In the ongoing absence of a new ambassador, U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Brian Roraff remains the ranking U.S. diplomat currently serving in Estonia. Tallinn is not his first assignment in the region, however, and as he said in a longer recent interview with ERR News, he knew the focus of the U.S.-Estonian relationship would be security and NATO cooperation.
Aili Vahtla: The U.S. notably hasn't had an ambassador present in Estonia since James D. Melville resigned in summer 2018. When can we expect a new ambassador to be appointed and arrive in Tallinn?
Brian Roraff: Soon, I hope, but I cannot say. The selection and nomination process for the next U.S. ambassador to Estonia is ongoing. A candidate has been identified and is currently being vetted by the White House. We look forward to welcoming them after the nomination and confirmation processes are completed.
But despite the absence of an ambassador, the U.S.-Estonia relationship is as strong as ever.
Vahtla: Has this been made a bigger priority since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24?
Roraff: The top priority for the United States has been close coordination with allies like Estonia. Going back to last November, when we started to sound the alarm about Russia's actions on the Ukrainian border, there has been an increase in consultation at all levels with the Estonian government, particularly in our efforts to jointly provide the assistance Ukraine needs to defend itself.
On regional security issues, our partnership with Estonia has always been a priority, but I think that has become even more apparent given current events.
Vahtla: What functional difference is there between you as deputy head of mission and an ambassador heading the U.S. Embassy?
Roraff: When we have both an ambassador and a deputy chief of mission, the deputy is often more focused on the day-to-day management of the embassy and the execution of policy priorities.
The ambassador is the face and voice of the embassy, as well as our director and chief advocate with Washington in the policymaking process. In the absence of an ambassador, as charge d'affaires, I've had both of these important roles.
Vahtla: How has the embassy's work changed since February 24?
Roraff: Before February 24, our diplomacy was intensively focused on providing our allies declassified intelligence about Russia's military buildup and intent to attack Ukraine. We were coordinating with NATO allies to present a united front to Russia. Much of this diplomacy was a last-ditch effort to avoid the war and to warn Russia of the costs if they were to attack Ukraine. When the war came, the security situation in Europe drastically changed, so our diplomacy has changed.
We are pursuing several goals: first, to help Ukraine win the war by providing weapons and other security assistance; second, to impose costs on Russia; third, to strengthen NATO unity and evolve our force posture in Europe to deter Russian aggression; and finally, to help with the humanitarian response in Ukraine and for refugees from Ukraine who are the victims of Russia's senseless war.
Vahtla: If anything major were to happen in Estonia, what kind of assistance can U.S. citizens here expect to receive?
Roraff: Our embassy's top priority is the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Estonia. The actions we take depend on the nature of the crisis — we may provide information on conditions, where and how to seek help, and other useful information.
We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens register [with the U.S. State Department] through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive up-to-date safety and security information as well as to help us reach you in the event of an emergency. Just as we did as the threat grew in Ukraine, we share credible threat information with American citizens.
Vahtla: Other than enrolling in STEP, are there any other precautionary steps U.S. citizens in the region could or should take?
Roraff: Estonia is currently at Level 1 of the U.S. Department of State's travel advisory system, so we encourage U.S. citizens to exercise normal precautions — enroll in STEP, read any new travel advisories and alerts, make sure your travel documents are up to date, review the country security report, and prepare a contingency plan for any emergency situations.
Preparation is key, whether you're at home or abroad. Know where your documents are and have back-up copies. Keep a list of your emergency contacts handy, and create a communication plan for reaching family and friends. Think ahead and make a plan in the event of a crisis.
Vahtla: How are plans for the new embassy complex at Suur-Ameerika 3, next door to the so-called Superministry building, coming along?
Roraff: Plans are progressing. We are in the detail planning process now, which means we have submitted an initial proposal to the City of Tallinn, and we are waiting for their feedback to determine next steps.
I am optimistic that the process will continue to move forward, but we are realistically several steps away from a clear timeline on groundbreaking and actual construction.
Vahtla: Have U.S. and Estonian officials reconsidered any security concerns or features of the planned embassy building over the past two months?
Roraff: We are regularly in touch with our counterparts at the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and the Ministry of the Interior regarding the security situation in Estonia. Thankfully, we have not seen any cause to reconsider the embassy's security posture over the past two months, and there are no expectations that we change any of the physical security features planned for the new embassy.
Vahtla: What is the current state of negotiations for a permanent NATO base in Estonia?
