A Conversation With Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia
11/03/2022
Scroll

A Conversation With Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia

11/03/2022

arrowSee all articles

A Conversation With Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia

Last week, Ukraine’s president Zelensky linked the fate of his country directly with that of the Baltic states telling reporters that “if we are no more, then Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia will be next”. Do you think there is a real risk that the conflict will spread to the Baltic States? 

The real question would be whether NATO is next, and I don’t think that is the case. We are part of NATO which makes us different because attacking one is attacking all: attacking France, the U.S., attacking the U.K. So I don’t think we are next. 

Could Putin’s regime use the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States to justify a future military aggression? How could Estonia prevent such a scenario?

We just conducted a survey asking our Russian speaking minority which country they feel emotionally connected to and 74% said they feel emotionally connected to Estonia. We don’t see that as a possibility. We have 300,000 Russian speakers whose native tongue is Russian, but they are not a homogenous group. There are different views regarding this war, and the majority of our Russian speakers are Estonian citizens. They feel Estonia is their home and they do not support this war. On February 24th, we had the largest parade ever for Estonian Independence Day, and there were Russian speakers there, so things are not so clear cut. Also, in Eastern Estonia, 90% of the population are Russian speakers. They live across the river and it is so much worse on the other side. If you were to ask, especially right now, there are Russians who want to find their way to Estonia. 

In such a crisis, always look at which way the refugees are going. They are going towards the EU, not Russia. 

Does Estonia have a red line in the conflict in Ukraine? 

The conflict is already really bad. We are seeing the pictures coming out of Ukraine. Civilians are being attacked, hospitals are being attacked, kindergartens are being attacked. The Kremlin is trying to cause as much damage to the country and to the civilian population as possible, and it is devastating. Before the war broke out, Estonia already sent military weapons, we sent humanitarian aid, we sent field hospitals. We are trying to do everything to help Ukraine. 

What do you think is Putin’s endgame in Ukraine? 

That is a very good question. 

He has been very open about his plans, saying that he has this imperialistic dream to expand his country’s territory to that of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. I think this is the goal, but it’s not going according to the plan. We heard that he’s not using the phone, he’s not really online, so maybe he doesn’t have a full picture of what is going on. I see that the Russians who are part of this or taking part in this attack are quite negatively surprised that it is not going as easily as they thought it would. They thought it would be like in Crimea in 2014 and there wouldn’t be much resistance, but obviously that is not how it is going. 

How do you see the future of Putin’s regime? Will “Putinism” survive long after Putin? 

If we look at Russian history, we can see that they had Stalin. We suffered great atrocities under Stalin and though it was crystal clear for us, there were people who supported him. For us in this situation, it is very clear cut; there is no question about who is the bad and who is the good in this war. It is not that clear to the Russian population, however. I think a big question for all of us is how we can break this wall of lies so that the truth can get to the Russian people and that they would be in this information circle. 

I would also emphasize that it is not that clear in terms of support in Russia that they are all against Putin. They are not. And of course Putin is using all the tools in the toolbox to frighten, to punish, and people are afraid to speak out. Now they have punishments for even speaking about the war. It is the playbook we know from Soviet times. Will it go away after Putin is gone? It may, but we have seen these historical cycles as well, so I don’t know how to answer that question. 

What will Putin’s legacy be in Europe? 

What he is doing in Ukraine right now. That will be his legacy. It’s the same tactic that was used in Chechnya, and Aleppo. This is what he will be remembered for. He also needs to be held accountable for everything. 

Are sanctions the right approach to confront Russia’s aggression in Ukraine? If so, are the latest sanctions big enough and broad enough to stop the aggression? Should the EU go further? 

The EU is an economic union, so sanctions are the tools that we have in our toolbox. What I am happy about is that the EU has acted very swiftly and in a very united way to put together a first, second, third, and now a fourth sanctions package. Of course, we have to also allow time for the sanctions to really kick in and have their effect. We have seen in the past that we in the West think that sanctions don’t work, but we have to have strategic patience. If we look at the security council meeting that Putin had publicly, Dmitry Medvedev said that sooner or later the West will grow tired of their own initiatives. There will be sanctions, but they will get tired, and they will invite us back to the table. He said this in a really undermining and humiliating way to humiliate Europe and the West. We should be very wary about that, and we should not give Putin what he wants, which is that we will step back and say the sanctions don’t work. 

Is a complete European ban on the importing of Russian oil, gas, and coal possible?

This is a complicated question because all European countries have different dependencies on Russian gas and oil. There are countries like Bulgaria, which depends 100% on Russian gas; they also don’t have any alternative structure. Where should they get their energy from? This is true for Germany as well. So if there is this ban, it will also hit European citizens quite hard, so this has two sides. Of course you can say that the Ukrainians are much more hurt. If we can put this ban in place and take the money out of the war machine, then it is not a big price to pay. But will it have this effect? We also need public opinion to support the decision that we are making. This is a very delicate question. 

We have made preparations to be able to function without Russian gas, but I don’t think there is a consensus in Europe in this regard.

We are crossing one Rubicon after another towards European Power. Is the European Union at a turning point? Can the EU defend Europe?

