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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Ukraine: a view from the Baltics

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at how the world looks from Estonia, a country that regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Estonia is a member of the EU and Nato, but it borders Russia and has long feared aggression from Moscow. My guest is Kersti Kaljulaid, who was president of Estonia from 2016 until 2021. So with Russia at war in Ukraine, what do Estonia’s leaders think the world and the western alliance should be doing?

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Gideon Rachman
The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are on Nato’s frontline in its increasingly tense and dangerous struggle with Russia. Just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February the 24th, British troops in Estonia were on military exercises with their Estonian counterparts.

News clip
A show of British military firepower right on Russia’s doorstep. They are training where Nato’s eastern border meets Russia. It all feels much more serious.

Gideon Rachman
As Russia has regrouped its forces, Estonia’s current prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has been a prominent voice within Nato, urging the west not to underestimate the continuing danger posed by Russia.

Kaja Kallas
I’ve heard talks that, you know, there is no threat any more because they have exhausted themselves. No, they haven’t. They have plenty of troops still who can come. They are not counting the lives that they are losing. They are not counting the artillery that they are using, losing there . . . So I don’t think that we should underestimate them.

Gideon Rachman
The increased fear of Russian aggression has led both Finland and Sweden, Estonia’s near neighbours, to apply to join Nato. I met former President Kaljulaid in Finland last weekend at the European Business Leaders conference. It was a beautiful summer’s morning so we did our interview outside. So please forgive the occasional squawking bird in the background. I started our conversation by asking how Estonians had felt on February the 24th, the fateful day when Russian tanks and troops roamed into Ukraine.

Kersti Kaljulaid
We were prepared because we had despaired since 2008. How not seriously what was going on was taken by the free west. And we are seriously worried also that we may see a third round, a quick grab of land and thereafter, well, calming noises from west. Well, we need to engage all this. And this would be yet another strong sign that this is exactly how autocrats will do or should act. Do something quickly. It is easier to forget if you did something quickly.

Gideon Rachman
And you said third round. So rounds one, two were what? Georgia in 2008 . . . 

Kersti Kaljulaid
Yes, and Crimea 2014. You could also count in, of course, I mean, developments in Syria, Libya, smaller irritations. But I think these were the two major events to which west reacted to Georgia particularly weakly. So I think the avalanche actually started in Georgia. The business was back to usual. In a few weeks time, an uncomfortable ceasefire was brokered. So far, Georgia is dealing more or less alone, that it was an EU monitoring mission which was looking at the calcifying on the borders. Nothing else, everybody was ignoring. And the lesson learnt by Putin, they don’t negotiate with us. That we have the right to have kind of buffer zone around us. But if we act, they do not react.

Gideon Rachman
Right. And do you think basically he made a mistake this time in his own terms by going for Kyiv and creating a situation in which the west felt obliged to respond?

Kersti Kaljulaid
Yes, but there was one calculation which was missing from your sentence. The Ukrainians really fought, and they’re still fighting. And we both know that not everybody, even in the west, thought they will fight. And of course, Putin thought as well because for him people are just a mass without the will. There are leaders who decide. It was very obvious when Belarus people rose up, he said, this is west enlarging its hemisphere. So west was trying to take control of Belarus people, but in fact it was Belarus people themselves so he doesn’t believe that Ukrainian people collectively really care whether their president is Zelenskyy or Putin when they go and plant this now infamous claim. And that was his mistake.

Gideon Rachman
And where do you think we are now? I mean, it’s the beginning of July. The war has been going on for a while. Do you feel, I mean it’s impossible to feel optimistic because there’s so much suffering, but are you more or less worried than you were in February?

Kersti Kaljulaid
I think we should all remember that every day we speak and deliberate, hundred Ukrainian soldiers are dying, 3,000 per month. I mean, this is horrible and also civilians. We have been reminded what Russian occupation is. It always was like that. It was also in the Baltics in 40s, in Germany under the Soviet occupation zone — rape, murder. It’s not territory. I mean, this is what we have to remember all the time. And of course, we are doing what we can as quickly as we can. But it seems to be enough to keep kind of balance. But we haven’t been able to support Ukraine to the extent that it could actually turn the tables. So I think we need to try to step up if we are capable, of course. And I seriously hope we are capable, of course. But it is true that, I mean, for many countries who are helping, particularly the smaller ones like Estonia, our own warehouses are relatively empty. And if it were not the same situation on the other side of the border, we could be actually very nervous. Luckily it is because, you know, Putin has long lied to us that he’s afraid of Nato. And we have now caught him out collectively because, you know, if you are afraid of Nato and you plan an operation in Ukraine, you do not deplete your own forces right behind the Nato borders to the levels which nobody even remembers.

