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VOA Interview: Estonian Prime Minister Calls for End to Europe's 'Gray Zones'

FILE - Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks with the media as she arrives for a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023.
FILE - Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks with the media as she arrives for a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023.

After 21 months of Russia's war in Ukraine, Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says there is much more on the line for the Western world than Russia seizing its neighbor's territory. She says malign actors globally are watching how the Ukraine war ends and if they see aggression paying off, the world will see many more conflicts.

In an interview with Ia Meurmishvili of VOA's Georgian service Tuesday while visiting Washington, Kallas discussed whether western support for Ukraine is sustainable, the status of efforts to seize Russian frozen assets in Europe, and her push to eliminate so-called "gray zones" — areas between the west and Russia, where Moscow's efforts to exert influence threaten Europe's security.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: How do you think the Ukraine war is going?

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas: We are in the war of attrition. It is not a stalemate, but it takes a long time. In war of attrition, you basically have three elements. You have the people, you have the resources, and then you have the morale. Russia is thinking that they can outlast Ukraine. But I have a reason to believe that our support to Ukraine can outlast Russia. In terms of people — Europe is training 30 to 40,000 [Ukranian] soldiers. If America is doing the same, it is 80,000 trained soldiers versus conscripts that are sent to the battle from the Russian side. So, we can outlast them in terms of people.

In terms of resources — the combined GDP of Europe is seven times bigger than that of Russia. We also see the sanctions kicking in, which means that the Russian budget is really in trouble. They have lost one-third of their budget and they cannot get any outside. They are in trouble. And, in terms of military aid — if you think of the Ramstein Coalition, then the defense budget of the Ramstein Coalition is 13 times bigger than that of Russia. So, we can outlast there.

And the third element is the morale of Ukrainians fighting for their homes. Their morale is definitely higher than that of Russia. What we also have to do is believe in Ukraine's victory.

VOA: Do you think this support is sustainable?

Kallas: The U.S. gave a lot of support to Ukraine, and you can say that Europe was a bit behind. But Europe has now picked up the pace and, if you think about the military aid given now, plus the future pledges, then it is bigger in absolute numbers than that of the United States'.

All the leaders in Europe have put their political will behind supporting Ukraine because it is fundamental for the peace in the world that the aggression does not pay off. Because all the aggressors or would-be aggressors in the world are carefully taking notes. If Russia walks away with more territory than they have, and we say that, okay, let's draw the line here, then all the aggressors and would-be aggressors are seeing that the aggression pays off. So, we will see more of it, and that is going to be more expensive than to support Ukraine so that Russia will lose this war. I totally agree with the historian Timothy Snyder, who said that in order for a country to become better, it has to lose its last colonial war. If you think about European history that is true for many European countries. Russia has never lost its last colonial war.

VOA: Why do you think it is important for the U.S. to keep engaged?

Kallas: For me, the question is always of the alternative. Is the alternative to supporting Ukraine right now more expensive or is it cheaper? I say that it's more expensive, because all the malign actors are very carefully looking — Iran, North Korea. If Russia walks away, and nothing happens to them with more territories than they had before, [if] they do not lose their last colonial war, then others will try to do this in the world as well, and that is going to be detrimental to the world peace.

VOA: Do you see any movement towards seizing the frozen assets of Russia in Europe and using that money for the Ukrainian recovery?

Kallas: Yes, the European Commission is working on the European solution. In Estonia, we drafted a law that is tackling the same issue. So basically, how it works is that in Hague, in the International Criminal Court, there is a registry that is registering all the damages that Russia is causing to Ukraine, and its cost. At the same time, we have the assets that are frozen or sanctioned and we know the value of those assets. Russia has a legitimate claim towards us regarding those assets. Ukraine has a legitimate claim towards Russia. So, we make a settlement with those claims so that we can use those assets in favor of Ukraine. And after the war ends, and Russia has paid all the reparations to Ukraine and there is something left over, then we can return this.

I think this is fundamental because nobody wants to take this from the taxpayers' money, but it's also fundamental in order to think outside of the box, what really influences the Russian elite or the cronies around the Kremlin to have a pressure to really stop this war. And the war will stop when Russia realizes it cannot win there, and that it was a mistake.

VOA: Are your partners listening to your call to eliminate the "gray zones"?

Kallas: I think everybody has understood that the gray zones are sources of conflicts and wars. For us to not have wars, it has to be clear where the lines really are. The question has been from the start, is the unity now collapsing? But it has not. Of course, we are all democracies, and in democracies we debate, we have different opinions. But the point is that we come to a mutual decision. As [Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not believe in multilateralism so it has been a negative surprise to him that we have been able to keep our unity together and we should continue negatively surprising him.

VOA: And now he is uniting with China, North Korea and Iran.

Kallas: Exactly. There are clear authoritarian regimes fighting against the democracies in the world and for freedom, really. And [the] question is, who gets to rule the world, whether it's freedom and prosperity, or is it authoritarian regimes that have other values?