President Vladimir Putin has lied about being afraid of NATO and we must never believe this lie again, former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid (2016-2021) told the Financial Times newspaper.
If Putin were really afraid of NATO and believed the alliance may attack Russia he would not remove troops and military equipment from Russia's borders with NATO, Kaljulaid told the Rachmann Review podcast during a 20-minute interview.
"Putin has long lied to us that he is afraid of NATO and we have now caught him out collectively because if you are afraid of NATO and you plan an operation in Ukraine, you do not deplete your own forces right behind the NATO borders to levels which no one even remembers," she said.
"Putin has sent everything he has behind the Norwegian borders, Finnish borders, Estonia, Latvian and Lithuanian borders down south, so he is not at all afraid of NATO. We should never again believe this lie. If he was afraid he would not deplete his own positions.
"NATO is a defensive organization and we [the allies] know it. He has pretended he does not believe it. We [have] caught him out now."
The former one-term president said it is a good thing that Putin has moved his forces to Ukraine as Estonia has also depleted a lot of its own reserves.
"Our own warehouses are relatively empty and if it was not the same situation on the other side of the border we could actually be very nervous. Luckily, it is," she told journalist Gideon Rachmann.
Allies should step-up aid to Ukraine
Kaljulaid, Estonia's first female president, said the full-scale war in Ukraine has reminded people of Russia's past actions and that Ukraine is not a one-off.
"We have been reminded what Russian occupation is, what it always was. It was always like that. It was like that in the Baltics in the 1940s, in Germany under the Soviet occupation - rape, murder. It is not [about] territory. This is what we have to remember all the time," she said.
Kaljulaid, a member of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) organization which connects Ukraine to international partners, said not enough has been done to help Ukraine and countries can "step up" further.
She said military aid sent to the country has helped Ukraine find a "balance" but it has not helped "actually turn the tables".
"I think we should remember that every day we speak and deliberate, hundreds of Ukrainians are dying each day. Thousands each month, And this is horrible," she said.
Putin is someone who sees himself as "restoring Russian glory", she said when asked what the Russian president's motivation is.
Not all Russians support Putin, but Russia must be held responsible
Kaljualid does not believe all Russians are responsible for Putin's actions or that inaction or unwillingness to protest is "the character of the nation".
"Russia is a big country, not densely populated, and life is hard. So organizing opposition is not so easy. Same with Belarus, but the Belarusian people finally had enough and reacted. But I would never say it is the character of a nation. The socioeconomic circumstances in Russia has allowed a simple man to believe he is just a simple man and nothing depends on him or her. And this, of course, means it is easier not to do anything, to think "nothing depends on me". This is very common, I grew up under Soviet occupation and nobody could decide anything, nobody was responsible for anything," she said.
"This doesn't mean I think every Russian person voluntarily partakes of this socioeconomic system. And I have many times said myself, notably about Russian people in the Baltics and Estonia, that just because your grandmother lives in Rostov and you love Russian culture and language, I do not think you support Putin. Some do. But in Estonia, at least most don't."
However, she said that right now the nation must be held collectively responsible.
"But I do understand that right at this moment we hold everybody responsible and [there should be] no participation in sports competitions etc. Your country [attacked] Ukraine, and, of course, it is tragic and sad, but think of Ukrainian children, women bring raped, killed. This is even more tragic and sad," she said.
Estonia's trust in NATO has risen
Speaking about the mood in Estonia, she said Estonians trust NATO and this may have increased after Finland and Sweden decided to join the alliance.
"Most of us trust NATO because it has 100 percent track record [...] but Finnish and Swedish people who are very close to Estonia, putting such trust into NATO all of a sudden reinforced Estonia's self-assurance that being a member of NATO is what is making us safe," Kaljualid said.
She said she was happy with the decisions made at the NATO Madrid summit to reinforce the Baltic states.
A transcript of the interview can be read on the FT's website here.
Editor: Helen Wright