Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, a small Baltic nation with a tragic history of living with Russia, has become a leading European voice demanding that no breathing space or second chances be given to Vladimir Putin as his troops run into unexpected fierce resistance from Ukrainians.
It’s a war that is riveting the world, yet the role that women leaders in Europe are playing to try to defuse the crisis are not winning a big spotlight. Right now, Kallas and Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who flew to New York City to speak at the March 1 General Assembly emergency session on Ukraine, are some of the few exceptions.
“We are already discussing what we can offer to de-escalate, and if we do that we will fall into their trap,” Kallas said to The Guardian days before a meeting occurred between Ukrainians and Russians on the border with Belarus, a Russian-dominated country north of Ukraine that has become a staging ground for Russian troops.
Kallas, 44, has been prime minister of Estonia since January 2021. She has good reason to be wary. Her family’s history has been overshadowed and disrupted by Russian dictatorships for generations. Her grandmother, and Kaja’s mother — a six-month-old infant at the time — were deported to Siberia in 1950 by Stalin and exiled for a decade on charges of being anti-Soviet.
“We must not forget,” she has said repeatedly on the anniversaries of deportations and purges.
The Soviet Union had incorporated the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — in 1940 and turned them into Communist republics, which they remained until the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. That is when they declared independence and joined the United Nations.
In 2004, Estonia joined NATO and the European Union. In 2020, Estonia became an elected member of the Security Council for a two-year term that ended in December. The country’s foreign minister is also a woman, Eva-Maria Liimets. Kersti Kaljulaid was president of Estonia from 2016 to 2021. (Alar Karis was elected last October.) Kaljulaid was the first woman head of state of Estonia.
Politics runs in the Kallas family. Her father, Siim Kallas, was Estonia’s prime minister in 2002-2003, before he moved to positions in the European Commission. His grandfather was a founder of modern Estonia in 1918, at the end of World War 1, when maps of Europe were remade.
Over the last week, his daughter, Prime Minister Kallas, leader of the center-right Reform Party, has been instrumental in pressing for tougher, more collaborative measures against Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that he unleashed on Feb. 24, less than a week ago.
Kallas successfully implored Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany to break with international law and historical practice and allow Estonia to send German-made weapons in its possession to Ukraine. Permission was granted on Saturday, Feb. 26, and howitzers were released.
Germany also announced it would send 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine. It had previously built a field hospital and sent protective gear to Ukrainian troops, preferring to limit its aid to humanitarian uses.
“Germany has made an important decision today in defense of Ukraine and democracy,” Kallas tweeted.
The Germans have since pledged to raise military spending significantly and agree to strong international financial sanctions. (Baerbock told the General Assembly, in protecting the values of the UN Charter, “Now is the moment to stand up and be counted.”) The Germans have also joined other European countries in barring Russian aircraft from entering their airspace.
Scholz surprised Europeans and the United States last week by announcing that he was shutting down the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia — an expensive Russian project that Kallas opposed, arguing that it increased dependence on the Russians in the western European economy. She has called the pipeline more of a political project than an economic one.
Kallas has a background in finance and economics. She studied at the Estonian Business School, a private university in Tallinn, the capital, and at the University of Tartu, the country’s oldest and most distinguished higher-education institution.
In her interview with The Guardian, she praised the unity of purpose that NATO had achieved in collectively finding resources to aid Ukraine in a relatively short time. Many Europeans hope NATO can maintain this unity.
But how will Europeans manage the movement of the 875,000 Ukrainians who have fled their country as refugees so far? Kallas takes heart in the European Union’s and NATO’s record of their ability to work together right now.
“The level of consultation on the NATO side has been has been excellent,” she said. “Being a small country of 1.3 million people, it is easy for the big ones to consult amongst themselves, and go over our heads, but this has not happened.
Overall, the level of unity we have shown will have surprised Putin.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.