Civil defence rally won’t reach destination our usual way

In a recent interview, the General Director of the Rescue Board said that civil defence has been given full throttle.1 In a situation where the state of civil defence cannot even be assessed as satisfactory, the gearbox is rather stuck, the wheels are spinning in the mud, and in a more serious crisis, this mud will hit the residents.

The praise sung by top officials and the minister responsible for the sector, however, is in no way in touch with the development needs or realities of civil defence based on the situation in Ukraine, nor with reality. Estonia does have a civil defence concept on paper,but it has not been implemented in essence. The planned capabilities have not been developed due to a lack of funds, despite two years of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
At the same time, the Minister of the Interior tells usthat it is precisely the Ukrainian experience that is being used as a basis for the development of our civil defence. The marking of public shelters, the still missing siren network, which is predicted to be completed by the end of 2024 and which has been steadily under construction since the summer of 2022.Moreover, there is the fact that we are still constructing new public buildings – such as schools and kindergartens – without shelters, which raises the question: what exactly is the Ukraine experience being considered?
It certainly has not been a mild experience, as one might expect from the slow development of Estonia’s civil defence. Ukraine’s experience in the war with Russia has clearly shown that the Kremlin uses attacks on and terrorization of the civilian population as both tactical and strategic weapons.
The abundant photo and video material from many cities and settlements in Ukraine, along with overview reports, have irrefutably confirmed, hopefully even to the most naive proponents of civil defence, that our aggressive neighbour does not consider acts of war crimes to be anything special. 
On the contrary, this is part of the everyday reality and strategy of war,in which civilians are also involved. For example, as of February 2023, residential buildings accounted for 37.3% of all direct infrastructure damage.Causing human suffering is an important weapon for Russia. Unfortunately, the value system of its power elite allows for this.
Without exaggeration, it can be said that Russian imperialism and the brutality that comes with it pose a constant existential threat to Estonia. To some extent, the blind assertion by responsible politicians and officials that Estonia’s civil defence is fine – claiming that the burden is heavy but we are stepping in the right direction – can be analogized to the Corona crisis.
Then, too, it only became apparent with the spread of the virus that Estonia had no national reserves of, for example, personal protective equipment. This was despite the fact that the Ministry of Health had consistently described the pandemic as a highly probable threat with serious consequences for the past ten years7-8 and the Ministry of Interior had mapped out the concerns regarding mass vaccination.9
Awaiting permanent funding
Permanent funding could have been the first visible step towards civil defence, allowing Estonia to emerge from the coma ward where Estonian politicians, as a consistent result of their work, have pushed the protection of our citizens with the same rigid grip as the hands that guide a patient towards a mental asylum. At a time when two years have already passed since the start of full-scale war on the day of the anniversary of the Republic and ten years since the beginning of the creeping occupation of Crimea and Donbass, it remains unclear why it is still so difficult to allocate funds for civil defence in Estonia. 
Specifically, it is the allocation of resources – in particular as a fixed percentage of GDP – that civil defence needs in order to create the condition for its vigorous development. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the pre-election proposal by the Minister of the Interior to devote 0.5% of GDP to preparations for protecting the population,10 in order to build up a system that actually works and protects people, remained an empty and cheap election slogan, which deceived voter or a concerned internal security worker could at best read from the lips.
One can only hope that this slogan did not have to be bought from an agency, but who knows.

It is worth remembering that our conservative, old-fashioned northern neighbours consider civil defence to be fundamental for protecting their people as well as maintaining the motivation of their reserve army. This is a fundamental value on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, where reservists can breathe a great sigh of relief when going to the front because their loved ones are sufficiently protected in the rear. 

In Estonia, we have not been able to increase this sense of security. For example, public shelters and the lack of sirens, as well as the low evacuation capacity, simply do not allow this.

