‘Rus­sia is a threat’: Es­to­nia watches its neigh­bor war­ily

The Post’s Lally Wey­mouth in­ter­views Pres­i­dent Ker­sti Kalju­laid

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Lal­lyWey­mouth Lally Wey­mouth is a se­nior as­so­ciate ed­i­tor at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Etallinn, es­to­nia sto­nian Pres­i­dent Ker­sti Kalju­laid is tread­ing care­fully. Sit­ting in her of­fice this past week, she said she be­lieves Vice Pres­i­dent Pence’s as­sur­ances that, de­spite Pres­i­dent Trump’s skep­ti­cism, the United States is com­mit­ted to NATO. A NATO bat­tal­ion just ar­rived to make this small and vul­ner­a­ble Baltic na­tion feel safer from Rus­sia, a pow­er­ful neigh­bor his­tor­i­cally am­biva­lent about its in­de­pen­dence. Kalju­laid, cho­sen last year as a com­pro­mise can­di­date, spoke to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Lally Wey­mouth about Vladimir Putin, NATO and a child­hood spent un­der Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion. Edited ex­cerpts fol­low. Q. Is Rus­sia a threat? Are you wor­ried? A. Yes, I am wor­ried. Rus­sia is a threat. Not a phys­i­cal threat to any NATO coun­try but [a threat] to the in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture. In 2008, they moved on Ge­or­gia. Q. When Rus­sia oc­cu­pied Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia? A. That was the first sign. It blew over very quickly — Euro­pean coun­tries went back to busi­ness and life con­tin­ued. This, of course, taught Pres­i­dent Putin a les­son: He could push a lit­tle more.

Q. He got the mes­sage he could do what­ever he wants?

A. If he does it bit by bit, yes. When he went into Crimea, it stopped for a while be­cause the Euro­pean coun­tries and Amer­ica this time rec­og­nized that they needed to draw a red line. I am afraid now that the re­solve of the West­ern coun­tries may not hold in the case of Ukraine. We need to stand very firm against giv­ing again a mes­sage to Putin that it will blow over. Some­times politi­cians say, “Let’s build a new se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture.” Do you build any­thing on shift­ing ground? I don’t think so.

Q. Are you re­fer­ring to Pres­i­dent Trump?

A. No, I am not re­fer­ring to any­one in par­tic­u­lar, but ev­ery now and then you hear, “Sanc­tions are not work­ing, we need to try a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, we need to talk to Rus­sia.” We need to re­store our se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture and then talk to Rus­sia.

Q. So you want the sanc­tions to stay on Rus­sia?

A. Ab­so­lutely.

Q. Do you think the Euro­peans will go along with this?

A. Right now, yes. Be­cause Rus­sia is [in] Syria, Libya and the Balkans. We need to rec­og­nize there is a wish and a will to de­stroy the West­ern se­cu­rity model.

Q. You mean the E.U. and NATO?

A. I mean the over­all value-based un­der­stand­ing that states are all equal — that big coun­tries do not make deals over the heads of small coun­tries. You do not at­tack other coun­tries; you do not change bor­ders. The Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Fi­nal Act, and Rus­sia in­her­ited their sig­na­ture. So they have ac­tu­ally signed not to threaten any­body’s bor­ders.

Q. You’re talk­ing about Crimea?

A. Yes — not to es­tab­lish war bases in an­other coun­try un­less asked to do so. They ba­si­cally vi­o­lated all of this in Ukraine. Rus­sia has shown that it doesn’t care about the value-based world where you do not ex­er­cise your power over smaller coun­tries be­cause you can. That is wor­ri­some.

Q. Are you wor­ried Rus­sia will do some­thing here?

A. Ac­tu­ally, no, be­cause of NATO.

Q. So the NATO for­ward de­ploy­ments here, in Latvia, in Lithua­nia and in Poland make you feel safer?

A. We feel safer, and we also feel that in case there are dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ments in Rus­sia, the NATO de­ter­rence is ad­e­quate. Dur­ing the Cold War, the NATO um­brella was not just an um­brella on pa­per. It con­sisted of equip­ment and troops. It is ex­actly the same here now.

