Kaja Kallas: the Estonian prime minister showing NATO the way8 min read
Very few political leaders in the West talk about Vladimir Putin and his threat to international security with more courage than Kaja Kallas. Estonia’s first-ever female prime minister has not shied away from expressing her firm belief in NATO and its ability to stand up to Moscow’s aggression.
“Russia is testing our unity—the unity of our democracies, the European Union, and NATO…it is important to continue strengthening the eastern flank of NATO and the Allies play an important role here,” says Ms Kallas.
With a new Russian attack on Ukraine looking increasingly likely, is there something that others in the transatlantic community can learn from the leadership of the Estonian prime minister?
Since coming to power one year ago, Kaja Kallas has witnessed a sustained Russian effort to rewrite the foundations of the security order on her country’s doorstep. Moscow has deployed approximately 130,000 troops along the eastern Ukrainian border and begun moving forces into Belarus. This mobilisation arguably represents the most serious threat to European stability since the Second World War. With the Kremlin’s backing, Belarus deliberately caused a migration crisis on the EU eastern frontier in a move designed to sow EU east-west division on the distribution of migrants. The Kremlin-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, cut off Moldovan gas supplies to pressure Chisinau into reversing its pro-European reforms. Talks have been held between the United States and Russia on finding a peaceful outcome to the Ukrainian crisis. The tensions at the border are calling into question the NATO-centric system of peace that Europe has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War.
There is one leader in NATO who shows no inclination whatsoever of giving in to Putin’s aggression. Only a year into her premiership, Kaja Kallas has undertaken a diplomatic charm offensive to convince her Western partners that more needs to be done to meet the threat Moscow poses. The Baltics are particularly important strategically for the Alliance since their geographical location acts as a key outpost of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. With this in mind, Ms Kallas pointed out shrewdly the danger of thinking that the solution to the Ukrainian crisis lies in Moscow. In her words, the Russian president is “trying to present himself as a solution to this problem that he has created himself.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have been making diplomatic exchanges in efforts to de-escalate tensions on the Ukrainian border. Although Washington ensured NATO’s open door policy for Ukraine and Georgia remains a red line, NATO troop deployment in the former Eastern Bloc, missile placement, and arms control are still on the table. Estonia may be left in a precarious position in terms of its defence posture if Washington were to cave on the issue of NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the purpose of NATO was to protect the West from the threat of the Soviet Union after the end of WWII. Therefore, emboldening the Alliance on its eastern frontier with the spectre of a Russian invasion of Ukraine does not translate into compromising Moscow’s security interests as Putin would like us to believe. What Russia seeks is a revision of the post-Cold War settlement where it believes it has the right to a sphere of influence. Moscow is carefully using the threat of an incursion into Ukraine in an attempt to force strategic concessions out of the US to achieve this goal.
This is a particularly worrying prospect for Estonia and other eastern NATO members who were subjected to decades of communist rule. Concerns of a repeat of the Yalta Conference in 1945, where Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, carved up the postwar European order, have been expressed in EU circles.
Strengthening the eastern flank of NATO is an area that Estonian leaders have long been calling for. At the NATO Brussels summit last June, Kaja Kallas made developing NATO partnerships with the non-NATO Baltic regional countries of Finland and Sweden and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia one of her key priorities. To that end, the Estonian prime minister forged a strong working relationship with her Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, soon after coming to office in an effort to build consensus within the alliance. With the backing of Warsaw, Ms Kallas has urged her fellow NATO allies to take further action to confront Russia’s destabilisation of European security.
Closely consulting with Warsaw, Kaja Kallas is keeping the alliance’s feet to the fire on maintaining its military preparedness in the event of an attack from Moscow, and ensuring the membership door remains open to Ukraine and Georgia. The success in keeping a united front among allies on the principle that Russia does not have the right to decide which country can or cannot join NATO is an indication of the diplomatic initiative of Estonia’s first female prime minister. In a bilateral meeting with his Polish opposite number in Kyiv, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, expressed confidence in starting ‘a new format of regional cooperation’ between Ukraine, Poland, and the UK as Warsaw announced it would be providing Kyiv with military support.
But to understand why NATO membership is crucial from Estonia’s perspective, we need to take a brief look back at their experience of the twentieth century. In Western Europe, countries celebrated their liberation from Nazi Germany after 1945. In contrast, Estonia was annexed to the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 and lost its de jure independence for almost five decades. Poland fell under the Iron Curtain only a few years after experiencing its painful partition between Hitler and Stalin.
The role of NATO is much more important than merely settling a local border dispute on the eastern edge of Europe. Its system of collective defence enshrined under Article 5 acts as a deterrence against fresh Russian attempts to rule the region. The Article 5 guarantee rooted in NATO’s founding treaty says ‘an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an act against them all.’ Fundamentally, this makes the alliance a pillar of Estonia’s independence since its restoration in 1991. It comes as no surprise when the Baltic States reaffirmed NATO as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security in a joint statement ahead of the NATO summit last summer.
Kaja Kallas herself has made strengthening NATO her personal mission. Like almost every family in Estonia, she has her own experience of the trauma of the Soviet regime. In an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight programme, the Estonian prime minister shared the story of her mother’s deportation to Siberia at the age of just 6 months, together with her grandmother and great-grandmother. The Estonian prime minister went on to talk with pride about her father’s role in negotiating Estonia’s entry into NATO and explained how the alliance became the guiding principle of Estonian foreign policy at that moment. She explained how, as a member of NATO, Estonia ‘will never be alone again’ under the watch of its big eastern neighbour.
Despite all of this, the message Kaja Kallas is sending on the critical role of NATO is finding it hard to cut through to her partners in Western Europe and the United States. The tensions of the twentieth century are still having an impact on attitudes in the West.
Sceptical of American presence in European security affairs following the Suez crisis in 1956, France has not been afraid to pursue its own foreign policy ambitions. At a meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, called on his fellow EU leaders to create a new European security agreement with Russia. For Germany, the guilt it feels for the atrocities Hitler committed against the Soviet Union continues to inform its relationship with the Kremlin. It has been reported that Berlin blocked Estonian arms shipments to Ukraine. As for the United States, its reluctance to be drawn into another European conflict is seen in Joe Biden’s decision to engage with Germany’s soft approach on Moscow. The US president waived further US sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the planned additional gas pipeline linking Germany and Russia through the Baltic Sea.
A space may open up where the West can convene a common approach to handling tensions with Moscow. But for those who rely on the unity and strength of NATO, this approach will require the leadership example set by the first female Estonian prime minister to be followed.
Kaja Kallas’s diplomatic efforts help us to comprehend the current crisis around Ukraine on a human rather than a purely political level. This will help the big NATO powers including the US, France, and Germany overcome their own particular anxieties born out of the twentieth century.
If the leading transatlantic military powers can internalise the trauma Estonia suffered at the hands of the Soviets in their response to the Russian threat, a coordinated western strategy may become easier to find.