TALLINN – With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearing the one-year mark, a top Estonian defense leader warned that if Vladimir Putin is not stopped now, he could entangle the region in a larger conflict, perhaps one with even greater security implications for the U.S.
That’s because Russia has shown it will keep trying to retake territories that were once part of the Soviet Union and, so far, economic sanctions and its significant military losses in Ukraine have not changed Putin’s larger goals, said Kristjan Mäe, the head of the Estonian Ministry of Defense’s NATO and EU department, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Baltic nation on Thursday.
Estonia, which borders Russia, was forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II and gained its independence only with the Soviet collapse in 1991. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.
“If we do not solve this war at this moment, where it is, first of all, there’s going to be a bigger war,” Mäe said.
And a larger war could have a significant impact on the United States’ larger security concerns with China, he said.
“If Europe is tied down with this war, then the European support, allied support politically, militarily to Indo-Pacific area is going to be limited as well, it’s going to be hampered,” he said. “So the primary focus, the short term focus should be defeating Russia where it is. This is the time. It’s not just the spring, but in general, this is the time to do this.”
The U.S. and allies have been pressing to get tanks and ammunition into Kyiv this spring to help Ukraine seize what is considered a critical moment in the war.
Austin’s visit to Estonia was also to offer reassurance. U.S. forces have been in constant rotation in Estonia since the invasion began as part of a commitment to defend NATO’s eastern flank.
At a news conference in Tallinn on Thursday, Austin was asked how Estonia could be sure it would have America’s protection if Russia presses through.
In response, Austin recalled his pre-invasion pledge to the Estonian defense minister: “I told him that if Russia invaded Ukraine, we would deploy forces to Estonia the next day. And we did. We were the first to be here. And we meant every word we said, and we’ll live up to our commitments going forward,” Austin said.
The pledges of military support both to the eastern flank and to Kyiv come as Ukraine is girding for what is expected to be an intense ground battle in the east and south to try to take back some of the territory seized by Russia, even as Russia amasses hundreds of thousands of troops inside Ukraine for the spring fight.
But many of the Western weapon systems that have been pledged, such as the Bradley fighting vehicles and Patriot missile defense systems, and scores of Leopard and Abrams tanks, are not yet on the battlefield, which has raised questions as to whether that aid will arrive in time to make a difference.
“It’s never too late,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said during the news conference with Austin. “When there’s a hope, and when there’s a last man standing, there is, there is a chance to win this war,” Pevkur said. “As long as we as international allies, international partners of Ukraine, can deliver them what they need.”