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DW Conflict Zone - Taavi Roivas
Image: DW/J. Stonington

Estonian PM: 'Putin's behavior made Russia a threat'

Caroline Schmitt
July 6, 2016

Ahead of the bi-annual NATO summit, Estonia's Prime Minister Taavi Roivas talks Brexit, European unity and security. Can NATO's eastern states defend themselves against Russia?


Vladimir Putin has made Russia into a threat for neighboring states, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas warned in an exclusive DW interview.

"[If someone] thinks he can change borders of foreign countries by force, and who has done so in Ukraine and Georgia, there is no question his aggressive behavior has made Russia a threat," Roivas said.

In May 2016, Roivas had already advocated for NATO to show "solidarity" and station a NATO battalion in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The ultimate consequence would be that each NATO member state would have an "allied presence".

'We will have more troops'

So far, NATO's permanent Force Integration Unit (NFIU) only has 41 soldiers in Estonia; 20 of them are Estonian troops. In the event of a Russian attack, it would take the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force up to seven days to get to Estonia, according to NATO. A war gaming exercise by the Rand Corporation showed that Russian troops could be there after 60 hours.

When asked if his own troops were capable of defending their own country, Roivas said: "We have capable forces. We are ready to stand against enemy." After increasing its defense expenditure in 2015, Estonia is one of only five NATO member states who contribute 2 percent of the GDP to national defense.

"If you really know how Vladimir Putin thinks, the biggest provocation for him would be seeing that you are weak. And NATO is not weak. (…) [The Kremlin] would be completely crazy to pick a fight against NATO because NATO has made it very clear that every bit of its territory will be defended. And there will be a reaction against any attack," Roivas said.

Deep concerns

Officials in Estonia and other Eastern European states expressed deep concerns after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The Russian sanctions imposed by the EU in response to the Ukrainian crisis will run out at the end of July. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in May there was a growing resistance within the EU to extend those sanctions and Roivas has said he wants any new sanctions to force Russia to fulfill the conditions of the Minsk agreement.

Before the Brexit vote, Donald Tusk said that the EU's external enemies would be opening champagne if Britain votes to leave. Although disappointed by the outcome, Roivas said he doesn't "expect the EU to be destroyed by Brexit." Roivas, a strong backer of the European project, said it would be wrong to blame the EU for the outcome: "[The majority was] following the promises of populist politicians [whose] messages were, as we see now, proven wrong."

When Michel Friedman asked how quickly the UK should actually leave, Roivas said: "Of course delays will keep this period of uncertainty in the air. But I think that it would be wrong for the EU to push Great Britain away. (…) I think we should give them enough time to come with a proposal that is in the interest of British."

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