Roraff: Talks about NATO's approach to the evolving security environment and changes to its posture on the eastern flank are ongoing in Brussels. The U.S. and Estonia are actively involved in conversations that will lead into the NATO summit in Madrid in June, which will guide the alliance's approach.
One thing has been made clear time and time again since February 24 — the alliance is fully united to defend and protect every inch of NATO territory, and the U.S. would do so with the full force of our power.
Vahtla: Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, Estonia's major western islands, have expressed interest in a naval base, potentially even NATO presence, and a coastal defense unit, respectively. Is this something already on the U.S. or NATO's radar?
Roraff: Allied awareness of what is happening on the Baltic Sea is an important facet of regional security, and we have worked closely with the Estonian government on improving Baltic Sea security; a significant portion of our security assistance to Estonia is dedicated to this.
We are aware of interest in a more active naval presence on the islands, and understand that [Estonia's] Ministry of Defense is currently reviewing these requests.
Vahtla: What about other planned changes to rotating or permanent presence in the region?
Roraff: Since February, the U.S. has bolstered our troop presence in Europe by roughly 20,000 personnel. President [Joe] Biden also recently authorized the movement of some of those U.S. forces to strengthen our support for allies on NATO's eastern flank. This included an infantry battalion task force of approximately 800 personnel that moved from Italy to the Baltic region.
We continue to regularly evaluate our force posture and work in concert with other NATO allies to ensure we bolster our deterrence and defensive presence in the region.
Vahtla: It was announced in March that new battlegroups would be established in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, joining the four already operational in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. What can we expect from those?
Roraff: I'll defer to NATO on the composition and objectives of those battlegroups, but I will say that NATO has clearly demonstrated over the past two months that it is fully committed to adapting and stepping up its presence on the eastern flank to respond to Russia's war on Ukraine and to show Russia that NATO will defend every alliance member.
Vahtla: How do these battlegroups fit in with NATO's Multinational Corps Northeast, especially with the expansion as such southward along the alliance's eastern flank?
Roraff: Again, I'd defer to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) on these plans. We know that NATO's strength lies in its unity and its core task of collective defense. We anticipate robust discussions of our future deterrence and defense posture leading into the NATO summit this June, where this will be an area of active discussion.
Vahtla: You've surely seen the bar graphs floating around since mid-April from the Kiel Institute's Ukraine Support Tracker, one of which features Estonia clearly in the lead in terms of bilateral aid to Ukraine as a percentage of state GDP, and the U.S. clearly in the lead — although notably followed here by Estonia as well — in terms of bilateral aid to Ukraine in absolute billions of euros. Why is each figure important?
Roraff: It's important because it shows how strong our mutual support for Ukraine is. Estonia, in fact, was one of the few countries — like the United States — that was urgently working to provide weapons and support to Ukraine even before Russia invaded on February 24. These numbers show that the U.S., Estonia and so many other allies and partners are fully committed to Ukrainian sovereignty and to the people of Ukraine. We are all making important contributions to help and to demonstrate that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes to win this war.
Vahtla: What is the U.S.' take on Estonia's definitive lead in Ukraine aid?
Roraff: It's impressive. There's a clear reason why so many Ukrainian leaders have singled out the Estonian response — the generosity of the Estonian government and the people of Estonia has been remarkable.
Vahtla: April 26 marked the 15th anniversary of the Bronze Night, or April Unrest, in connection with the relocation of the Bronze Soldier, a Soviet World War II memorial, to the Defense Forces Cemetery of Tallinn. Recent years in particular have seen a lot of news reach even Estonia surrounding the removal or relocation of various Confederate monuments and statues in particular from various sites across the U.S., a move that some critics are asserting amounts to efforts to "erase history." Do you think the U.S. could learn from Estonia and Europe's examples regarding how to handle preserving uglier chapters of its history without glorifying them?
Roraff: This is a tough issue that I think both the U.S. and Estonia continue to grapple with. The case of the U.S. may be a bit different, as many Confederate monuments were placed well after the Civil War was concluded, in some cases as a defense of racial segregation. In those situations, the effort to rename places or remove these monuments does not constitute an effort to "erase history," but insead reflects a new understanding of our nation's history.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, "We are not the makers of history; we are made by history." I think that is a really important lesson to remember.
Vahtla: On a related note, Estonia recently passed legislation banning the public use of various symbols to incite hatred, but intentionally left wiggle room in the wording of the law to leave it open to both interpretation and change. Do you think this was the right move?
Roraff: As a diplomat, I don't comment on Estonia's domestic policy. I will leave the critique, good or bad, to the people of Estonia.
