The tiny nation of Estonia literally tests the limits of NATO, perched as it is on the military bloc’s border with Russia.
And its people are all too familiar with attacks: The Soviet Union occupied the country during World War II, and Russia is thought to have waged one of the world’s first acts of state-sponsored cyberwarfare against it in 2007. After Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed part of nearby Ukraine in 2014, Estonia is where Barack Obama stated unequivocally that NATO’s eastern-European members could count on the armed forces of the United States in their hour of need.
So it was rather stunning when Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, in New York for this year’s United Nations General Assembly, pointedly sided with America’s current NATO-skeptical president over his more steadfast predecessor. Whereas Obama had quietly lobbied for NATO countries to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, Trump regularly browbeats alliance members to meet that target in order to remain in good standing with Washington. That’s led to a significant (if still modest) increase in collective military spending.
“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.
“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.”
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.
As a newly elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of Estonia’s goals is to clarify how international law applies to cyberspace, what the rights of countries that come under cyberattack are, and how such conflicts can be resolved through multilateral institutions.
Because there is currently no international body where a country’s leaders can report cyberattacks, ascribe them to particular actors, and seek remedies under international law, Kaljulaid argued, “it doesn’t pay off to attribute” such activities. “Basically what you do is you fight [them] off and you forget and you move on like any private company does.”
“If you consistently see something or somebody being interested in a particular system, then you might spend the resources to attribute,” she added. “But if you don’t have to, you don’t, because internationally there is absolutely no gain from attributing,” and demonstrating a suspected actor’s motive is difficult. “There are too many attacks normally against systems to try to attribute each and every one.”
While Estonia has long fended off the kind of state-sponsored cyber and disinformation campaigns that the United States is now struggling with, she said the lessons this experience can offer are limited because the countries’ political infrastructure is so different. Estonians, for example, vote electronically through an encrypted system that is more difficult to hack than the outdated voting machines in the U.S. and learn about “cyberhygiene” from “e-police” starting in elementary school. Kaljulaid noted that the country’s election officials track attempts by foreign actors to skew public opinion and the vote, and “talk openly about these things” to build resilience among the public.
Still, when asked what she considers the greatest threat to Estonia, she didn’t cite Russia launching a cyberwar on Estonia’s digital republic or a Ukraine-style military intervention into its physical territory, or the American president abandoning the alliance that underwrites her nation’s security. Instead she pointed to something at once core to Estonia’s identity and common to all countries: “It’s the same 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and today: a strong level of antagonism between … the liberal democratic world and the other.”