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"Estonia ‘not afraid’ to be on the Nato frontline, president says", Financial Times

© Peter Kollanyi/Financial Times


Richard Milne

Kaljulaid laments 'unpredictable' Russia as security alliance shores up Baltic forces.

US tanks rolled into Estonia and the other Baltic states this week to reinforce Nato's frontline with an increasingly assertive Russia. But in Tallinn's baroque bright pink presidential palace there is no mood to entertain any idea that the nation is cowering before Moscow.

"If we look decades ago we know that Nato allies contributed a lot of equipment close to the border of the Soviet Union. It beats me now why it should be seen differently," Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia's president since October, said.

Ms Kaljulaid represents a country in a security spotlight of others' making. Under pressure from Russia owing to its position as arguably the most successful post-Soviet state, Estonia is now under scrutiny after US president Donald Trump's comments that he wants better relations with Moscow and that Nato was "obsolete".

Four Abrams tanks and 15 Bradley fighting vehicles arrived in Estonia over the weekend as part of US troops' rotation in the region under Nato's Operation Atlantic Resolve. Ms Kaljulaid is keen to put their arrival in a broader perspective where Estonia — one of the few countries to meet Nato's, and Mr Trump's, targets for military spending — has fought alongside its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We don't see ourselves as consumers of security but we see ourselves as equal allies. It proves to me that there is no need for us to be afraid. We are not afraid," she said.

Still, there is plenty of focus on the potential threat from Russia after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, while Estonia suffered one of the first big cyber attacks on a country in 2007. Ms Kaljulaid is clear that Moscow is to blame for creating a security situation in which Nato again needs to shore up its eastern front.

"I don't want to sound like I'm a special type of Russia hater," she said. "There are very few heads of state in Europe that would not like to have very good relations with Russia. But the other side is what it is: it is unpredictable and doesn't respect its obligations."

In trying to gauge Washington's attitude to the region, Baltic officials have been reassured by Mr Trump's choice of defence secretary, James Mattis, who knows Estonia well and has stressed America's commitment to Nato.

Instead, current and former Baltic intelligence officials worry about how a rapprochement between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin could undermine them. "If Trump and Putin do a deal over our heads, it could be very bad news," says one.

Ms Kaljulaid, a former member of the European Court of Auditors before her election as president, gives the idea short shrift, saying she sees little chance of the Baltics being sold out.

"Every incoming US president had tried that. If suddenly there were to be a good breakthrough — which means that no deal would be done at the expense of any independent nation — to restart talking with Russia, everybody would only relish that situation," she said.

But in an oblique warning to Mr Trump, she added: "Once you start doing deals, you never know where you will end."

To the frustration of some, Ms Kaljulaid is less outspoken than her bow-tied predecessor, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who for years warned the west that Russia remained a threat. "She has been rather quiet about Trump. But with the US so important for security she is maybe in between a rock and a hard place," said a foreign businessman in Tallinn.

Change has not just taken place in the presidential palace. The government was also altered around the same time with the liberal Reform party, which had provided the prime minister for the past decade, being replaced by the Centre party, popular with the Russian-speaking minority.

International attention was drawn by Centre's decade-old co-operation agreement with Mr Putin's United Russia. But Juri Ratas, the new prime minister, said that any co-operation was "frozen" while he also affirmed all Estonia's defence and security policies.

Ms Kaljulaid, an economist by training, said the new government might help "social cohesion" by representing those on a lower income as well as the Russian-speaking minority.

She added: "They look more at the people who feel they are looking in through the window at other people's parties. This hopefully helps us to avoid some of the problems that western European countries are facing by having alienated people who could not join in the [gains of] globalisation."

Original article on the Financial Times webpage.