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The Politician Who Could Be NATO's First Female Chief Says Putin Lost The Ukraine War Before It Even Started


Former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid: "We failed. We badly failed. This is obvious. Otherwise, there wouldn't be a war in Europe." (file photo)

Estonia's president between 2016 and 2021, Kersti Kaljulaid has been tipped as a front-runner to be the next secretary-general of NATO, in what would be the military alliance's first female head.

She spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service from Tallinn, via Zoom, about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, where she called on NATO allies to give the Ukrainians as many weapons as they can and for sanctions on Russia to continue beyond a possible cease-fire.

RFE/RL: You have in the past pressed the importance of leaving a dialogue channel open to Russia, an idea that the French president has been championing recently. What do you think about that today? Do you stick to that opinion, that we should always talk to Russia? What fruit has the dialogue bore for the West so far when it comes to talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Kersti Kaljulaid:
Obviously, we've all failed, but at that point of time for me it was very important…. I felt that each and every leader of Europe should take their own responsibility to talk also to difficult neighbors, and that's what I did…. Of course, we failed. We badly failed. This is obvious. Otherwise, there wouldn't be a war in Europe.

And I think this old adage about talking from the position of strength might have actually borne more fruit. I think many of us are nowadays thinking, "What if the sanctions of today were put in place after Georgia's partial occupation?" Crying over spilt milk doesn't bring anything, but I think we should admit that the European reaction after Georgia was weak enough to cause [the occupation of] Crimea; whereafter [the reaction] was stronger but still weak enough to cause what we are now seeing. So let's admit that we failed.

Then-Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid visits the Mayorsk checkpoint in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on May 24, 2018.
Then-Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid visits the Mayorsk checkpoint in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on May 24, 2018.

RFE/RL: Should those history lessons affect the future approach of the West?

Kaljulaid:
Yes, obviously. If we look at the history, and [Russia] is just the latest example of it, no autocrat who has enough economic power and who is able to ignore the wishes of their own people…has never [failed to] turn it into a geopolitical advantage. They always burn [with] this desire to rule a neighborhood, to rule the world. But it's always been painful. This is probably the strongest lesson [we can learn]…. If there is an autocrat, they will do these things because they can.

RFE/RL: Is the West doing enough for Ukraine at the moment? You claimed in a recent interview: "Let us admit that Europe cannot move faster than Germany and France." If that's the case, things don't look very good for Ukraine, which needed help "yesterday." France and Germany are not exactly known for speedy decisions.

Kaljulaid:
Well, if you look at the role of Germany, then this is considerable, [and] I would say this is extremely fast development from the discussions we were having at the Munich Security Conference (February 18-20). I could sense also then that the leaders of Germany might have been ready to move quicker, but you cannot move quicker than your people. [They have to] understand what you're doing.

And now when Putin has made it very clear what the risk is and what he's ready to do, so, of course, the politicians have reacted. And the positive thing is that European citizens are strongly supportive of that and maybe even demanding more.

So I can only [add] my voice to these European citizens who say that we really need to win this war in Ukraine. And we must keep providing for the Ukrainian Army. They have enough trained fighters. They are a big nation. But what they do need is to always be able to match every Russian tank with a rocket and so on. They also have demanded stronger air-defense capabilities. We in Estonia cannot help [with air defenses]. We have emptied our own warehouses of all anti-tank ammunition….

There are obviously bigger European nations who have the necessary capabilities and they need to step in. I would encourage them to, indeed, do even more, but I do not want to sound ungrateful about what has been done.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy and then-Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid during a welcoming ceremony in Tallinn for the visiting Ukrainian president on November 26, 2019.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy and then-Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid during a welcoming ceremony in Tallinn for the visiting Ukrainian president on November 26, 2019.

RFE/RL: I understand that, like many in the West, you, too, believe that Putin miscalculated in Ukraine, or that he is lacking information, or that his advisers are afraid to tell him the truth or are intentionally misleading him. Can these miscalculations lose him the war?

Kaljulaid: Well, technically, he had lost the war before it started…. Frankly speaking, Putin needed 70,000 [troops] to hold Grozny. And he had less than 200,000 to roll over Ukraine. His miscalculation was not military. His miscalculation was based on something he said and something he has always believed in…. He sincerely is the kind of man who believes that people are passive. That simple people are passive….

Again, in Ukraine, he thought that Ukrainian people facing the spring would not care under whose presidency the potatoes get into the soil and the wheat gets planted and so on. And it is to his surprise that the Ukrainian people actually do care, because people value freedom. For him, people are just passive objects, and this is where his big miscalculation was because I'm quite sure he didn't think Ukrainians would fight the way they are fighting.


RFE/RL: Even if we accept that Putin miscalculated, let us look at the situation from a slightly different angle. If the Istanbul talks [between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators] were anything to go by, Putin was set to get neutrality status from Ukraine, which Kyiv was unwilling to consider before the war, ensuring that Ukraine won't get into NATO, which was also one of Putin's main demands. He also has more land than he had before the invasion of February 24, including lands that contain Europe's second-largest known reserves of natural gas after Norway's. He is also close to establishing uncontested control over the Azov Sea coastline and getting land-bridge access to Crimea.

All this is at the cost of more than 10,000 dead Russian soldiers, true, but that is a price he seems to be perfectly content to pay, alongside the economic sanctions, which he will probably demand should be lifted if a cease-fire is to be reached. In addition, it has boosted his popularity at home and he would probably find a way to sell it to his brainwashed domestic electorate as a victory. So, in realpolitik terms, who's the real loser here?