Gideon Rachman
You mean, essentially we’ve sent so much of our equipment to Ukraine that our own forces have depleted?

Kersti Kaljulaid
Yes, and what I also mean is, luckily, also, Putin has sent everything he had behind Norwegian borders, Finnish borders, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuanian borders down south. So he’s not at all afraid Nato. We should never again believe this lie. If he were afraid, he wouldn’t deplete his own positions.

Gideon Rachman
Because he knows we’re not going to attack.

Kersti Kaljulaid
Exactly. Because Nato is a defensive organisation, and we all know it. He has pretended he doesn’t believe it. We caught him out now.

Gideon Rachman
And his real motivation then is simply domination, territory in Ukraine?

Kersti Kaljulaid
I think his real motivation indeed is, he seems to really see himself as somebody who restores Russian glory. And also to certain extent, we’ve always thought that he doesn’t really like a democratic neighbourhood because he’s worried about his own people asking this question, why not us?

Gideon Rachman
Which brings up the cold question of the Russian people. It’s a very sensitive one because some people say, actually, this isn’t just Putin. This is the character of the Russian nation. Others say that’s a terrible thing to say. There are brave people in Russia who’ve gone to jail and so on. But there doesn’t seem that much opposition to Putin. What’s your reading of it?

Kersti Kaljulaid
First is of course not Putin, it’s a regime. I mean, when Stalin died, gulag state and it was easier to ignore that people were still sent to gulag and to Siberia and concentration camps. So we should not only think it’s only Putin, it’s a regime. Obviously a kind of a KGB regime in Russia. It’s oppressive, of course. Russia is big country, not densely populated, and life is hard. So organising opposition is not so easy. But same as Belarus. And Belarus people finally had enough, and they reacted. So I would never say it’s a character of a nation, but these are socio-economic circumstances in Russia which have made a simple man to believe that he’s just a simple man, and nothing depends from him or her. And this of course means it is easier not to do anything if you think that nothing depends on me. This is very common. I grew up on the Soviet occupation. Nobody could decide anything. Nobody was responsible for anything. This is kind of society, it obviously is. Which of course again, doesn’t mean that I think every Russian person voluntarily partakes of this socio-economic system. And I many times, said myself about for notably about the Russian people in Baltics and in Estonia, that just because your grandmother lives in Rostov and you love Russian culture and language, I don’t think you support Putin. Some do, but in Estonia, at least, most don’t neither. So there are nuances. But I do also believe that it is perfectly understandable that right at this moment we hold everybody responsible. And no participation in sports competitions, etc, I mean, your country aggressed Ukraine. And of course, it’s tragic and sad. But think of Ukrainian children, women being raped, killed. This is even more tragic and sad.

Gideon Rachman
And you said that you grew up under occupation. What’s the mood in Estonia? I mean, do people feel afraid essentially that everything that they have built up over the last 30 years is under threat?

Kersti Kaljulaid
You know, maybe people feel even less afraid. You know why? Because if you get outside verification that Nato really is able to protect countries, then you really trust in to Nato even more. I mean, most of us trust in to Nato anyway because it has 100 per cent track record. Nobody has ever attacked a Nato country. But Finnish and Swedish people who are very close to Estonia, they putting such a trust in Nato all of a sudden has reinforced Estonian self-assurance that being a member of Nato is what is making us safe.

Gideon Rachman
And yet the current prime minister of Estonia has quite vocally said, well, she didn’t really like Nato plans in the sense that they foresaw Estonia actually being occupied for a while and then possibly the Russians being forced back.

Kersty Kaljulaid
Actually, it is kind of one-sided picture and of course, you never have time to set out the other side. Estonia also itself is very keen about, I mean and adamant that Article Three exists as well, not only Article Five. So . . .

