If we act, Russia might not react
Interview with Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia. Interviewer: Szabolcs Vörös
SZABOLCS VÖRÖS: Could you pack all your belongings in less than 60 hours?
KERSTI KALJULAID: This is too weird of a question to answer…
But I am sure you have read RAND Corporation’s now quite infamous finding from 2017 when they suggested that if Russia decided to attack the Baltic states, their capitals could be invaded in less than 60 hours.
But why should I have to pack my things? I trust in our armed forces and our defence capabilities and we stick to NATO’s Article 3 which prescribes that defending our country is our own duty. We can defend our country by spending two per cent of our GDP on defence and moreover, as a host nation, we also cover the cost of those allied forces who were deployed here in the framework of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission as of 2016. Which means that no one has to pack any belongings. NATO’s primary goal is deterrence; defence, if needed, comes only after that. This deterrence has always been sufficient and if any risk analyses suggest, than it will be broadened, and it decreases when the situation becomes more stable. This is how it works, in 360 degrees.
So you disagree with RAND.
I do. Article 3 is an Estonian obligation as well and we fulfil it. Our armed forces have an excellent reserve system, their readiness is sufficient as they regularly train. RAND might have forgotten that we have an existing army too.
Within the framework of the eFP, Estonia hosts a multinational battlegroup on its soil. Do you find the number of troops satisfying?
18 NATO member states are contributing to the eFP and if analysis suggests it, than additional reinforcements would be needed. We will discuss it for sure during the NATO summit in Brussels in July.
So there is a chance that more soldiers could arrive to the Baltics?
I find the current number accurate but additional troops should be provided to be deployed, if needed. We have to avoid having the Baltics being turned into a Russian A2AD (anti-access area denial) bubble so, apart from the ground, we have to find a solution on the seas and in the air too.
At the end of May it was revealed that Poland was ready to spend up to two billion US dollars to permanently host a US armoured division. Do you have anything similar in mind?
US soldiers who are rotated among the Baltic states and Poland are important for deterrence. Estonia is already spending 2.2 per cent on defence and we would like to see other European allies do so, otherwise our commitment worth less. If we emphasise that our defence is indivisible then we should not pay for it disproportionately. Therefore we reaffirmed that all NATO countries would reach the two per cent goal by 2024.
If I understand you correctly, you wouldn’t mind the presence of additional US troops?
They are important for the entire region.
And, like Poland, would you spend more to host them?
Our defence is multilateral and we always discuss with our partners what is necessary to be done.
How vulnerable is your region?
NATO countries are safe, guaranteed by our decisions to reinforce deterrence. It is as simple as that.
NATO’s Sabre Strike exercise is about to end this week in the region with more than 18,000 troops involved. What is the message?
Regular exercises are a part of effective deterrence.
Do they really deter the “Eastern threat”?
Since early April, you have been one of the few leaders from the region who had the chance to meet Donald Trump. Was it a reassuring encounter?
I can only quote him as saying, “So far we have not let you down and we will not let you down”. I have nothing to add, this is quite reassuring.
Did you happen to raise any criticism? For example on his well-known comment that NATO is obsolete?
He repeatedly said that he stood for NATO’s Article 5. Once I had the chance to hear that as we sat quite close to each other last year in Warsaw. NATO has to adapt to the current challenges which means more than Russia. Estonia is also participating in foreign missions because this is our duty too – sharing not only common values but also common obligations. We have discussed it extensively, as well as our democratic system since the Baltic states are celebrating their centenary of statehood. The United States has never recognised the Soviet occupation of the Baltics and this heritage does not disappear from one day to another.
So you cannot imagine any tweet of President Trump after which you would feel worried.
I cannot. We have excellent relationship with the entire administration and they have s consistent foreign policy regarding our region.
In February 2017, a local pollster conducted a survey which suggests that only nine per cent of people believed that Donald Trump’s presidency would be useful for Estonia. How would you convince the rest?
It is very simple. Leaders are elected by people after democratic discussions and we should respect their democratic decision.
This nine per cent is not exactly correlating with your statement. A further 40 per cent replied “it is difficult to say” whether Trump’s presidency would be useful or harmful for Estonia.
As I said, he is the choice of the American people. I co-operate with Presdient Trump because he is the president.
So you are not worried that your very own compatriots are not exactly fond of him.
I have never read any survey which suggested that people disliked our co-operation. As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. When I was in Washington, there was also an economic forum and it was nice to see that the Baltics were not treated as a catastrophe zone as we have our own values. In Japan you do not ask people if they feared the next earthquake as they do everything to defend against it. If we are prepared too, we can avoid the trouble. However, if one lives in a seismic zone, earthquakes cannot be prevented. Our job is to make our economy prosperous and if you look at the results over the past 26 years, you can see what we have achieved: when we left the Soviet Union the average personal income was around 30 US dollars [per month]; today it is currently 1,300 US dollars. This is what we focus on every day, even during the US trip.
