TALLINN, Estonia – 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 the air of freedom” from West Berlin. And she recalls the stories of 1949, when her mother, Kristi, then a baby, with her own mother and grandmother was deported to Siberia in a cattle truck and lived in exile there until she was ten — part of Moscow’s attempt to get out of Estonia. to row. elite.
So it’s perhaps no wonder that Ms Kallas, now Estonia’s prime minister, has become one of Europe’s loudest 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 among the smallest and most vulnerable in Europe.
But their recent history has given them special status and credibility as they pressure Europe’s larger nations to take a hard line against Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin and to remain loyal to Ukraine and its fight for freedom. .
In an interview in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, Ms. Kallas clear that the fate of Ukraine should be up to the Ukrainians to decide. But it would be a mistake at this stage to simply seek peace with Putin, she believes, and reward his aggression. Instead, she firmly argues that Russia must lose its war against Ukraine so that history – that of her family and her country – is not repeated anywhere else.
Just as the Soviets not only occupied but annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and just as the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014 — Moscow, they and others warn, will do the same to large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine if given the chance. get, with serious consequences.
“Peace cannot be the ultimate goal,” she said. “We had peace after World War II, but the atrocities to our people started or then continued,” she said, referring to mass deportations, killings of the elite, and “and trying to erase our culture and our language.”
In the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine “we will see all this,” she said. So “a peace that ensures aggression pays off,” while continuing the threat of more conflict down the road, is unacceptable, she said.
As she spoke, NATO was conducting a massive military exercise in Estonia called “Hedgehog”, involving about 15,000 troops from 14 countries, including participation from the US Navy. It is part of a series of major NATO exercises in Central Europe this month.
NATO provides the collective defense of Estonia and the Baltic States, which will be significantly strengthened if Sweden and Finland join, given the strategic Baltic Sea.
Even among the stubborn Baltic leaders, Ms Kallas, a lawyer, has received much praise for her warnings that the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in European history and must be defeated at all costs and without compromise.
Ms Kallas, a married mother of three, became Estonia’s first female Prime Minister in January 2021 after serving as a legislator in both the Estonian and European Parliaments. She has been leading her Reform Party, the largest in the country, since 2018. Her father, Siim Kallas, was also Prime Minister and later European Commissioner.
She has chaired a coalition government that has given Ukraine early support, and more per capita support from this small country of 1.3 million people than any other country in the world.
She has been a sharp critic of the continued efforts of other leaders, such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron, to liaise with Mr Putin as Ukraine fights for its sovereignty and existence as an independent state.
She stressed that only the Ukrainian government and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, should be allowed to negotiate with Mr Putin, whom she considers a war criminal.
“The conversation must be 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 their latitude is,” she said, “because it’s their people who suffer.”
There are some in Europe, including top business executives, who want the war in Ukraine to be over as soon as possible, given the sharp rises in the price of energy, grain, cooking oil and countless others leading to record inflation, in part caused by Europe’s tough sanctions against Russia.
But Ms Kallas has little patience for such pressures on Ukraine, especially since only Ukrainians are fighting for what she sees as the values and security of the entire transatlantic alliance.
Anyway, she said, why talk to Mr Putin just to talk? “I don’t feel like talking to him because nothing came of this,” she said. “The calls were made before the war, and then the worst happened, Bucha and Mariupol happened, so no results.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
If there is finally a diplomatic solution, she said, “of course, this is for Ukraine to say.” And so far, she said, Mr. Putin has refused to talk to Mr. Zelensky.
She praised Western unity so far and the increasing supply of arms to Ukraine after a slow start. “But as long as the war continues, we haven’t done enough and we need to see what else we can do,” she said.
A partial settlement allowing Russia to renew its offensive later is not tenable, she said. “I only see a solution as a military victory that could put an end to this once and for all, and also to punish the aggressor for what he has done.” Otherwise, she said, “we’ll go back to where we started — you have a break of a year, two years, and then everything continues.”
That has been the West’s fault with Mr Putin for years, she said, referring to the Georgian war in 2008, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas that has been going on since 2015.
She acknowledges that Mr. Zelensky is “in a very difficult position”. On the one hand: “You are the leader of the country, and you see the suffering of your people, you want this to stop.” But on the other hand, “Do you have the public opinion that says Ukraine is winning this war, and that we shouldn’t give Russia territory.”
It’ll be hard to find the balance, she said, but it’s up to Mr. Zelensky to find it. “It is up to Ukraine to decide where their borders 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 they can qualify, she said, and the West “must not be intimidated by anything Russia says or threatens”.
Ms Kallas quoted Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as saying that “Europe is not geography – it is a set of values and principles.”
So “if Ukraine has chosen this path and is literally fighting for it, then it is not wise to push that country away,” she said.