Gideon Rachman
Explain Article Three . . . 

Kersti Kaljulaid
Article Three means self-defence. Each and every member has to do everything, what it takes to first, defend itself and then rely on others. And we have spent about 2 per cent or at 2 per cent since 2011. So our own army’s as well-equipped as a small economy allows you to do. But of course, I mean, it so happens fate that the smallest economies of Nato are its eastern flank — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. So whatever we do, there will be the risk of cutting off Estonian airspace. Whatever we do, we will not have huge army of tanks. Whatever we do, we will not have nuclear deterrence, obviously. And that is where Article Five comes into play. So that’s the nuanced picture of it. But, you know, speaking about security has always been like this. From one side, you say, we trust in Nato. And then people are like, you should trust in Nato, then why do you request more forces? Are you afraid then? I mean, Nato is not the silken umbrella. We call it Nato umbrella. In fact, it is what it is. It’s equipment, men, plans. So it’s always a little bit paradoxical to speak about those things.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And we’re talking just a day or so after the end of the Nato summit.

Kersti Kaljulaid
Presumably.

Gideon Rachman
Are you content with what was agreed there? Do you think that they’ve done enough to address some of these problems?

Kersti Kaljulaid
I think it is logical, considering it’s not exactly like it was in the cold wartime. I mean, huge elements of Nato troops close to the border that will be more close to the border than there is currently to really make the signal clear to Moscow: don’t even try. And that will be clear plans on follow-on. And the Nato’s very rapid reaction forces, I mean, they rise in an enormous amount and the 300,000 compared to, for example, that Putin assembled 170,000 to attack Ukraine. Pitiful amount to go for all of Ukraine, considering that the Ukrainians are able to put up a fight. This is now, the new Nato’s defence level. So we are satisfied. Do we want to have all these 300,000 permanently stationed in the Baltic states? Probably not. Too (unintelligible).

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And what about the long-term prospects for western unity because it seems to me that Putin’s gamble now is that particularly if he puts economic pressure on Germany and others through restricting gas, inflation, maybe rationing that there’ll be a change of view in the west. Do you see that’s a real issue?

Kersti Kaljulaid
It’s interesting. He never learns. I mean, he put up gas prices for the Baltic states and actually priced itself out of the market in Estonia because wood cogeneration for heating was feasible 20 years ago because of gas prices, which were double the German prices. So he’s doing exactly the same. If there were any doubts, for example, here in Finland because they have up to 2030 take-or-pay agreement with Gazprom, how to wriggle out of that. The cushion was taken away. Same. I mean, Italian people, German people now facing the fact that Putin really is using gas as a weapon. I mean, if people realise it’s a weapon, they are ready to do quite a lot to make sure this weapon cannot be used against them, which gives the politicians of western Europe the room to manoeuvre, to spend, to incur costs, to go away from using Russian gas and oil which in long-term, even if Russia all of a sudden, like a flower opened and turned into democracy, would harm Russian economy.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Because people, I think, as you say, even if Russia were to change, I don’t think they’ll ever want to go quite back to that state of dependence on Russia.

Kersti Kaljulaid
Exactly. And in addition, I mean, in the energy sector people see that it is a weapon now. So they want to fulfil the EU energy market objective, which anyway was diversified sources and green sources. But also it’s the responsibility of the business community because we are sitting here at the business conference, actually Northern Lights, that I don’t want to see any lobbying pressure after the intense fighting is over, and we don’t know how it ends, but it’d be quite uncomfortable ceasefire. It’s for Ukrainians to decide. One day they might say we’ve had enough. We’ve reached this far. We cannot take it any more. We don’t know how it ends. But then the ball is back in the western court. We have to keep the economic sanctions on and then really, I hope that there will be no big business lobby that, you know, we should maybe go back this and that. I think this should not happen.

Gideon Rachman
And why should we keep the economic sanctions on?

Kersti Kaljulaid
Economic calculation, if you wish, again, we are sitting here in a business conference. Either we spend four decades, two, three, four, maybe 5 per cent of our GDPs on defence to deter Russia or we starve Russia so that it cannot rearm. I think the first option has higher costs for west than the second option. And in addition, I think defence spending has also never been popular.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Coming back to something you’ve alluded to, the terrible suffering of the Ukrainians, hundreds of people dying a day.