Q. Ex­cept, of course, now the United States has sig­nif­i­cantly fewer troops in Europe. It would take Amer­ica a long time to move troops here.

A. Yes, that is true. NATO troops here are just a trip­wire.

Q. How do you see Pres­i­dent Trump? Ini­tially he made var­i­ous state­ments ques­tion­ing the value of NATO. Are you con­cerned that he won’t stand up for NATO?

A. I haven’t met Pres­i­dent Trump, but I met Vice Pres­i­dent Pence.

Q. Right, but what do you think about Trump?

A. I think what he knows about Europe and the Euro­pean Union — there are a lot of briefs to be read and learn­ing to be done, which is nat­u­ral be­cause he is not the first Amer­i­can leader to come into [of­fice] who doesn’t know that much about Europe. About NATO, I think he was quite clear quite early on, and said that NATO needs to think about its strat­egy as far as fight­ing against ter­ror­ism is con­cerned and that NATO mem­bers should make sure they carry out Ar­ti­cle 3 pay­ments.

Q. You mean by pay­ing 2 per­cent of their GDP to­ward de­fense spend­ing? Which you have done, of course.

A. Yes, so we were not threat­ened by that state­ment at all. We spend 2.2 per­cent al­to­gether. We have fought [with NATO] in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have con­trib­uted. We don’t plan to con­sume only.

Q. One pos­si­ble threat here is that, among the Rus­sian-speak­ing mi­nor­ity, there is a group of pro-Krem­lin rad­i­cals.

A. Some Putin rad­i­cals speak very good Es­to­nian. We have to make sure we do not take any­body’s lan­guage as a primer for what they think. Yana Toom, one of the most prom­i­nent Es­to­nian-Rus­sian politi­cians, said that no­body in Narva wants to wake up one morn­ing in the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. I trust her on that. In Es­to­nia, the Rus­sian mi­nor­ity can move freely, travel freely, work any­where in Europe. Of course we know that Rus­sian [dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns] are on­go­ing ev­ery­where. If we see false news about, let’s say, sol­diers at­tack­ing a young lady in Lithua­nia, and then it is wrong, then in whose in­ter­est is it to ped­dle this kind of

story? There is only one po­ten­tial ben­e­fi­ciary. That is Rus­sia. Q. Your coun­try has more ex­pe­ri­ence than the United States does in rec­og­niz­ing fake news. A. Yes, we do not run away with the first news, but we try to bet­ter un­der­stand the facts be­hind it. Q. For­mer pres­i­dent Toomas Hen­drik Ilves said to me that Es­to­nia has had 30 years of the fake news that the United States is just now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. A. Pre­cisely. If you read the ma­te­ri­als in Ger­many [about] how the KGB and Stasi tried to in­flu­ence the re­elec­tion of Willy Brandt, it is the same story. It is noth­ing new — just that the tech­ni­cal means make it eas­ier to reach out to a very wide pub­lic. Q. What did you think of this week’s con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony about peo­ple in the White House hav­ing Rus­sian con­nec­tions? A. Peo­ple ev­ery­where in the world have Rus­sian con­nec­tions. There is noth­ing wrong with hav­ing Rus­sian con­nec­tions as long as you’re trans­par­ent about it. Q. But they are ba­si­cally say­ing the Rus­sians tried to fix the U.S. elec­tion. A. That is, of course, a whole dif­fer­ent story, and I am sure your po­lit­i­cal sys­tem will take care of that. But it also taught a les­son to the Euro­pean coun­tries fac­ing elec­tions, I’m sure. Q. Rus­sia is re­port­edly very in­ter­ested in the Euro­pean elec­tions. A. Yes, def­i­nitely. Be­cause the Euro­pean Union is the pro­tected base of the hated lib­eral val­ues. Q. So Rus­sia wants to break up the E.U.? A. I think they would be happy to see it dis­in­te­grate. Q. Or to see the U.S. split from the E.U.? A. Pre­cisely. If transat­lantic re­la­tions are good, we know we can pro­tect our think­ing of how the world should look. If they break down, it’s di­vide and con­quer. Q. When will you meet Trump? A. I have no idea. Q. If you could have your wish, would you like more troops and equip­ment here?

