Estonian President Kaljulaid and US Senator Shaheen on challenges from Moscow and the future of Nord Stream 2

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H.E. Kersti Kaljulaid
President of the Republic of Estonia

The Hon. Jeanne Shaheen
United States Senator (D-NH)

Susan Glasser
Staff Writer, The New Yorker

SUSAN GLASSER: I want to thank both of you and, of course, everyone who’s joined the Atlantic Council today. It’s my great honor to have a terrific panel for us today to talk about these issues. I can’t think really of two better observers of this complicated and robust US-EU relationship than the two people with us today.

We’re joined by the president of Estonia, President Kersti Kaljulaid, who joins us from Tallinn. I believe you’re just back from a trip to Poland today. And we’re really honored to have you with us. And here, I think you’re joining us from New Hampshire, but Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who is a leading Senate voice on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and keen observer, I must say, over the years of what it looks like between Russia and the United States and how Europe figures into that always-wary competition. So thank you, again, to the Atlantic Council for bringing us together.

Madam President, I’d love to start with you. And here’s my question: President Biden has been inaugurated. The very first message that he had to you and other leaders in Europe was, hey, good news. America is back and we’re ready to take our place again at the table. He has put some action behind that—rejoining the Paris climate accord, rejoining multilateral organizations. But I have to ask you, what does “America is back” mean to you? And, you know, what do you think is needed right now to restore US credibility with allies and partners who may feel bruised after the last few years?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Thank you. Indeed, predictability is always good in diplomatic relations. But I have to say that Eastern Europe somehow has enjoyed this role of really, really of a child who has been taken really good care of in a bipartisan format always by US political parties, and I’ve sensed this all the time. So, for us, we welcome this new vision. We really welcome these activities, also, to work towards solutions, for example, in Ukraine.

We very much welcome the clear notice which was also given to Russia that US is also following and observing what is going on close to Ukrainian borders. I felt this was the first time the value-based democratic union which we all are together was able to react quick—and maybe have some success. It’s a tiny, tiny success. We shouldn’t be carried away. Crimea is still occupied, and war is ongoing in Georgia and Ukraine. But at least it was something. The situation did not deteriorate because, ex ante, there was attention. And this is indeed something which we here very much value in Eastern Europe.

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, let me ask you, since we’ve jumped right into the question of Russia and Ukraine, I’d like to ask both of you, President Biden says that—I think surprised many people here in Washington by suggesting an early summit with President Putin and says that they’re now looking at doing that in June.

Do you think, Madam President, that now is a good time for President Biden and President Putin to meet?

And then to you, Senator Shaheen, same question, and also, what do you think we should be looking for to get out of a summit with the Russians at this point in time?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Frankly speaking, I had a long discussion with President Biden just before he announced his candidacy, and I’m not at all surprised that he’s, well, reacting quickly. And I mean, biding time in the situation when we know that we are normally a little bit behind the curve, I mean, that’s nothing to win from it. We know what is the past. We know the present state of play. And hoping that maybe in the future there will be a better moment, I think this is ridiculous. Moments don’t happen—I mean, better moments. We make them happen. So this meeting will make, hopefully, a better moment to arrive to resolve some tensions.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: I agree with that. And, you know, we talked to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. It’s important to maintain those lines of communication. But we also need to be clear that we don’t—we’re going to hold Russia accountable for misdeeds that it does.

And I was pleased that President Biden, in his first conversation with Vladimir Putin, raised the concerns about their actions in interrupting our elections and their disinformation throughout and trying to disrupt activities in Eastern Europe, their efforts to put bounties on our troops in Afghanistan. He was very clear; and then the issuing of sanctions very early in his hundred days, so that Putin is clear that we are going to be watching what Russia does. We’re going to look for ways to hold them accountable. But we’re going to talk at the same time.

And I don’t think we should have any illusions about what is happening in Russia, about Russia becoming a democratic country. We’re seeing people protest in the streets now over their arrest of the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. And we know what’s happening in Russia. But we don’t want to end all communication with the country. And so let’s do the summit. Let’s start talking. And one of the advantages, as you’re going to be talking throughout this forum, is that we have allies in the United States. And the EU and our European allies are our strongest allies. And that presents a united front to Russia.

