Weeks after U.S. Ambassador to Estonia George Kent took up his new post in the country, he spoke to VOA about the future of U.S.-Estonia relations, how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected attitudes toward defense spending, and military cooperation, as well as NATO expansion.
Kent is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian bureau at the U.S. State Department. He was also the former deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, Ukraine. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1992.
Kent spoke this week with VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze in Tallinn, Estonia.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: You arrived in Estonia when the biggest war since World War II — Russia's war in Ukraine — started. And this country, in particular, has experienced Soviet occupation. How does the past occupation of Estonia change Estonians’ assessment or their view of this threat from Russia?
Kent: Well, you can see this is the Victims of Communism Memorial. It was built in 2018, and Estonians — who were about a million Estonians before the war — lost 75,000 people through being shot and killed in exile in Siberia. And another estimated 90,000 who were forced into refugee status. So, a country that's relatively small lost 20% of its population between roughly 1940 and 1955. So, I think that experience of Estonians ... experiencing Soviet oppression made them empathetic to what was happening to Ukrainians, particularly over the last year.
VOA: Clearly, the Eastern Europeans are more in tune with these threats, and it seems as if they understand them better. Why do you think it's such a big difference between Eastern and Western Europe?
Kent: I think Estonians have lived the threat. They are neighbors of Russia, and so I think it's not hypothetical for Estonians. So, for others who are further away, it's almost a clinical international relations challenge. And for Estonians, it's both the lived experience of their families, as well as the actual threat right on their borders. And so, for instance, I was given this Ukrainian-colored ribbon at the Estonian National Day [commemoration]. As we went in for the commemoration of Estonia's independence in 1918, everybody was given a Ukrainian ribbon, because for Estonians, they really see the events of today through the lens of their own past.
VOA: In your previous capacity, you were in charge of the U.S. policy toward the region. Had you foreseen that something like this could happen in this region?
Kent: I think many people heard but did not listen to the words of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Russians. They were talking about wanting to expand Russia's territory — the previous lands that were under the Russian empire — and I believe most Westerners thought we are in a different era, that we have a rules-based international order. There are commitments that both Soviet and Russian leaders signed up to, and perhaps we all should have been listening more closely to what Russians were actually saying.
VOA: The U.S. and Estonia have a close relationship, obviously, and Estonia is a front-line country. The U.S. and NATO are helping Estonia boost its military capability. How well is this process going?
Kent: Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin was here three weeks ago, and his messages, I think, were direct and quite relevant to your question. First of all, Estonia has given more assistance per capita to Ukraine than any other country. Second of all, Secretary Austin said he promised the previous Estonian governments were Russia to invade Ukraine more broadly, we, the U.S., would be sending troops to Estonia the next day. And it was a small group, but they were dispatched the next day. Last December, we sent a … HIMARS unit and an infantry company here to Estonia. That was our implementation of the commitments made at the NATO Madrid Summit last year. And leading up to the Vilnius Summit in July, we’re in active discussions led by the NATO Supreme Commander Chris Cavoli about new regional plans. So, I think the events, Russia's wider invasion and war in Ukraine, are also driving considerations within NATO, as well as the discussions between the U.S. and Estonia bilaterally.
VOA: Ukrainian intelligence is assessing that Russia is running out of ammunition, and there is a possibility of China joining forces with Russia in its war in Ukraine. How dangerous can this be?
Kent: I think there's a lot of coverage around the Munich Security Conference. The U.S. clearly has been messaging to Chinese leaders that they should stay out, not support Russia materially in this war. And I think it's pretty clear that the U.S. has a willingness to sanction those who support Russia's war effort. And there were a series of announcements on February 24th, which was the anniversary of the wider invasion, both additional security and assistance, particularly financial assistance that Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken announced, but also a series of sanctions against Russia, against individuals involved in the war effort, involved in what we consider are crimes against humanity. But also sanctions against financial, military, technology and energy sector companies. So, I think that is a very firm signal that the U.S. will sanction those who are involved in supporting Russia's war effort, whether they’re Russians or other countries.
VOA: Russia is making threats of using its nuclear capabilities. Again, Ukrainian intelligence leadership say that nuclear has a more deterrent effect than real weapons and real threats. How would you, and American intelligence, assess the possibility of Russia using nuclear capabilities, and how could this affect the region?
Kent: The rhetoric of threats dates back to really the dawn of the nuclear age. Nuclear weapons have never been used, even though leaders of the Soviet Union, now Russia, threaten the potential use. So, I think people need to keep that in perspective. We have a long history of remaining calm, and that's the right approach. There were horrific pictures over the weekend of the latest town which Russia has completely destroyed — Marinka — and many people were comparing what Marinka looks now to [how] Hiroshima did after use of a nuclear weapon.
In essence, Russia has been using conventional means to achieve the same effect, and I think that's something also to consider, given the death of Ukrainian civilians in Mariupol, the total destruction of many cities by Russian artillery. I think Ukrainians have sent the signal that they are going to continue to fight for their country, for their survival, and the U.S. will remain calm and not respond to those sorts of verbal threats.