Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is treading carefully. Sitting in her office this past week, she said she believes Vice President Pence’s assurances that, despite President Trump’s skepticism, the United States is committed to NATO. A NATO battalion just arrived to make this small and vulnerable Baltic nation feel safer from Russia, a powerful neighbor historically ambivalent about its independence. Kaljulaid, chosen last year as a compromise candidate, spoke to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about Vladimir Putin, NATO and a childhood spent under Soviet occupation. Edited excerpts follow.
Q. Is Russia a threat? Are you worried?
A. Yes, I am worried. Russia is a threat. Not a physical threat to any NATO country but [a threat] to the international security architecture. In 2008, they moved on Georgia.
Q. When Russia occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
A. That was the first sign. It blew over very quickly — European countries went back to business and life continued. This, of course, taught President Putin a lesson: He could push a little more.
Q. He got the message he could do whatever he wants?
A. If he does it bit by bit, yes. When he went into Crimea, it stopped for a while because the European countries and America this time recognized that they needed to draw a red line. I am afraid now that the resolve of the Western countries may not hold in the case of Ukraine. We need to stand very firm against giving again a message to Putin that it will blow over. Sometimes politicians say, “Let’s build a new security architecture.” Do you build anything on shifting ground? I don’t think so.
Q. Are you referring to President Trump?
A. No, I am not referring to anyone in particular, but every now and then you hear, “Sanctions are not working, we need to try a different approach, we need to talk to Russia.” We need to restore our security architecture and then talk to Russia.
Q. So you want the sanctions to stay on Russia?
Q. Do you think the Europeans will go along with this?
A. Right now, yes. Because Russia is [in] Syria, Libya and the Balkans. We need to recognize there is a wish and a will to destroy the Western security model.
Q. You mean the E.U. and NATO?
A. I mean the overall value-based understanding that states are all equal — that big countries do not make deals over the heads of small countries. You do not attack other countries; you do not change borders. The Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Final Act, and Russia inherited their signature. So they have actually signed not to threaten anybody’s borders.
Q. You’re talking about Crimea?
A. Yes — not to establish war bases in another country unless asked to do so. They basically violated all of this in Ukraine. Russia has shown that it doesn’t care about the value-based world where you do not exercise your power over smaller countries because you can. That is worrisome.
Q. Are you worried Russia will do something here?
A. Actually, no, because of NATO.
Q. So the NATO forward deployments here, in Latvia, in Lithuania and in Poland make you feel safer?
A. We feel safer, and we also feel that in case there are different developments in Russia, the NATO deterrence is adequate. During the Cold War, the NATO umbrella was not just an umbrella on paper. It consisted of equipment and troops. It is exactly the same here now.
Q. Except, of course, now the United States has significantly fewer troops in Europe. It would take America a long time to move troops here.
A. Yes, that is true. NATO troops here are just a tripwire.
Q. How do you see President Trump? Initially he made various statements questioning the value of NATO. Are you concerned that he won’t stand up for NATO?
A. I haven’t met President Trump, but I met Vice President Pence.
Q. Right, but what do you think about Trump?
A. I think what he knows about Europe and the European Union — there are a lot of briefs to be read and learning to be done, which is natural because he is not the first American leader to come into [office] who doesn’t know that much about Europe. About NATO, I think he was quite clear quite early on, and said that NATO needs to think about its strategy as far as fighting against terrorism is concerned and that NATO members should make sure they carry out Article 3 payments.
Q. You mean by paying 2 percent of their GDP toward defense spending? Which you have done, of course.
A. Yes, so we were not threatened by that statement at all. We spend 2.2 percent altogether. We have fought [with NATO] in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have contributed. We don’t plan to consume only.
Q. One possible threat here is that, among the Russian-speaking minority, there is a group of pro-Kremlin radicals.
A. Some Putin radicals speak very good Estonian. We have to make sure we do not take anybody’s language as a primer for what they think. Yana Toom, one of the most prominent Estonian-Russian politicians, said that nobody in Narva wants to wake up one morning in the Russian Federation. I trust her on that. In Estonia, the Russian minority can move freely, travel freely, work anywhere in Europe. Of course we know that Russian [disinformation campaigns] are ongoing everywhere. If we see false news about, let’s say, soldiers attacking a young lady in Lithuania, and then it is wrong, then in whose interest is it to peddle this kind of story? There is only one potential beneficiary. That is Russia.
