ERR in Ukraine: Kallas advises Kyiv to focus on NATO membership

Kaja Kallas visits Ukraine, April 24, 2023.
Kaja Kallas visits Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma / riigikantselei

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visited Kyiv on Monday. Speaking about the European Union, Kallas gave Ukraine reason to expect more progress. However, she also advised Ukraine against asking for NATO security guarantees and to instead focus on the goal of attaining membership to the alliance. All this against the backdrop of Ukraine's long-anticipated spring counter-offensive.

Kyiv's cafes will stay packed until the curfew kicks in at midnight. As the alarm sounds on a Monday evening, Estonian Embassy staff and members of the government delegation reflect on the day's events.

There were warm greetings for Kaja Kallas at the Zhytomyr train station. Then, a long conversation between the Estonian Prime Minister and one of the world's most important leaders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In  subsequent meetings with the Ukrainian prime minister, interior minister and defense minister, the mantra was simple: Ukraine must win this war.

Speaking to students at Zhytomyr University, Kallas said, that she always takes foreign visitors in Estonia to the Riigikogu's hall of state ancestors. "I show them the dates when these people lived. They were all killed at the start of the occupation, only one managed to escape to Sweden," Kallas explained. "Because of that, we must not just let these (Ukrainian) territories be occupied." 

It is not a message Ukrainians need to be persuaded of. The country's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also reiterated after meeting Kallas, that Ukraine fully intends to win the war. And victory means driving the enemy out of the country. However, during the brief press conference, Zelenskyy did not touch upon the topic of the hotly anticipated spring counter-offensive.

Kaja Kallas visits Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma / riigikantselei

How decisive will the spring counter-offensive be?

Talk of a Ukrainian spring counter-offensive is not running wild. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Andrii Sybiha, deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said that there was no room for error. "We are at a decisive moment," he said. "We need to demonstrate progress." 

In one way or another, similar sentiments have been expressed by several senior Ukrainian politicians and officials. The message appears to have resonated even further in both the Ukrainian and international press. There is a mood of anticipation in the air.

Estonian Ambassador to Ukraine Kaimo Kuusk pointed towards his office a few floors up in Kyiv's Estonian Embassy building, recalling how he made comments to journalists from there on February 24 last year. "I remember, that from that moment, the next three hours were critical. Then the next day was critical, then the next week," Kuusk said.

"The counter-attacks are happening in waves, they began last spring. The communication, which is coming from here to suggest that the next attack is critical, is also being said so as to get and keep allied military support," Kuusk continued.

A few months ago, a year after Russia's full-scale invasion began, Zelenskyy told a news conference that he had a firm plan of how to win the war. The kind that includes clear dates, the size of the units needed and the amount of military assistance required.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during Kaja Kallas' visit to Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma / riigikantselei

"If everyone sticks to their word, if everyone sticks to their schedule and if everyone does their job, then victory is possible this year," Zelenskyy said. Whether that schedule and the Ukrainians' expectations have been met was unclear after the latest Ramstein Air Base meeting on April 21. Or rather, it appeared from the coverage that while a lot has been done, it is not necessarily enough.

"Everything that arrives, arrives a day too late," Kuusk said, conveying the words Kallas heard from Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksi Reznikov. At the same time, the country that has been bleeding for freedom has been quite clear since the beginning of the war. They are sincerely grateful for the help they have received.

Kuusk: Every victory brings hope

"You always need more," said Kallas, who added, that Ukraine had not given Estonia a wish list. "The Ukrainians also know that we have helped them as much as we can,. Their primary request was, that since we have been such strong advocates (for their cause), we should talk to our allies about what they still need." 

But if the amount of military aid is not as much as had been hoped for, will an offensive against an enemy, which is clearly stronger on the ground and in the air, be successful? That depends on a huge number of factors and is difficult to predict without knowing what Ukraine's plans for the counter-offensive are.

"If, instead of two oblasts (provinces or regions - ed. ), you take back half an oblast, that too is a victory," said Kuusk, who added the Ukrainian people are looking forward to these kinds of victories. "What really makes people impatient is, that the last tangible victory came in November, when the western part of Kherson was retaken. Every victory brings hope, and that's what a country at war needs. For us Estonians too."

Late in the evening, as the train, with its dimmed windows, lurched back towards Poland, Prime Minister Kallas said, that war fatigue was being felt everywhere. Even among Ukraine's allies. "And for those that they are farther away from Russia, other concerns seem to have taken over," said Kallas, who added, that it is Estonia's role to continue to explain to others what is at stake in this war. "But it is getting harder all the time," the prime minister said.