Vahtla: While the swastika, for example, is pretty widely condemned and avoided in the U.S., other controversial symbols, such as the hammer and sickle, are not; the latter can still be found on t-shirts in retail sale, for example. Should the U.S. follow Estonia and other countries' suit regarding these symbols, or should efforts be focused on improving education and awareness regarding their meaning instead?
Roraff: Education and awareness are very important. In the U.S., we have laws that protect the freedom of speech, and also laws that codify hate crimes based on a bias against the victim's race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or gender. I do think it is possible to have both.
Vahtla: According to its recently published 2021-2022 yearbook, the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) — or Kapo, locally — considers China to be increasingly active in Estonia, which it highlighted as a concern. What is the U.S. Embassy or U.S.' stance more generally on this?
Roraff: Strategic competition is the frame through which the United States views its relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC). The U.S. continues to work closely with our allies and partners, like Estonia, to defend our interests and values as it pertains to the PRC.
We continue to raise our concerns about the PRC's efforts to amplify Kremlin disinformation related to [Russian'] President [Vladimir] Putin's unjustified and unprovoked war against Ukraine. We also continue to watch closely to see if the PRC will materially aid Russia's war effort in any way. If the PRC does do this, we have made clear that there would be strong consequences from not only the United States, but from our allies and partners around the world.
Vahtla: In addition to the significant aid the U.S. is sending to Ukraine, what, if any, aid is it sending or help is it providing to countries in Europe taking in refugees from Ukraine?
Roraff: As part of the $13.6 billion Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act signed by President Biden in March, the U.S. is providing resources to help Ukraine and its neighbors address the immense humanitarian crisis caused by Russia's actions.
We have provided $302 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees, and are actively coordinating with our European partners, humanitarian organizations, the UN, and other organizations to ensure assistance gets to the places that need it most.
Vahtla: What is the U.S. Embassy doing in Estonia to help the refugee crisis here?
Roraff: The response of our embassy community has been similar to the response of people across Estonia — some have donated money, some have donated food, some have donated clothes, bedding and other household supplies.
On a policy level, we are in regular contact with the Estonian government, the Estonian Refugee Council and other humanitarian organizations to see if there are other ways that we can help facilitate coordination and assistance for refugees here in Estonia.
Vahtla: Are any refugees being resettled in the U.S.?
Roraff: Absolutely. President Bident recently announced the "Uniting for Ukraine" program, which aims to increase refugee resettlement processing and broadened access to visa processing at consular posts overseas for Ukrainians and others fleeing Russia's aggression. The initial goal is to welcome up to 100,000 under this program.
Vahtla: There have been stories in the media this spring about concerns in Germany, for example, regarding travel to the Baltics. How do Americans currently feel about it? Has the war in Ukraine affected their travel plans or interest in the region?
Roraff: We do get some questions and concerns from American citizens about security issues, but as we continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and limited travel opportunities, I think there is great interest in Estonia. We also tell interested travelers that Estonia is currently at a Level 1 travel advisory.
Vahtla: Speaking of COVID, the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over, and COVID itself hasn't disappeared, howver increasing numbers of restrictions are being lifted in Estonia as the epidemiological situation changes. How has the U.S. Embassy coped with the pandemic?
Roraff: I think we coped with the pandemic as well as anyone in Estonia did. Unfortunately, the number one thing we missed was the chance to get out of Tallinn and to engage face-to-face with people across Estonia.
This summer, especially as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S.-Estonian relations, we are trying to get back to that important outreach.
Vahtla: In addition to the often talked about bilateral and NATO-based defense cooperation between the U.S. and Estonia, what other fields are the two countries cooperating in?
Roraff: Beyond security and diplomatic cooperation, I'd say the two other primary areas of cooperation for the U.S. and Estonia are on economic and cultural issues.
Economically, we are promoting trade, building connections that encourage investment and promoting mutual economic growth through entrepreneurship and innovation. Culturally, we are promoting people-to-people ties that highlight our shared values, ideals and interests through education, the arts and civic engagement.
Vahtla: The focus often seems to be on what the U.S. is contributing to or doing in Estonia, but what is Estonia contributing to or doing in the U.S.?
Roraff: That's a great question. Our colleagues at the Estonian Embassy in Washington are the real experts, but I would say the Estonian government is leading our cooperation on cyber issues and our efforts to promote good governance and transparency in the Eastern Partnership region and parts of Africa.
Thanks to Estonian business innovations, we also now have delivery robots on U.S. college campuses and package terminals in many U.S. grocery store parking lots!
