th-air-support-operations-squadron-consisting-of-an-air-liaison-officer-and-joint-terminal-attack-controller-support-exerci Estonia joined NATO in 2004. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Kiili said that Estonia has been using the model of a whole society approach to defence where there is a buy-in from all citizens. He said the defence model he and other military leaders have advocated for is “a citizens resistance and resilience against aggression”.

Besides that strategy he also believes that membership of NATO, which the country joined in 2004, and the wider western alliance of the EU will help his State “avoid a battle” with their eastern nation.

Repeatedly, throughout the interview, Kiili mentioned the Soviet behaviour during World War Two and listed atrocities perpetrated by the USSR throughout the following decade.  

During WWII Estonia suffered invasions from Germany and Russia.

In 1940 Estonia was annexed by Russia. It resulted in a massive blood letting with senior officials and people across the broader society executed by Russia. 

A German invasion followed but this was again pushed back by the Soviets in 1944 but rather than being a liberating force it began a decades-long occupation. It is estimated that Estonia lost 25% of its population in WWII.

From 1944 on there was a massive Estonian resistance movement against the Soviets.

By 1949 Russia had begun a forceful process of changing the demographics of the population from 98% Estonian to just over 60% with forced deportations of citizens and a Russification strategy that saw thousands of Russians moved into the tiny Baltic country.


He offered a word of caution to the Russians who may be favourable to an invasion of the Baltic States and a revisiting of those turbulent times.

Kiili – speaking just above a whisper as he discussed his country’s defence strategy – leaned forward in his chair, fixed his gaze, and said:

One thing is clear. This time, we are going to fight. Every Estonian citizen must be protected, defended, every inch of our land. We are not going to yield it.

Kiili said that the Estonian State has defence enshrined in its constitution as a fundamental right and it is an obligation of each citizen to assist in defence.

“If we don’t resist what’s going to happen? You have seen what’s going to happen in Bucha, in the suburbs of Mariupol. It is a massacre, they say it is genocide. So absolutely we must fight,” he added.

The Major General said the claims from Moscow of Russia liberating Ukraine from Nazis is “mad” and it “insults the intelligence” of everyone including Russians.  

He said there is a broad consensus in Estonia around defence funding and little to no debate on the expenditure – the State spends 2.7% of GDP on Defence – for comparison Ireland spends 0.2%.

estonian-defense-league-commander-visits-meelis-kiili Major General Meelis Kiili. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Kiili said he did not wish to advise Ireland as to its defence funding model but said that neutrality is a concept that must be adequately funded. 

“Neutrality is a luxury only rich countries like Switzerland can afford,” he said. 

“They need to learn you need to pay for that. You need to increase your defense budget to fund it.

And it’s based not on deduction, but it is based on our own experience. In 1940, we were neutral. The army wasn’t worthy, the armed forces were not up to the task. If the adversary wants to invade a neutral country who has no defences, it’s done, simply, it’s done.

Kiili concludes his interview with an observation on the current threat landscape from an Irish perspective. 

“I think that the Irish are very good people – they are joyful, open. But there’s a world beyond Irish borders as well and sometimes that world is not so nice as here in Dublin.

“We need to be wary of the threats and challenges. They (may) not possibly be in our nearest proximity, but in a proximity – they are real.

“We need to stand for our values and lifestyle together,” he said. 

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