The West must help Ukraine defeat Russia to avoid a wider conflict, Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas has said, advocating more EU arms for Kyiv and heavier investment in Europe’s defence industry.

“[If] Russia [were to] lose this war, then we don’t have to worry about the Third World War,” said Kallas on Wednesday (20 March) in Brussels, speaking to a group of media outlets, including EUobserver.

Ahead of the two-day European Council meeting, the liberal politician pointed out that she was not a warmonger: “We want to have peace, but we want to have sustainable peace and peace on Russia’s term is not sustainable.”

Reflecting on Europe’s history, she said that the difference between the start of the Second World War and what was happening now was that Ukraine was “fighting and standing”.

“That’s why the war hasn’t progressed any further,” she said.

“[But] if Ukraine falls, it’s going to be all over Europe,” she added.

Kallas, who has been one of the most vocal supporters of Kyiv and a firm critic of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, has led calls to increase expenditure in defence to boost both Ukraine and Europe’s military capabilities.

She said that if the Ramstein coalition — a group that combines the 31 Nato member states and 23 other allies of Ukraine, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea — was to commit just 0.25 percent of their GDP in military aid to Ukraine, this would outweigh Russia by a long way and “greatly contribute to Ukraine’s victory”.

“Russia is afraid of going to war with Nato,” she said, adding that Russia would not push further if it saw that Europe was strong.

Asked whether she was worried about Russia’s nuclear threats, the Estonian prime minister said: “It is to intimidate us. It is to make us afraid.”

“They [the Russians] are very good at sowing the fear within our societies” and “designing the threats to [suit] different countries,” she added, giving as an example Russia’s involvement in the anti-vaccine movement that emerged in Europe during the Covid pandemic.

‘Political suicide’

Her small Baltic country of just 1.3 million people, which shares a border with Russia, exceeded for the first time this year three percent of GDP invested in defence, which accounts for about €1.33bn, according to the 2024 state budget.

But for the period 2024 to 2027, Tallinn has set even more ambitious goals when it comes to defence spending as a percentage of GDP, allocating more than €5.6bn for defence spending.

“The problem with investing in defence for leaders, who have better neighbours than we do, is it is very hard to explain to people because when it is peacetime there are so many things you can spend the taxpayers’ money on,” she said.

When Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine started in 2022, the Estonian prime minister said that she had expected Nato countries to boost their defence expenditures because “there’s a hot war going on in Europe”. But this didn’t happen.

“In some countries, I don’t see the deed, I only hear the words,” she said.

In 2014, Nato leaders committed to providing two percent of their GDP to defence spending, but last year some EU countries fell below the 1.5 percent mark — namely Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Slovenia, Italy, and Portugal.

With EU elections coming closer, Kallas said that it was important that EU leaders explained Europe’s defence needs to their citizens.

The liberal politician raised taxes in her country to cover Estonia’s defence needs. “I’m committing political suicide, but I don’t have a choice”, she said.

EU leaders are expected to agree on joint purchases and production of weapons at the summit, but divisions have surfaced on how to finance new defence expenditures.

Estonia has positioned itself in favour of common borrowing or defence bonds to raise money, but the proposal is likely to be opposed by frugal countries which have rejected the idea of issuing more common debt after the pandemic.

Kallas admitted that talks were difficult.

“I’m not stuck to the idea of Eurobonds if we find some other way,” the prime minister said.

“The problem is that we are in crisis now. We need to invest in defence now,” she also said.

Global security

The war in Ukraine and the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House has pushed Europe to think more deeply about defence self-reliance.

Kallas reassured press that there were no first or second-class countries in Nato, but she also said that the last word on whether US troops were sent where they were needed depended on the US president, despite Nato’s Article 5 mutual-defence clause.

The Estonian prime minister warned that the war in Ukraine not only posed a security question for Europe but also for the rest of the world.

“We know these countries who have an appetite for their neighbours, so how we respond here also will have an effect on global security,” she said, after meeting German chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin earlier this week and US president Joe Biden last weekend.

When asked about French president Emmanuel Macron’s controversial statement on sending Western troops to Ukraine, she supported his use of so-called “strategic ambiguity”.

“We have been guessing for so long what Russia is going to do next. I think it could be a good strategy that they will guess what we will do next,” she said.

She also said EU sanctions were hurting Russia, but that they “should work better”.

To address the circumvention of sanctions by third countries, Estonia has proposed to set quotas for certain goods or technology to certain third countries, a full embargo and ban of all transit goods via Russia, expanding the list of goods under sanctions, and mirroring sanctions on Russia in Belarus.

She also said the EU should consider a total ban on Russian liquid gas imports “as soon as possible”.

Top-jobs door open

Kallas recently declined to challenge Ursula von der Leyen for the position of the next European Commission president, saying she wanted to remain prime minister of Estonia.

But Kallas’ international reputation took a blow in any case when it was reported last year that her husband, Arvo Hallik, was making money in Russia.

The prime minster explained that Hallik had had a minority shareholding in an Estonian firm called Stark Logistics, which he had now sold.

But “he didn’t see anything wrong with this because he didn’t have a Russian client, any Russian business or any turnover in Russia,” she said.

The 46-year-old Kallas, who has led Estonia as its first female leader since 2021, said that she was not running for any EU top job.

But her name has surfaced in preliminary discussions in EU circles, especially for the EU foreign service post currently held by Spanish socialist Josep Borrell.

“Anything can happen in politics,” she said.

“If you look around the world, female leaders are quitting because it’s so hard, especially when you have a family,” she added.

End