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World

Estonian President Says Russia's Show Of Force Raises Issues Of 'Transparency, Trust'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Just this week, Russia and Belarus concluded massive military drills along their western borders. They mobilized troops, tanks and planes in a mock operation against the West. Russia's foreign ministry says these drills were purely defensive, but the show of force has ratcheted up anxiety about Russia's intentions, particularly towards the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Those countries watched the drills right across their borders.

Joining us now is the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Thank you.

CHANG: When these military drills were being carried out by Russia just days ago, how did you interpret them?

KALJULAID: Well, every country, first of all, has the right to exercise their forces. There is no question about it. But countries have a system of safeguarding such drills. And for that, great transparency is needed than what was offered from Russia towards NATO and Western allies. That was the main problem with that exercise.

CHANG: I want to touch on the dispute over how many Russian troops were involved in these military drills. Russians say there were fewer than 13,000. Western estimates range closer to a hundred thousand troops, which would make these war games the largest in decades. How big of a troop presence did your government estimate?

KALJULAID: Our government does not have its own estimate. Our government has noted that the requests to be able to observe these drills have not been met. So that has been a problem, again, of transparency and trust. That is the main worry. The exact numbers - they don't matter.

CHANG: Well, what about NATO? Do you think Russia was trying to communicate a message to NATO with these military exercises?

KALJULAID: I believe indeed. But NATO has been able already for several years to read messages. Some of them actually have been real occupation of a territory of a neighboring country, like in Crimea or, if you think back to 2008, in Georgia. I think the whole chain actually starts in Georgia.

In 2008 when Russia attacked Georgia, Western countries took it as an isolated incident, but probably this was the start of the push against our underlying international security architecture. And this push then started a landslide which in 2014 resulted in Crimean occupation. And then suddenly we all woke up, and we realized that something much more serious is going on. But at least now we have understood, and we have gathered together. And we have to trust that NATO has a hundred percent track record, actually. No NATO country has ever come under attack.

CHANG: I want to ask you about that trust. You're a small country. President Trump has made comments that raise questions about his commitment to NATO. Do you feel this White House will protect Estonia should tensions escalate with Russia?

KALJULAID: First of all, we have always supported United States of America's call that Europe spend more on defense already before President Trump was elected. This same call was made also by previous presidents. Estonia does spend 2 percent.

CHANG: Two percent of your GDP.

KALJULAID: Yes. So we are doing our part. And we believe that European countries have room to do more to make sure that we are all collectively protected.

CHANG: But do you feel that this White House has your back?

KALJULAID: We've had Vice President Pence visiting Tallinn, where he met not only with me but also with my other Baltic colleagues - Lithuanian President Ms. Grybauskaite and Latvian president, Mr. Vejonis. And of course Vice President Pence has been very clear that NATO acts as a whole. Attack against one is attack against all. There has been never any doubt about it.

CHANG: There is no worry in you that President Trump stands for the idea of America First.

KALJULAID: What we have heard behind the tables talking to American officials has not caused me worries. We have every reason to put our trust in NATO and in transatlantic cooperation.

CHANG: Kersti Kaljulaid is the president of Estonia. Thank you very much for joining us.

KALJULAID: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "WHEN THE SKY FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.