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Europe’s Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas

The Baltic leader has become the EU’s strongest advocate for an uncompromising response to Russia.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in May 2022. On 27 June 2024, European Union leaders selected Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s Prime Minister, to succeed Josep Borrell as the EU’s foreign policy chief. The politician has long been one of Europe’s most outspoken Russia critics and fiercest defenders of Ukraine.

Breathe in,” Siim Kallas told his daughter in 1988. “It’s the air of freedom that comes from the other side.” Kaja Kallas was 11 at the time. To travel to East Berlin from her native Estonia, then still under Russian occupation as part of the Soviet Union, was a big deal in itself. To visit the Brandenburg Gate, looking towards West Berlin and all that it represented, was to glimpse everything that her family did not have. A photo taken on the trip shows the young Kaja in front of the gate with her brother and mother, wearing a little purple handbag and a steely gaze. The family could not have known then that the Berlin Wall would fall a year later and that the Soviet Union would collapse two years after that, transforming their lives and propelling their small country back towards independence and democracy. 

“I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, because I had never experienced freedom,” Kallas tells me in Tallinn, the Baltic Sea glistening through the window of her office high in the city’s medieval old town. Today, as prime minister of Estonia, Kallas has emerged as the EU’s most robust voice for an uncompromising response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is virtually impossible to separate that development from the momentous events of her own early life.

“I am of the lucky generation,” she says. “We were living in a prison, with no freedom, no choices, nothing. And in 1991, when I was a teenager, we got our independence and freedom back.” She contrasts this with her grand-parents’ generation, which as she puts it “had everything” in an independent Estonia and lost it all when the Soviet Union occupied the country in 1940.

[See also: Magdalena Andersson and Sanna Marin’s fight against far-right misogyny]

This clear sense of the principles that matter most – and of turning points in history and what they mean – is the best explanation for Kallas’s growing international profile and influence. Drawing on her past and that of her country, she has stood out for the level of support her government has provided to Ukraine (the highest per capita of any country in the world). From the war’s earliest days, she has also argued forcefully and without reservation that Vladimir Putin’s invasion must be defeated, Ukraine must win and the West will only hold the line by countering Russia’s attack with a corresponding will to defend Ukraine, itself and its values.

Estonians do not tend to boast. Theirs is a small country, pressed up against the Baltic Sea and Russia, the north-eastern limit of Nato and the EU in eastern Europe, with a language very different from most other European ones. They are reserved and restrained, like their Finnish cousins. Arriving at the prime ministerial office, at an unassuming door on an old gatehouse in the curving Rahukohtu Street in Tallinn’s old town, I briefly wondered whether I had the right address, before noting the plaque dedicated to the members of Estonia’s independent interwar government killed by the Soviets. A courtyard behind the door leads into Stenbock House, an 18th-century courthouse perched on a northern ledge of Tallinn’s Toompea Hill. Kallas greets me, striding into the room with her arm outstretched. In our interview, Estonia’s prime minister is unassuming, unaffected and wry. She gently ribs me for my scruffy handwriting as I jot down notes: “Can you really read that?”

During our discussion I ask Kallas what it would mean if Ukraine were defeated. She replies by defining not defeat, but its opposite: “Victory would mean that Russia goes back to where the borders of Russia are. So they go back and withdraw.” Defeat, she continues, is harder to define and its meaning is ultimately up to Ukraine. Coming from Berlin, where the German establishment has spent recent weeks lost in petty debates about diplomatic protocol and hand-wringing about whether Russia was provoked and whether Ukraine is doing enough for “peace”, I find the force, frankness and moral clarity of her arguments immediately appealing.

Kallas fundamentally rejects the idea that an end to the conflict should be sought at any price. “I think what everybody has to understand is that peace is not an ultimate goal if it means that the aggression pays off,” she says. “What I mean by this is that when you say ‘OK, let it be peace and everybody stays where they are’, it still means that Russia has taken a big part of Ukraine’s territory, Ukraine being a sovereign, independent country. So it means that aggression really pays off.” If this happens, she adds, it will only be a matter of time until Putin acts again: “If Russia is not punished for what they are doing, then there will be a pause of one, two years, and then everything will continue: the atrocities, the human suffering, everything.” She adds that it will not just be Ukraine at risk of an emboldened Putin. “I mean other countries around Russia. Moldova… The imperialistic dream has never died.” Few doubt that Estonia could be a prime target in such a situation.

