A Conversation With Kersti Kaljulaid

A Conversation With Kersti Kaljulaid


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A Conversation With Kersti Kaljulaid

More than a year after the start of the war, how do you see the chances of an end to the conflict?

It is very difficult to predict. The most important thing is that all partners are ready to support Ukraine to the victorious end. That is what really matters. The most important thing is that we stick together, that the EU collects resources from Member States to help Ukraine. Let’s continue to provide the Ukrainians with what they need, that’s the most important thing at the moment.

How do you see the role of the EU in the next phase? The reconstruction, the accession process… 

The EU has a great role in preparing Ukraine not just for using and getting reconstruction funds but also to exit from the reconstruction phase and become dependent on normal trade and capital flows. It is necessary for Ukraine to create a legal space that is equivalent to what we have in the EU. At the end of the day, the criteria for accession is that we have to be able to say to our companies: you can invest in Ukraine, you will be treated fairly. That is extremely important.

We have the tools to help Ukraine build strong, independent institutions. Which, by the way, is what the Ukrainians are demanding. In 2014, demonstrators waved EU flags. That remains the global goal of Ukrainians today.

Are Western European countries doing enough? 

I am positively surprised about how change has happened so quickly. Zeitenwende in Germany, in France president Macron said at the Munich Security Conference that we cannot negotiate with anybody in the Kremlin… This change is radical, and the people of France and Germany are behind it. The percentage of people supporting Ukraine, supporting Ukraine’s candidacy to the EU, remains high across the continent despite concerns related to inflation and the rise in energy prices.

If we look at the situation from Ukraine’s perspective, it is not happening fast enough: we keep saying that we are moving fast in terms of EU action, but they measure time in human lives, not hours, days or weeks. Their impatience is understandable.

What is the reason for this perceived slowness in terms of military assistance? 

Many politicians did not believe that the Ukrainians would be able to put up a fight.

I remember a year ago in Munich, a few days before the war started, arguing about what was going to happen, whether they were going to fight. I remember saying that they had been preparing for eight years because they knew it was coming. They will fight like hell. They have earned the right to be supported by their own bravery. Of course, it would have been better if we had reacted more quickly. History is what it is. Everyone has looked at the map and seen how big Russia is, but let’s compare the numbers: Ukraine has 40 million motivated people. Russia has 140 million but they are not motivated at all. Strangely enough, the numbers are on Ukraine’s side. We should not have looked at the map and seen this huge Russia, it was a myth. It is a country with an economy the size of Spain, largely based on the export of raw materials. It is not a twentieth century economy. That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.

Earlier this year, Poland announced a significant increase in its defense spending, and the aim of building Europe’s largest army by 2030. How do you think this will affect the EU’s security architecture?

All European nations are rethinking their defense spending. France has always maintained a high level of spending and it’s the strongest military power in the EU. The Finns have always been prepared, even when they were not part of NATO, and even if they have always been very mild in their rhetoric towards Russia, in fact they have one of the best-prepared reserve armies in Europe, with the best logistical system to supply that army. The Baltic states have been spending 2% of their GDP on defense for quite some time, Estonia since 2011, and this is now rising to 3%, which is necessary at this time.

We are all doing more but my understanding is that technical capability has to remain NATO’s domain. I think financially Europe could spend more evenly on the whole EU territory. My understanding is that the best strategic autonomy, the best way for the EU to complement NATO is cohesion. We have now stepped over several thresholds: the treaties say that we do not support each other’s military spending, but we have now taken the next step: we are collectively supporting a third country in its military spendings. I was looking with great respect at the Commission and the EU which took these decisions: we do not even support each other’s military spending and here we go support a third nation. This is the flexibility of the EU, its added value. If we foster cohesion and social cohesion and economic development, why not push for defense cohesion? The EU budget has a great characteristic: it denationalizes money. You contribute to the budget, and then the money is distributed according to the needs and projects. If the EU wants to play a greater role in the European defense it has to do what it does the best, which is cohesion. Much of the countries on the Eastern flank have small budgets, even if we spend 3% of our GDP on defense it will perhaps be enough for middle range air defense but not much more. Europe could have a role if it wanted to, but it wouldn’t be a technical, tactical, strategic role in military planning. It would be financial. It will be complementary to what we do in NATO.

What is the biggest lesson of the war in Ukraine so far in terms of defense policy?

High technology is good, but it can’t be so much more expensive that you end up with ten times fewer weapons to use, because if the other side has ten times more, even if it’s a kind of low-level technology, you’re not going to be able to win. We still have to focus on building the mass.