We definitely should speak about the time before, and the time after. Everything has completely changed, regarding defense as well. What we have been saying for quite some time is now the reality. How do we react to this? I feel that we have to have this smart containment, which means that we will have to isolate Russia even more from international organizations for as long as they are not making steps to rectify the situation. We should also talk about our own defense, and here I mean that the 2% defense expenditure should be the absolute minimum in all the NATO countries. 

On what should focus European cooperation in the field of defense?

We should move from a deterrence plan to a defense plan so that we are actually able to protect our territory. We should also think about our common capabilities, which is a European defense issue. What I mean by this is that there are some capabilities, such as air defense, that are too expensive for any individual state. Just last week, I asked my military to show me how smaller bubbles and bigger bubbles of air defense work, and how far they go. We should do this together. This comes to mind now because defense has been such a national issue. Now we have to think that we are much stronger together. By saying this we can also have a stronger NATO because when European armies are stronger, NATO is stronger.

What is your understanding of the transformations in Germany and Finland in regard to this question? 

We already had sent weapons to Ukraine before this happened. We had also been asking Finland and Germany to give us permission to send weapons, but at that time, they didn’t agree. After the 24th of February, the picture completely changed. With the German decision, we see how we have changed more in the past two weeks than in the previous 30 years, we have completely changed. I think we are seeing more of such change and we have to think about the future as well.

Should a new recovery plan be designed for this new phase? Should the EU member states agree on a new joint borrowing capacity that would finance measures to reduce dependence on Russian gas and even joint defence projects? 

Absolutely, I think in terms of defence capabilities, we should have this defense investment fund to finance on the European level. The same reasoning applies to energy. The European Commission is also coming up with plans to find alternatives, to find where the weak points are, and how we can develop them on a fast track. 

But what we also have to keep in mind is that this always comes from the taxpayers money eventually and so we have to be honest with our citizens and say “yes, it will hurt”. The Ukrainian people are hurting and we will too. We can’t say that this won’t be felt at all, we are all feeling this. Even if we don’t put sanctions in place ourselves, Russia could turn off the gas.

Nobody can say what is really coming, how the sanctions and the conflict will unfold and how this will affect the economy, or which sectors. We don’t know yet. Is Europe a big player ? Yes, it is. We can make sanctions and bring transatlantic partners on board. But European citizens are going to feel this, and difficult times lay ahead.

Will the Green Deal be delayed or accelerated by this crisis?

I think this energy dependence is now crystal clear to everyone. I recall a discussion we had about this just a few months ago in the European Council where people said “no, we should not cut energy”, but now even for those countries it’s clear that it is not healthy to be so dependent on Russian gas. Therefore I think it’s a win-win situation in terms of the Green Deal. It will be good for our energy independence, and also good for the planet.

Are we witnessing an endorsement of the French model of Europe puissance at the European level? 

We have been discussing this. Maybe there has been a miscommunication, because I’m not supporting that we have an alternative to NATO here in Europe. 90 % of European territory is also NATO territory but what I think, what we agree on is that if we make the armies of Europe stronger, then we are stronger together. Acquiring common capabilities is also something Europeans can do. I don’t see the conflict there, I think it’s more of a communication error. I don’t even think Macron now thinks that Americans or transatlantic partners are not needed. The transatlantic bond is still a very important element of NATO and European defense.

The war in Ukraine is accelerating the recomposition of the post-pandemic global geopolitical order. What role should Europe play in the politics of the interregnum?

We are learning the lessons from this situation right now. It’s very hard to foresee the future, but Europe has been at the forefront of putting together sanctions and executing them swiftly. Europe definitely has its act together, which is good. And for Estonia, being united in a way that we are being consulted with is very important because it has not always been like this. We are small. Estonia is basically a suburb of Paris if you think of the size. 

How do you understand China’s position? 

Everybody is looking at how China is reacting and I think that China is also looking at how this war plays out. And not only China, but other countries that have an appetite towards their neighboring territories. So China is an important actor, but given the scale of the conflict with Russia, we can’t make China our adversary. We can’t afford that. 

We have talked a lot over the past few years about a misunderstanding between European partners regarding the prioritization of threats. Do you think there is a better understanding of these priorities today? 

I think it is clear to everybody that we have a dangerous adversary, and that is Russia. 

And in this regard, what is Estonia’s lesson from its engagement in the Sahel? 

We learned a lot from working together with allies, like the French, and this was a very valuable experience. But I think that if we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, the Sahel is also connected to Russia’s influence : the way Russia has been taking control in different African countries, how they are using the Wagner Group, how they acted in Syria, how are their relationships with Kazakhstan, the western Balkans, or Serbia, which by the way is a candidate state to the EU accession. 

To unite Europeans, we should not only share dreams, but also nightmares. Do you agree? 

I think everybody has one nightmare and it is happening right now. 

There is an interesting book by Francis Fukuyama, Identity, where he talks about the fact that in the United States whether you are from Texas or from New York, you have that identity and you also have the American identity. Whereas in Europe we don’t really have a European identity. Or if we do, it is not that strong. I feel this is also changing right now. I’m very proud to be European. The whole population has come to support Ukraine in every possible way. That is something that is building our identity. But the nightmare is playing out in real life in Ukraine. 

+--
View outlineClose
To cite the article +--

To cite the article

APA

Kaja Kallas, A Conversation With Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, Mar 2022,

Notes and sources +
+--
View outlineClose
Notes+