SUSAN GLASSER: Can I ask you, though, Senator, what do you think that President Biden—what is even on the agenda at this point with Russia in terms of constructive cooperation or something different? I mean, this is the fifth US president that Vladimir Putin is dealing with. He’s been around this road before. He craves the attention and legitimacy that superpower summitry gives him at a moment where, you know, that, in and of itself, appears to be something that Biden is giving to Putin. What is it that he should be looking to get in return?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: Well, I’m not sure that giving something in return is realistic for an initial summit. I do think, you know, we just extended the New START agreement, talking about where we are with denuclearization and with the military build-up that Russia is doing of their missile capacity and other activities that Russia is engaging in; and countries, particularly in Eastern Europe—I know that the president can talk about what she sees in the Baltic countries—but making sure that he knows what our red lines are. That’s very important. We don’t want anybody to miscalculate what we’re going to respond to and take an action that is going to prompt our reaction in a way that is going to escalate a situation. So those are the kinds of things I think we ought to be thinking about for that summit.

SUSAN GLASSER: So, President Kaljulaid, to the question of what is it that you see Vladimir Putin doing right now, you made the point that the troops have withdrawn from the border but the conflict continues in Ukraine.

Can you give us our—your best understanding of what you think Putin was doing by sending more than a hundred thousand troops to the border of Ukraine, and was that a message to the new president here in Washington? It’s a pretty expensive way to get attention. It costs a lot of money to send a hundred thousand troops anywhere in this world. So what was going on there and what do you think we should draw from what’s just happened?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I don’t think we should join the guessing game what was going through his mind, frankly speaking. What I think is that we need to understand that during the last decade, probably also Russia has realized that with its economy in bad shape, with bad demography, it is morphing from a global power to a regional risk to the European neighborhood. And, therefore, it realizes as well that if he wants to turn the game and have a power-based world order instead of a rule of law and value-based world order, he needs to act quickly, cheaply, because resources are scarce and unpredictable, and this is what he’s been doing. I mean, Salisbury, totally unpredictable, for example. Meddling with democracies may be predictable but many, many people think it must be going on more often in the region’s neighbor—neighbors to Russia, which is not true. Affecting bigger democracies actually pays you more back and helps you to save resources.

So change the game quickly, act cheaply and unpredictably, and realize that unlike the other global competitor, China, your window of opportunity of changing the game is closing. It’s not opening because of the economic realities which you are facing. And if we understand this, then I believe we can understand what are behind these really unpredictable and very often counterproductive steps which have been undertaken. Because if you—if you think, in 2008, 2014, there was a certain logic. 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. European and general Western reaction was relatively weak. They made the calculation that going after Crimea is probably safe. However, we recognized it. After Ukraine we’ve had a lot of strategic patience, and I think we should continue having strategic patience. Hence, our red line in Ukraine, which is not only don’t occupy Ukraine but don’t try these kind of tricks further in Eastern Partnership countries. This has helped.

Now, what do we do to make our point stronger? We could actually say that, despite the fact that you have partially occupied Georgia and Ukraine, if these countries, I mean, make good progress in developing the rule of law, they could have the European perspective and they shouldn’t be dropped by West like hot potato just because you have beaten them. And if we can get this message through, I believe we have broken this chain of we act and you don’t react. This is one thing which we need to understand.

And second thing is, indeed, that these small elements of trying to break our unity, we see it all the time. For example, forwarding the message that Finland and Estonia have different risk perception vis-à-vis Russia, not at all true. If you read the documents of two nations, exactly the same. One is NATO member and other isn’t, but there is a total understanding between the two of us, I mean, what actually is at stake.

So, we need to think always that what Russia will do next—explosion in Czech Republic, whatever—we don’t know. It will be small and it will be meant to create this confusion which we don’t understand.


SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: If I could add to that, one of—I mean, that’s why it was so important when recently in Georgia, as they were having differences between their ruling party and the opposition party, to try—have the EU and the United States work with the Georgians to try and resolve that so that Russia doesn’t have that opportunity to continue to meddle in Georgian affairs, and I agree with you wholeheartedly, Madam President.

SUSAN GLASSER: So there’s an example, though, of course, where there are always going to be disagreements, both here in Washington inside the administration as well as with partners in Europe. Both Senator Shaheen—you and the president—you both support a tougher line coming from the United States and Europe with regards to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for example. And there’s been a lot of pressure on the new Biden administration, which so far they’ve resisted, to impose further sanctions on German and other companies doing—helping to finish the building of that pipeline. How do you see that fight playing out? I mean, do you see that as an example where Russia benefits from these disagreements? Or whether now is a moment to take—to urge Biden to take this sort of more tough line with Putin?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: Well, I think Russia definitely benefits from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and from any disagreement around it. There is bipartisan opposition to that pipeline in Congress. I’ve been one of the senators who have supported sanctions and we were able to stop it a year ago. And then Russia has figured out a way around that. I appreciate that there are issues with Germany, which is one of our important allies, and we need to address those. But stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be a blow to Russia economically and it would also have an impact on helping Ukraine, which we would like to do, and address the long-term energy future for Europe. So I think this is one area where there’s some real benefits, and I will continue to urge the Biden administration to move much faster than they’ve been willing to do so far.

SUSAN GLASSER: Madam President, you’re also concerned about Nord Stream 2. What do you think Biden should do?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Well, I think we should collectively make all these pipelines really obsolete. I mean, we don’t need these kind of pipelines in the future. I mean, gas is not a green fuel. Europe is going through a clean turn and it’s planning to be neutral by 2050. CO2 prices here are exorbitant. President Biden is taking similar steps. What we should do, we should fast-forward our ambition. And I was—indeed, I was just in Poland and we were discussing Baltic Sea offshore grid. I think we should also discuss smart connectivity, which is one of the themes of the Three Seas Initiative, which the US has always been a very, very active participant.

We can connect, for example, all Eastern European countries with smart roads, smart railways, also make sure that they are efficient and energy efficient. Also, we need pipelines not for gas but for hydrogen. All Eastern European pipelines are totally unsuitable for hydrogen transport because their quality is—their quality is absolutely not suitable.

So there are many things which we could do to help also Ukraine. And I know that, for example, Ukraine is not part of the Three Seas Initiative. But the projects of the Initiative can also have one in Ukraine. And if we are successful in proving that through the Three Seas Fund, that this private-public partnership model where we both invest and contribute—European Union, US—I think this is actually the biggest ongoing EU-US economic development program right now—we could create a special fund to invest more in Ukraine, other eastern partners, and also the Balkan countries to also push off predatory capital coming from wherever. And Russia is not the only one there trying to invest and gain influence.

So we have many things which we could actually do to make sure that Ukraine will not miss this gas transit in the future. Nobody in Eastern Europe should miss this gas transit. And we have ample opportunities also to use digital technologies—smart links, smart opportunities.

And I would like to add one little element here which was discussed between US, Australia, Japan, and others: The Blue Dot. I don’t know whether you are—you are thinking of continuing this trademark or rewording and rethinking this idea, but we need not only smart but safe connectivity, safe technologies. And by the way, we are organizing in Tallinn in September a conference on smart connectivity of the Three Seas nations, and we want to revive the discussion about safe technology there as well. So you are all very much invited to Tallinn to discuss this: How we could reshape Eastern European economic future, create a model to reshape also the Eastern Partnership economic future, and, as such, render Nord Stream 2 totally obsolete.

SUSAN GLASSER: My guess is that everyone listening to this is so eager to go anywhere in person they will all be showing up in Tallinn in September now that you have invited them.