Do you think Russia would be capable or ready to attack an EU country? 

It depends on what we consider to be an attack. If we look at it narrowly, just from a military point of view, I do not think Russia is prepared to do that. I think they are aware that attacking NATO, an EU country, will lead to serious retaliation and will be a serious risk for Russia itself.

If we speak about strategic communications trying to discredit politicians who chose to turn their countries more closely towards the West, definitely Russia is more than capable of doing that. We have recent examples, the defamation campaigns against Finnish ministers after they decided to join NATO is one. We have concrete proof that Moscow is using these types of strategies in EU Member States. President Macron during his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2017, during a press conference at Versailles said “you did it, you meddled in our elections, in our democratic process”. If this is considered an attack, then France is one of the first targets: trying to influence a big democracy which really matters, that’s where you use your capabilities. In this sense, nobody can say “I am not at risk”. Nobody, nowhere, who is supporting a free and democratic worldview is safe. 

What is your understanding of the Russian threat in Moldova?

What is going on in Moldova is quite typical of the strategy Russia employs when planning to disturb a country which is looking forwards to its European future. It is a pattern, we have seen it in Georgia and in Ukraine back in 2014. 

Moldova is fighting back. President Sandu, the government, the Parliament and the people are convinced that the country’s future is safe and secure within the European Union and among free and democratic nations. We must not leave them alone, but first and foremost we should listen to what they say. Each and every nation has a right to decide its future. The central point of conflict is that Russia thinks big nations can decide the future of those who are close to their borders, whether it is Moldova or Ukraine. We have to push back.

On what conditions could Russia be part of the European security architecture?

Last September, someone asked the Ukrainians the same question: at some moment you will have to reach out to Moscow. The question came from a German. And the answer was “we will do it when they will process this, as you have done in Germany after the Second World War”. 

Russia can be considered changed only if they teach in their school all the horrors of this aggression and everything in between — Stalin, Gulag, the occupation of the Baltic States, Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Prague Spring… This process is the only way to profoundly change society, similar to what the Federal Republic of Germany did after World War II. It can be done and it does not need to take decades or centuries, but there must be a serious political will.

We must push in this direction too. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we should have set conditions for western trade with Russia. It should have been: “we want to see your textbooks”. We did not do it, and we left the democrats in Russia alone. 

For us it was incomprehensible but comfortable to ignore. The Soviet Union was gone. It was behind curtains. And somehow I feel that the West was part of this: you celebrate the 8th of May, Victory in Europe day. It is painful. For us, the Second World War ended in 1991.

Eastern and Central European countries are at the forefront of the response to the war in Ukraine. Is Europe’s centre of gravity shifting eastwards?

I can not judge how the West perceives Eastern countries. I noticed that in 2013, when we had been members of the EU for nine years, we were still called “new Member States”. I remember spending that year reminding everyone not to call us new member states because when we joined in 2004, nobody called Finland, Sweden and Austria new member states. But from our point of view, we have never felt that we were second class members, and I can say it from my experience as a member of the European Court of Auditors. 

I always felt that we do participate in all EU actions. In no area has Eastern European countries opted out of European common policies and objectives. 

Is there a risk that the United States will disengage from Ukraine in the context of the 2024 elections and a stronger pivot to the Asia-Pacific?

We will work with the president elect of every free and democratic country. I remember that during the Trump presidency, despite the erratic messaging, concrete attention was dedicated to eastern European countries. The Three Seas Initiative got great attention from the administration, to make sure that East European countries were receiving the capital they needed with no strings attached, not from China nor Russia. Vice President Pence visited Tallinn very early, in July 2017 exactly like President Obama did in 2014, with the same message: all capitals matter. In this regard, there was no major break with the previous administration.

But I would rather look at what is the role of the European Union. Our task is to be able to take care of our own neighborhood. This is how we make sure that the US is free to engage in the Asia-Pacific, so that the free and democratic world finally prevails. For all democratic countries the common enemy is all the autocratic countries together. We need to prevail. To do this, each and everyone has to be strong, able to defend itself. As High Representative Borrell said in his first visit to the Munich Security Conference, if you want to be heard, you have to have the capabilities. A pretty strong statement for an EU official.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine woke us up and made us look at what possibilities we have to defend ourselves, and our world view on this continent. We are now moving in the right direction, hopefully fast enough. Governments are thinking about how to produce more military equipment, how to reinforce our industries. Why did we need this aggression to do so? Had we at least seen what was going on in 2008, we could probably have helped Ukraine much faster, but at least now we are fully awake and working to become stronger, leaving the US hands free to work with partners in the Pacific.

