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Wider Europe Briefing: Estonia's Bold Stand


Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (left) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 24, 2023, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (left) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 24, 2023, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'll be focusing on Estonia, in particular its outsized role in assisting Ukraine, following a few days in Tallinn at this year's Lennart Meri Conference.

Briefing: Bold But Also Vulnerable -- Estonia's Leading Role On Ukraine

What You Need To Know: The mood at this year's Lennart Meri Conference, which brings together policymakers, analysts, and military officials to discuss foreign and security policy, shouldn't have been the best. Things are not going well in Ukraine, with Russia pounding the Kharkiv region, sensing a window of opportunity as the bulk of the U.S. aid agreed a few weeks ago has still not arrived.

And as the three-day event in Estonia's capital Tallinn kicked off on May 16, news filtered through from Beijing that China and Russia had agreed to deepen their "no-limits partnership." That partnership was agreed in 2022 during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and the two countries deepening ties further will result in sustained Chinese political, economic, and even military support for the Kremlin.

Yet, the mood at the conference wasn't as gloomy as the Munich Security Conference in February. The more upbeat tone began with the opening remarks from Indrek Kannik, the director of the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), which organized the event. He noted that "the situation is shit, but that is the fertilizer of our future." The expression was one coined by Lennart Meri, the first post-Soviet president of the country, who dragged Estonia back to the Western world. In front of an audience of foreign diplomats and political commentators, the joke nearly brought down the house.

That set the tone for the conference, with this year's theme being "Let us not despair, but act." And acting, especially when it comes to supporting Ukraine, is something that Tallinn has done.

Deep Background: Estonia has put huge amounts of effort into gathering evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine and bringing perpetrators to justice. It came up with the idea of actually seizing frozen Russian assets in the European Union to pay for both Kyiv's war effort and the eventual reconstruction.

Earlier in May, EU ambassadors finally agreed to seize the annual profits of Russian central bank assets held in the EU, which could generate some 3 billion euros ($3.27 billion) for Ukraine every year. Estonia, however, has gone one step further. Last week, its parliament voted in favor of a law that would allow the confiscation of assets in the country belonging to private Russian citizens if there is a proven link to the Russian war machine.

This is unlikely to be replicated at the EU level, but it could get the ball rolling on eventually seizing the frozen Russian state assets -- rather than just their annual profits -- which are estimated to be worth more than 300 billion euros ($326 billion).

And it doesn't stop there. Tallinn has given Ukraine roughly $640 million worth of military, humanitarian, and financial aid. While perhaps that contribution isn't too much in absolute terms, it constitutes 1.6 percent of Estonia's total gross domestic product (GDP), more than any other country that has supplied Ukraine with aid.

The challenge now is how to sustain all the different contributions to the ailing country -- and here Tallinn is pushing for various options. One of Estonia's ideas, much touted at the conference, is for all Western allies to commit 0.25 percent of their GDP in military aid to Ukraine. So far, the idea has not gained much traction.

Another option is the issuing of joint EU bonds (Eurobonds) to boost defense production on the continent. This is something that the French have firmly backed, and with which Estonia is fully on board. While the practice of joint EU borrowing was agreed upon for the first time ever to finance the post-coronavirus pandemic reconstruction in 2020, the idea is unlikely to fly.

Accruing debt is anathema both for the German liberals who hold up the current government coalition in Berlin and for the new, financially hawkish Dutch government soon to be sworn in. Speaking at one panel, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was, however, still defiant on the Eurobonds option, noting that it was "not dismissed completely [in Brussels], so then it is not dead yet."

But what about the much more sensitive issue of having Western soldiers on the ground in Ukraine? French President Emmanuel Macron famously didn't rule it out when the topic was broached earlier this spring and has since refused to walk it back. Charles Brown, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted last week that a NATO deployment of trainers in the country is likely to happen over time.

This is also something I heard from Estonian officials in Tallinn this weekend. For quite some time, the Baltic nation has assessed the possibility of sending Estonian soldiers -- preferably under a NATO umbrella -- but only in support roles a long way from the front line.

Drilling Down:

