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Putin had lost this war before it started

An interview with Kersti Kaljulaid, former president of Estonia. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze

April 6, 2022 - Kersti Kaljulaid Vazha Tavberidze - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo: (CC) Annika Haas /EU2017EE. www.flickr.com

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: First things first, it is widely reported that you are considered for the soon to be vacant NATO Secretary General job. Would you be interested in the position? Is that something you’d want to do?

KERSTI KALJULAID: Well, right now this is not a discussion at all. Jens Stoltenberg’s mandate has been wisely prolonged for another year and I think that we should not speculate about these things. And Stoltenberg is somebody whose work I greatly admire. He has managed to feel very close to each and every ally and he’s also a great negotiator. I really admire what he is doing so let’s not discuss this future head of the NATO right now. I’m very, very happy with Jens.

On the war against Ukraine… you travelled to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin back in 2019, had a working lunch with the man, talked about Georgia and Ukraine… When criticised, you pressed the importance of leaving dialogue channel open to Russia – a narrative that the French President has championed nowadays. What do you think today? Have you stuck with that opinion that we should always try to talk to Russia, what fruit has the dialogue with Russia bore so far?

Obviously, we have all failed. But at that point in time for me it was very important, because I felt that every leader of Europe should take their own responsibility to talk also to the difficult neighbours, and that’s what I did. Of course we failed, we failed badly, this is obvious. Otherwise there would not be a war in Europe. And I think this old adage about talking from the position of strength might have actually bore more fruit. Many of us are thinking today: what if the sanctions of today were put in place after Georgia’s partial occupation? Crying over spilt milk doesn’t bring anything, but we should admit that the European reaction to Georgia was weak enough to cause Crimea, then our reaction was stronger, but still weak enough to cause what we are now seeing. We have to admit that we failed.

Shouldn’t these past history lessons affect the future thinking of the West?

If we look at history, and Russia is but the latest example of it, no autocrat who has had enough economic might has ever wasted a chance to use it as a geopolitical advantage. They burn with the desire to expand, to rule first the neighbourhood, then the world. This is probably the strongest lesson we can learn – if there is an autocrat, then they will do these things, just because they can.

Is the West doing enough for Ukraine? You claimed in a recent interview: “let us admit that Europe cannot move faster than Germany and France”. If that’s the case, things don’t look very good for Ukraine, which needs help, so to say, yesterday.

If you look at the people of Germany, then I would say this is an extremely fast development compared to discussions which we were having at the Munich Security Conference [just before the war]. You cannot move quicker than your people, they should understand what you are doing. And now when Putin has made it very clear, what the risk is and what he is ready to do, the politicians have reacted. And the great thing is that the European citizens are strongly supportive of that, and maybe even demanding more. So I can only add my voice to these European citizens who say that we really need to win this war in Ukraine. And we must keep supplying the Ukrainian army. They have trained fighters, it is a big nation. But what they do need is to always be able to match every Russian tank with a rocket, they need stronger air defence capabilities too.  We in Estonia have emptied our warehouses of all anti-tank ammunition, but we cannot help for example with air defence. There are obviously bigger European nations who have the necessary capabilities, and they need to step up. I do not want to sound ungrateful about what has been done but I would encourage them to indeed do even more.  

I understand that like many in the West, you too believe that Putin miscalculated in Ukraine or that he is lacking information or that his advisers are misleading him… Can these miscalculations lose him the war? 

Technically, he had lost this war before it started. Putin needed 70,000 to hold Grozny [in Chechnya]. And he had less than 200,000 to roll over all of Ukraine. But his [main] miscalculation was not military. His miscalculation was based on something that he believes in – he sincerely is the kind of man who believes that people are passive. And it is only the West that is expanding its sphere of influence. People, and their choice can be disregarded. He thought that the Ukrainian people facing spring will not care under whose presidency the potatoes get into the soil and the wheat gets planted and so on. And it is to his surprise that Ukrainian people actually do care because people value freedom, but for him, people are just passive objects and this is where his big miscalculation was because I am quite sure he did not think Ukrainians would fight the way they are fighting.

And yet, even if we accept that he miscalculated, if Istanbul talks are anything to go by, Putin is set to get a neutrality status from Ukraine, which Kyiv was unwilling to consider before the war, ensuring that Ukraine will not join NATO. He has got more land than he had before February 24th, including some of lands that contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway), is close to establishing an uncontested control on the Azov Sea coastline and getting land bridge access to Crimea. All this at the cost of more than 10,000 dead Russian soldiers, true, but that is something he seems to be perfectly content to pay. He will probably demand economic sanctions should be lifted, even partially, if a ceasefire is reached. In addition, the war has boosted Putin’s popularity at home and he probably found a way to sell it to his brainwashed domestic electorate as a victory. So, in realpolitik terms, who is the real loser here?

