Active NATO membership is a long-term strategic priority of Estonian security and defence policy (being a member since March 29th, 2004), which allows the country to productively participate in international security cooperation and to safeguard Estonia’s own security.

The international security environment has changed considerably over the past several years. This has resulted in the expansion of the concept of security to new areas such as terrorism, energy and cyber security, etc. Therefore, the requirements for ensuring security are changing over time for both NATO and Estonia.

We spoke to Estonia’s NATO Representative, Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, who elaborates on how security is important to her country and what is the phenomena of gender equality in security policy in Estonia.

Magda Jakubowska: In Estonia, the representation of female leaders engaged in politics, including the President – Kersti Kaljulaid, is quite high which is not the normal case in Eastern or Central Europe, though the pay gap is still quite large. What has caused these phenomena?

Kyllike Sillaste-Elling: In Estonia, women are highly educated. I am not sure about the latest statistics but, in general, more and more women in Estonia are attending and pursuing careers at higher education institutions. There are more women than men getting higher education. 

In addition, we have more women than men working for the foreign service; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have more female ambassadors, but we do have quite a few. There have been considerable changes recently though – ten years ago, the situation was quite different. 

In Poland, around 10-15% are female ambassadors, but we have the first U.S. female ambassador to Poland in Warsaw now.  

I think for Estonia it is about 30-40% which is pretty good. There is also good representation in NATO with a 9-women strong group, which had never been the case before. 

And, by the way, the United States Ambassador here is also a woman, as well as her deputy who left last year. Personally, I also have a deputy female colleague. I think it is quite important.

Why do you think it is important? Should NATO be more open to women?

Certainly, it should be! We do cooperate closely within the Central-Eastern European alliance because there is so much of security linked to geography. In our case – geography is the only thing we cannot change.  So, we are stuck where we are in East, close to Russia. It means in this group we [the Central-Eastern European countries] naturally must work together.

From one hand, women should be more engaged in NATO and bring more attention to the public. I feel more encouraged seeing other women discussing security topics, which means it is important to the female part of society. What else can women bring to security? How important is it for women to be engaged in foreign affairs?

For Estonia, security is very important. But why should it be an absolute priority for women when men don’t let them participate in it, contribute to it? 

This is a sort behaviour minimizing your chances of success because society also includes women. Once you decide to cut-off a part of society, due to whatever traditional beliefs are, then you lose out on capitalising from all your resources.

My mission is also to make sure that we never have to use all the capacity that we are building up, and sometimes I feel that my male colleagues do not perceive it in the same way. That’s why I think every diplomat’s job in Estonia should be to make sure that we don’t need to use all of our military capacity. It’s necessary for deterrents to be prepared, but we don’t need to use all of them. That’s how I see it. 

Generally, in your opinion, is there a good understanding of security issues among women in Estonia? In Poland, for example, women treat the security sector like “toys for boys” as they do not really care about the topic and prefer to leave it to men.

Well, I don’t see security as a totally separate issue. Sometimes it’s just a tendency to put it separately. People who secure the policy are mostly men; they do it all the time and don’t ask us. 

I’ve started to work with the EU about doing things differently. I see our foreign policy from a broad perspective of which security is one of the most important parts. That’s why I would like to see more of the people working for arms control being women. 

I think the key is to be a professional, good diplomat. I don’t think it is necessary to have only a very strong security policy background – it is important to do security in wider sense. 

And I have a good example: my current deputy came from an EU foundation focused on soft political power and economics. Even though this is from a different part of the spectrum, NATO works, as an organization in quite a similar way. It’s the same mechanism: you sit at the table and represent your country – for that you need to be a good diplomat, not necessarily a good commander.  

Poland used to have a very strong representation of women in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) but now it’s only men. Talking about Ministry of Defence (MOD) – there would never be any female representatives as undersecretary. They could work as the general director only responsible for administrative issues.

I think NATO countries are more advanced. For example, when I look at the meeting of Ministers of Defence and look around the table – there are a lot of women – French, German, Spanish, Estonian ministers…this is great! But where it really becomes tricky – probably the worst outcome – it’s in the military. 

There are not that many allies working hard on #1325 resolutions and getting more women in military. That’s going to take some time. Moreover, because of the whole hierarchy system, of how you are promoted, women are only now reaching the highest positions. 

So, this is why the military is even more difficult.  It needs time, but it’s still easier to promote a woman to be an ambassador than to be a general. 

When I started to prepare the #WomenAreNATO project, all my male colleagues at Visegrad/Insight wanted to be engaged in it. After I’ve explained that I want only women to participate, they asked to just be presented as an audience. I believe more and more men do appreciate the role of cooperation with women and their different attitude and points of view.

Yes… For example, cybersecurity is an interesting sub-area in security. Although, there is a real lack of women in that area it is changing recently. 

This is something we’ve been trying to promote actively: to get more women involved in the cyber-area. I think today it is extremely important area in security as we can’t imagine our future without the cyber dimension. 

So, women are getting there, yet again the traditional view is that the cyber sector is for men. More and more women are getting involved, and in social media, for example on Twitter, there are many promotions for women available. 

Cyber-security is at the top of my list of completely illegible topics among women. They don’t want to know and talk about it as it is a kind of IT topic and women – especially in Poland – would prefer to leave it to men. How do you involve women in this area? 

There is much more than just a technical side of it. In Estonia, when it comes to the cyber and diplomacy, we’ve just appointed a new representative for cyber-diplomacy at the MFA who looks on these issues with a wider perspective. She used to work at an external action service heading the cyber unit. 