But you actually have been traveling, and I want to change just a little bit. I want to ask you because you recently went to Afghanistan to visit the Estonian troops. You’ve been there. Estonia has been part of the US mission in Afghanistan for this incredible, no one expected twenty years of NATO presence in Afghanistan. President Biden has said we’re withdrawing. First of all, you know, do you agree with that decision? And are you—how concerned did you come away from your trip being in terms of whether the government in Kabul can stand up to the Taliban after this US and NATO withdrawal?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: To a certain extent, I believe none of us wants NATO to turn into a United Nations mission—type of mission-provider. We have in UN, for example, the Lebanon mission is fifty years old. It costs a million dollars per day to run and is a major income source for the countries where it is located. So, in this sense, I totally understand what we are doing coming away from Afghanistan.

Estonia has been there since 2003, so a whole generation almost. And when I was talking to civil society in Afghanistan, then of course they are very worried because they have seen that our presence there and the fact that the country is not ruled by Taliban means that instead of only one girl per five boys goes to school, now the ratio is one to two. The women dying in childbirth, the number is three times lower. It is still almost the worst in the world, but three times lower. And I was talking to the chairwoman of the midwives society there. They have thirty-four thousand midwives—six thousand only are needed—because many people simply don’t allow women to go to the doctor, so it’s that simple. All these positive developments are because we have been there.

And even if—we have lost quite a lot of lives. Estonia per capita also has. I was happy to discuss with our soldiers who are still there that we have probably saved a high number of lives, or made lives better as well. So we definitely need not to abandon Afghanistan. We need to find other ways and means to support them. And the government was optimistic they can hold Taliban at bay, but only if also in the whole region we can organize discussions about the safety and the guarantees for Afghanistan Islamic Republic.

SUSAN GLASSER: Senator Shaheen, you’ve been one of the, you know, most vocal Democrats. You’ve raised concerns about President Biden’s decision. You know, so, first of all, what is your current level of concern about whether and in what way the Taliban might end up toppling the government in Kabul?

And related to that, you know, this was a unique mission for NATO, you know, essentially to say not that we were attacked, but that when the United States was attacked we were all attacked. Do you think anything like this will ever be possible again, you know, in terms of the mission of NATO? And is that—is that a success, in your view, or is it a failure?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: Well, I think it’s a success. I think our NATO allies help to give us strength as we’re looking at our adversaries around the world. And I certainly appreciate, as I know all Americans do, the support from our NATO partners like Estonia and those troops who have gone to Afghanistan and served right alongside American troops and have fought and died together. It has been very important, as the president says, in terms of both defeating Osama bin Laden but also in looking at the advancements that have happened in Afghanistan because of the support from the United States and our NATO partners.

I think that has been the most successful security pact in world history, NATO. And while there are changes that we need to make in order to continue to face the new emerging threats, it is one of the things that we are able to rely on that gives us strength. And as you point out, Afghanistan, September 11 was the first time that NATO invoked its Article 5 provisions and our partners went to bat for us.

I am concerned about the president’s decision. I appreciate how difficult it was. Nobody wants our troops to be someplace for twenty years still fighting. But I fear what the ramifications will be. Clearly, the Taliban has not lived up to what they supposedly negotiated at the bargaining table, where they said they would cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. We haven’t seen that. The level of violence was supposed to decline. That hasn’t happened. In fact, it’s increased.

I had the opportunity to speak with a number of women leaders yesterday from Afghanistan—parliamentarians, the acting minister of women, and the head of the women’s caucus. And what I heard from them was real fear and concern about what was going to happen for women and girls, that the Taliban continues to share—hold the fundamentalist beliefs of Sharia law that they had when they were ruling Afghanistan.

And they fear a loss of their rights, of the rights that were written into the Afghan constitution that we have seen and that the president talks so eloquently about when she talks about the number of women who are able to survive childbirth now because they can get health care, the number of girls that are in school, women in the workplace doing all kinds of jobs.

And what we’ve seen over the last several months is a deliberate assassination campaign to wipe out the highest-profile women in their workplaces, particularly women in the media. The international community cannot allow that to go on. We have got to make it very clear to the Taliban that they cannot continue those kinds of activities in the future.

SUSAN GLASSER: So I think, President Kaljulaid, I’m going to go back to where we began, actually, which is the question of the credibility of the US in the world, right. You know, we say these things are unacceptable in Afghanistan, and yet in many ways they’ve been accepted. Russia, it seems to me, has become an expert at testing the credibility of our resolve when it comes to places like Ukraine.

