“I just want to make another call to all partners and allies. Let’s support Ukrainians and give them the weapons they are asking for – as many as we can, as many as we have. Please, come forward. I think we are settling in for a relatively long period where we need to up our military spending and our military production anyway, so let’s do it sooner rather than later, and let’s give Ukraine all we can,” – Former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told Radio Free Europe’s Georgian service and the New Eastern Europe Magazine in a joint interview in which she offered her insights on the war in Ukraine, Putin, NATO and the need for stronger sanctions.
Tipped to be among the frontrunners to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the first-ever female NATO Secretary General, Kaljulaid has been on a diplomatic crusade over the latest two months to gather as much international support for Ukraine as possible.
Kersti Kaljulaid travelled to Moscow to meet President Putin back in 2019, had a working lunch with the man, and talked about Georgia and Ukraine. When criticized, she pressed the importance of leaving the dialogue channel open to Russia – a narrative that the French President is championing nowadays. We asked her if her views in this regard had changed.
“Obviously, we’ve all failed, but at that point in time for me it was very important, because I felt that every leader of Europe should take responsibility to talk even to the difficult neighbors, and that’s what I did,” she tells us. “Of course we failed, and badly. If we hadn’t, there wouldn’t be a war in Europe. And I think this old adage about talking from the position of strength might have actually born more fruit. Many of us are today thinking ‘what if the sanctions of today had been put in place after Georgia’s partial occupation?’ Crying over spilt milk doesn’t bring results, but we should admit that the European reaction to Georgia was weak enough to result in Crimea; then our reaction was stronger, but still weak enough to cause what we are now seeing. So let’s admit that we failed.
Shouldn’t these past history lessons affect the future thinking of the West?
If we look at the 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 neighborhood, 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 “yesterday.”
Well, if you look at the people of Germany, then I would say this is extremely fast development compared to the discussions we were having at the Munich Security Conference [just before the war]. You cannot move quicker than your people, they should understand what you’re doing. And now when Putin has made it very clear what the risk is and what he’s ready to do, so 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 defense capabilities too. We in Estonia have emptied our warehouses of all anti-tank ammunition, but we cannot help with air defense. There are obviously bigger European nations who have the necessary capabilities – they need to step in. 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 advisors are misleading him – Can these miscalculations lose him the war?
“Technically, he lost this war before it started. Putin needed 70,000 to hold Grozny. And he had less than 200,000 to roll over Ukraine,” Kaljulaid notes. “But his [main] miscalculation was not military. His miscalculation was based on something he believes in – he sincerely is the kind of man who believes that people are passive. And that it’s only the West that is expanding its sphere of influence. People, and their choices, can be disregarded. He thought that Ukrainian people facing the spring would 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 the Ukrainian people actually do care, because people value freedom. For him, people are just passive objects and this is where his big miscalculation was because I’m quite sure he didn’t think Ukrainians would fight the way they are fighting,” she tells us.
We next point out that even if we accept that Putin miscalculated, and if the 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 won’t get into NATO. He also has more land than he had before February 24, including lands that contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway’s). He is also close to establishing uncontested control over 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, alongside the economic sanctions, at least a part of which he will probably demand should be lifted if a ceasefire is to be agreed upon. In addition, it has boosted his popularity at home and he would probably find a way to sell it to his brainwashed domestic electorate as a victory. So, we ask, in realpolitik terms, who’s the real loser here?
“Us?” Kaljulaid suggests. “And you know, you forgot some elements – Belarus, for example. We hear some noises from Ossetia and Abkhazia, too. But I will say that first and foremost, it is for Ukraine and President Zelensky to decide on which terms they are ready to start discussing. It is for him to say. We cannot tell him – this is now a situation where you should stop fighting. We cannot 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 remove the sanctions. Crimea is occupied, part of Georgia is occupied, so the sanctions should remain. This is in our hands – it’s up to us to deal with the sanctions, as it is up to us to provide Ukraine with the necessary weaponry, which they are asking for.”
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 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? The counter-sanctions that Russia has imposed in response to our sanctions on Crimea, they have hurt the Estonian agriculture and economy. We are neighbors with Russia, and we suffered quite a lot because of it. But we have never said: this is too high an economic burden. And I’m asking our Western partners – look what’s going on in Mariupol. Is it really, truly, too high an economic burden which we’ll have to bear? I don’t think it is.
And back to Putin – his approval rating has soared since the war kicked off – to a staggering 83%, according to the Levada Center, declared a foreign agent in Russia. With 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’m sure that quite a high proportion of Russian people do believe what Putin is telling them. Quite a lot, obviously. When I was a child, if somebody asked me about Lenin, or the Communist Party, or did I know that Estonia is occupied, I knew all the right answers given to me in school. But did I believe that even at the age of four? Never. I’m 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 don’t trust anybody in such a situation. In the 80s, if a foreign journalist had asked me something, I would have known to keep my mouth shut, knowing what it would mean for my family the next day. So whatever [data] comes out of that country right now, even if it’s put together by well-meaning, independent people, it doesn’t reflect the truth.
IF, and I understand that’s a big if, Putin isn’t deterred in Ukraine, how tangible would the threat be for the Baltic countries? What would his next target be, do you think?
It’s very hard to say, but at least on February 26, when, unfortunately for them and to the delight of everyone else, they accidentally released a victory celebration article on Rianovosti, one sentence caught my attention: “If we hadn’t brought Ukraine back to “Russki Mir” now, then we would have had to go and seek them out from the Trans-Atlantic Union,” which says that, at least in February, Russia was thinking that military action against NATO was unthinkable. Let’s hope they will stick to this position. But hope is not what NATO is run on: NATO runs on risk analysis and visibility, and then it prepares accordingly. NATO is now fortifying its presence in the Baltic states, in Poland. NATO’s deterrence levels have always been according to the risk pattern, and we see them now changing. 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 of February 26. But what is also interesting is that some people tend to believe that Putin is [doing it] because he is really afraid of NATO. I mean, look what’s going on behind NATO’s borders, there’s nothing, so he’s lying. He’s never been afraid of NATO.
That also narrows the list of 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 program 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, Moldova [should be worried] by definition, because of what happened to Georgia and Ukraine – when they turned their back on Russia and face to Europe, this is when Russia hurt them. So we have to be aware of these risks.
Once it’s all over, can Putin re-enter the political high echelons of Europe? Or is it a PR “game-over” for the Kremlin?
I sincerely hope that the scenes that we have seen in Ukraine over the latest days will deter any debate whatsoever about returning to “business as usual”, be it in business or politics. I mean, it can’t be possible. We must remember these dead children, dead civilians, destroyed cities. I cannot see a way back for Putin. It shouldn’t even be offered.
Finally, It’s widely reported that you’re being considered for the soon-to-be-vacant NATO Secretary General job. Is that something you’d want to take on?
Well, this is not up for discussion at all right now: Jens Stoltenberg’s mandate has been wisely prolonged for a year, and I think we should not speculate about these things. Stoltenberg is somebody whose work I greatly admire, he’s 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.
Interview with Vazha Tavberidze