Q. Your country has more experience than the United States does in recognizing fake news.
A. Yes, we do not run away with the first news, but we try to better understand the facts behind it.
Q. Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said to me that Estonia has had 30 years of the fake news that the United States is just now experiencing.
A. Precisely. If you read the materials in Germany [about] how the KGB and Stasi tried to influence the reelection of Willy Brandt, it is the same story. It is nothing new — just that the technical means make it easier to reach out to a very wide public.
Q. What did you think of this week’s congressional testimony about people in the White House having Russian connections?
A. People everywhere in the world have Russian connections. There is nothing wrong with having Russian connections as long as you’re transparent about it.
Q. But they are basically saying the Russians tried to fix the U.S. election.
A. That is, of course, a whole different story, and I am sure your political system will take care of that. But it also taught a lesson to the European countries facing elections, I’m sure.
Q. Russia is reportedly very interested in the European elections.
A. Yes, definitely. Because the European Union is the protected base of the hated liberal values.
Q. So Russia wants to break up the E.U.?
A. I think they would be happy to see it disintegrate.
Q. Or to see the U.S. split from the E.U.?
A. Precisely. If transatlantic relations are good, we know we can protect our thinking of how the world should look. If they break down, it’s divide and conquer.
Q. When will you meet Trump?
A. I have no idea.
Q. If you could have your wish, would you like more troops and equipment here?
A. I would say that first we need to make sure that NATO’s command structure knows how it would react to [any Russian actions]. They have to agree on how to get the follow-up troops in. This is what, in fact, makes our deterrence believable. Again, I do not think there is danger to any NATO country physically. If the danger comes, it is more probably a communication attack — maybe cutting off some of the power system.
Q. I heard you are very interested in shifting Estonia away from dependence on the Russian power grid?
A. Definitely. We do not buy Russian electricity, [but] we are connected to the Russian grid. We think it would be better if we were connected to the European energy grid. It is just an additional layer of security.
Q. You previously spent 12 years in the E.U.’s Court of Auditors. Then, last fall, Estonia couldn’t find a president, and you were brought back as a compromise candidate?
A. Probably something like this, yes.
Q. Did you ever imagine you would be president?
A. No, of course not. There had been discussions with the party of Christian Democrats — the center-right — asking if I would consider being their candidate. But I knew our system needed a compromise candidate. I was not ready to be a one-party candidate.
Q. So you stayed in the E.U. during these discussions?
Q. Then they called and told you they could not agree on a candidate? And you said?
A. It took some soul-searching to see if I was ready to take on this responsibility. I had been away from the country for 12 years, and even if I had regularly written articles about the economy and politics and the European Union, nevertheless, to the wider public, I was an unknown figure.
Q. And you have a lot of children?
A. Yes, I do. But two are grown-ups — I am a grandmother already. And two are small. Right now, there is a 12-year-old and a soon-to-be 8-year-old. My husband mostly takes care of them.
Q. Estonia is going to assume the presidency of the E.U. this summer, right? Will this make Estonia more of a target for Russia?
A. If there are attacks on social media against the E.U. institutions during that period, it could also be an attack on our presidency.
Q. What would you like to achieve as president of the E.U.?
A. The first priority is to deal with security of our borders, as far as terrorism is concerned. To recognize who comes into and out of the Schengen Area, E.U. countries must be interconnected and allowed to share information. . . . If you want to have Schengen borders open, you need to make sure that the external borders are fully controlled.
Q. Did you grow up in Tallinn?
A. I went to primary school in Tallinn and to university in Tartu. I started university when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union and studied natural sciences because I did not want to participate in the system. My mother was a doctor, and I grew up with her in a little apartment belonging to my grandmother, because the Soviet Union never saw fit to let our family have its own apartment. They made my grandmother serve nine years in prison in Siberia for having done nothing — it was my grandfather, not my grandmother, who had worked for the Estonian republic before the second war.
Q. What happened to him?
A. He escaped to Australia. My grandmother came back from Siberia and lived until 1987 — only a few more years and she would have seen Estonia regain independence. From kindergarten, I knew that politics is something that you talk about only at home, because if you weren’t quiet, your parents might be taken to prison. All Estonian families have these kind of stories.