Kaljulaid:
Us. And you know, you forgot some elements. Belarus, for example. We hear some noises from [the Georgian breakaway regions of South] Ossetia and Abkhazia, too. But I will say that, first and foremost, it is for Ukraine and President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to decide under which terms they are ready to start discussing.

Yes, if these negotiations end with Russia having more land and more hold over Europe, then I think it is encouragement [for Putin]. Therefore, whichever way Zelenskiy decides and whatever is the cease-fire agreement, we should not take away the sanctions."

I think Zelenskiy has said that maybe NATO's immediate membership is not something which [Ukraine] would go for…. It is for him to say. We cannot say [to Zelenskiy] that this is now the situation with which you should stop fighting. We cannot also force him to continue fighting, if he says he's ready to negotiate.

Yes, if these negotiations end with Russia having more land and more hold over Europe, then I think it is encouragement [for Putin]. Therefore, whichever way Zelenskiy decides and whatever is the cease-fire agreement, we should not take away the sanctions…. This is in our hands.… It's for us to deal with the sanctions, provide Ukraine with the necessary weaponry, which they are asking for.

RFE/RL: As much as I admire your principled position on sanctions, do you think it will be shared by your colleagues in Berlin and Paris and Madrid and elsewhere in the West?

Kaljulaid:
Well, first and foremost, I am a president who is not in office anymore. So, by definition, you cannot compare me to the decisions which, for example, [German] Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz has to take. But, frankly speaking, stronger sanctions is something that we can do. And you know, after the countersanctions that Russia put in place after the sanctions for Crimea, our [Estonian] agriculture and economy suffered quite a lot. But we have never said: This is too high an economic burden. And I'm asking our Western partners: Look what is going on in Mariupol. Is it really, truly, too high an economic burden which we'll have to bear? I don't think it is.

RFE/RL: Back to Putin. His approval rating has soared since the war kicked off to a staggering 83 percent, according to the Moscow-based Levada Center, which has been declared a foreign agent in Russia. With this in mind, why does most of the West still refer to this as "Putin's war on Ukraine" and not "Russia's war on Ukraine"?

Kaljulaid:
Indeed, I'm sure that quite a high proportion of Russian people do believe what president -- actually I would not like to call him president any more -- Putin is telling them…. When I was a child, if somebody asked me about Lenin, or the Communist Party, or did I know that Estonia is occupied, I knew all the right answers given to me in school, in kindergarten, everywhere. But did I believe that, even at the age of 4? Never.

I'm quite sure that many people in Russia, even if they don't share Putin's opinion, are not ready to voice it to whomever is asking, even to their own distant relatives, they wouldn't tell the truth…. If you have lived under Russian occupation, in our case Soviet occupation, [then we] have some insight. So whatever comes out of that country right now, even if it's put together by well-meaning, independent people, it doesn't reflect the truth.

RFE/RL: If -- and I understand that it's a very big if -- Putin isn't deterred in Ukraine, how tangible would the threat be for the Baltic countries? What would his next target be?

Kaljulaid:
It's very hard to say, but at least on February 26, when they unfortunately for them and to the great [delight] of everyone else, they [accidentally] released this [victory celebration] article, one sentence caught my attention: "If we hadn't brought Ukraine back to the 'Russian World' now, then we would have had to go and seek them out from the transatlantic union," which says that, at least on February 26, Russia was thinking that military action against NATO was unthinkable.

Indeed, Moldova [should be worried] by definition, because of what happened to Georgia and Ukraine, when they turned their back on Russia and faced Europe. This is when Russia hurt them. So we have to be aware of these risks."

Let's hope they will stick to this position. But hope is not what NATO is run on. NATO runs on risk analysis and visibility, and then it actually prepares accordingly. So we see now that NATO is really fortifying its presence in the Baltic states, in Poland. Elsewhere….

NATO's deterrence levels have always been according to the risk pattern, and we see them now changing. So while I see the risks, obviously, we are not worried because NATO is taking the necessary steps. And, of course, we will keep negotiating so that these steps are strong enough, visible enough, to make sure they stick to the position of February 26.

RFE/RL: That also narrows the list of potential targets, and Moldova and Georgia do not find themselves in the most ideal of positions. Should they be worried?

Kaljulaid:
Indeed, we should really, really be helping Moldova and Georgia, our Eastern partners who want to come closer to Europe, to help them advance [towards European Union accession]…. And we should do so quickly. This is what we can do for all these countries to demonstrate to Putin that we are not afraid to move, to make big geopolitical steps, taking into account the will of those people -- Moldovans, Georgians, Ukrainians. If they are willing, we should offer them help to come closer.

But, indeed, Moldova [should be worried] by definition, because of what happened to Georgia and Ukraine, when they turned their back on Russia and faced Europe. This is when Russia hurt them. So we have to be aware of these risks.

RFE/RL: Once it's all over, can Putin reenter the political high echelons of Europe? Or is it a PR "game over" for the Kremlin?

Kaljulaid:
I sincerely hope that these scenes from Mariupol, Kyiv, Kherson, places I've been to, will deter [any idea of] returning to "business as usual," be it in business or be it in politics. I mean, it cannot be possible. We must remember these dead children, dead civilians, destroyed cities. I cannot see the way back for Putin. It shouldn't be offered. It's not possible to paint Putin out of the corner anymore.

This interview was a result of collaboration between RFE/RL's Georgian Service and the New Eastern Europe magazine. New Eastern Europe is a bimonthly magazine published by the Wroclaw-based Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe. The college is named after a Polish journalist who was the head of the Polish section at Radio Free Europe in the 1970s.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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