[See also: How the world’s dictators are rewriting the past in order to control the future]

Born in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1977, Kallas came from a family that lived the horrific reality of “Russia’s imperialistic dream”. In 1949 her mother, Kristi (then six months old), her grandmother and her great-grandmother were all sent to Siberia under Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens who were deemed “anti-Soviet”. “It was a stranger who gave my grandmother a jar of milk that kept my mother alive during this journey,” she told the European Parliament in a speech on 9 March. “It was strangers who dried the baby’s diapers on their skin as it was the only warm place in the cattle car. And it was strangers who helped in untold ways when they were allowed to return to Estonia.”

Her father, Siim Kallas, who had urged her to breathe the air of freedom in Berlin in 1988, oversaw the country’s shift to democratic capitalism as president of the Bank of Estonia in the 1990s, and served as prime minister between 2002 and 2003 before becoming a European Commissioner. 

Kaja Kallas studied law and economics and worked as a lawyer before she was elected to the European Parliament for the liberal Estonian Reform Party in 2014. There she rapidly became a top European voice on new digital technology and regulation as well as on EU-Ukraine relations. She returned to Tallinn to head the Reform Party, winning a leadership election in April 2018, and became Estonia’s first ever female prime minister in January 2021, at the helm of a coalition with the centre-left Estonian Centre Party. When Putin started building up his troops on Ukraine’s borders in 2021, many much larger European states bided their time. By contrast, her government sent lethal weapons to Kyiv as early as December 2021, less than a year after she had taken office. “Our neighbours’ problems today are our problems tomorrow,” Kallas tells me now. “So if your neighbour’s house [is in flames] it’s better to put out the fire there than to wait until the fire reaches your house.”

British soldiers take part in a major drill as part of the EFP Nato operation near Rakvere, Estonia, February 2022. Photo by Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images

When Russia’s invasion began on 24 February, Kallas and her government were grimly vindicated. Like others, they found themselves in a new world. Unlike others, it was a world that they understood and knew how to navigate. Her government accelerated its transfer of arms to Ukraine, sending FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles and artillery such as D-30 howitzers. By mid-April, Germany had transferred 0.01 per cent of its GDP to Ukraine. The figures for the US and UK were close to 0.05 per cent, that for Poland just under 0.2 per cent. Under Kallas, Estonia’s figure was 0.8 per cent. She accompanied this with forceful international interventions such as her speech to the European Parliament two weeks after the invasion. “We might just have rediscovered what the liberal, international rules-based order was all about in the first place,” she told European lawmakers. “We will, in the future, speak about ‘before times’ and ‘after times’.” 

Since then, Kallas has emerged as something of an Iron Lady for today’s Europe, setting the standard for a robust and serious response to Putin’s unprovoked onslaught. She gave a diplomatic but frank speech to the German establishment in Berlin in late April. In the two months from 1 March to 2 May, she has been cited 11,560 times in the international media, a staggering number for the leader of a country with a population about the same size as Birmingham’s. 

“Estonian PM Kaja Kallas is one of the most lucid and courageous world leaders now. We need more women like her at the helm,” wrote the influential Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk on 29 April. The historian Timothy Garton Ash recently cited her along with the prime ministers of Spain and the Netherlands – both much larger countries than Estonia – as three crucial players who can work with the recently re-elected Emmanuel Macron to build a new, dynamic EU.

“Do you ever get the temptation to say ‘We told you so’?” I ask her, thinking of the many years in which Estonians warned the rest of Europe that Russia had not abandoned its old impulses. “It’s impolite to say so,” Kallas replies. “So, no. But I think some things you just don’t have to say out loud.” I am reminded of this comment when, later in our discussion, she refers to “countries that have much better neighbours than we do”, saying “they don’t feel it in the way that we feel it”. It is a friendly way of suggesting that some nations farther west have been slower than Estonia in adapting to the “after times”. Some things, indeed, one does not have to say out loud.

