The situation in Ukraine continued to escalate Tuesday as the Ukrainian military began an operation to confront pro-Russian militants in the eastern part of the country. Estonia and other Baltic states with sizable Russian-speaking minority populations have been watching the rapidly unfolding events with concern.
Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, has been Estonia’s envoy to Washington since 2011. She was Estonia's ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, among other posts.
Kaljurand discussed the crisis in Ukraine from Estonia’s point of view with VOA’s Carol Castiel.
Castiel: How does your country – Estonia – view what is going on in Ukraine? First, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and now it’s backing of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine?
Kaljurand: Being EU and NATO members, we share the views of these organizations. For us, there’s no question about Russia violating international law with its annexation of Crimea. Also, the events in eastern Ukraine are clearly sponsored or supported by Russia. The recent events have not only changed Europe, but changed the world. What’s happening there does not correspond with any international norms we’ve lived with since the Second World War.
Castiel: Tell me about the Russian speaking population in Estonia.
Kaljurand: Russian speakers are about a quarter of the population. I’m Russian. I speak Russian with my mother and I don’t need protection. I’m an Estonian citizen, I live in Estonia and I’m Estonian ambassador. So, for me, there’s a huge difference between those Russians who have lived for centuries in Estonia, who are part of the everyday life of the country. And then there are Soviets, who were brought, or came, into the country during the Soviet occupation and whose understanding may be slightly different. Some see Estonia as their home. But there’s a small part who share the views of Mr. Putin that the fall of Soviet Union was a geo-political catastrophe and who don’t accept Estonia as an independent country.
Castiel: What is your assessment of NATO’s and the EU’s response to the situation?
Kaljurand: The situation is developing very rapidly. NATO is taking the situation very seriously. Stopping all military to military cooperation with Russia is a very specific act. NATO understands how serious [the situation] is and is acting appropriately. As to the EU, [it] is taking the situation very seriously. Visa bans have been implemented and we are looking ahead to a possible scenario if Russia doesn’t stop putting Ukraine under huge pressure – with forces on the border, provocateurs in the country – basically doing whatever it can to destabilize Ukraine.
Castiel: Ukraine is caught between a rock and a hard place. If the Ukrainian government reacts passively to the Russian-backed Russian separatists they would be criticized as not defending their own interests and inviting more Russian aggression. But if they act, Russia can say they are being provoked. What is your take on the Ukrainian government’s response?
Kaljurand: The government has so far been very measured and calm. We have to support them politically, with visits and dialogue. We have to show them we are not going to impose any outside decisions over the heads of the Ukrainian people, like what happened in Yalta [after WWII]. They have the right to make their own decisions themselves. We must support them economically… That’s why the EU is promoting trade with Ukraine. We are encouraging them to prepare for the upcoming May 25 elections. That’s the answer – show the world that Ukraine is doing its part… Yes, Russia is doing everything it can to ensure the May 25 elections do not take place. We must [counter this] by sending monitors, election monitors, to be present on the ground, to show [Russia] that you cannot deceive us.
Castiel: How do you combat the propaganda that Russia is disseminating about Ukraine?
Kaljurand: It’s a very difficult question. I absolutely agree with you that Russian propaganda is strong. There is almost no free media left in Russia. A part of the Estonian population – along the border – is under the influence of Russian media. And it’s the same for the Russian-speaking regions of other neighboring [Baltic] countries. We have to tell our narrative. We have to say what’s really happening, to answer lies with facts. It’s not easy. But doing nothing will not change anything either. OSCE monitors are in eastern Ukraine. They report daily and have said nothing about any human rights violations against any religious or other minority groups. The Russian propaganda machine has been working quite effectively since the beginning of the Soviet Union. We must counter it.
Castiel: To what extent are ordinary Russians buying this propaganda? Can they see through it or are they being brainwashed by this type of narrative?
Kaljurand: There’s a big difference between the Russian-speaking population in Estonia and in Russia. In Estonia we have alternative channels, Russian-language programs on television, radio. Internet is free. Russia, [on the other hand], is a television country. The majority of Russians get their information from television which is totally state-controlled. So, yes, in that sense, the Russian population is brainwashed. There are a couple relatively free radio stations but their audience is relatively small. The Internet is relatively free, but [the number of news consumers] there is relatively small. So, I do think the majority believes what they see on TV, believes Putin is doing the right thing, and, yes, I think the majority of them are brainwashed.