Vahtla: It's a bit of a running joke in Estonia that the U.S. still writes checks and uses fax machines, things that people here have only ever heard rumors about or seen on American TV and movies. A lot of bureaucratic stuff like medical records, taxes and birth and marriage certificates are also long since online and centralized here. What is the current state of these services in the U.S., and have Americans picked up any ideas from "e-Estonia's" digital solutions?
Roraff: You've definitely hit on one theme where the U.S. can learn much from Estonia — and I think we are, slowly but surely. If you follow the American media closely enough, you will see a story every couple of months about new innovations in U.S. digital governance — and more often than not, it cites an example from Estonia.
Vahtla: Estonia is by far not your first rodeo in the Foreign Service, and neither is Eastern Europe, for that matter; you've previously worked in both Kyiv and Moscow, among a long list of other assignments. Much, of course, has changed over the past two decades as well. What did you know about Estonia as you first joined the Foreign Service in 2002, and how does that compare with your experiences working here now?
Roraff: Because I worked in many countries that bordered Russia, I had a good sense of the security threats Estonia faced. Nobody needed to tell me Russia was a danger, and I knew the focus of our relationship would be security and working together in NATO.
What surprised me was Estonia's global outlook. Among other things, it successfully served on the UN Security Council, runs e-governance programs for countries in Europe and Africa, and was part of military missions far away from the Russian border — in Mali particularly. Estonia recognizes that the security of all states, and in particular small states, relies on states adhering to international law and observing international norms.
To that end, Estonia contributes to building democracy and maintaining security in order to support a stable and open international system. Estonia's work in these areas directly supports its own security.
Vahtla: The U.S. and Estonia are celebrating the 100th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations this July, and recently kicked off its "100 Days to 100 Years" program to mark the occasion. What are you looking forward to the most in this time?
Roraff: I am excited about highlighting the many partners and friends, across the whole country, who made the U.S.-Estonia relationship what it is today.
I am proud of our diplomatic achievements together — but I think I am most proud of what we have done to promote shared values and shared interests. Without a doubt, the strength of our relationship comes from the people and organizations who have made it.
Vahtla: The embassy's USandEstonia.ee timeline highlights several key moments directly involving the Estonian-American diaspora — many of which were personal to me and my family no less. What ties does the U.S. maintain with its Estonian-American diaspora?
Roraff: The Estonian-American diaspora plays a crucial role in the U.S.-Estonia partnership. I've met with leaders from the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) and other regional Estonian-American groups a number of times, as have my colleagues across the embassy and our counterparts at the State Department in Washington.
We discuss policy with the diaspora community, but most often we talk about ways that we can work together to bolster people-to-people connections between the U.S. and Estonia.
Vahtla: How often does the U.S. Embassy get contacted by Americans, but also specifically Estonian-Americans, interested in coming to Estonia to live, work or study?
Roraff: Estonia is a great place to be an expat. I would guess that for every American we do hear from, there are at least two more who have come to Estonia on their own via business, educational, or personal connections. I think there is more interest than we know.
Vahtla: Frederick W. B. Coleman was the first U.S. envoy appointed to Estonia — and concurrently Latvia and Lithuania — where he served from 1922-1931. Do you know anything more about his and the U.S. representation's work from that time period, including any specific goals or accomplishments?
Roraff: There are some great stories from that time — the visit of the USS Pittsburgh in 1923 where the crew played baseball against a local team to raise money for a children's relief fund, and the U.S. consul and his wife, Harry and Laura Carlson, who received the Order of the Estonian Red Cross, 2nd Class for their humanitarian services are two that come to mind.
But really the biggest accomplishment of the U.S. mission during that time was building the foundations of a relationship that endures today. We often point to the 1940 Welles Declaration, where the United States refused to recognize the illegal Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, as the basis of our relationship. But the groundwork for that declaration was laid by Frederick W. B. Coleman and the five chiefs of mission that followed him between 1922 and 1940.
I also find it fun every day to come to work in the very building where we had our embassy in the 1930s!
Vahtla: How have U.S. diplomatic goals in Estonia changed since 1922, and what, if anything, has remained the same?
Roraff: I think the biggest change in Estonian foreign policy since the 1920s and '30s is summed up in the mantra, as I've heard my Estonian friends say, "never again alone." Since Estonia's restoration of independence [in 1991], we indeed work every day to make sure Estonia is never again alone.
And therefore, we work together to bolster regional and transatlantic security. We encourage economic growth and engagement. We promote our shared democratic values. And we support the people-to-people ties that make our relationship so strong.
