Estonian PM Kaja Kallas: “Seven out of eight ethnic Russians – either as citizens or loyal permanent residents – are successfully integrated”

  • 2022-06-02
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who is leader of the Reform Party, admitted to The Baltic Times Magazine that she keeps getting asked whether she thinks Estonia will be the next country to be invaded by Russia. “We should be doing everything to make sure no country will be next. To make sure that Ukraine wins the war. If we fail here, then the question would rather become whether NATO is next,” the PM underscored. The interview was conducted in writing in April of 2022.

As we’re speaking amid war in Ukraine, I’d like to ask you this: “Did your political intuition foresee Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? The scope of it we’re seeing?”

We had the intelligence information before, so we were expecting it. Of course, we hoped until the last moment that it would not prove true, but it did. Of course, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine had already been going on for eight years but all masks fell off on 24 February. 

Russia is using the worst playbook and tactics. Placing civilians at the frontline is a Russian war tactic. There are more civilian victims than there are military casualties—especially if you consider that it’s not accidental that a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been forced to flee from their homes or that Russia has engineered humanitarian catastrophes in cities such as Mariupol. Deportations and mass killings remind us of World War II atrocities.

 What did the Estonian Centre-Reform government do to prepare in advance for a war in Ukraine?

Already as Russia was amassing troops on the Ukrainian border, we had intense consultations and coordination internally and among allies.

The Estonian government was one of the first countries to send direct military aid to Ukraine already in December 2021. By now our help to Ukraine has exceeded 230 million euros, both in military and humanitarian aid.

Estonia made the decision to spend 2% on defence already a decade ago and we have been gradually increasing it ever since, but this January my government made the decision to further bolster our own defences and substantially increase our defence budget. With decisions made in late March, in the coming years our defence budget will be 2.5% of our GDP.

 What is the chance that Russia invades the Baltics, and Estonia? Are you sure that all 30 member States of NATO will trigger article 5 if, God forbid, this happens?

We do not see any direct military threat on our borders. Article 5 is clear: an attack on one would be an attack on all. Every big NATO ally has confirmed and reconfirmed that they will defend every inch of NATO territory. It is the most successful defence alliance ever and has never been militarily invaded in its history.

 There is a clear reason for that: its deterrence has worked. To keep it so, we need to make the effort to adapt our military posture adequately. This means division-size troops in the Baltics that would have war-fighting capabilities so that you are immediately able to push back. So there is not even a chance of a miscalculation.

It seems the West is exhausting its list of sanctions against Russia. What other punitive measures are you proposing?

Putin cannot win this war. We need to supply Ukraine with arms, give humanitarian aid and other assistance. At the same time, we need to continue increasing the price of war for Russia. There is still plenty we can do. The focus must be on paralysing Putin's war machine financially. Oil and gas are at its heart. Last year exports of hydrocarbons amounted to roughly 40 percent of the Russian state budget, and this year they’re rapidly turning into the biggest source. Our focus must be on drying up these revenues.

The EU has already announced plans to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of this year. The latest round of sanctions included an import ban on Russian coal. Work has already started on the next sanctions package and it must go further, also on energy. One solution I have proposed to the EU: we could set up a special third-party account to prevent revenues from going towards financing the war. A significant share would go to a future reconstruction plan for Ukraine. Moscow must pay for the damage they have caused.

The UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. That was an important signal to Putin – aggression brings isolation and consequences. Looking at Russia’s public attempts to bully countries to vote against the resolution, it shows such measures matter to them. We need to continue politically isolating Russia.

 You can scratch out the poems from school textbooks, but Russia will remain in proximity of Estonia. Are you concerned that Russia, in case of political turmoil or disarray, can pose an even bigger danger to the world and Estonia too?

According to experts, seven out of eight ethnic Russians– either as citizens or loyal permanent residents – are successfully integrated. Some in the West, especially in connection with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, have expressed concern that Moscow might use parts of the Estonian population that consists of ethnic Russians as a fifth column. But the numbers show that the possibility they could ever serve as the basis for any Russian advance has dramatically decreased.

Estonia will always consist of Estonians and Russians, and many other nationalities. Language is not the key criterion of loyalty to Estonia. 

Many Russians who are loyal to the Estonian state do not speak the Estonian language, citizenship and loyalty are not necessarily interconnected. Many residents of Estonia want to have grey passports in order to travel to Russia. They don’t need citizenship because the only thing they lose by not having it is voting in national elections. Under Estonian law, they can vote in local ones, for many this is more important.

If you had a chance to tell Putin something straight to his face, what would the words be?

I have no intention of meeting him.

Estonia’s former president Kersti Kaljulaid paid a visit to Moscow to meet Putin in 2019. Do you believe she made a mistake?

All decisions are made considering the time and the context.

Do you believe better or worse times lie ahead for Estonia?

Estonia has undergone a huge journey since we restored our independence, we are a thriving democracy and a known digital society. I am excited about how this journey will continue.

But of course, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has an impact on the whole of Europe and the world. We must be prepared that we will have to deal with the impact for a long time to come.