President Biden often now frames his foreign policy, and even his domestic policy, around the contest between autocracies like Russia and China and democracies. He’s proposed a summit of democracies. Do you think that is a good idea, to have a summit like that? What would you do with European countries that are backsliding democracies? And how do you think Russia looks at all of this?

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I truly believe that through this pandemic we are coming to the world where we realize that, for example, there is urgency now with climate action. There is also urgency in helping women, children, adolescents, which UN is putting quite a lot of emphasis upon. And particularly in this first dilemma, saving the planet, many people would say that democracy is not delivering because the process is very slow. And I think, therefore, it’s very important for us to demonstrate that the true advancement of humankind can only be delivered by free people because free people only are creative. And we must demonstrate that in the democratic world we can set ourselves an objective and quickly achieve it.

And for that reason, I believe there might be a value in coming together and discussing what are actually the advantages of democracies where free people, out of their free will, because they understand what is at stake, are collectively taking actions to resolve the problems which we have, as opposed to technocratic/autocratic leaders who will simply tell to people what needs to be done or do it to them without the involvement of the people. I am a strong believer that free world always will pass better simply because, I mean, you need creativity, and only free people are creative. But coming together and reinforcing this message might actually be timely to do just now, when we are exiting this pandemic. Just one idea. But there might be other streams of thought, of course, where we need to discuss it.

Similarly, for example, technology in free world, which happens, and its development happens in private sector, we need to involve this private-sector technology to make sure that also our defense technologies are developing. This is new to free world. When nuclear weapons were developed only by governments, nowadays, in our system, technology happens in private sector. In autocratic models, technology still happens in government. It’s an advantage if we recognize it and use it. But we need to recognize it’s different; another reason why to have such a debate. There might be many more.

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, you know, you brought up several times the issue of climate change and how it might figure into your kind of reimagined US-EU relationship.

And so actually, Senator Shaheen, we partnered with the University of New Hampshire in your state to get some questions here in the short time we have. And one of the best ones was around exactly this issue, from Marina Cardoso-Vianna-Vaz from UNH, who actually asked, now that climate change and ambitious goals related to climate change are part of the new president’s administration, how could that factor into our diplomacy in a way it hasn’t before? We tend to think in more traditional security terms. I’m just curious if you want to expand, as a final word in this conversation, on the president’s points. Do you see a role for climate change diplomacy in confronting Russia?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: Well, I do. And I think not just Russia, but in terms of, as her questions asks, about all of our diplomacy. One of the things that I have signed up for with Bob Menendez, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, is legislation that would coordinate in all of our foreign policy a focus on climate—what we need to do to respond to climate change. So how do we ensure that that’s part of what we do through USAID, through the Development Finance Corporation?

And we know that Russia is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And it’s not only for their own energy but for their revenue, for what they count on in terms of the dollars they have to spend. And so if we can help those countries, like Ukraine, those countries that have been cut off by Russia, to ensure that they don’t have to depend on Russia anymore for their energy. That gives us some leverage with Russia that we haven’t had before. Plus, it helps us as we look at what we need to do to respond to climate change.

So I think looking at all of the ways that we can infuse our foreign policy with those climate responses is going to be very helpful, not just with Russia but in terms of other things that we have to do.

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I wish we could keep going because there’s obviously a lot more we could discuss. What a fantastic conversation. We’re really honored that President Kaljulaid has agreed to join us from Tallinn today, and Senator Shaheen from the great state of New Hampshire. And all of you for listening. I’m going to go back to the team at the Atlantic Council now, but I want to thank everyone for this really thoughtful and provocative conversation today. Thank you, again.


PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Thank you very much. And [you’re] welcome to Tallinn, to the Lennart Meri Conference—and also, why not, to the digital summit discussing the Blue Dot future and smart connectivity, being safe as well. So thank you all.

SUSAN GLASSER: You’re going to have a lot.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: I hope I can get there!


SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you. Bye.


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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on April 18, 2019. Photo via Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS.