Kaimo Kuusk, Estonian ambassador to Ukraine, had been working in foreign intelligence for 21 years, and the subject of his graduate thesis was Russian geopolitics. Mr. Kuusk’s grandfather was Ukrainian, and the ambassador says that Ukraine is a priority of Estonian foreign policy and wears a pin designed by an Estonian artist with Ukrainian and Estonian flags combined.
He told and SPEKA about the Estonian experience of countering Russian influence and propaganda, the attitude of Estonian society towards the Ukrainians, and why Ukraine has to win for the sake of common security in Europe, while Russia has to become weak so that it won’t be capable of aggression.
Estonia is one of the targets of Russian propaganda, and you have a large population with Russian roots, even though many of them still have no citizenship as such. How did Russia try to extend its influence on Estonia when you worked in intelligence? How did you repel Russian influence in Estonia?
We now have less than one-third of our population... We call them Russian speakers, but I think it's not fair for at least the last nine years, because among them are lots of Ukrainians who started to feel, and not only feel but demonstrate that they are Ukrainians, although many of them spoke Russian.
So, there's been many — maybe "clashes" is too harsh a word, but there have been squabbles in working places where there are Ukrainians and Russians, for example.
Russians took apartments but didn’t go back to Russia
Speaking about citizenship, we choose a very conservative approach. We decided that in Estonia, it cannot be simply granted to everyone who was there in 1991 when we got our independence back. The number of Russian service members was especially huge.
Among other things, there was a program with western countries, under which apartment flats had to be built in Russia for these people so that they could go back, or they received money to buy a flat in Russia.
Of course, typically for Russians they took the money, they took flats, but they didn't go back. They sell those flats.
Complaints of the "difficult Estonian language"
Today, there are more Estonian citizens among those Russians we’re talking about than Russian citizens or so-called "grey passport guys." In English, it sounds like a science fiction movie, "alien passport." Many of them have had time to learn the language and do the exams if they wanted to.
The kids who were born after 1991, of course, have the possibility to get Estonian citizenship easily.
Sometimes Russians in Estonia complain that the Estonian language is so difficult, and it's hard to learn it. Well, my grandfather was Ukrainian. So, the Estonian language should have been as difficult for him as for anyone else.
But he fell in love with my grandmother and learned the language very quickly. So that's definitely not the issue. It depends only on motivation.
"The Russian threat has never disappeared"
Russia has always used or tried to use Russians in Estonia as leverage. That's why we also didn't grant citizenship to everyone. If you immediately grant them citizenship (in those days, it was more than 35% of them), they will be able to participate in parliamentary elections and the balance will be quite shifted.
We saw this in Ukraine, I believe. The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service published a report last year saying that Russia planned to amass its troops near the Estonian border. What threats from Russia can you name now?
For Estonia, the Russian threat has never disappeared. We consider that we were occupied. In 1991 we felt pressure from Russia: the empire wanted us back. They used the same tools against us that they have used against Ukraine.
It was actually Yeltsin who stopped the supply of oil to us back in the early 1990s. When I was a schoolboy, I remember I was forced to walk long distances because there was not enough diesel for buses. So, I will not forget that and I will not forgive that (laughs).
Three priorities for Estonian foreign intelligence have always — in the 1990s, 2000s, and currently as well — been Russia, Russia, and Russia. We have no illusions. We immediately decided that we need to integrate ourselves with the Western institutions, European Union and NATO. But it took us time.
When we set off on this path in 1996–97, the big countries told us,
"No, no, no, calm down, be neutral, take your time."
We didn't listen — we wanted to be secured. And the only security you can currently get is NATO membership, and we achieved it in 2004.
Russia has had military plans against Estonia since the 1990s
The Russians have had military plans against us since the 1990s. How to occupy us, how to cut at least a part of our territory. And they have demonstrated it repeatedly during Zapad exercises, which are being held this year again. But they have always exercised war against NATO.
So, there should be no illusions that they are peaceful. For Russians, and especially the Russian military or military intelligence service, there’s no such thing as peacetime. If it's not a hot war, it's the preparation phase for a hot war.
Please tell us how your personal attitude towards Ukraine and Ukrainians changed during your time here as an ambassador and during the full-scale war.
Ukraine has been and is our foreign policy priority because your success is critically important to us. We take it as an investment in our own security. We’re egoists, and Ukraine has to win.
We can't let Ukraine fail. You have to win this war. You can't lose a piece of land, actually. Even if Ukraine is forced into that, we will support you. We will never recognize it. Ukraine will win.
"Ukrainians don’t tolerate tsar-like figures, you kick them out"
Speaking of my personal attitude, I said that my grandfather was Ukrainian, and the first time I came here was in 2015. I'm still surprised by how big Ukraine is. It’s huge compared to Estonia.
Being here, you are learning the mentality of the people. The people of the Ukrainian nation are free. You have this very, very good civil society which doesn't accept tzar-like figures, you kick them out.
What we have seen here during those four years is that more and more people are acquiring this feeling of ownership of their country. And if you have this ownership feeling, you are not throwing the rubbish down, but sorting the rubbish. You fight, you vote, and you pay taxes, although some things and habits take more time. Sometimes I have a déjà vu feeling from the 1990s in Estonia. But you are moving in the right direction.