You were in Ukraine at the end of May. Why was it important for you, as the first EU head of state, to pay a visit to the war-torn Donbas region?
Because we must not forget what is going on there. It is a war. And we should call it a war.
Does the EU forget about it?
There is a risk of getting used to what is happening on the ground and not reacting accurately and starting to discuss to get back to “business as usual”. We made the same mistake after the 2008 Russian-Georgian War and we should not repeat it. It is not only about Ukraine, but also about our own security – to push back the pressure that undermines the architecture of international security. This is also at stake in Ukraine apart from the lives of the Ukrainian people who need our support and the hope we can provide, not only humanitarian. I also wanted to thank the Estonian NGOs working there. If they are there, why should I not be?
What have you seen?
It was quite interesting when Ukrainian IDPs showed anger towards the Ukrainian deputy prime minister who accompanied me. You know why? Because they were free people in a free country. Those who fled from the occupied territories remained silent and did not want to talk to anyone. I remember this feeling from my childhood. I grew up in the Soviet Union and I am quite sensitive about this. If you want to build a country, you can only build it with freedom of speech, press freedom and rule of law.
Can it be real in Ukraine in the coming years?
Certainly. For those countries who have been opposing the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, it took half a century to reach their goals. Crimea was annexed four years ago. Let us have some strategic patience!
What did it mean to you… what happened with Crimea?
We already said that after the Georgian war that Russia intended to disorganise the world order in which every nation can choose its path and the countries’ borders are inviolable. Unfortunately not everyone realised what a huge wake-up call Georgia was, but having seen what happened in Ukraine we have started to explain the lesson that if we act, we can avoid Russia reacting. Fortunately we managed to stop the avalanche but the avalanche started in 2008.
That very same pollster conducted another survey in which they measured what was the biggest threat for Estonians. Almost two-thirds of them said it was migration and only one-fourth said Russia. I was honestly surprised…
Why is that? The migration crisis is happening in front of our eyes…
… as is the threat by Russia.
That is not true. Because we are members of NATO. I am not surprised that people are more worried about an acute crisis which requires common European solutions. No one can solve this alone. Estonia participates in relocating asylum seekers, we are the biggest manpower contributor per capita in the work of Frontex and we support the EU Council’s current president, Bulgaria, as well as the successor, Austria, to find a permanent solution.
Time Magazine published a report last year about a Syrian family relocated to Estonia. One of the family members spoke out like this: being in Estonia “feels like an arranged marriage”. Are you sure that the quota system is the best solution?
We interviewed those who were about to come here, we made it clear what they could expect. Estonia is not the primary choice of asylum seekers and it is understandable that if someone has lost everything, he wants to go somewhere which fits more to his skills. Those jobs they can take, mostly due to the lack of language skills, are paid better elsewhere. We set it clear what we could offer: a flat, free education for children, free healthcare, a safe environment, and nice people. I understand however if they could not integrate when the salaries are lower here and they wish to leave.
You have mentioned the importance of a common solution. What is your take on the behaviour of countries like Hungary who seem to follow their own path?
There is a building in Brussels where the European Council is convened. This is the place where problems can be solved for the benefit of the whole continent. There is no better model as no one can handle alone something which effects the whole Europe. We find those Brussels discussions very valuable.
As for Hungary, is it an ally for you?
Of course. If you are a member of NATO, you are an ally.
And what sort of ally hosts Vladimir Putin twice a year?
There are leaders who talk to him.
But not hosting him that regularly.
Yet, they meet with him. I myself said that if Russia ratified the Estonian–Russian border agreement I would be ready to travel to Moscow to say thank you. We need a transparent and common way of talking with Russia, based on the principles decided by the European Union.
Mr. Putin used the stage in Budapest to bash Ukraine.
Last summer he used the stage in Helsinki to bash us. The stage does not matter as we all know his messages anyway.
Why did you decide to move your administration temporarily to Narva, just kilometres away from the border with Russia?
This is not about Russia, rather an outpost of Europe. We wanted to have a new start as Narva is a candidate city for the European Capital of Culture for 2024. It is a post-industrial town which needs to grow in self-confidence and find new prospects.
So you would not oppose if Putin decided to move his administration for a few weeks to Ivangorod, the opposite (Russian) side of Narva River, to help the local post-industrial community there?
There are important meetings taking place for example in St Petersburg. Why should I worry about President Putin’s whereabouts in his own country? It would be ridiculous.
Kersti Kaljulaid is an Estonian politician who is the current President of Estonia.
Szabolcs Vörös is a foreign affairs journalist based in Budapest. His career started in 2010 and he is currently a staff reporter at the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz. You can follow him on Twitter: @szabolcs_voros