Kaja Kallas still has vivid memories of the Soviet occupation. When Estonia was independent as a teenager, she distinctly remembers growing up with no shop shelves and a passport which would have prevented her from traveling to other countries. There were also chilling conditions that restricted freedom of speech outside of the home. She also remembers the stories about the harsher deprivations—deportations, imprisonment— that her parents and grandparents faced. So now that Kallas is Estonia’s Prime Minister, it makes sense that she has become one of the most vocal advocates for taking an unyielding stance against Putin.
“If Putin wins, or if he even has the view that he has won this war, his appetite will only grow,” Kallas, 44, said in late March, sitting in the elegant neoclassical building—its salons lined with paintings of Estonian patriots—that serves as the seat of government. “And that means he will consider other countries. That’s why we have to do everything we can to stop him now.”
Estonia, like other countries of the region has suffered from Russian oppression. Occupied by the Soviet Union in the 1940s, the country’s farms were forcibly collectivized and tens of thousands of its citizens deported to Siberia. The country gained its independence only in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR. Quickly reverting to democracy, Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, and put a forward-looking emphasis on digitalization—all of its public services and much of its business is conducted online. Since then, it has been one of Europe’s fastest growing economies. It has not lost its distrust of the powerful east neighbor, which it shares almost 200 miles of border.
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While allies such as Hungary and Poland were once within the Soviet sphere, NATO’s only members are those from the Baltic States that have been officially incorporated into USSR. Coupled with their tiny size and close proximity to Russia, that history has made some in the region feel especially vulnerable–a sense that was heightened in 2007, when, in the midst of a disagreement with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet-era monument, Estonia’s parliament, banks, and other major institutions were the victim of a massive cyberattack whose sophistication suggested to some experts that it was state-sponsored. NATO created a Tallinn cyber-defense centre.
This vulnerability is also why the region has so close ties to its defense alliance. “I’m asked many times if Estonia or the Baltics are next,” the Prime Minister says. “But I always say that’s the wrong question. Is NATO the next step? And what I’ve tried to explain within NATO is that it is much cheaper to defend us in the first place than liberate us after we’re attacked.”
Although she hesitates to point fingers, Kallas admits that among the leaders of formerly occupied countries, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a certain sense of ‘we told you so.’ Her father was foreign minister when Estonia began negotiations to join NATO, and she recalls that at a time when the Soviet Union had just collapsed, the petition raised a lot of questions. “He was frequently asked, ‘Why do you need this? Russia does not pose a threat anymore,’” Kallas recalls. “Well, we knew our neighbor then, and we know our neighbor now.”
Kallas claims that Western allies are closer to Estonian views since the Russian invasion. “Before there were many who were watching this through the lens of democratic world, ” she says. “But what I was saying then, and what I think is clear now, is that [Putin]A dictator. He doesn’t care for people’s opinion. He doesn’t care that he’s hurting his own country.”
Guided by that perspective on the Russian president, Kallas has argued from the war’s beginning for NATO to evolve from being what she calls a “forward presence” in the region to “forward defense,” with more boots on the ground and more fighter jets and ships actively patrolling Europe’s skies and seas. Her thinking is based less on any specific threat to Estonia—Kallas says there has not been any increase in Russian aggression toward the country—than on a deeply held belief, again informed by history, that it is only a robust defense on the alliance’s eastern edge that will contain Putin. “It’s easy to break one finger,” says Kallas. “But it’s hard to break a fist. A fist is much stronger in a fight.”
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It was Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 that prompted NATO to deploy combat troops to the Baltics for the first time in 2017. Overseen by Canada, Germany, and the U.K., respectively, this “enhanced forward presence” in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia consisted of roughly 1,000 troops each. Since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, that number has grown (there are currently 1,700 NATO troops in Estonia) and the alliance’s “forward defense” strengthened with U.S. fighter jets. NATO’s emergency summit was held in Brussels March 24. It decided to strengthen its eastern borders even further and announced, among others, that four battle units would be deployed to Eastern Europe.
