Estonia’s Prime Minister: ‘We Need to Help Ukraine Win’

Kaja Kallas talks about the threat from Russia, the future of the war, and what should come next for NATO in the Baltics.

By , a Berlin-based entrepreneurial multimedia journalist.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 1. Leon Neal/Getty Image

Perhaps no European politician (other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) has taken a more uncompromising stance on Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine than Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Her resolute attitude and clear convictions, including that Putin ought to be tried as a war criminal, as well as the unmatched per capita support of the Baltic nation for Ukraine have caused Kallas’s popularity to soar.

While she is eager to remind the world of the repression and brutality her small country had to endure at the hands of its neighbor to the east, Kallas has not only been tough on Putin: She has also sharply criticized efforts by French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders to keep in touch with the Russian president. Yet she’s also been careful to stress the unity, not the divisions, that have characterized the European Union and NATO since the beginning of Putin’s war.

Kallas, the daughter of former Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas, is the country’s first female head of government since Estonia declared independence in 1918. And she is determined to keep her position, talking up a defiant line about the threat posed by Russia’s relentless efforts to reclaim supposedly lost territories. Kallas has been equally tough on the domestic front, where she removed her junior coalition partner Centre Party from government on June 3 after weeks of infighting and proposed forming a new coalition with two smaller parties, with the next election not scheduled until March 2023.

Perhaps no European politician (other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) has taken a more uncompromising stance on Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine than Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Her resolute attitude and clear convictions, including that Putin ought to be tried as a war criminal, as well as the unmatched per capita support of the Baltic nation for Ukraine have caused Kallas’s popularity to soar.

While she is eager to remind the world of the repression and brutality her small country had to endure at the hands of its neighbor to the east, Kallas has not only been tough on Putin: She has also sharply criticized efforts by French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders to keep in touch with the Russian president. Yet she’s also been careful to stress the unity, not the divisions, that have characterized the European Union and NATO since the beginning of Putin’s war.

Kallas, the daughter of former Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas, is the country’s first female head of government since Estonia declared independence in 1918. And she is determined to keep her position, talking up a defiant line about the threat posed by Russia’s relentless efforts to reclaim supposedly lost territories. Kallas has been equally tough on the domestic front, where she removed her junior coalition partner Centre Party from government on June 3 after weeks of infighting and proposed forming a new coalition with two smaller parties, with the next election not scheduled until March 2023.

Foreign Policy got a chance to speak with Kallas about the threats Estonia faces, the risks of unleashing cyberattacks, and why real peace can only be achieved with Russia’s defeat. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Would you say Estonia is safer than it was six months ago or less safe?

Kaja Kallas: I would say it’s safer. For one, we have every big ally who has confirmed or emphasized that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. Plus, no NATO country has ever been attacked. Secondly, we already see a doubling of allies’ troops here. We have discussions in NATO about strengthening the eastern flank, especially the defense of Baltic countries. Third, we have increased our defense expenditure to 2.5 percent [of GDP], and in the coming years it’s going to be even bigger. Moreover, we got much better deals than everybody else for defense procurement, since we knew the Ukraine war was probably taking place thanks to intelligence information.

Fourth, the decision by the Swedes and the Finns to join NATO makes the Baltic Sea practically a NATO sea. It also means we are not so dependent on the Suwalki Gap in terms of military aid coming from the south. Lastly, Russia has its hands full with the war in Ukraine, which is not going according to their plans. They are considerably weaker than they were before [the war]. So, yes, we are stronger.

At the same time, there are threats, and we will probably see cyberattacks and some show of power. But I think that’s about it. As I said to our Swedish and Finnish friends: If we survived so many years before joining NATO, which was a much longer time than predicted now for Finland and Sweden, so can they.

FP: Speaking of cyber: Has NATO returned the favor yet by using offensive cyberweapons against Russia?

KK: It’s very hard to answer that question very directly or clearly. I’m in a very difficult position: I hear things in the secret rooms that I can’t talk about. I can’t say we don’t and I can’t say we do. But if we do, we are not talking about this publicly.

What I can say is that going on the offensive brings about different risks that you can’t put back into the bottle. So everything we do in cyberspace, also in supporting countries with the right to self-defense, needs to be carefully conducted and accountable. Cyber-operations may constitute an armed attack under the U.N. Charter and give states the right to self-defense. In its response to an armed attack by cyber means, the injured state is not necessarily limited to taking measures by cyber means—all means remain reserved to states in order to respond to an armed attack in a manner that is proportionate and in accordance with other provisions of international law.

FP: You’ve said before that “peace cannot be the ultimate goal.” Do you feel your stance is supported by other European countries?

KK: There are different [possible] ends to the war, and I think this is where the differences of opinion lie. For some countries in Europe, peace is the ultimate goal. Their mindset is that with peace, everything is fine. But we had peace after the Second World War, and yet the atrocities for my country started—the mass deportations, the killings. This will happen to the occupied territories [in Ukraine] and the people there, too. This needs to be understood. If the aggressor is not punished and we go back to business as usual, then everything will continue.

Nazi crimes were widely condemned after the Second World War, but Communist crimes never were. Actually, [Joseph] Stalin killed more people than [Adolf] Hitler did. If it is not condemned, you see the result: 70 percent of people are in favor of Stalinism in Russia. The history books in Estonia were rewritten after the Soviet Union collapsed, but they were never rewritten in Russia. So if people admire dictators, then there is no obstacle to becoming one or submitting to one.

