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Estonia’s tough voice on Ukraine urges no compromise with Putin

  • >> Steven Erlanger, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-17 08:40:02 BdST

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Kaja Kallas, now 44, grew up in the Soviet Union, which had annexed her country, Estonia, after World War II.

She remembers the Soviet occupation and a visit to East Berlin in 1988, when she was 11, and her father told her to “breathe in the air of freedom” from West Berlin. And she remembers the stories of 1949, when her mother, Kristi, then a baby, was deported to Siberia in a cattle car with her own mother and grandmother and lived in exile there until she was 10 — part of Moscow’s effort to wipe out Estonia’s elite.

So it is perhaps little wonder that Kallas, now Estonia’s prime minister, has become one of Europe’s toughest voices against Russia for its war in Ukraine. Along with Latvia and Lithuania — countries also annexed by the Soviet Union — her country and its fellow Baltic States are some of the smallest and most vulnerable in Europe.

But their recent history has given them special standing and credibility as they press Europe’s larger countries to take a hard line against President Vladimir Putin of Russia and to keep faith with Ukraine and its struggle for freedom.

In an interview in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, Kallas made it clear that Ukraine’s destiny must be up to Ukrainians to decide. But simply suing for peace with Putin would be a mistake at this stage, she believes, rewarding his aggression. She argues forcefully instead that Russia must be seen to lose its war against Ukraine, so that history — that of her family and her country — is not repeated elsewhere.

Much as the Soviets not only occupied but annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and much as the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014 — Moscow, she and others warn, will do the same to large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine if given the chance, with grave consequences.

“Peace can’t be the ultimate goal,” she said. “We had peace after the Second World War, but the atrocities for our people started or continued then,” she said, citing mass deportations, killings of the elite and “trying to erase our culture and our language.”

In the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, “we will see all of this,” she said. So “a peace that allows aggression to pay off,” while the threat remains of more conflict down the road, is unacceptable, she said.

As she spoke, NATO was engaged in a massive military exercise in Estonia called “Hedgehog,” involving some 15,000 troops from 14 countries, including participation by the US Navy. It is part of a series of large NATO exercises this month in Central Europe.

NATO provides collective defense to Estonia and the Baltics, which will be enhanced considerably if Sweden and Finland join, given the strategic Baltic Sea.

Even among the tough-minded Baltic leaders, Kallas, a lawyer, has won wide praise for her warnings that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in European history and must be defeated at all costs, and without compromise.

Kallas, a married mother of three children, became Estonia’s first female prime minister in January 2021 after serving as a legislator in both the Estonian and European parliaments. She has led her Reform Party, the country’s largest, since 2018. Her father, Siim Kallas, was also prime minister and later a European commissioner.

She has presided over a coalition government that has provided early support for Ukraine, and more support per capita, from this small nation of 1.3 million people, than any other country in the world.

She has been a sharp critic of continuing efforts by other leaders, like President Emmanuel Macron of France, to keep contacts with Putin while Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty and its existence as an independent state.

She emphasised that only the Ukrainian government and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, should be negotiating with Putin, whom she considers a war criminal.

“The conversation has to happen between Zelensky and Putin, because they are part of the war and their skin is in the game,” she said. The Ukrainians “are the only ones who can say what is their room for maneuver,” she said, “because it’s their people who suffer.”

There are some in Europe, including important business executives, who want the war in Ukraine over as quickly as possible, given the sharp increases in the price of energy, grain, cooking oil and countless other items leading to record inflation, in part caused by Europe’s harsh sanctions on Russia.

But Kallas has little patience for such pressure on Ukraine, especially since only Ukrainians are doing the fighting for what she considers the values and security of the entire trans-Atlantic alliance.

In any case, she said, why talk to Putin just to talk? “I don’t see point talking to him because nothing has come out of this,” she said. “The calls were happening even before the war, and then the worst happened, Bucha and Mariupol happened, so no results.”

If there will be finally a diplomatic solution, she said, “of course, then this is up to Ukraine to say.” And so far, she said, Putin has refused to talk to Zelensky.

She praised Western unity so far and the increasing supply of weapons to Ukraine, after a slow start. “But as long as the war continues, we haven’t done enough and we have to look at what more we can do,” she said.

A partial settlement that allows Russia to renew its offensive later is not sustainable, she said. “I only see a solution as a military victory that could end this once and for all, and also punishing the aggressor for what he has done.” Otherwise, she said, “we go back to where we started — you will have a pause of one year, two years, and then everything will continue.”

That has been the mistake of the West with Putin for years now, she said, citing the Georgian war in 2008, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas that has been ongoing since 2015.

She recognises that Zelensky “is in a very difficult position.” On one hand, “you’re the leader of the country, and you see the suffering of your people, you want this to stop.” But on the other, “you have public opinion saying that Ukraine is winning this war, and we shouldn’t give any territory to Russia.”

Finding the balance will be hard, she said, but it is up to Zelensky to find it. “It is up to Ukraine to decide where their limits are,” no one else.

It is important that the European Union and NATO keep the door open to Ukraine, she said, given the already remarkable sacrifices it has made to protect Western values and interests. The Ukrainians have earned the right to prove that they can qualify, she said, and the West “should not be intimidated by anything Russia is saying or threatening.”

Kallas quoted Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who said that “Europe is not a geography — it’s a set of values and principles.”

So “if Ukraine has chosen this path, and literally is fighting for this, then it’s not wise to push that country away,” she said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company