Vahtla: What plans does the U.S. Embassy in Estonia, and the U.S. more broadly in connection with Estonia, have for the next 100 years?
Roraff: In the short term, we're excited about resuming our regional outreach around Estonia and being an active part of the festivals, celebrations and other events that we've missed out on due to the pandemic.
In the long term, I really look forward to seeing how the United States and Estonia will work together to address broader global issues. We saw a window into this over the past two years with Estonia's role on the UN Security Council. We've also seen it at work during the war in Ukraine. Estonia and its leaders have demonstrated that they are capable and ready to play an even more active role on the global stage.
Vahtla: Where else is the U.S. Embassy active in Estonia?
Roraff: We have four American Spaces across Estonia — in Kuressaare, Viljandi, Tallinn, and Narva — that serve as programming spaces and information centers for U.S. culture, the English language and more. We also have great partnerships in Tartu and Pärnu, and we try our best to spread our programming to smaller communities across the country.
During our current celebration of the 100th anniversary of U.S.-Estonian relations, we've set the ambitious goal of visiting and doing programming in all 15 counties over a 100-day period!
Vahtla: Does the embassy have any plans to further extend its network in the coming years?
Roraff: We do not have plans to expand our American Spaces network in Estonia — those decisions are actually controlled by our colleagues in Washington, not us here in Tallinn. But we do have plans to return to more regular regional outreach in the coming years.
Vahtla: Which other embassies in Tallinn does the U.S. Embassy cooperate or enjoy particularly close ties with?
Roraff: There is a great diplomatic community in Tallinn, and we have good cooperation with a number of other embassies, especially our NATO partners.
Last fall, for instance, we organized an exhibition of the famous Hungarian-American war photographer Robert Capa with the Hungarian Embassy. For several years in a row, we have coordinated a joint statement to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Last year, 13 embassies joined the statement, along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Vahtla: How much have you been able to travel around the country and attend different events outside of Tallinn?
Roraff: Despite COVID, I think I have seen a lot of Estonia! My daughters love Tartu and the AHHAA Science Center, so that is a regular destination, as is Pärnu so they can visit Lottemaa in the summer.
Most recently I visited Saaremaa with a delegation from the state of Pennsylvania to unveil a historical marker to commemorate the birthplace of Louis Kahn, the world-renowned architect who spent most of his career in Philadelphia but was in fact born on Saaremaa in 1901.
I am very fond of Tallinn, but the fun part about working in the embassy is getting out of the capital, and I've done so to Narva, Viljandi, Paide, Kilingi-Nõmme and a number of other places.
Vahtla: Food is very much intertwined with culture, as is evident in the passion diaspora Estonians continue to display in passing down but also adapting Estonian dishes in their homes all over the world. What is your favorite food-related experience in Estonia thus far?
Roraff: I don't know if I have any spectacular food "experiences" to share, but my wife and I love dining out and we have been lucky to be in Estonia. Like no other country I've served in before, you can walk into most any restaurant and it will be superb quality, with interesting and original menus.
I must say I was amused recently when I visited a historic restaurant in Saaremaa and their lunch special was a pulled pork barbecue sandwich — just like we were in North Carolina!
I'd add that anything cooked on the grill out in the country in July will be delicious.
Vahtla: What is your favorite Estonian dish or food item?
Roraff: When it comes to favorite Estonian dishes, I like mulgipuder [mashed potatoes with barley] a lot, not only because I love the taste, but because I enjoy the faces of my American friends when I describe it to them.
For comfort food, I will always remember eating verivorst [blood sausage] at Christmastime. It's the perfect time of the year.
Vahtla: Least favorite?
Roraff: I have really tried to enjoy sea buckthorn! I've tried juices, mustards, cocktails — everything. I know it's good for me, but maybe I need another summer or two to truly appreciate it.
Vahtla: And finally, what's still left on your Estonia bucket list?
Roraff: I am fascinated by the island of Ruhnu, in the middle of the Gulf of Riga. Maybe I will make it there someday.
Brian Roraff is a member of the Senior Foreign Service in the United States whose previous assignments have included deputy director of the Office of Eastern European Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, senior U.S. civilian at the Lithuanian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ghor Province, Afghanistan, consular officer in Kyiv and economic and science officer in Moscow.
Roraff has served as charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn since July 2019, and in the ongoing absence of a new ambassador remains the ranking U.S. diplomat in Estonia. He joined the Foreign Service in 2002.
Editor: Aili Vahtla