Timothy Snyder wrote a very good thread on Twitter about why saving face for Putin is a totally wrong discussion. Russia has invaded a country—to save face you can just go back to your country and say, “Sorry, I made a mistake, and I will pay for everything I did.” Like the prime minister of Ukraine said: “When Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine. When Russia stops fighting, there will be peace.”

FP: So you only see a solution as a military victory—doesn’t this contradict Zelensky’s recent statement that diplomacy is the only way to end war in Ukraine?

KK: No, I don’t see a contradiction, because Zelensky also says they are not able to give away territories. What I’ve also said is that it’s wrong when Ukrainians are pressured to enter any kind of peace agreements they are not ready to enter into. That’s why I’m saying peace can’t be the ultimate goal if it means that you give away territories, and the atrocities will continue on those territories.

FP: There’s been a long-standing fault line between Eastern and Western Europe on Russia, with the former more often sounding the alarm. And there are differences in the EU over Ukraine’s EU membership and an oil embargo on Russia. Will the war in Ukraine bridge those divides, or widen them?

KK: I hope there is no divide. It’s true that after we used the window of opportunity [in the early 2000s] to join NATO and the EU, we had people actually asking us, “Why do you need this? Russia doesn’t pose a threat anymore.And we replied: “We know our neighbor, this has happened several times before. So we need all the assurances we can get.”

But I wouldn’t focus so much on the differences, but more of the unity that we have had so far. Of course, we have had difficult discussions before, but in the end we got to an agreement, and that’s the most important part. We also need to listen to different allies’ worries. Plus, multilateralism is hard: In NATO, we have 30 countries; in the European Union, there are 27, all of them democracies. It takes time.

But as long as the war is going on, we haven’t done enough. All allies need to invest in and prioritize defense—that means a 2 percent floor, not ceiling.

FP: Speaking of not doing enough, Germany has taken a lot of heat. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said last month that trust in Germany was now “close to zero.” What does Germany have to do to deliver on that big foreign-policy shift it proclaimed at the start of the war?

KK: Germany has been under huge criticism. But it’s because everybody is expecting Germany to be in the leadership role because of their size and importance in Europe. So I would take that as a compliment. Germany has actually done a lot: They have made huge turnarounds, raising their defense spending to 2 percent and providing heavy weapons to Ukraine. Germany is a democracy, so these big decisions take time. And I won’t join the chorus of those who say that Germany is doing everything wrong, because there are other big allies that could do more as well.

FP: That is a very diplomatic answer. You don’t think that Germany could have acted faster? The anti-aircraft tanks it has promised won’t arrive until July. And there’s a lot of criticism even within Germany about not acting swiftly and decisively enough.

KK: Yes, but it is very easy to criticize from the outside. Estonia is a small country that can make and implement decisions fast. Bigger countries are like bigger ships, which take longer to turn around. It’s much, much more difficult. What’s important is that Germany is heading in the right direction. One could argue that maybe they took a little bit too much time, but still, what matters is that those decisions have been made.

Bottom line, none of us has done enough as long as Russia carries on its war of aggression in Ukraine and the human suffering continues. What Ukraine needs today are weapons to fight back the aggressor and liberate its territories. We need to help Ukraine win.

FP: Estonia, along with Lithuania and Latvia, has been pushing NATO to dramatically scale up its military presence in the Baltics to deter Russia from making any military moves on alliance territory as it battles to conquer land in Ukraine. Can we expect any announcement about NATO basing a division in the Baltic states at the NATO summit at the end of June?

KK: We are having those discussions right now within NATO and expect the decisions to be made at the next summit in Madrid. We are working on really boosting our defense plan in the Baltic region.

In Madrid, we are striving toward a new defense posture—modern forward defense—in our region with the allies. In essence, this means that we need a greater NATO presence in the air, on land, and at sea. In case of any threat, NATO must be ready to defend the Baltic countries right away, which requires a significant number of troops and capabilities. That would include our own units, allied units stationed on our territory, as well as allied forces that can be deployed quickly. We need to make sure that these combat-ready forces exist and have appropriate command and control. NATO’s air policing must become air defense. The military presence of NATO at the Baltic Sea must be increased. And not just more troops, but also high-end capabilities that the Baltic states currently do not have themselves like midrange air defense.

FP: You previously raised an intriguing idea of putting payments for Russian gas into an escrow account that could be used for Ukrainian reconstruction. Is there any serious momentum on that, and what are the obstacles?

KK: We are still talking about this. Some [countries] are worried that if you pay some to the escrow account, the other side will stop delivering. But this would not mean that the EU stops paying for gas. It would mean that money would be transferred to a special account, where an agreed proportion would be transferred to Russia and the rest kept on the account. Russia could access the rest of the amount when it meets certain conditions, for example pulling back troops.

The idea of an escrow account is to reduce the revenues of the Russian regime. We need to do everything we can to stop financing Putin’s war machine. Earlier this week the EU finally agreed on the sixth package of EU sanctions—including a ban on Russian oil imports. This is an important step to further cripple Putin’s war machine. But we cannot stop here. As Russia’s war and crimes against Ukraine rage on, we must continue isolating the Kremlin. This means further sanctions, including on Russian gas.

Also, when we talk about reconstruction or rebuilding Ukraine, the first sentence should be that Russia has to pay for everything it destroyed, not that it will come from the European taxpayers’ money. The one who has caused the damage should be held responsible for it.

Benjamin Bathke is a Berlin-based entrepreneurial multimedia journalist. He has worked in online and radio journalism for the past six years and is currently covering migration, media innovation, and technology for a variety of international publications.
 Twitter: @BenjaminBathke

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