Kersti Kaljulaid
Yeah, a hundred soldiers and then, of course, civilians as well. Three thousand a month. I mean, I feel this time we have gained to get our house in order is extremely expensive, thinking of Ukrainian lives.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. So we all owe a debt of gratitude to Ukraine, in fact.

Kersti Kaljulaid
Exactly. And I believe that is why also European Parliament and European Commission took the lead and now Ukraine, also Moldova are going to be the candidates for the EU membership. And you know, we all know Ukraine has longstanding problems for its rule of law, particularly in business sector. And I really believe that the European Union can do a massive pre-accession programme which will help, really, to build institutions in Ukraine because lots of money after the war is over. Hopefully we don’t know where it comes from, but I assume that it would be lots of support. Initially it will be grants. It’s important that they are spent efficiently and economically and reach the simple man on the ground in Ukraine. Thereafter has to come direct investment. But the reason that foreign direct investment has been cautious in Ukraine has been that the court system has not been very functional, institutions have not been strong, and this can be changed now. It might be once in a lifetime opportunity, and this is, by the way, how Ukrainians see it. I was in Ukraine a week ago, and this is how they see it.

Gideon Rachman
That would be in a way wonderful if we can get to that point, but we’re still in the war. How do you resolve this contradiction that there is this terrible suffering? A lot of people will use that as an argument for, well, let’s go quickly to negotiations. Let’s have a Minsk 4, 5. You know, I was just reading articles from Asia, the Straits Times of Singapore saying the west must be reasonable, they must invite them to the table.

Kersti Kaljulaid
We did so after in 2008. We panicked. Forty kilometres from Tbilisi, we brokered the ceasefire. I mean, it’s for Ukrainian people to decide when to go to negotiating table. I’ve been circling the globe in last two months, telling everybody, yes, we provide and we supply. But nevertheless Ukrainian people decide and yes, we cannot expect Ukrainian people to fight until the bright end of the regime in Russia. They are fighting for their own survival, for their own right to decide, for their own future. So we still may need to actually keep the sanctions in place, keep pressure on Russia. And this is my biggest worry, that if it ends the way that it can still be read that OK, even if you make a real big mistake, the west is able to look over it.

Gideon Rachman
Has the west been too slow in providing weapons? I mean, there’s been a lot of criticism about Germany not providing the missile systems that it promised. And even the US is cautious in some respects, balancing this desire not to get into a direct confrontation with Russia with a desire to support Ukraine. Have we got the balance right?

Kersti Kaljulaid
I don’t blame any country for being slightly slow because politicians, you know, they can do what their citizens support in democratic nations, and I admire Olaf Scholz. I mean, gambling on the German people still remembering the atrocities — Russians thieving in Germany under the Russian occupation zone. After second world war, European Union took a massive step. I mean, European Union chief, he says expressly that we do not prop up each other’s defence expenses. And then suddenly we just announced initially half a billion for Ukraine. So their action at our standards has been good. But of course, I understand also Ukrainians who say that every day we are missing these hundreds of Himars. I mean, we’re still dying. So that’s the fact of life, and let’s try to do better. I know also that our training missions that are additional plans down the road. Let’s do as quickly as we can, and let’s try not to blame. I mean, you, why didn’t you understand, why didn’t you react quicker, and all this. Let’s try to work together now for a better future.

Gideon Rachman
And the concern that’s in the background, I think, for a lot of people like Scholz and others, is essentially nuclear war, that Russia will use a tactical nuclear weapon, which I know you’ve had to think about a lot in the Baltic states, because Russian military exercises have sometimes involved miming the use of tactical nuclear weapons. What do you think on that?

Kersti Kaljulaid
I think we should do what is right based on our understanding of humanity, based on our understanding of international law, values, of course, and not to try to predict the unpredictable because Putin’s mind, obviously, is something that you cannot read. But it seems to be that definitely he didn’t appreciate our weakness after Georgia and Crimea. So let’s try to be strong this time.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Kersti Kaljulaid, the former president of Estonia, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. Next week, my guest will be Alexander Gabuev, the Russian academic and leading analyst of China who recently went into exile. So please join me again next week.

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