  • In the meantime, the most pressing need concerns weapons deliveries to Ukraine, where Tallinn has also been leading the way. However, there are some harsh realities here as well. The "Estonian proposal," which swiftly became an EU-wide objective, to supply 1 million 155 mm shells to Ukraine by March 2024 only succeeded in delivering half of that. The current goal is to deliver the remaining amount by the end of the year.
  • Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur recently said that his ministry had managed to find another 1 million shells worldwide, but it may very well be that the Estonians have the same issues as the Czechs who, earlier this year, announced with much fanfare that they had "identified" 800,000 shells globally. The problems, as the Czechs discovered, is that identifying the shells in various third countries is not the same as actually having them and getting them to the Ukrainian front lines. As Czech diplomats admitted to me, it is a seller's market, after all, with demand exceeding supply. Russia is trying not only to outbid and buy them all up but also use other underhand means, including political pressure and sabotage, to prevent deliveries to Kyiv.
  • So far, nothing from the Czech initiative (which Estonia also backs financially) has been delivered, even though it is expected that a first batch of 180,000 shells will arrive at the beginning of June and another 400,000 later in the summer.
  • With all the busy Estonian diplomatic activity, it is no surprise that the country's politicians are being touted for top jobs in the EU and NATO. Prime Minister Kallas is a favorite to secure something when the positions are dished out in June after the European Parliament elections. And the Lennart Meri Conference felt very much like an audition for her, as she appeared on stage consecutive days and hobnobbed generously with the foreign journalists.
  • She seemed more mellow and less combative than usual, perhaps a play to win over Western doubters, some of whom have half-jokingly noted that she "eats Russians for breakfast." In perhaps a similar vein, an Estonian diplomat mentioned a recent vote at the United Nations where Estonia backed a UN resolution calling for full membership for Palestine. This was a complete U-turn from Tallinn, as it usually tends to be very pro-Israeli. With that vote, was the prime minister trying to be more "palatable" to Western Europeans?
  • It's still not clear if Kallas wants the job as the EU foreign policy chief, which many in Brussels think is hers already. She was rather red-faced when directly asked on stage about the position, saying that she had "no idea how it works, as she was not around in 2019," when the top EU jobs were handed out the last time. She did add that she was "honored" that her name was circulating but was quick to add that she was also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the NATO secretary-general position, which more or less appears to be going to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
  • There are two main obstacles for Kallas getting the EU job. The first is the arcane, behind-closed-doors negotiations by which the 27 EU heads of state and government choose the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the EU foreign policy leader when they convene in Brussels. The three top jobs are chosen to reflect a geographic, gender, and political party balance. With the center-right European People's Party (EPP) expected to come out on top in June's European Parliament elections, it is likely that the new European Commission president will come from their ranks. They would likely (although not certainly) push for the German incumbent, Ursula von der Leyen, to be reselected for another five years. The center-left group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which looks set to finish runners-up, will likely claim the presidency of the European Council, an institution that sets the general political direction and priorities of the EU. Whereas Kallas's liberal Renew Europe group will fight out with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) for third place and the the role of EU foreign policy chief. In terms of geographic parity, the idea is that someone from Central or Eastern Europe should get one of the three key roles, having been overlooked in 2019 and with Kallas probably not destined for the unrelated but somewhat linked NATO top job. Most front-runners for the three top jobs from the east are in the EPP and there are hardly any coming from the S&D, ECR, or Renew Europe. So Kallas, as a member of Renew Europe, does have a decent chance, but then the liberals must do well in the June elections, which is far from certain.
  • And then there is the second obstacle. The so-called "easterners" are far from a coherent bunch, stretching from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. And they are seemingly not very good at lobbying for each other to get what they want in Brussels. Take the decision among EU member states last week to elect Irish General Sean Clancy as chair of the European Union Military Committee, an obscure but increasingly significant body given the Ukraine war. The very fact that a neutral member state with limited military capabilities got that position ahead of a Polish general, with Warsaw being NATO's biggest defense spender per capita, raised a few eyebrows.
  • My biggest takeaway from the conference was, despite all the tough talk, the pervasive sense of Estonian vulnerability. Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur noted that in the last 25 years, NATO has seen a 61 percent increase in defense spending; in the same period, Russia's has grown by 600 percent. Worryingly, Pevkur then noted that the NATO defense plans that were agreed upon at the NATO Vilnius summit last year to protect every inch of the alliance's territory aren't fully executable yet, as there just aren't enough military capabilities. And while Russia is currently tied down in Ukraine and doesn't have enough firepower in the Baltic region, Pevkur cautioned that this could change and Russia could still test NATO with hybrid threats such as cyberattacks and sabotage. This point was also hammered home by Estonia's ambassador to NATO, Juri Luik, who said that in international waters such as the Baltic Sea, Russia has options. He said that underwater infrastructure would be a prime target, as the three Baltic states, together with Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, all share the same submarine power cables -- and the same vulnerabilities. Luik also noted that while Swedish and Finnish NATO membership has increased deterrence in the region, the balance of power has not changed when it comes to protecting the Baltic states. And this vulnerability is paradoxically increasing, he said, as Russia declines as a global power.

Looking Ahead

On May 23, the final debate is taking place ahead of European Parliament elections across the bloc on June 6-9. The debaters are the so-called "lead candidates" of the respective political groups in the European Parliament, with the idea that the party that gets the biggest vote share will end up putting forward their lead candidates for the European Commission presidency. Normally, the leaders of the 27 EU member states ignore this "electoral advice" and a new president is chosen in various backroom deals. But this time around, they might actually heed the advice, as the lead candidate for the center-right coalition set to finish first is the sitting commission president, von der Leyen.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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