Interview with Alar Karis: “Permanent NATO troops in Eastern Europe: this is how we defend ourselves”

The president of Estonia: «The war is very close to us. I met Zelensky two days before the invasion: he feared a blitz in the Donbass, but he did not expect this. We helped the Ukrainians to repel cyber-attacks, they are very good “

Two days before Vladimir Putin’s troops entered Ukraine, Estonian President Alar Karis had flown to Kiev to meet with Ukrainian colleague Volodymyr Zelensky. “He was very calm, none of his citizens expected all this. Neither do I, ”he tells us connected from his home in Tallin, where he is in isolation after testing positive for Covid. “I was only sick one day, I have three doses of the vaccine,” adds Karis, 63, a molecular geneticist and biologist, who became president last October after being rector of the universities of Tallin and Tartu, and of the Estonian National Museum.

What impression did Zelensky make on you?

“That day Russia recognized the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Zelenksy was very happy that I had the courage to visit him in Kiev. He told me that Russia could enter the two Donbass regions, but he did not expect it to attack Kiev or other parts of Ukraine. Two days later everything changed. On February 24, the day of the invasion, we spoke on the phone and he asked me for help: I ​​provided military assistance and everything he needed ».

And now how can we stop Putin?

“The sooner we stop him, the better. We must avoid escalation in other regions of Europe. The only thing we can do is impose sanctions, even if the results are sometimes seen in the long run. Most of the NATO countries, and also other countries such as Finland, then provided military assistance to Ukraine: javelins, anti-tank missiles, helmets and so on. That’s what they need. “

Are you afraid of Moscow’s counter-sanctions?

“Absolutely not. On the contrary, I think we have to add some ».

What was your relationship with Moscow like before the attack?

“Relations have always been quite complicated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we regained our independence.”

Do you think Putin could also threaten the Baltic countries?

«No, we are not afraid. At the moment there have been no military effects for the Baltic countries. If Putin then decides to test us, he would not only challenge Estonia but the whole of NATO. This is the big difference with Ukraine: no matter which country he chooses to hit, he would challenge the entire alliance and he knows what the answer would be. At the moment, however, there has been no threat to Estonia ».

Do you think then that Ukraine should also join NATO?

“Well, it’s not for me to say. First of all, Ukraine must meet all the requirements, and then the 30 NATO members must agree. Obviously, being in this situation it is rather difficult to initiate the process. Together with the presidents of Eastern Europe we propose to provide a European perspective, starting negotiations with the EU institutions. The European Parliament agrees, but it is up to the different countries to start negotiations, and at the moment everyone has different opinions. When I went to Kiev, the prime minister (Denys Shmyhal, ed) told me that Ukraine met about 65% of the criteria, which is a lot: they made many reforms and, if there hadn’t been the war, he thought that in 3 or 5 years they would have satisfied them all ».

Should NATO do more to protect Ukraine? And is Italy doing its part?

“All the EU and NATO countries are doing their part. The real problem of the Kremlin is the unity of the EU and NATO, which Putin did not expect, just as the great Ukrainian resistance, which shocked him, did not expect. Then of course, we must provide more military assistance, so that Ukraine can defend itself ».

Do you think that a common European defense and security policy is becoming necessary?

“He’s talking about it, we’ll see. In Estonia we are convinced that we need to invest more in defense, that we should ally with NATO or support its initiatives, rather than having separate systems ”.

Would you like the US to send more troops to Estonia?

“The American soldiers are already in Europe, and we already have troops from the United Kingdom, which doubled its presence in Estonia a week ago. Then we have the French, Danish and so on. We must probably move from deterrence to defense, and we should have a permanent presence of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and across the continent ”.

What do the Estonian people think of the Ukrainian conflict?

“We are worried, because it is very close: there are just a couple of countries among us. And then over 50,000 Ukrainians already live in Estonia, and now their families and many refugees are arriving: over 8,000 people have already come, 2,500 of whom are children. We are organizing centers, providing accommodation, and someone has already found a job. We need to find schools, teachers who speak Ukrainian, e-teaching methods. We are still digital Estonia, and we try to allow children to continue studying ».

Do you think that in Europe we are treating Ukrainian refugees differently than those arriving from other parts of the world, such as Syria or Afghanistan?

“These are different things, with the war an increasing flow of refugees began. We had a similar situation on the border between Poland and Belarus, but it was a different story: the crisis was orchestrated by the Belarusians for military purposes. These are not migrants, they are refugees arriving directly from war zones. We certainly treat them differently, they are not migrants looking for work, a better life or anything else: many of those who arrive here are women and children, while the men are left to fight for their country. This is the main difference ».

Back to digital Estonia: have you received cyberattacks from Russia?

«Of course, we have been receiving them since 2007 and we have been prepared. We also helped Ukraine, which has learned to protect itself very well. The more digital you are, the more impressed you are. It is a continuous battle ».

Have you also strengthened the borders?

“We started many years ago and we continue to do so. Last year we allocated money to increase the defenses ».

Do you think we are in a decisive moment in history?

“Maybe, I think we are in the midst of a war between democracy and autocracy. Democracy must fight to survive, otherwise the authoritarian countries will prevail ».

However, some argue that Ukraine is not really a true democracy.

«Ukraine is moving towards democracy, it is the will of its people. Obviously it isn’t fully, but it’s on the road: that’s the thing that matters, and at some point it’ll get there. That is why we must stop this war ».

How will it end?

“None of us are in Putin’s mind, we don’t know what he’s going to do. I am convinced that he will stop here, but it also depends on how united we will be: not only now, but also in the years to come. But nobody wants war: the Ukrainians do not want it, nor the Russians. It was not the Russians who started the war, but they can stop it: the younger generations have access to truthful information, they can go out and spread it, and this could change what happens in Russia. They must not be afraid ».

So do you think Putin can stop himself from the inside?

“Not only. From inside and outside, to stop this war ».

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