Estonia's prime minister has a message for the West: 'Don't worry about Putin's feelings'

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TALLINN, Estonia — Sitting in her office in Stenbock House, a well-appointed neoclassical building in the heart of Tallinn's medieval Old Town, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wanted to discuss the last 80 years of European history. But she had only 20 minutes.

An attorney by training and a former member of the European Parliament, Kallas was in a tenuous position when she met with Yahoo News on July 8, so much so that she nearly had to cancel her interview. "There’s a chance I won't be here tomorrow," she said, referring to the collapse of her coalition government days earlier and her round-the-clock negotiations to cobble together a new one, something she managed to do on July 18 after briefly resigning.

Despite the turmoil in her own government, Kallas was intent on sending a message to the rest of the world about yielding to Russian demands on Ukraine.

"I think a fundamental mistake was made after the Second World War," she said, sitting beneath a painting of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. "While the Nazi crimes were widely condemned, the communists' crimes never were. So we see a strong revival of Stalinism right now in Russia. Seventy percent of Russians support Stalin, despite his having murdered 20 million people, despite the deportations, the prisons camps, war, everything. History books in Estonia were rewritten after communism, whereas Russians are still being taught the same history that we had to read during the Soviet period, which was total crap."

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Kallas is Estonia’s 13th prime minister since the Baltic country declared its independence in 1991, although arguably the 45-year-old, who was 12 when the Berlin Wall came down, has already proved among the most troublesome for Moscow.

Her government has been staunchly supportive of Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. In fact, Estonia, the smallest of the three Baltic states with a population of just 1.3 million, has so far sent more than $270 million worth of military assistance to Ukraine, the equivalent of more than 30% of its annual defense budget.

In addition to armored personnel carriers, antitank mines and a wide variety of small arms, Estonia has been an eager supplier of the U.S.-made Javelin antitank missile system, one of a slew of extremely effective shoulder-launched weapons that have helped Ukraine withstand the initial thrust of the Russian invasion.

Now that Ukraine has moved from a strategy of mobile defense into a grinding artillery war against the Russians, Estonia, a NATO member state since 2004, has helped modernize Kyiv's arsenal with a number of FH70 155-millimeter towed howitzers, plus the MAN Kat 6x6 heavy trucks to tow them. When considered alongside their humanitarian and financial assistance, the Estonians donated the equivalent of 0.81% of their gross domestic product to another nation at war, a staggering metric.

Kallas is keen to emphasize that security assistance is not charity. "I was asked in Parliament by our far-right party why we’re doing this," she told Yahoo News. "And I answered that Ukraine is literally fighting for us. When Russia is at war with them, they're not at war with us. And we have peace here."

Maintaining that peace is of existential necessity for Estonians, who share an uneasy 182-mile border with a revanchist power currently occupying 20% of Ukraine and threatening to permanently gobble up much, if not all, of that territory. Estonia itself was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 when Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler agreed to the mutual carve-up of Eastern Europe under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Then it was invaded and occupied by the Nazis when Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, his doomed World War II attack on the Soviet Union that included modern Ukraine.

Ivangorod Fortress, on the Russian border with Estonia, in 1941.
Ivangorod Fortress, on the Russian border with Estonia, in 1941. (Berliner Verlag/Archiv/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Until 1991, the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — remained under Soviet rule. Tens of thousands were killed, imprisoned or deported to Siberia. Among the deportees in 1949 was Kallas’s mother, just 6 months old at the time, who was dispatched in a cattle car along with Kallas’s grandmother to the Russian tundra and raised in exile until she was 10.

Kallas’s great-grandfather Eduard Alver was a commander of the Estonian Defense League during the 1918-20 Estonian War of Independence, which resulted in the country’s first emancipation from Russia. Her father, Siim Kallas, served as both foreign minister and prime minister of Estonia in the 1990s, after the country gained its independence a second time.

Since then, Estonia has often found itself struggling against geographical fatalism. One can drive the length of the country in just over two hours, and it could be quickly overrun again by its much larger next-door Russian neighbor. In 2004, Estonia joined the European Union and NATO to be firmly in the Western camp and insusceptible to a recurrence of past victimhood — the very ambition that Ukrainians are dying on their native soil to achieve.

Kallas’s sense of history is inextricably wedded to her own genealogy; her family’s suffering can be read in every bullet and flak jacket her government has shipped to Ukraine.

