Hanno Pevkur, the Estonian Minister of Defense, speaks to reporters in front of an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System during a static display in Tapa, Estonia on Jan. 6, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Charles Leitner)

NATO SUMMIT 2024 — Russia is using hybrid attacks across NATO in an effort to distract each country from how to best support Ukraine, according to Estonia’s defense minister, and it is therefore an “obligation” not to “fall into that trap” and overreact.

Hybrid attacks are “a constant situation for us,” Hanno Pevkur said today, listing cyberattacks, as well as the vandalism of a minister’s car and that of a journalist as just a few of the incidents the Estonian government has blamed on Russia. “So this is something which is in the playbook of Russia.”

“We know they’re capable of that; we know that they’re going to do it. Now the question is how we respond. When we [bring] it up on a very high level, then of course they are happy because then we are dealing with our internal matters, and not with Ukraine,” he told an audience at a joint Politico-Welt event on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Washington. “This is exactly what Russia wants to happen, that all the European countries will [be] dealing with their internal problems and not with” Ukraine.

“Hundreds of people are dying in Ukraine, this should be our main focus,” he said.

Pevkur’s comments come weeks after NATO issued a public warning about purported Russian hybrid activity across Europe including “sabotage, acts of violence, cyber and electronic interference, disinformation campaigns, and other hybrid operations.”

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“We support and stand in solidarity with the affected Allies. We will act individually and collectively to address these actions, and will continue to coordinate closely,” the statement said.

NATO membership affords each country the ability to invoke the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause in response to an attack, but hybrid activity is by design more difficult to categorize and attribute. Therefore it’s unclear when a hybrid attack crosses the line into an Article 5-worthy act. (Article 5 has only been invoked once, by the US after the 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda in 2001.)

In a later briefing at the Estonian embassy here, Pevkur said deciding whether a hybrid assault merits invoking Article 5 would be up to whoever was attacked, who would then go to NATO to enter discussions about how to respond. “So every country has to make its own evaluation,” he said. But he said that they should be very careful.

“Of course we have to be proportional here, and we don’t want overreact,” he said. “We have to keep ourselves calm because we can manage these kinds of attack. So when there’s a need for joint actions, then we have all the mechanisms for that” from bilateral agreements to multilateral agreements. Invoking Article 5 over something too small, he suggested, could play into Russia’s hands politically.

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“So I would say let’s keep our heads clear here,” he said. “As long as the country can manage, my suggestion is to keep it at this level.”

At the same time, Pevkur said NATO would not stand for Russia attempting a land-grab of any territory in the east, like Moscow did with eastern Ukraine in 2014, in what was also not a clearly defined military action at the time.

“We will start defending countries from the first inch,” he said.

Estonia Evaluating Potential Bunker Positions

Elsewhere in the talk at the embassy, Pevkur provided an update on the Baltic plan, announced in January, to establish a physical defense line of bunkers along Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania’s eastern borders.

The plan calls for hundreds of entrenched fighting positions coming at collective cost of around €60 million ($64.9 million). In May, Estonia’s then-Chief of Defense Gen. Martin Herem said that the goal of the bunker system is not to stop a Russian invasion in its tracks — a “stupid” goal, Herem said — but to shape it so that the Baltic countries could better counter incoming Russian forces.

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Pevkur indicated the project was still in its early phases, saying Estonia hoped to identify the sites it would use for bunker positions by the end of the year, including sorting out whether they’ll be on public or private land, and perhaps construct one or two of them.

“We will see how it goes,” he said.