Of course, there are some toxic examples of the "old-school kolkhoz director" attitudes. I think the president of Motorsich (Viacheslav Boguslaiev, who was arrested by the Ukrainian State Security Service on 24 October 2022 and later charged with treason – editor’s note) is not a great but colourful example. It's good to see that this super arrogant, robber-style attitude will be punished.
I'm an optimist by nature. For me, glasses are half-full and I think Ukraine will do a good job and you will join the club with us.
How the Estonians changed their attitude towards the war in Ukraine
During the last year, has Estonian society changed its attitudes towards the nine-year-long war in Ukraine and Ukrainians as a nation?
I think this large-scale war has brought the war as such into everybody's minds. From the kindergarten kids to the oldest ones, because it's so evident it touches us as well.
Ukrainian refugees are forming almost 4% of our population. Four percent! When you tell it to people, they are just: wow! The percentage is really high. So, everybody knows a Ukrainian family, kids who have fled the war. Previously, we also knew the war was there, especially the state institutions. I remember when my relatives got to know that I was going here as an ambassador, they asked,
"Where are you going? The war is going on."
Then you explain that yes, the war is going on, but it's 700 km away from Kyiv, so it's almost like from Tallinn to Warsaw. Estonians understand that it's far away.
I think for the majority of the West, this eight-year-long war before the large-scale one was too comfortable. I couldn't relate to that.
Atrocities committed by Russians didn’t surprise the Estonians
What about the attitude of the Estonians towards the Russians, did it change in recent months? Or in the last year, probably?
Those atrocities that Russia has committed here were not a surprise for us because they treated Estonians the same way after the Second World War. We lost a huge amount of population during occupation.
The invasion of Ukraine was one more proof that this empire hasn't changed a lot. We, I think, are more assertive now. We decided that we will switch to full Estonian education.
We opened a Ukrainian school in Tallinn for Ukrainian kids, and we use the 60/40 education model there. 60% is in Estonian, and 40% is in Ukrainian. You copied it from us for your minority school model as well.
The removal of a Soviet tank and decommunization
We try to integrate those who want to be integrated. But for example, in Narva, we had a T-34 Soviet tank standing there for decades with its gun pointed towards Tallinn.
So, we decided that we would remove it from the public space because it's a symbol of occupation for Estonians. And then of course there was quite a loud Russian voice saying, "Hey, what are you doing? It's an important symbol for us and we will protect it." But this time, there was no hesitation from the state side.
We just did it, we took it down, and we looked at the tank to see it was turned into a trash bin. It's what they are saying that they honoured the symbol, but it was just full of rubbish. Ice cream and chips packaging bags, those kinds of things. Lots of cigarette butts, et cetera.
And we are also now finishing — we have been a little bit lazy about that — renaming the streets because some of the streets were named after the bomber pilots who bombed our cities, but nobody remembered it anymore.
We absolutely understand what you are doing here. Like the former Pushkinska Street (the address of the Estonian embassy in Ukraine, now 43B Chykalenka Street — editor's note), and I will give the order after our conversation that we need a new shield already. It's Chykalenka Street.
We hope Google Maps will update as well.
It takes time. There will be confusion, definitely.
What are the main messages the Russians spread in Estonia?
For example, they try to spread information or campaigns that when Russia invades Estonia, NATO is not actually going to help us.
Sometimes it can be successful. We are nervous. We, Estonians, want America to repeat that every year: don't worry, article five is there, we are with you, and we will annihilate Russia if something's going to happen.
On March 24, we expelled one so-called Russian diplomat from Tallinn who also worked for Russian propaganda.
What steps do you think are necessary to take for Ukraine to swiftly become a member of the EU?
You have been granted candidate status, which is really, really important. It came along with seven home tasks. Those home tasks now have to be fulfilled 110%, as we say. And also, what is needed is that you communicate your success stories.
The opinion from the EU is coming in May or the beginning of June. Listen to it. Some of those home tasks are not very easy to measure.
Actually, one of them is the fight against corruption. The steps and the progress have to be visible. So, you have to communicate all those investigations that have started in recent months, and also in recent years. Who has been named guilty? What has been confiscated?
That has to be listed because otherwise, it's very easy for those who are sceptical in Western Europe to say that no big fish has been caught in the anti-corruption effort. I don't agree. Investigations have been started against ministers, deputies, and oligarchs. But communication is important.
Do you think Ukraine can win in a manner that weakens Russia? Because we can take our territory back, but Russia will continue attacking us. With missiles, in particular.
You will take your territory back. You will join NATO. We will be together in NATO. We will all invest in our security, and we will repel all ambitions. One scenario can be that they will struggle and collapse by themselves after the defeat because they cannot digest defeat, and being humiliated.
I don't agree at all with some of the Western leaders saying that we shouldn't humiliate Russia. They humiliate themselves by committing atrocities, exploiting those imperialistic moods, and engaging in such activities in the 21st century. We are just defending ourselves. Yes, there's a huge mass of them. But at the moment, that's the war of modern weapons versus mass. Modern weapons will win.