Did the EU’s position towards China change in the context of the war in Ukraine?

Yes, I am quite sure that everyone has realized that all the autocrats are watching how we handle this conflict. We have learned our lessons. This is another reason why we cannot afford to compromise on Ukraine: not only would it be unfair, but it would also be against our own interests.

Do you think that China is genuinely willing to play the role of negotiator between Ukraine and Russia? 

It could play that role, but I do not think it wants to. The situation is perfect for Beijing. Russia is becoming more and more dependent on China, for technology, markets, resources… There are no limits. Russia is effectively becoming a vassal state of China. I think this has to be at the forefront of Russian thinking. They have to find a way out of the situation they have got themselves into. There is no way out for Putin, but there may be a way out for the rest of the regime.

We will have to keep a very close eye on whether there will be any change.

The EU’s focus is rightly on the Easter flank, but shouldn’t we engage more actively with the South too?

Southern EU countries’ comprehension of what is at stake in Ukraine has been enormous. Similarly, countries in the East are looking South. For example in Estonia, after our campaign to become a member of the UN Security Council in 2020, we defined our first ever strategy for Africa. We work with the African Union and Smart Africa, mostly because Estonia is a small country, we account for 0,01% of all the money European countries provide together in the form of development aid. The volume is a drop in the ocean. But if we use our resources through Smart Africa we help Africans comprehend the possibilities of digital developpement, we have a value. This is the European spirit for me: we look South, the South looks East. The tougher the times, the quicker the reaction, the quicker the comprehension. 

Do you think there is a greater role for Eastern European countries in the Southern neighborhood? 

It is a question of what a greater role means. If we look at Frontex, Estonia, per capita has been either the biggest or one of the biggest providers. For example, Estonia has only one surveillance plane, during the migration crisis, it was in the Mediterranean, not at home. We are 100% invested in Frontex. Estonian police and border coast guards constantly rotate in the area. Very often we are punching above our weight. We very much care about what is happening at the Southern borders and we are one of those who believe that common work on border control is extremely important to make sure we are able to collectively defend our external borders, which the only guarantee that our the internal Schengen border can remain invisible, that’s what we all want. 

Is there a place for Southern bordering countries into the European Political Community?

It depends on what this Community wants to achieve. If it is a kind of a gathering of countries who are having EU aspirations or invitations to prepare for accession then we cannot put very different apples and oranges in the same basket. Even in the Eastern Partnership we have far too wide a scope: we have countries which are actually part of the Eurasian Economic Union and countries who are aspiring to join the EU and NATO. I would be more specific in relation to different countries.

In this regard, I appreciate the French new strategy in Africa that says that we do not talk about Africa, we talk about individual nations with different aspirations, expectations and relations with Europe.

At the same time, if you look at what the European Union has been doing since Federica Mogherini was High Representative, we have been channeling our common approach through the African Union. And maybe that has had an influence on a more rule on law based approach on the continent. We see how the supranational is having an impact on the national, while in Europe it works the other way around. We want countries to apply the rule of law to our standards, then we accept them to the club. Understanding all these differences is important, and I believe our strategy is more clear today: individual countries taking notice of each and every nation, the European Union concentrating on the African Union. It is a really good approach. 

Next year EU leaders will have to define a new Strategic agenda for the next five years. What should be the main priorities?
For me, one question is do we want to continue with this military cohesion to help Ukraine? If so, we need to liberate resources if we want to be able to do more. If I think about how we ran our Cohesion policy (the European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund), it is problematic that you can remain a client of these funds for endless numbers of periods. Basically you are rewarded for not cohesioning quickly enough. We should set a limit for cohesion enveloppes. Maybe two or three periods and after, you should graduate from these individual enveloppes and concentrate more on the things that used to be called Grands projets, basically supranational, where the EU has real added value. The EU has no added value in individual projects in individual Member States compared to what it can do if it concentrates on supranational, big infrastructures, for example offshore, greed for wind parks, environmental projects which have by definition no borders… One of my saddest experiences about the Union is that the best parts of the budget are supranational spendings. For example, research and development, a fantastic part of the EU budget which truly has no geographical evelopping whatsoever. But when the Multiannual Financial Framework arrives in the Council for approval, where are the deepest cuts? Everybody wants to safeguard their own envelope. We should be able to overcome this.

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Ramona Bloj, A Conversation With Kersti Kaljulaid, Apr 2023,

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