Amid NATO tensions, Estonian President highlights Russia risk

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid spoke to EURACTIV on her visit to Brussels this week.

NATO should be ready to defend Estonia should the country face risks emanating from its neighbour Russia, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid has told EURACTIV. Her comments came following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent claim that the alliance is ‘brain dead.’

Speaking following a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels earlier this week, Kaljulaid said that “there is no secrecy about the fact that Russia does not respect its own signatures on the international acts.”

“Analysing the situation has made NATO to conclude that there are risks which are considerable,” she added.

Kaljulaid also stated that the level of troops and technology positioned in the Western part of Russia, close to NATO’s eastern flank, is currently at a level comparable to the military exercises carried out as part of Russia’s 2009 ‘Zapad’ drills.

The Zapad exercises in 2009 were a series of military ‘rehearsals’ designed to simulate Russia’s response to a potential NATO offensive on Belarus. Similar ‘Zapad’ drills were conducted regularly during the Cold War, and more recently, in 2009, 2013 and 2017.

Russia's Zapad war games unnerve West

From planes, radars and ships in the Baltics, NATO officials say they are watching Russia’s biggest war games since 2013 with “calm and confidence”, but many are unnerved about what they see as Moscow testing its ability to wage war against the West.

Kaljulaid did note that there is probably no ‘immediate’ risk from Russia, but that with Russian forces so close to NATO’s eastern borders, there would be very little reaction time to react, “if something were to go wrong.”

“We know that NATO has a one hundred per cent success rate in defending its members,” Kaljulaid said, adding that however, “this one hundred percent success rate depends on being ready and having your deterrence at the level where it would really deter.”

Kaljulaid’s comments on the importance of the NATO alliance come after French President Macron angered fellow NATO allies earlier this month in stating that the group is facing a certain “brain death” due to a number of current challenges in finding common ground among members, particularly on the thorny subject of Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria.

France's Macron decries NATO 'brain death' ahead of anniversary

European countries can no longer rely on the United States to defend NATO allies, French President Emmanuel Macron warned in an interview on Thursday (7 November), only weeks ahead of a meeting of NATO leaders in London, supposed to mend the widening cracks in the Western military alliance.

Putin relations

On Russia, the Estonian President said on Tuesday (19 November) that she hasn’t yet received an invitation to attend Russia’s May Day Victory Parade, which commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu had told ERR’s (the Estonian Public Broadcaster) Vikerraadio Välistunni earlier this week that he would not advise Kaljulaid in taking part in the Moscow ceremony.

Reinsalu’s comments came following an April visit to the Russian Capital by the Estonian President, a move which some politicians in the country criticised. At the beginning of her new mandate as an MEP in Brussels, S&D’s Estonian MEP Marina Kaljurand, a former Foreign Minister, told EURACTIV that Kaljulaid’s visit to Moscow “did not send out the right signals.”

For her part however, Kaljulaid believes that dialogue is important, “even with the most difficult of partners.”

EU institutions 

During this week’s visit to Brussels, President Kaljulaid also took the opportunity during her pit stop to pay a visit to President-elect of the European Council Charles Michel and President-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

In terms of her broader vision for the future of Europe, Kaljulaid told EURACTIV that there are a number of pressing issues that need to be addressed, including Brexit and EU enlargement. She said on Tuesday that she was disappointed by the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, and that she was ‘sad’ EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania had failed at a recent European Council summit.

As for Estonia’s place in the EU ecosystem, the President was keen to rally the country’s digital profile, particularly the nation’s well established eGovernance infrastructure, which ‘facilitates citizen interactions with the state through the use of electronic solutions.’ In 2014, the country became the first in the world to to offer electronic residency to people from outside its country.

Kaljulaid said that it is not necessarily the technology itself that has made Estonia what it is today, but rather the ‘legal space’ that the country has created as a means to foster innovation and high standards.

“We have a legal base which makes people feel safe in using technologies like eGovernment services, for example. It protects government itself while providing these services,” she said, before adding that she would like to see her country continue to act as a ‘positive sandbox’ for the future testing of next-generation technologies on the bloc.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox and Georgi Gotev)

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