Estonian Prime Minister: ‘It’s a question of when they will start the next war’

Kaja Kallas calls for more investment in defense and believes that the EU must choose between ‘preparing to deter Russia or closing our eyes’

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas
Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, at the headquarters of the Estonian permanent representation to the EU in Brussels on Wednesday.Delmi Álvarez
María R. Sahuquillo

Kaja Kallas is one of the clearest voices in saying that Ukraine must win the war against Russia and Vladimir Putin must lose it. The Estonian prime minister, a liberal politician who has raised taxes in her country to devote more funds to security because of the Russian threat, has spearheaded decisive EU initiatives to support Kyiv and urges EU and NATO countries to invest more in defense; the Kremlin has put her on its wanted list. Putin has not abandoned his imperialist aims, Kallas says, and he will not stop at Ukraine if he succeeds in conquering it. And that will not only affect Russia’s neighbors but everyone.

“It’s a question of when they will start the next war. The question for us is, what do we do with this time? Are we preparing to help to deter Russia, so that it doesn’t happen because we are strong enough, so they don’t think about [taking] another step, or are we trying to close our eyes and pretend that this is not happening?” Kallas, 46, warns in an interview with EL PAÍS. We speak to her in Brussels before the summit of heads of state and the EU government, where voices like hers are increasingly warning that it is possible for the war to reach EU territory, which is seeking funds and mechanisms to rearm. “The solution is to be strong enough and stand up to a bully, so that this [war] will not spread,” says Kallas. She is calling for creative solutions to seek such funding.

Question. The EU has said that it will support Ukraine for as long as necessary, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to make historic decisions based on such support. Effective and decisive military assistance is being reduced and delayed.

Answer. This is true. If we don’t set victory as a goal, then we don’t act in accordance with it. And, that’s why we have to, really set Ukraine’s victory as a goal. Now. We haven’t been fast enough. The sad truth of wars is that the one who has more ammunition will win, and Ukraine hasn’t really received the ammunition that it needs every day, to take those rockets down. Russia is shelling them… civilian infrastructures, civilians every day and night. And this is so devastating to see… Is there anything else we can do? That’s why I’ve also been [calling] for those countries who have air defense to give it to Ukraine so that they can protect themselves.

Q. You don’t think that the EU’s goal is Ukraine’s victory?

A. If you listen carefully, some say Ukrainian victory, others say, Ukraine must not lose, which is a different thing. Or [they say that] Russia must not win, which is also a different thing. Therefore, I’ve been advocating to really [set] victory as a goal. As the historian Timothy Snyder said, you don’t always win wars, but you never win them if you don’t [set] victory as a goal.

Q. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for more anti-aircraft defense and a system similar to the one in Israel that shot down Iranian drones and missiles on Saturday, as well as for Ukraine’s allies to give him that support. Is that feasible?

A. Ukraine hasn’t asked anybody to come and shoot down these missiles or rockets. They only ask for the equipment so that they can do it themselves. So, it is cheaper, when Ukrainians are doing this themselves. And it’s also cheaper to avoid a war.

Q. You have led several initiatives to support Ukraine, such as sending a million artillery rounds. You also broached the idea of issuing Eurobonds to finance defense. What else do you propose?

A. We are thinking [of ideas] all the time to find ways… We are also participating in different initiatives. What we are working on now is this idea of Eurobonds. What is the problem that we are trying to solve? The problem is that there is a lack of funding for increasing investment in defense. The industry says that we don’t have orders. The government says that we don’t have funds to procure any additional defense equipment. And private capital funds and the European Investment Bank have a restriction on investing in the defense industry. I think we have to work on different tracks. One is the Eurobonds. When we don’t have enough funding, then we have to raise capital outside.

Q. Is there a consensus on Eurobonds?

A. I’m glad to see that countries, [even] the frugal ones, are warming up to the idea. I said that I’m not sticking to it if you have some other idea. When we had the MFF review, I also proposed to use those funds that were left over from Covid for investments in defense. Well, that didn’t go through, but let’s now think, for the future, if we can open those funds, then we can also advocate [for] private funds to take down the restrictions and to invest in defense because they can see that it’s an investment that is necessary.

