Europe needs to be ‘assertive’ with Russia, says Estonia’s president

The Baltic states are safer and better defended than they were when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 as Europe has woken up to the need for it to be “assertive” in dealing with Moscow, according to Estonia’s president.

Kersti Kaljulaid told the Financial Times: “European countries are collectively realising that while, during the cold war, our regional risk was everyone’s global worry, which is Russia, [now] Russia is an economy which looks smaller and smaller, its demographics are bad — we need to be assertive and able to deal with our regional risks ourselves. Of course, always supported by our transatlantic bond.”

Ms Kaljulaid argued that in recent decades “times have moved on”, and that the US was rightly keeping more of an eye on China and how “it plans to use its economic might in geopolitical games”.

She said European countries had “woken up” to this trend and credited them — and US president Donald Trump — with helping to lift military spending by $100bn inside Nato.

She added that having 1,000 Nato troops in Estonia and another 4,000 in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland had made all members of the military alliance more aware of the security situation in the Baltics and what would happen in the event of any aggression.

“Having boots on the ground has made all Nato allies think more carefully about their possible reaction, so we’re much better [trained] even in our political thinking about the security of the north-eastern flank of Nato . . . Frankly speaking, we feel safer,” Ms Kaljulaid said in an interview while on a state visit to Norway.

Her comments come amid increasing jitters in some Baltic Sea neighbours, such as Sweden, as to Russia’s intention and as part of a wider European debate about how best to defend the continent as the US increasingly deals with China.

French president Emmanuel Macron has pushed the idea that Europe needs to aim for sovereignty in defence matters, whereas others have stressed that the US as the main military power in Nato is still crucial for the continent’s security.

The biggest move by Nato itself has been the Enhanced Forward Presence set of four battle groups led by the UK, Canada, Germany and the US in the four Baltic countries and Poland as a sign of their commitment to the alliance’s collective defence pledge.

Sweden recently raised eyebrows in the Baltic region by raising its military readiness to its highest level since the 1991 failed coup against the then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev as the Nordic country’s armed forces warned of activity in the Baltic Sea “the likes of which have not been seen since the cold war”.

Estonia, together with Latvia and Lithuania, has repeatedly warned other western countries about possible Russian aggression since Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. Its international reputation has been bolstered by its digital governance and some of the best education results in Europe, allowing the country of just 1.3m people to punch above its weight.

But in the past 18 months that reputation has been tested by the entry of the far-right party Ekre into Estonia’s coalition government and insults by its ministers against the prime minister of Finland, gay people and women. Most recently, Estonia’s interior minister from Ekre was forced to resign after he and his son — who is still the country’s finance minister — called US president-elect Joe Biden corrupt.

Ms Kaljulaid said Estonia was having a “conflict of values” and that she did not appreciate the way Ekre ministers spoke about women or minorities as well as liberal democratic values.

“We cannot dissociate [ourselves from] it. It’s not only words, it’s the way they think. We need to argue it out, as ugly as it looks from the outside. We shouldn’t try to hide away . . . Personally I can’t change the government because we have a parliamentary democracy. This doesn’t mean I need to keep quiet,” she added.

Ms Kaljulaid said that populist parties offered “simple but wrong solutions” but added she did not blame the voters of such groups because they were not being served by the current economic model under which there were growing intergenerational hopelessness and inequality.

“Are these parties really interested in overcoming this break in the society? That I have my own doubts about,” she said. But Ms Kaljulaid added: “You need to calmly analyse what has caused it, and not to blame populism. You have not been serving parts of societies and you should accept it.”

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