She caused a moderate stir in late June, just before the NATO summit in Madrid, when she told reporters that the alliance had to revamp its plans for fortifying its eastern flank. Under the current strategy, NATO views Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as trip-wire states that could be occupied for up to 180 days before the alliance moved in to defend them. As Kallas pointed out, Ukraine at that time was only 100 days into its defensive campaign against Russia and thousands of civilians had died, millions had been displaced (including as many as 1.6 million Ukrainians who had been deported to Russia) and cities such as Mariupol had been reduced to rubble. Kallas’s point was obvious: Given that Estonia is one-13th the size of Ukraine, she might not have a country to lead after 180 days of occupation. Wasn't that the contingency that NATO membership was meant to forestall?

"When I was in Paris, driving around, I saw all those monuments to Napoleon and it made me think: For a small country, war always means destruction, pain," she told Yahoo News. "But for a bigger country, it's not always so. War also means glory, new riches."

Her allusion to France hardly seems accidental. Kallas has been an explicit critic of French President Emmanuel Macron's insistence that the West not "humiliate" Vladimir Putin, something she sees as a dangerous non sequitur. In a March 24 op-ed in the New York Times she wrote, "Putin cannot win this war. He cannot even think he has won, or his appetite will grow."

"I keep reminding my colleagues who want to pick up the phone and talk to Putin," she said, in another unmistakable reference to Macron, "OK, fine — talk to him. But don't forget he is a war criminal. Right now he's stealing Ukraine's grain and threatening famine to get sanctions lifted. His state propagandists talk openly about hunger as Russia’s last hope. This is who you’re dealing with."

The prime minister wholeheartedly agrees with historian Timothy Snyder’s argument that Putin doesn't require any face-saving concessions to withdraw from Ukraine. He rules in "virtual reality," she said, and because Russia’s information ecosystem is his plaything, he can pack up his army and go home whenever he chooses and dress up military defeat as a popular victory. "His people will believe him," Kallas said. "Don’t worry about Putin's feelings."

The flip side of Putin's capricious fail-safe is that he can also drag out the war as long as he wants and suffer little to no domestic blowback, Kallas added.

"In the Western world, we'd want to recover every one of our soldiers on a foreign battlefield; our instinct is not to leave anyone behind," she said. "In autocracies, they don't care because soldiers' mothers aren't going to protest as they would in democracies."

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 21. (Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

To drive those points home, at a recent meeting with a top foreign diplomat, Kallas offered as a gift a copy of "The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics," by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The book’s underlying message is crystal clear: You can’t deter or outplay the tsar by assuming he will act as you would under similar circumstances.

While debate has erupted in Estonia about how much money and weaponry the government should be sending to Ukraine, Kallas still enjoys overwhelming domestic support on her handling of the situation. "We were thinking eventually that people would get tired and start asking, 'Why do you do all this for Ukraine when we need help over here?'" she said. "But if you look at the surveys we've done, it's something like 91% of Estonians say we have to support Ukraine, we have to help refugees. This is so very clear."

She is markedly less confident that the rest of Europe agrees. For the past five months, the European Union has managed something approaching unity about sanctions against Russia and aid for Ukraine, even as it stares down a particularly cold forthcoming winter owing to Russia’s energy blackmail. Putin may be fighting one war of attrition on the battlefield, but he’s fighting another against the longevity of European resolve.

"I won’t mention any names, but the leader of one big country who is very supportive of Ukraine told me, 'My political situation back home is that the overall view is that the war is NATO’s fault,'" Kallas said. "It’s hard for him to keep the support going because the public pressure is 'give in, stop this.'"

Kallas at a European Union summit in Brussels.
Kallas at an emergency European Union summit in Brussels on Feb. 24, after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. (John Thys/Pool via Reuters)

Kallas is particularly sensitive to the moral ambiguities and geopolitical contradictions that the West has trafficked in since the war started. "It’s very interesting. We went from saying, 'Ukraine must not lose,' to saying, 'Ukraine must win and Russia must lose,'" she said. "But let's be clear about something: if we stop helping Ukrainians militarily, then they won't be able to defend themselves. So on the one hand, we say it's up to them to decide their fate, but on the other, we are making that decision for them with our own policies."

Another concern for Kallas is what will happen politically in the United States — both at the congressional and presidential levels. Could Estonia, along with Lithuania, Poland and the United Kingdom — other stalwart defenders of Ukraine with large degrees of domestic consensus on the issue — supply Kyiv with sufficient weapons and ammunition on their own, should Washington's patronage dry up?

"Probably not," she said.