Q. Is the war spreading and reaching an EU country a real possibility?

A. Russia hasn’t changed its goals. If they succeed in Ukraine, then they have a military that has a million armed men and they have the military industry working in three shifts [to supply them]. So, then it’s a question of when they will start the next war. Now, the question for us is, what do we do with this time? Are we preparing to help to deter Russia, so that it doesn’t happen because we are strong enough, so they don’t think about [taking] another step, or are we trying to close our eyes and pretend that this is not happening? What was done before 2022 [when Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine] was [the latter]. I think we should get past that problem and really, really move to prepare ourselves.

Q. Has Estonia, which is on the eastern flank of the EU and NATO, experienced an increase in hybrid attacks from Russia?

A. Yes. [There are] hybrid attacks and I don’t think it’s only [against] Estonia. Cyber-attacks that are bigger than they were in 2007 [the massive Russian cyber-attack against Estonia, which had to close its digital borders] are happening every day. We definitely see more of these hybrid attacks, whether it’s information war[fare], cyber-attacks, using migration as a weapon or other means. And we always see this in relation to the big decisions that Europe is [making]… We also hear from different countries like Belgium, like Czech Republic that are now discovering or finding out the networks that the Russians have within their societies.

Kaja Kallas.
Kaja Kallas.Delmi Alvarez

Q. Hybrid warfare...

A. We are very focused on the conventional war that is going on. There are also these hybrid attacks, you know, migration pressure on the Finnish and Polish and Lithuanian border, but also from the south. This is what they are doing in Syria, what they are doing in Sahel. They know that migration is the vulnerability of Europe. So, they’re also trying to create migration pressure by attacking civilian infrastructure [so that] these people will flee from Ukraine. And where did they go? They come to Europe... The Russians are really good at finding conflicts that are already within our societies and pouring fuel on the fires to create instability. We especially have to keep that in mind [since] we have the European Parliament elections coming up.

Q. Some people believe that EU rhetoric has become overly belligerent in discussing, for example, a war economy. The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, spoke about this at the last European summit. What do you think?

A. I don’t know one single person in Ukraine who is for war. I mean, they are suffering under war. Every single day. I don’t know one single person in Estonia, Poland or other countries bordering Ukraine or Russia who is for war. We are all for peace. But we know that the actions of Russia are the opposite of peace. So, the solution is not giving in [to] what Russia wants because their appetite will only grow. The solution is to be strong enough and stand up to a bully, so that this will not spread.

Q. There are those who believe that the rearmament that the EU is undertaking may lead to war.

A. I think… the opposite, because we see the Russians are really rearming themselves. So, if we look and say, okay, we are not doing anything, then Russia gets the signal that, okay, they’re weak. I can take up this war because they will not defend themselves. Because they have nothing to defend [themselves] with. If we have prepared, then they will also make calculations that we will not be successful. And that is only dependent on our own investments in defense so that it’s a credible deterrence… We have to do more in order to prevent this war.

Q. Not all EU member states have the same perception of the risk of war coming to the EU. It is not the same for those farthest away from Russia.

A. The question is how we respond to this risk. Until it happened, we never thought that Russia was really attacking Ukraine. And everybody said that it’s impossible. War is expensive. He can’t conquer [Ukraine]. He will not take this up. But a dictator does not think like a democratic country does. And their calculations are totally, totally different. And that’s why… the only thing that deters Russia or aggressors is strength; weakness only provokes them. And that’s why, of course, I understand we are in different positions because different countries are further away from this war. But the lesson from the 1930s is that when something spreads in Europe, it’s going to go very fast and it’s going to affect everybody. And that’s why we are in this together. At that time the German occupation of the Rhineland, the Spanish civil war, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia were treated as separate crises.... But we have to see the whole picture. We cannot make the same mistake.

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