Kallas also visited the streets of Bucha, where a year ago bodies of the dead lay on the ground. At the time, it was a wake-up call for many countries to help Ukraine. Kallas said, that every successive act of Russian horror, up to and including the recent beheading of a Ukrainian soldier, has less and less impact on the international community.

Kaja Kallas visits Bucha, Ukraine (April 23, 2024) Source: Jürgen Randma /Government Communications Office

Kallas advises Ukraine to stop asking for security guarantees 

Kallas is convinced that Ukraine has a place in both NATO and the European Union in the future, as does Kyiv. However, the question of how and when Ukraine will get there is more complicated. 

According to a report by the Lithuanian national broadcaster during the NATO Summit on June 11-12 a no-fly zone will be in place over Vilnius, with a number of streets closed off and some hospital wards kept empty just in case.

However, what ends up being agreed in Vilnius is only likely to emerge in the final moments before the meeting. The Ukrainians are expecting two things - a clear roadmap to NATO membership and security guarantees. 

Secretary General of the Estonian Ministry  of Foreign Affairs Jonatan Vseviov promised, that Estonia will continue working to support Ukraine. However, he also noted, that a text agreed upon by all 31 EU member states will eventually have to be put down on paper. According to Kallas, she explained to Zelenskyy the potential pitfalls for Ukraine if it insists on its current wishes.

"He (Zelenskyy -ed.) wants security guarantees in the way Finland and Sweden got them before joining NATO," Kallas said. "I said that the difference between you and Finland and Sweden is that you are at war and they are not. It's easy to give guarantees like that, but nobody wants to take NATO to war."

Kallas told Zelenskyy that Ukraine should keep its focus on achieving one goal - NATO membership. "If you muddy the waters by talking about some kind of security guarantees, it could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those who don't want you to become a member of NATO will say, 'look, they don't take it seriously themselves and are talking about some security guarantees, as if that were an alternative.' In fact, the only security guarantee that works is NATO." Kallas continued.

The Estonian Prime Minister said, that the debate should be kept as simple as possible, so as to allay any fears that Ukraine would drag NATO into a war. "If Ukraine says yes to NATO membership, when there is not a war going on, then it is plain and simple. Don't ask for any more security guarantees because it's difficult to provide them and it will actually work against you."

Kaja Kallas visits Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma / riigikantselei

Suspicions over the fate of money collected from Estonians upset Zelenskyy

During Kallas' visit, the international media were most interested in her message, that Ukraine's European Union negotiations may begin later this year. "In the meetings, I said that you will not be given any kind of discount. On the contrary, you will have to do 110 percent of what is asked of you," Kallas said.

In response, Kallas was reassured that work is ongoing to ensure Ukraine meets all seven recommendations made by the European Commission last June. "They themselves said, that the most difficult aspect is the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court," Kallas said.

Disputes over how Ukraine's most important judges ought to be appointed have been ongoing in the country for a number of years. They became particularly heated in 2020, after the Constitutional Court overturned significant anti-corruption reforms.

Now, international experts, including former Estonian Prosecutor General Lavly Perling (Parempoolsed), have been brought in to assess judicial candidates. However, the discussions are continuing. At the heart of them, is what role should be played by the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) in the Head of State in the formation of the Constitutional Court.

Of the seven recommendations, the call to fight corruption has received the most attention. Kyiv confirmed, that, in this respect, Ukrainians' attitudes have changed beyond recognition during the war.

When representatives of Estonian news outlet Eesti Express told President Zelenskyy about the recent scandal surrounding Estonian NGO Slava Ukraini, he was visibly upset. There was some confusion at the press conference, as Zelenskyy seemed to understand that the issue involved the Lviv city authorities and aid money from allied countries. He immediately asked his advisers to investigate the matter further.

Kaja Kallas visits Ukraine, April 24, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma / riigikantselei

Afterwards, over lunch, Kallas told Zelenskyy what the story was really all about. "I explained, that this is a big issue for us and there is a suspicion that donations collected from the Estonian people have not actually been used for Ukraine. It bothered him a lot," Kallas said later on the train. Ukrainians understand very well how corruption affects the image of their country.

Later, the Ukrainian president's team asked Eesti Express for the contact details of the journalists, who had written about the scandal.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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