Need for statesmanship
When it comes to discussing civil defence development, a sad trend has started to emerge – a certain ridicule of the situation. We hear statements suggesting that following the Finnish path in protecting citizens would be somewhat of a crazy idea in Estonia, as illustrated well in an interview with the Director General of the Rescue Board,11 where he went to extremes by saying that there is no need to build a new underground Estonia for the protection of people.
On the one hand, amidst the whirlwind of ridicule, one gets the impression that the Finns, as well as the Swedes*, are fundamentally foolish and have misunderstood something, and on the other hand, that people who demand better civil defence, whether for the sake of their loved ones, children, or community, are not being realistic.
It should be said here that such a choice and the blurring of the current situation serve only one purpose: a short-term political goal. The fact that we do not discuss the situation in substance and that we do not want to talk about the details in public discourse, for example, on the issue of sheltering,11 is not beneficial for internal security workers, let alone for residents.
And not even for the sector itself, because by publicly repeating, just to save face, that civil defence is going on at full speed and that everyone is responsible for themselves, there is no hope of bringing more money into the sector. Moreover, it is simply sad and disappointing: if statesmanship disappears during a war in Europe in such a fundamental issue as civil defence and all that remains is rating politics, then we have reached a new level of political swamp.
It is understandable that the state is financially strained, and yet it cannot be admitted that civil defence is not a vital priority to allocate more than a mere fraction of funds to. As long as the government does not find permanent funding for civil defence, as it did in the past to meet NATO’s 2% target, serious thought must be given as to whether there is even a basis to talk about comprehensive national defence in Estonia. If we expect the population to contribute to national defence to the best of their abilities, the state must also provide the maximum possible protection in return.
Constantly imposing new demands and conditions on people while at the same time tinkering with civil defence eventually begins to erode the will to defend. This is a question of broad national defence because it is not possible to conduct months or years of defensive battles without protecting the rear with the resources and primary support forces we have in our region.
Civil defence needs Parliament’s attention
The threat lurking in the rear is not going anywhere; our Ukrainian allies face it daily, even in 2024, and it is time to truly start developing civil defence based on their experience. At this point, we should also give up attitudes suggesting that we are now reaching the pre-war level of civil defence in Ukraine.
Well, we certainly do not, as it is known that sirens were operational in Ukraine from the first day of the war,12-13 guiding residents to shelters, including underground protective buildings and subway stations. The Ukrainian reality two years later is also reflected in the construction of underground schools, for example, in Kharkiv.14-15 For some reason, there is no discussion on the topic of shelters, because they are actually experiencing direct fire and air strikes on civilian infrastructure.
When it comes to saying that civil defence development has been given full throttle, the situation rather resembles a driving lesson where the clutch, brake, and gas are constantly confused, not to mention what the gearbox is. Yet, to the person sitting in the warm cabin, the picture is quite the opposite: the engine is running at full power, the wheels are spinning, sometimes even squealing tyres, which is good to show off on social media. However, no progress is made; at best, the wheels are spinning in place, and the dirt is being thrown at the residents.
The civil defence driver and navigator can only admit afterwards, like in radio station Kreisiraadio16 style – we had to turn left, and you can’t drive a rally like that, where demanding citizens want more from civil defence. And we are all still friends, even if you are muddy, but nothing serious – it happens!
This is not acceptable. As we know, we have a parliamentary republic where control over civil defence and its development should take place at the level of the Riigikogu. As long as Estonia lacks officials and politicians who would like and dare to take responsibility for the development of the sector, in other words, to put an end to substitute activities, it will not be possible to rally for the development of civil defence.
It is precisely the latter that we must do, so that one day, in the distant future, we can catch up with countries that value human life more. Those responsible for the protection of the population must start reporting routinely and publicly in the Riigikogu, so that there is an understanding of what this seemingly meaningless full throttle looks like and whether we have even gotten out of the mud.
*At the beginning of 2024, Sweden had about 65,000 shelters where nearly 7 million people could take refuge.17

×Hannes Nagel’s op-ed has previously appeared on the Eesti Päevaleht web portal on 30 January and in the paper edition of the Päevaleht on 31 January (no. 13, p. 3). Photo: abandoned car in Luhansk oblast in Ukraine (Tatiana Travel, Pexels, 2024).

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