From her office in the medieval center of Tallinn, about 130 miles from the Russian border, Kaja Kallas considers whether the invasion of Ukraine might never have happened if a woman was in charge of the Kremlin.
The Estonian prime minister is one of a new generation of female leaders in the region, along with her counterparts in Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
“When I see the pictures from Ukraine, when I’m making the decisions to give them more help, I’m constantly thinking how sad it is that all the military equipment that is destroyed is not going to profit any economy or the well-being of any people,” she says. “Maybe it’s very sexist, but I’m still going to say it: if you have given birth to human life, taking away the life of another mother’s child is just so cruel.”
Kallas, a mother of one, explains how her feminist principles have been influenced by The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book by the Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker. “There is one chapter there about if there are female leaders, there is less violence. I absolutely agree.”
Kallas was born in Tallinn in 1977 when Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, was still part of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Estonia joined Nato and aligned itself closely with the West. Britain is now the lead partner in an international Nato presence here and Boris Johnson recently doubled to 1,650 the number of troops stationed at the Tapa army base, barely 70 miles from the Russian border.
Speaking a few hours after President Zelensky gave an emotional address to the Estonian parliament on Wednesday, April 13, Kallas apologizes that her immaculate English is a bit “rusty” before delivering a fluent critique of the foot-dragging of her EU allies in response to Russian aggression.
Estonia, which relies on Russia for 40 percent of its gas, has committed to phasing out all imports by the end of this year, while also sending $237 million in military aid to Ukraine, equivalent to a third of its defense budget.
In contrast, Germany has appeared reluctant to impose sanctions on fuel imports from Russia and has reconsidered its promises to supply Ukraine with heavy weaponry. Kallas says Johnson is a “principled leader” who is on the “right side of history”. She reserves criticism for her EU allies.
“Gas might be expensive but freedom is priceless. People who have been living in the center of Europe with very nice neighbors take it for granted,” she says. “There are many countries in Europe that didn’t really see the Russian threat as real.”
“If you have given birth to human life, taking away the life of another mother’s child is just so cruel.”
Reminders of Estonia’s long struggle for self-determination are everywhere in Stenbock House, the neo-classical mansion that serves as the country’s seat of government and sits atop a hill in the center of Tallinn.
The Estonian capital has a strong Germanic feel, since the city was once the northernmost outpost of the Hanseatic League. However, from the early 18th century until the Bolshevik Revolution, Estonia was part of Russia, and almost one in three Estonians speak Russian as their mother tongue, according to the most recent census. Estonia won its independence in a bloody war between 1918 and 1920 but was annexed by Stalin and became part of the Soviet Union just 20 years later.
On the wall outside Kallas’s office hang portraits of the country’s former leaders who were imprisoned or murdered by the Russians, alongside an original copy of the 1918 Estonian declaration of independence.
Kallas says the reports of Ukrainians being forcibly deported to distant parts of Russia have made her reflect on her own family’s suffering under Soviet rule.
“Everything that is happening in Ukraine triggers a lot of memories in Estonia and opens a lot of wounds in our history,” she says. “My own mother was deported as a six-month-old baby to Siberia in a cattle wagon. The trip was three weeks in March, which is a very cold month, together with my grandmother and my great-grandmother.
“It is a miracle my mother survived, because my grandmother ran out of breast milk. There was somebody in one station, a soldier, who came and gave a jar of milk to my grandmother. The only warm place in the cattle wagon when it was going through Siberia was people’s skin, so they dried the baby’s diapers on their skin.”
For all the weight of history, Estonia is an unabashedly modern country: it is the world’s first e-state, offering digital residency. Kallas talks of funny memes she has seen online and an adviser pads around in a pair of Nike Air Max trainers. The contrast could not be more stark with the gerontocrats in the Kremlin.
So what went wrong for Russia? Why do people in Estonia enjoy a GDP per capita of $23,000, but their former compatriots have to make do with less than half that?
“Because of the corruption,” Kallas says. “In Narva, there is a very good example.” She tells the story of the Estonian border city which faces a Russian town called Ivangorod, just over the river. On the Estonian side a promenade almost a mile long has been built, a symbol of the country’s civic pride. On the Russian side, the walkway continues for only a few hundred yards, even though construction costs in Russia are much cheaper. “The rest [of the money] was pocketed,” Kallas says.
She argues that this border is the new front line of the Cold War, and she wants Nato to move a greater proportion of its troops away from central Europe to the new “West Berlin”. At the Nato leaders’ summit in Madrid in June, she will ask the alliance to double the number of international troops stationed in Estonia.
“For us, we are now on the right side of the Iron Curtain, which is the Nato side,” she says. “West Berlin would have been very easy to conquer militarily during the Cold War. Why it wasn’t was because it was under Nato’s umbrella.”
The Estonian military is working toward February 24, 2024, two years on from the Ukrainian invasion, when it believes Russia will be capable once again of launching an attack on a close neighbor.
For now, however, Kallas is focused on Ukraine. “It is very important that Putin is pushed back, otherwise he will just continue, get his act together in one or two years with military force and do it again,” she says. “Crimea, Donbas, Georgia — every time after, there is some kind of peace and very many people in the West say ‘now it’s all done, now it’s all safe, now it’s peace’. But it’s not long-term peace. Every time, the next war, the next aggression is worse than the last.”
George Grylls is a political reporter at The Times of London. He won the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists in 2019