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In a Baltic country haunted by Soviet-era atrocities, Russia’s invasion is like a ‘very, very bad dream’ that the West failed to stop despite years of warning signs, its leader says

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Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas gives an interview to The Globe and Mail in Tallinn on March 2.Photography by Hendrik Osula/The Globe and Mail

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, whose small European country sits on Russia’s doorstep, says the West has missed repeated chances to draw a hard line with Vladimir Putin, and argues it must stand up to him or he will set his sights beyond Ukraine.

“I think definitely Putin has to lose this war. Otherwise, it’s, again, a signal that he can get away with this and he has then, you know, other ideas,” Ms. Kallas said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

“We have a saying that your appetite grows while eating.”

Memories of Soviet rule are still raw in Estonia. Smaller than Nova Scotia, the northernmost Baltic state regained its independence in 1991. Since then, its wrapped itself in the protection of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – achievements that distinguish it from Ukraine. But that added security doesn’t give it ironclad certainty that it won’t be next if Mr. Putin’s invasion succeeds.

“Of course everybody is afraid because we know our neighbour,” Ms. Kallas said. The assurances from NATO that it is united and will defend the territory of all 30 member states gives Estonia confidence, she said, but “I couldn’t say for sure that Putin wouldn’t test this unity.”

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Ms. Kallas and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speak at a news conference at the Tapa army base on March 1.

Ms. Kallas and leaders in other Baltic states, who were occupied by the Soviet Union, have long warned that Russia was increasingly emboldened by a lack of consequences for the red lines it already crossed. For example, in 2007 Estonia sustained 22 days of cyberattacks on its government websites, banks and news outlets, which were linked to the Kremlin.

Then came the 2008 invasion of Georgia, she said, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Other Western leaders played down the warnings and now Estonia finds itself on the border of a country again waging war.

“What Russia learned from this is that they can take pieces and then you know, they have already gained and nothing really serious happens to them. So, they gain more confidence,” she said. In 2014, as a member of the European Parliament, she said she heard EU politicians dismiss the incursion into Crimea as an “internal conflict,” despite Crimea being part of a sovereign Ukraine.

On Feb. 24 – Estonia’s Independence Day – she said she woke up to a “very, very bad dream” come to life: the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

She said just days before the attacks began, some European officials at the Munich Security Conference still did not believe Mr. Putin would launch a full-scale war. “We were right all the time. But it doesn’t really help right now does it?” Ms. Kallas said during an interview in the building that holds the Prime Minister’s Office in Tallinn’s picturesque old town. The 44-year-old Prime Minister has held her post since January, 2021. She said it’s been “one crisis after the other” with ever-higher stakes.

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The Russian flag hangs above protest signs left outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia.

The small country of 1.3 million people first declared independence from Russia in 1918. But during the Second World War it was invaded by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then again the Soviets.

It became independent again three decades ago, and despite the long occupation, it still traces its founding to 1918. Today, Estonians bristle when they hear their country described as a former Soviet state.

“We have been more independent in our history than we have been occupied,” Ms. Kallas said.

Still, Estonia’s past is marred by decades of Soviet atrocities. Ms. Kallas said her family, and every other in Estonia, has a story of the abuse exacted by the Russian regime. In her case, her maternal family was deported to Siberia, where at the age of just six months, her mother survived the three-week trip by cattle wagon to get there.

More than 30 years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Estonia has never had the privilege of ignoring the threats from Russia.

“We don’t have the naiveté towards Russia, whereas, the Western countries sometimes do. And well, it is because they come from a totally different background,” Ms. Kallas said.

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Ms. Kallas speaks at Stenbock House, Estonia's seat of government.

But something is different this time in the West’s response. Through the G7, NATO and the European Union, countries have jointly hit Russia with escalating waves of sanctions over the past week and sent arms, but not troops, to Ukraine.

Also different is the response from Ukrainians, who have mounted a fierce resistance to the barrage of bombings from a military that outnumbers them. Women are making Molotov cocktails, individual Ukrainians are going toe to toe with troops in the streets, and the defiance from 13 Ukrainian soldiers on an isolated island became a rallying cry for the country.

Still, the death toll is mounting in the week-long war and Ms. Kallas and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have warned that worse is still to come. Russia stands accused of indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas.

On Tuesday, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly referred Russia to the International Criminal Court “as a result of numerous allegations of the commission of serious international crimes in Ukraine by Russian forces, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The road to Ukraine prevailing is unclear, Ms. Kallas acknowledged. It’s a difficult question that she said she also discussed with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he visited Estonia on Tuesday: if Russia has painted itself into a corner, how does it get out?

“I don’t have a good answer for this,” she said.

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Ms. Kallas and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greet NATO troops.

The threat of more cyberattacks and Russia’s control over a small share of Estonia’s gas supply are where Ms. Kallas said she sees the most likely potential for aggression from Russia.

“The more connected we are, the more vulnerable we are,” she said. But she added that Estonia has diversified its energy supply and has gone through months of planning to prepare for any potential cyberattack on its world-renowned digitized government.

Despite Mr. Putin’s military superiority, Ms. Kallas said Mr. Putin will never get the support or acquiescence of Ukrainians that he needs, to successfully replace its government. She believes two elements are in Ukraine’s favour: its citizens’ motivation to defend their country and its sheer size.

“You can conquer some cities, but to keep those cities is much, much harder. So, there’s going to be resistance,” she said. “And even if Ukrainians submit to some kind of peace treaty, it wouldn’t be voluntarily. I mean, it would be because the gun is pointed at their head.”

But she worries this will lead to a “continuous and long conflict” because Russia won’t “have the support of the public and the resistance goes on.”

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