- - Thursday, February 9, 2017

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

TALLINN, Estonia — Like much of Europe — like much of the world — many Estonians acknowledge being bemused and sometimes confused by President Trump’s first weeks in the White House. But the tiny Baltic country’s top diplomat knows that when you are a stone’s throw from Russia, you cannot afford to argue with the leader of the free world.

In an exclusive interview, Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser said NATO would remain vital during the West’s face-off with Moscow, despite Mr. Trump’s sometimes critical statements about the alliance and his frequent expressions of trying to seek better relations with Russia.

“We do not elect other countries’ leaders,” said Mr. Mikser. “They have their own democratic process to take care of that. The U.S. is the most important bilateral security partner and ally for us, as well as the most militarily capable NATO ally.”

The U.S. military muscle is crucial to defending Europe. This month, NATO heavy tanks and troops rolled into Estonia as part of a move to shore up the nervous states at the EU border with Russia and Belarus. American units are also carrying out joint exercises with European allies on a defensive line running from the shores of the Baltic to the Black Sea.

With St. Petersburg just 250 miles away and Russian-backed violence in Ukraine escalating, the tiny Baltic state, which for nearly 50 years was a socialist republic of the Soviet Union, is at the front line. As a base that puts the alliance’s forces within hours of Russia’s second city, Estonia occupies strategically vital territory for NATO.

“Irrespective of who controls the House and Congress, we want to work very closely with the U.S. on every level of government and intend to do so with President Trump,” the bespectacled, boyish-looking Mr. Mikser said over coffee in the conference room at the top of the Foreign Ministry.

The towering concrete block was built as headquarters for Estonia’s Moscow-controlled Communist Party. But after the end of the Cold War, Estonia’s democratic government quickly kicked out its old masters and forged close relations with the U.S. and Europe.

The country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with the last Russian troops leaving a few years later. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004 in search of security and economic prosperity, and has turned its back on Moscow under increasingly authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

Estonian officials deny they are overstating the threat from Moscow to ensure greater NATO support.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m a special type of Russia hater,” Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s president, told the Financial Times. “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.”

Mr. Mikser, 43, has served two stints as defense minister in the past decade. That experience makes him well aware of the challenges his country faces in deterring Kremlin aggression.

“We have a coinciding concern with President Trump,” Mr. Mikser said. “The thing I believe he is trying to say is that one of the administration’s highest priorities will be the fight against terrorism. We have been playing our part in the fight against terrorism and will continue to do so. But it is important that NATO should maintain a very strong focus on what it is doing by way of deterring our eastern neighbor.”

Boosting the defense budget

Although he believes in the alliance, Mr. Mikser agreed with some of Mr. Trump’s criticism of NATO.

“Defense spending in many European countries has been lagging for quite some time,” he said. “So here, we in Estonia have been stressing the need to actually put our money where our mouth is and live up to our pledges made well before Trump even considered running for president.”

Estonia increased its military budget to record levels in December. On a war footing, about a third of its 1.3 million citizens can be mobilized to hold off an attack in anticipation of support from NATO allies.

In 2014, President Obama told Baltic leaders, “We’re an alliance of democracies dedicated to our own collective defense. Countries like Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania are not ‘post-Soviet territory.’”

But even with the sharp change of direction in Washington, Mr. Mikser insisted that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about partnering with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East was not a distraction from the need to be vigilant against Moscow’s ambitions in northern Europe.

Mr. Trump said in a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May last month that he still hoped for “great relations” with Russia.

The Treasury Department on Thursday announced changes to U.S. sanctions against Russia that critics quickly tried to portray as a weakening of American resolve.

For Estonia and its equally nervous Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, “great relations” means Mr. Putin will have to change his ways.

“A constructive relationship with Russia we have nothing against,” said Mr. Mikser. “But you look at the pattern of behavior vis-a-vis its neighbors over the past decade — we saw it wage a war against Georgia in 2008, and now more recently launching aggression against Eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea. So based on that experience, it is safe to say the current Russian leadership does not shy away from military force in order to achieve its goals.”

Twenty-five years after independence, Estonia still has no mutual border agreement with Russia.

Estonia announced plans in 2015 to build a fence on the unguarded stretches to prevent smuggling. But the sizable ethnic Russian minority living in Estonia — estimated at about a quarter of the population — is a security consideration no border wall can contain.

In Narva, a border city on the Baltic coast, more than 80 percent of the population is ethnic Russian. Critics say Mr. Putin has used these “compatriots,” as Moscow calls them, as a pretext for land grabs and military intervention in Ukraine and Georgia, and that the same could happen in the Baltics.

“This is why we, as an alliance, need a strong and credible deterrent against that threat,” Mr. Mikser said. “When you want to reset relations with Russia, that should be made dependent on Russia’s ability to fulfill its obligations and return to the path of internationally acceptable behavior. To just turn over and pretend it is a blank page, ignoring what has gone on in Ukraine, is not something we could or should accept.”


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