Us? And you know, you forgot some elements – Belarus, for example. We hear also some noises from Ossetia and Abkhazia [in Georgia]. But I will say that first and foremost, it is for Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to decide on which terms they are ready to start discussing. It is for him to say. We cannot tell him that this is now the moment when you should stop fighting. We cannot also force him to continue fighting, if he says he’s ready to negotiate. Yes, if these negotiations end with Russia having more land and more hold over Europe, then I think it is encouragement [for Putin]. Therefore, whichever way the ceasefire agreement goes, we should not take the sanctions away. Crimea is occupied, part of Georgia is occupied, so sanctions should remain, this is in our hands, it is up to us to deal with sanctions, to provide Ukraine with the necessary weaponry, for which they are asking. 

As much as I admire your principled position on sanctions, do you think it will be shared by your colleagues in Berlin and Paris and further West?

Well, first and foremost, I am a president who is not in office anymore. So by definition, you cannot compare me to the decisions which for example, Chancellor Olof Scholz has to take, but frankly speaking, stronger sanctions is something that is in our hands and something which we can do. And you know what? Counter-sanctions that Russia has imposed as a response to our sanctions on Crimea, they have hurt Estonian agriculture and economy, we are neighbours with Russia, we suffered quite a lot because of it. But we have never said: this is too high an economic burden. And I am asking our western partners – look what is going on in Mariupol – Is it really, truly, too high economic burden, which we’ll have to bear? I don’t think it is.

Back to Putin… his approval ratings soared since the war started to a staggering 83 per cent, and that is not according to state sources, but according to the Levada Centre, which itself is declared a foreign agent in Russia. So keeping this in mind, why does most of the West still refer to this as “Putin’s war” on Ukraine and not Russia’s?

Indeed, I am sure that quite a high proportion of Russian people do believe what the president, or, actually I would not like to call him president anymore, so what Putin is telling them. Quite a lot, obviously. But I also think that whoever is asking these questions, even if it’s Levada Centre – I mean, when I was a child, how about if somebody asks me about Lenin, or the communist party? Or do I know that Estonia is occupied? I knew all the right answers to be to be given in school, in kindergarten, everywhere. Did I believe that even at the age of four? Never. So I am quite sure that many people in Russia, even if they don’t share Putin’s opinion, are not ready to voice it to whomever is asking, even to their own. You do not trust anybody in such a situation. In the 1980s, if a foreign journalist had asked me something, I would also know to keep my mouth shut, knowing what it will mean for my family for the next day. So whatever [data] comes out of that country right now, even if it is put together by well-meaning, independent people, it does not reflect truth.

If Putin is not deterred in Ukraine, how tangible would the threat be for the Baltic states? What do you think his next target would be?

It is very hard to say. But at least on February 26th, when, unfortunately for them and to the delight of everyone else, they accidentally released this victory celebration article on Ria Novosti, one sentence caught my attention: “If we hadn’t brought Ukraine back to ‘Russkiy Mir’ now, then we would have had to go and seek them out from transatlantic union”. This means that at least on February 26th, Russia was thinking that military action against NATO was unthinkable. Let’s hope they are sticking to this position. But hope is not what NATO runs on. NATO runs on risk analysis and visibility and then it actually prepares accordingly. So we see right now that NATO is really fortifying its presence in the Baltic states and Poland. NATO’s deterrence levels have always been according to the risk pattern, and we see them now changing as well. So while I see the risks, obviously, we are not worried because NATO is taking the necessary steps. And of course, we will keep negotiating that these steps are strong enough, visible enough to make sure they stick to the position in Russia from February 26th. But what is also interesting is that some people tend to believe that Putin is [doing it] because he is really afraid of NATO. But, look at what is going on behind NATO’s borders, there is nothing, so he’s lying. He’s never been afraid of NATO.

That also narrows the list for the potential targets, and Moldova and Georgia do not find themselves in the most ideal of positions. Should they be worried? 

Indeed, we should really, really be helping Moldova and Georgia, our Eastern partners who want to come closer to Europe; to help them advance. We should offer them a programme that helps them with accession to the European Union. This is what we can do for all these countries to demonstrate to Putin that we are not afraid to move, to make big geopolitical steps, taking into account the will of those people – Moldovans, Georgians, Ukrainians. If they are willing, we should offer them help to come closer. But indeed, I mean, Moldova [should be worried] by definition, because of what happened to Georgia and Ukraine – when they turned their back to Russia and face to Europe, this is when Russia hurt them. So we have to aware of these risks. 

Once this is all over, do you think Putin can re-enter the political high echelons of Europe? Or is it a game-over for the Kremlin?

I sincerely hope that these scenes that we have seen in Ukraine in recent days will deter any debate whatsoever about returning to “business as usual”, be it in business or politics.  I mean, it cannot be possible. We must remember these dead children, dead people, civilians, destroyed cities. I cannot see any way back for Putin. And it shouldn’t be offered.

Kersti Kaljulaid is an Estonian politician who served as the fifth president of Estonia between 2016 and 2021.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.

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