Kallas is under no illusions about why Estonia has found new influence. “I have a feeling that we are listened to more than we were before. All those years we were telling [the West] that Russia’s imperialistic dream has never died. And especially in the 1990s we were told: ‘Why do you need Nato? Why do you want to join Nato and the EU? Russia doesn’t pose a threat any more.’ But we said that we know our neighbour. And these were very wise decisions that we took at that time. So coming to today, I feel that we are more listened to as we know what we are talking about.”

[See also: The new Iron Curtain]

Estonians may be unassuming but they are also tough. Being a small nation next to a power like Russia and subjected to long years of occupation and domination will do that to you. When I ask Kallas why she thinks her government has done so much more to support Ukraine, proportionally, than its European counterparts, she offers a typically modest answer.

First, she says, all democratic governments must respond to their voters and “for us [in Estonia] there is very high support for defending Ukraine”. I get a glimpse of that when I wander back down the narrow streets of Toompea Hill and past the Russian embassy in Tallinn, with a glorious display of pro-Ukrainian banners, flags and posters outside. And second, Estonia can move fast because of its size: “We are a small country, whereas with some very big countries the discussions take more time.” In any case, Kallas is optimistic that others in Europe are broadly on the right path: “When I’m at the table in those discussions with other European leaders, I think the moral compass is showing the right direction. So even if it takes time, then the direction is the same.”

I suspect that it is this combination of the sober, calm and frank Estonian style with searing historical experience that makes Kallas such an effective European leader. She talks of blood and thunder – at a moment in Europe’s history that demands no less – but in a tone that gives one confidence that she is not doing it for effect. 

Towards the end of our interview, I turn to what comes next. Kallas will be among the Nato leaders at the alliance’s landmark summit in Madrid in June. What needs to happen there? “We need the deterrence posture to turn into a defence posture,” she replies. This means a shift from warding Russia off an attack on Nato to being capable of preventing it from taking Nato territory at short notice. She specifies that this requires a division-level Nato presence in each Baltic state (a significant increase in troops from those already present, led by the UK in Estonia), more intelligence sharing and a shift from air policing to air defence. “Where now they just fly up and say ‘You can’t fly here’, air defence means that if someone comes into our airspace, we have a right to take them down as well.”

Kallas concludes with a warning for readers in the UK, the US and other Western countries. Citing the historian (and sometime New Statesman contributor) Timothy Snyder and his book The Road to Unfreedom, she attributes to Putin the notion that “if Russia can’t become the West, then the West must become Russia”. In other words: the West must devolve into a conspiracist, authoritarian nightmare. The Kremlin, argues Estonia’s prime minister, will continue trying to undermine Western unity through cyber threats and by promoting myths about morally corrupt and “anti-family” liberal societies. “Although we are very focused on the conventional war that is going on in Ukraine, the hybrid threats never vanished,” she says. “It will be harder and harder to keep the unity. But saying that, I am also positively surprised that we have been able to keep the unity. Together we are strong.”

Breathe in. And breathe out. The air of freedom wafted its way through Ukraine in recent years, permeating an imperfect but democratic country that, like Estonia, struggled to escape from Russia’s imperial grasp. On 24 February, Vladimir Putin sent in his troops to still that air of change. When he did so, he put the West’s leaders to the test – a test of their ability to deal with the big and the fundamental.

For many, the invasion has proved too huge an event to fit into their way of thinking, with their focus reduced to the immediate and the tactical. But in the case of a few others, it has revealed leaders who are capable of thinking, working and speaking on the scale this moment demands. Kallas is one of them. She leads a small country, but she is taking her message to an international audience: Ukraine’s crisis is a European crisis, and a crisis facing the West as a whole. And with that message, delivered calmly yet forcefully, Kallas is changing the geopolitical weather.

[See also: Qin Gang: China’s new foreign minister and the taming of “wolf warrior” democracy]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer