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, was deported to Siberia with her own mother and grandmother in a cattle car and lived in exile there until she was 10 – part of Moscow’s effort to Estonia wipe out elite.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Kallas, now Prime Minister of Estonia, has become one of Europe’s toughest voices against Russia over its war in Ukraine. Along with Latvia and Lithuania – countries also annexed by the Soviet Union – their country and its Baltic states are among the smallest and most vulnerable in Europe.
But their recent history has given them special standing and credibility as they urge the larger countries of Europe to take a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin and remain loyal to Ukraine and its freedom struggle.
In an interview in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, Kallas made it clear that Ukraine’s fate must lie with the Ukrainians. But simply asking for peace with Putin would be a mistake at this stage, she believes, rewarding his aggression. Instead, she vigorously argues that Russia must lose its war against Ukraine lest history — that of her family and her country — be repeated elsewhere.
Just as the Soviets not only occupied, but annexed, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and as the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014 — they and others warn, Moscow will do the same to much of southern and eastern Ukraine if given the chance severe consequences.
“Peace cannot be the ultimate goal,” she said. “We had peace after World War II, but the atrocities against our people started or continued then,” she said, citing mass deportations, murders of the elite and “the attempt to wipe out our culture and our language.”
In the Russian-held areas of Ukraine, “we’re going to see all of that,” she said. Therefore, “a peace that allows aggression to pay off” while remaining at risk of further conflict in the future is unacceptable, she said.
As she spoke, NATO was engaged in a massive military exercise called “Hedgehog” in Estonia, involving around 15,000 troops from 14 countries, including the US Navy. It is part of a series of major NATO exercises this month in central Europe.
NATO offers Estonia and the Baltic States a collective defense which, given the strategic Baltic Sea, will be greatly improved if Sweden and Finland join.
Even among the hardened Baltic leaders, Kallas, a lawyer, has won widespread praise for her warnings that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in European history and must be defeated at all costs and without compromise.
Kallas, a married mother of three, became Estonia’s first female prime minister in January 2021 after serving as a lawmaker in both the Estonian and European parliaments. Since 2018 she has led her reform party, the largest in the country. Her father, Siim Kallas, was also prime minister and later EU commissioner.
She has headed a coalition government that gave Ukraine early and more per capita support from this small nation of 1.3 million people than any other country in the world.
She has been a harsh critic of the ongoing efforts by other leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, to maintain ties with Putin while Ukraine struggles for sovereignty and its existence as an independent state.
She stressed that only the Ukrainian government and its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are allowed to negotiate with Putin, whom she believes to be a war criminal.
“The conversation has to be between Zelenskyy and Putin because they are part of the war and their skin is involved,” she said. Ukrainians “are the only ones who can say what their room for maneuver is,” she said, “because it’s their people who are suffering.”
There are some in Europe, including key business figures, who want to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible, as the prices of energy, grain, cooking oil and myriad other items have risen sharply, leading to record inflation caused in part by became Europe’s tough sanctions against Russia.
But Kallas has little patience for such pressure on Ukraine, especially since only Ukrainians fight for what she believes to be the values and security of the entire transatlantic alliance.
In any case, she said, why talk to Putin just to talk? “I see no point in speaking to him because nothing came of it,” she said. “The calls took place even before the war, and then the worst happened, Bucha and Mariupol happened, so no results.”
Whether there will finally be a diplomatic solution, she said, “Of course, Ukraine must decide that.” And so far, she said, Putin has refused to speak to Zelenskyy.
She praised the unity of the West so far and the increasing arms deliveries to Ukraine after a slow start. “But as long as the war continues, we haven’t done enough and we have to see what we can do,” she said.
A partial arrangement that allows Russia to renew its offensive later is unsustainable, she said. “The only solution I see is a military victory that could end this once and for all, and also punishing the attacker for what they did.” Otherwise, she said, “we’re going back to where we started – They have a break of a year, two years, and then everything goes on.”
This has been the West’s mistake towards Putin for years, she said, citing the 2008 war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbass since 2015.
She acknowledges that Zelenskyy “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: “you have public opinion saying that Ukraine is winning this war and we are should not cede any territory to Russia.”
Finding the balance will be difficult, she said, but it’s up to Zelensky to find it. “It’s up to Ukraine to decide where its 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 she has made to protect Western values and interests. Ukrainians have earned the right to prove they can qualify, she said, and the West “should not be intimidated by anything Russia says or threatens”.
Kallas quoted Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who said: “Europe is not geography – it is a set of values and principles.”
“If Ukraine has chosen this path and is literally fighting for it, then pushing this country away is not wise,” she said.
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