“Frankly speaking, I’m on the same page” as Trump regarding the 2-percent requirement, Kaljulaid—an earnest, 49-year-old socially liberal policy wonk who in style is Trump’s polar opposite—told us.
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“Actually I’m quite sorry: Thinking back historically, when everybody else said it nicely, we didn’t react,” she continued. “I mean, Barack Obama said so as well, and then we said, ‘It’s all fine and dandy but we don’t see it’s a necessity.’ It’s an irony that with this more transactional policy-making style [of Trump’s], we are now in Europe discussing 2 percent” and promising to devote $100 billion more to security by the end of 2020, which “is not peanuts.”
Kaljulaid, who entered office shortly before Trump’s election and met with him in Washington, D.C., last year, said she is confident the United States would come to Estonia’s defense if it came under attack—whether in the form of a military assault or, perhaps more concerning for a country in which 99 percent of government services are online, a cyberattack that infringed on its sovereignty. Estonia, which joined NATO 15 years ago, has spent at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense since 2015.
Of course, the Estonian president has an incentive to remain in the good graces of the commander in chief of the most powerful military in NATO. But she traced her trust in Trump to commitments that she’s heard the president make privately and publicly, Vice President Mike Pence’s show of support during a visit to Estonia early in the administration, and a new U.S. pledge of military assistance and defense cooperation for Estonia.
The “Twitter world” should be distinguished from government policy making, she advised, without directly answering when asked whether this meant the American president’s words don’t matter. Judging by the Trump administration’s actions, she noted, all is “fine.”
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Kaljulaid said greater European investment in its own defense is essential as the threat from Russia becomes less of a priority for the United States relative to that from China. “Russia is a regional threat, a conventional [military] or even nuclear threat, but it’s actually decreasing in power,” she observed. “Its demographics are bad. Its economy is horrible. Technologically, it’s falling behind.”
And she defended her decision this spring to become the first Baltic leader in almost a decade to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In her view, this move—along with calls by leaders such as Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron to end Russia’s isolation over Ukraine—doesn’t mean the West is moving on from what the Kremlin did in 2014.
Speaking to a neighbor isn’t the same as advocating that Europe make disproportionate concessions to Russia or signaling that Moscow can blatantly violate another country’s sovereignty and eventually get away with it. “Nobody has said we will move on from the eastern-Ukraine problem and return to business as usual,” she said, vowing not to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “If we ourselves had been stronger” after Russia intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008, she argued, then Russia’s incursion into Ukraine might not have occurred.