A. I would say that first we need to make sure that NATO’s com­mand struc­ture knows how it would re­act to [any Rus­sian ac­tions]. They have to agree on how to get the fol­low-up troops in. This is what, in fact, makes our de­ter­rence be­liev­able. Again, I do not think there is danger to any NATO coun­try phys­i­cally. If the danger comes, it is more prob­a­bly a com­mu­ni­ca­tion at­tack — maybe cut­ting off some of the power sys­tem. Q. I heard you are very in­ter­ested in shift­ing Es­to­nia away from de­pen­dence on the Rus­sian power grid? A. Def­i­nitely. We do not buy Rus­sian elec­tric­ity, [but] we are con­nected to the Rus­sian grid. We think it would be bet­ter if we were con­nected to the Euro­pean en­ergy grid. It is just an ad­di­tional layer of se­cu­rity. Q. You pre­vi­ously spent 12 years in the E.U.’s Court of Au­di­tors. Then, last fall, Es­to­nia couldn’t find a pres­i­dent, and you were brought back as a com­pro­mise can­di­date? A. Prob­a­bly some­thing like this, yes. Q. Did you ever imag­ine you would be pres­i­dent? A. No, of course not. There had been dis­cus­sions with the party of Chris­tian Democrats — the cen­ter-right — ask­ing if I would con­sider be­ing their can­di­date. But I knew our sys­tem needed a com­pro­mise can­di­date. I was not ready to be a one-party can­di­date. Q. So you stayed in the E.U. dur­ing th­ese dis­cus­sions? A. Yes. Q. Then they called and told you they could not agree on a can­di­date? And you said? A. It took some soul-search­ing to see if I was ready to take on this re­spon­si­bil­ity. I had been away from the coun­try for 12 years, and even if I had reg­u­larly writ­ten ar­ti­cles about the econ­omy and pol­i­tics and the Euro­pean Union, nev­er­the­less, to the wider pub­lic, I was an un­known fig­ure. Q. And you have a lot of chil­dren? A. Yes, I do. But two are grown-ups — I am a grand­mother al­ready. And two are small. Right now, there is a 12-year-old and a soonto-be 8-year-old. My hus­band mostly takes care of them. Q. Es­to­nia is go­ing to as­sume the pres­i­dency of the E.U. this sum­mer, right? Will this make Es­to­nia more of a tar­get for Rus­sia? A. If there are at­tacks on so­cial me­dia against the E.U. in­sti­tu­tions dur­ing that pe­riod, it could also be an at­tack on our pres­i­dency. Q. What would you like to achieve as pres­i­dent of the E.U.? A. The first pri­or­ity is to deal with se­cu­rity of our bor­ders, as far as ter­ror­ism is con­cerned. To rec­og­nize who comes into and out of the Schen­gen Area, E.U. coun­tries must be in­ter­con­nected and al­lowed to share in­for­ma­tion . . . . If you want to have Schen­gen bor­ders open, you need to make sure that the ex­ter­nal bor­ders are fully con­trolled. Q. Did you grow up in Tallinn? A. I went to pri­mary school in Tallinn and to uni­ver­sity in Tartu. I started uni­ver­sity when Es­to­nia was part of the Soviet Union and stud­ied nat­u­ral sci­ences be­cause I did not want to par­tic­i­pate in the sys­tem. My mother was a doc­tor, and I grew up with her in a lit­tle apart­ment be­long­ing to my grand­mother, be­cause the Soviet Union never saw fit to let our fam­ily have its own apart­ment. They made my grand­mother serve nine years in prison in Siberia for hav­ing done noth­ing — it was my grand­fa­ther, not my grand­mother, who had worked for the Es­to­nian repub­lic be­fore the sec­ond war. Q. What hap­pened to him? A. He es­caped to Aus­tralia. My grand­mother came back from Siberia and lived un­til 1987 — only a few more years and she would have seen Es­to­nia re­gain in­de­pen­dence. From kinder­garten, I knew that pol­i­tics is some­thing that you talk about only at home, be­cause if you weren’t quiet, your par­ents might be taken to prison. All Es­to­nian fam­i­lies have th­ese kind of sto­ries.

Es­to­nian Pres­i­dent Ker­sti Kalju­laid was the com­pro­mise can­di­date in last year’s elec­tion.

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