We’ve also had a former Foreign Minister who is in politics now running for Parliament, but she is dealing specifically with legal aspects, international law affecting the cyber sector, which is also sort of untouched territory. So, we’ve had women involved in the wider areas of cyber and defence. 

What is the public perception of women’s roles in cyber area?

It’s quite high but we’ve been working on that. I think here, in Estonia, the issue is changeable, and I haven’t noticed society saying that it’s only a men’s topic. Both our former and current presidents are talking a lot about cyber because it starts at the individual-level.

Have you had any PR campaigns to educate people on this topic?

Yes, and there was an age aspect as well since we’ve wanted to reach the older generation as well as young people who are already involved in social media. 

Since it was very successful where are the focal points of such campaigns? In Poland, it is difficult to hear about such a campaign – explaining the protection of bank account etc.

Exactly! It’s like the “change your password”, “update your software” when you get a notification, so you have the latest security features that it offers. Most people still just don’t do that. There is more and more awareness about “who are you” and “who is reaching out” to you in the Internet. 

Look at the source, try and be creative, don’t set yourself up to be taken advantage of – that’s what it’s been part of the campaign as well – be careful. I think it’s a very good one. 

I think the Internet is like a road and requires similar rules and best practices. Be a little bit more careful, but we absolutely cannot live without roads – so too, we cannot live without Internet. Thus, the response from all the Western countries is not to stop using the Internet or onerous restrictions.

And what about disinformation then? 

I guess it’s the same as for Poland – we’ve been working on it at least since we became independent. I actually think the view has been consistent because of our geography and because of demography – we have quite a large Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, and we are particularly careful of their protection. 

But I have to say that I think we’ve built up quite a lot of resilience – everything what is going on in the past three years has not been surprising to any Estonian. 

Estonians have been taught to not just take the news as it comes but to be critical, to check – what is the source. We’ve done a lot of work with Estonian journalists – not in a way of the state telling them which sources to listen to – as we have free media – and everyone decides what to listen to or read. We’ve just made people be aware that it’s important to be critical of where the information is coming from. 

So, I am not saying that we have achieved perfection, but there is one really interesting point; our elections have not been successfully manipulated in terms of disinformation in comparison to the US. This is the case of many post-communist countries; societies suffering from disinformation are quite sceptical.

We, in Poland, and I think I can say it loudly, are quite anti-Russian. I think that any Russian seems to be suspicious, and we don’t trust Russians at all. However, this is more about my generation while the younger generation is not very educated in contemporary history or today’s security issues, and they are not that aware of disinformation or propaganda etc. So, it’s more worrying, and I do think that in Estonia you are trying to educate people as early as possible, aren’t you? 

Yes, we are, but you cannot be aggressive in reforms if I can give some advice. There are two things you can do for society: talk about the past and educate people in a modern way – it’s very important. 

Younger generations never lived during the Soviet times. Of course, there are films about the past to teach people, to make younger people realize the past…

It is like with WWII. Once I went with my nephews to the museum where there was different equipment from WWII, and they were fine with that but suddenly one of them asked me – but what is war? What is it? I was so surprised as I was told about war by my grandparents and parents from an early age, but the younger new generations haven not had the same experience.

True. We’re still working on it and we should continue to work on it. And another thing – if we want Estonia’s culture to survive – our language, which is spoken only in Estonia as well as our traditions – then everybody should contribute it. 

In Estonia’s case what is important are the cultural elements. Every four to five years we have a summer festival where 200,000 people gather together in one place. This event is very patriotic, and it helps to build up our culture’s resilience. If we stick together, work together, we can overcome many problems together.

In 2014, when Crimea was occupied, I had people coming to me and asking for my opinion on the event and comparing it to the actions in 1944. They were wondering if that happened so easily what is going to happen next? I tried to explain about NATO’s and EU’s views on Crimea.

What comes to my mind now, from what I have read, Estonians feel most insecure among other nations about the whole geopolitical situation, and, especially, after the Crimean annexation.

I haven’t seen comparative analysis, but maybe Lithuanians or Poles are even more insecure. That is why we  all need to cooperate as we are, security-wise, challenged at the same level. It’s all about geography that we cannot change, unfortunately. 

You have mentioned that you have been working with the EU. How compatible can NATO and the EU be? There is an idea about the second EU army. Why should we pay for that?

This is not something we would support. The convergence is going on step-by-step, and let’s see where it goes. We think that the EU should not complicate NATO’s actions. If we see a member state (also a NATO member) increasing its capabilities – that’s good for NATO. 

Probably in Estonia it is not an issue, but in Poland there is a discussion about another EU army, since people do not understand the meaning of it. 

Well, one may say the US seems to be taking a different direction in comparison to the EU, and so there is a need. Although, if you look at the facts, the US is increasing its presentation providing troops in Germany, the funding is increasing, and they want to stay in Europe as the EU has not that many capacities as the US. That is why, we spend on it at least 2% of income, as is the case of Poland as well. 

There was a long public discussion on this topic with many explanations from experts.

I always say that politicians should be leaders in terms of explaining on such topics, presenting arguments that the public understands. If they cannot explain, then who should? If there is a collective security alliance, then collective decisions should be made. 



Vice President and Director of Operations at the Res Publica Foundation. One of her flagship projects regarding women empowerment in security, NATO’s campaign: #WomenAreNATO, has garnered considerable international interest.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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