But if Kallas is gratified by collective increases, she isn’t easing up on the resources Estonia is devoting to its self defense. The country’s defense budget was increased to 2.5% from 2.3% on March 24. She would love to see countries do more, not just in defense but also in aiding Ukraine. “We are a country of 1.3 million people,” she says, noting that Estonia has donated 2,000 tons of military and humanitarian aid since the war’s outbreak. “Believe me, the big countries could do more to help Ukraine.”
Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s Prime Minister, delivers a speech in a discussion on Europe security after the Russian invasion Ukraine. This was part of a plenary session held at Strasbourg’s European Parliament on March 9, 2022.
Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images
And although she was pleased with both the strength and the speed with which Europe applied economic sanctions on Russia, she’d like to see more there too. This includes petroleum. “If half of Russia’s budget comes from the sale of gas and oil, then this is how Putin funds his war machine. We have to take those means away.”
Estonia decided not to rely on Russia as its energy source. It has cut down its oil imports by a significant amount over the past decade. Instead, it relies on renewables and its unsustainable mining of shale oils. Kallas is aware that Russia may be difficult to stop. Kallas has a unique idea: To create an account in which European oil and gas payments can be made, which will then allow Ukraine to be rebuilt.
“So we pay, and it is Russia’s money, but we will keep some of it in that escrow account so that when the time comes, we can give it to Ukraine, because Russia is in debt to them,” she says. “This way, Putin will get the idea that every building he bombs, every road that is destroyed or bridge that is damaged, he will pay for.”
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Kallas is not too concerned that such a plan would provoke Putin into cutting off the pipeline.”We’re 30 days in to the war; if he was going to do that, he would have already done it,” she says—and she also rejects some of her colleagues’ claim that she is getting ahead of herself. “Some of the prime ministers said we are already talking about reparations while the war is going on,” she says. “That is true. However, I believe we need to look ahead two steps. This would send Russia a signal that we aren’t paying for it. You will pay for this because you have caused the damage.”
That devastation not only convinces her that everything must be done to help Ukraine now, but also reminds her of her own country’s past. “Every family in Estonia has a history of how they suffered during the Soviet times, due to the deportations, to the killings, to the shelling of towns. So when you see that in 2022 in Mariupol they’re deporting people from their homes,” she says, “it just brings all the very painful memories back of something that you thought would never again be possible.”
In Kallas’s case that includes the story of her own family, which was deported to Siberia in a freezing 3-week journey by cattle car. Her mother was just 6 months old at the time, and Kallas’ voice fills with emotion as she recounts the hardships her grandmother and great-grandmother faced when Russian soldiers appeared at their door and told them they had to leave immediately. “What do you take?” Kallas says, as if reliving the moment. “What is really important?” Unaware of where they were being sent, her grandmother asked one of the soldiers what they should bring. The soldier looked around and pointed at the Singer sewing machine that her grandmother had kept in the corner. “It saved them,” Kallas says now. “Because they had something they could earn a living with.”
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For better or worse, Estonia’s younger generation doesn’t carry that same kind of emotional baggage. “In these last 30 years, we’ve become this boring Northern European country where freedom is taken for granted, and our young people don’t live in fear,” Kallas says with a small smile. “That’s great, and it means we’ve done something right. But I’ve always thought that I’m of the lucky generation that was born in a country that wasn’t free, because it’s made me really grateful that we are free now.”
She believes that Estonians have an eagle-eyed perspective on what Ukraine is going through, despite being a small country, with vivid memories of its violence. “If you go around to certain European countries you see these monuments to big war heroes—but they’re heroes who conquered other countries. For us war means something negative that can never happen. War means utter devastation.”
She tries to pass on the historical lesson to her younger Estonian students whenever she can. Visiting a classroom, she’ll ask the children to draw the nicest day they can imagine, a request that is usually met with colorful pictures of sunshine, flowers, family members, beloved pets. The majority of children will respond to her questions by using black markers and writing violently on the page. “After that, you say, ‘OK, now turn the war into peace again,’” Kallas says. “They see that it’s impossible, because they’ve destroyed the previous picture. So now they understand: This is what war really means.”
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