Russia puts leader of NATO member Estonia on a wanted list over removal of Soviet-era monuments

Estonia and fellow NATO members Latvia and Lithuania have pulled down monuments that are widely seen as an unwanted legacy of the Soviet occupation of those countries

Kaja Kallas
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks to the press as she attends a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium February 1, 2024.JOHANNA GERON (REUTERS)

Estonia’s prime minister has been put on a wanted list in Russia because of her efforts to remove Soviet-era World War II monuments in the Baltic nation, officials said Tuesday as tensions between Russia and the West soar amid the war in Ukraine.

The name of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas appeared on the Russian Interior Ministry’s list of people wanted on unspecified criminal charges. While independent Russian news outlet Mediazona first reported Tuesday that Kallas was on the list, it said she has been on it for a while. The list includes scores of officials and lawmakers from other Baltic nations.

The move was related to her efforts to remove World War II monuments, other Russian officials said. There was no immediate reaction from Estonian authorities.

Estonia and fellow NATO members Latvia and Lithuania have pulled down monuments that are widely seen as an unwanted legacy of the Soviet occupation of those countries.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, numerous monuments to Red Army soldiers also have been taken down in Poland and the Czech Republic, a belated purge of what many see as symbols of past oppression.

Moscow has denounced those moves as a desecration of memory of Soviet soldiers who fell while fighting Nazi Germany.

The inclusion of Kallas — who has fiercely advocated for increased military assistance to Ukraine and stronger sanctions against Russia — appears to reflect the Kremlin’s effort to raise the stakes in the face of NATO pressure over the war.

It’s the first time the Russian Interior Ministry has put a foreign leader on a wanted list. Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys also are on the list, which is accessible to the public, along with scores of officials and lawmakers from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Mika Golubovsky, editor of Mediazona’s English-language service, told The Associated Press that Kallas and other politicians from the Baltic nations have been in the Interior Ministry’s wanted database since mid-October and was the only head of state on the list.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed that Kallas and Peterkop were on the list because of their involvement in the removal of monuments.

Asked about the move, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a response to action by Kallas and others who “have taken hostile action toward historic memory and our country.”

Russia has laws criminalizing the “rehabilitation of Nazism” that include punishing the desecration of war memorials. Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top criminal investigation agency, has a department dealing with alleged “falsification of history” and “rehabilitation of Nazism,” which has ramped up its action since the start of the war, according to Mediazona, which broke the news on Kallas’ addition to the wanted list.

Mediazona, which published a long survey of the list, said it also includes scores of Ukrainian officials and foreign nationals accused of fighting alongside Ukrainian armed forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that ridding Ukraine of far-right, neo-Nazi groups is one of the central aims of the war, but he has offered no proof to back his repeated claims that such groups have a decisive voice in shaping Ukraine’s policies.

The inclusion of Kallas could also mark an attempt by Moscow to counter last year’s arrest warrant against Putin issued by the International Criminal Court over the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The Interior Ministry’s list also includes ICC President Piotr Hofmanski.

While it means little in practical terms since contacts between Moscow and the West have been frozen during the conflict, it comes at a time when European members of NATO are growing increasingly worried about how the U.S. election will affect the alliance.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has rekindled the fears of NATO allies that he could allow Russia to expand its aggression in Europe if he returns to the White House.

“‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” the Republican front-runner recently said he told an unidentified NATO member during his presidency. “‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay.’”

That statement sharply contrasted with U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge “to defend every inch of NATO territory,” as the alliance commits all members to do in case of attack.

Trump’s statement shocked many in Europe, drawing a pledge from Poland, France and Germany to bolster Europe’s security and defense power.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters Tuesday that “encouraging the Kremlin to attack any NATO ally or alliance territory really puts our soldiers -– U.S. soldiers and our allies’ soldiers — in greater danger. Doing so, making those types of statements, is dangerous and frankly irresponsible.”

While Putin insists he has no plans to strike any NATO countries unless they attack first, Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released an annual report Tuesday noting that Russia has significantly increased weapons output and warning that “the Kremlin is probably anticipating a possible conflict with NATO within the next decade.”

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