«As a Full NATO Member Ukraine Could Guarantee Our Security As Well»: Interview with Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs on Reconstruction Programs, Use of Russian Frozen Assets and Special Tribunal

Interview with Margus Tsahkna — Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia.

Margus Tsahkna — Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia / photo: "Vchasno"

Estonia began providing military assistance to Ukraine before the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion, which influenced the combat operations in the first weeks of the war and helped the Ukrainian Armed Forces fight against occupying forces. As of today, Estonia has already provided 16 military aid packages to Ukraine. The Estonian government has contributed more than EUR 400 million in military aid, which is more than 1% of Estonia’s GDP. This is the highest ratio among European countries.

On the sidelines of the Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels, «Vchasno» journalists had an opportunity to record an interview with Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna. Read below what kind of assistance Estonia provides to Ukraine ahead of the challenging winter, how the country is already investing money in the reconstruction of the facilities in one of the Ukrainian regions, and why it is important to ensure that the Russian leadership will get a punishment for the act of aggression.

«We have proven together with Ukraine that we can rebuild things during the war»

«Vchasno» news agency: In terms of possible blackouts and challenging winter due to Russian shelling of critical infrastructure Estonia already provided two large autotransformers to Ukraine. What are the further plans for helping Ukraine to overcome these difficulties?

— Estonia has put more than 1% of GDP to support Ukraine. We have a special program for the winter, meaning providing autotransformers, generators, and so on. We do as much as we can do. Also, we have the Estonian company that is developing the program to follow the Ukrainian electricity grid and also all the systems where the attacks have been, just to have a full picture of where to move and what to do because this sustainable energy backup is very important, of course.

We try to give everything that we have. The different humanitarian aid that we are trying to bring to Ukraine is important. And it is not only about our government’s decisions. It’s about our private sector and NGOs as well that are donating a lot of funds to mainly help Ukraine survive during the winter.

And the next thing is the long-term commitment to military support. And we have agreed that we will fix for the next year in the GDP level how much we deliver, it must be planned. Estonia has joined G7's Joint declaration (on security guarantees — ed.) for Ukraine and now we are putting the real plans together with Ukraine into that because this commitment must be long-term. Also, I’m very happy that our government is supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine and bringing investments into that programs. We have already done the kindergarten.

The one in Ovruch of Zhytomyr oblast, right?

— Yes. Now we are supporting the enlargement of the kindergarten and the reconstruction of the bridge in the same region. Together with the Olena Zelenska Foundation, we have the family homes project (the Foundation builds housing for large foster families affected by the war — ed.). I think for the next years we have all together with different donors more than 32 million euros to fund this kind of projects.

We have very good and very practical relations. We have proven together with Ukraine that we can rebuild things during the war, not wait when the war will end.

In the summer of 2023, Estonia completed the construction of a modular kindergarten in Ovruch. In the first stage, modern premises were created for four groups, i.e. 80 children. The building also includes a hall, kitchen, bathrooms, and bomb shelters.

With the support of Estonia, the bridge over the Irsha River in Malyn, damaged by a Russian missile on March 6, 2022, was restored in Zhytomyr oblast.

Kindergarten in Ovruch / photo: Suspilne

Bridge in Malyn / photo: Government of Ukraine

«We know that Ukraine is fighting not only for us, but instead of us»

— Why is it so important for Estonia to be so constant in supporting our country? Can we say that support of Ukraine is an investment in the security of Estonia and overall Baltic countries?

— Exactly. We have to be solid and support Ukrainians in their fight for freedom, lives, and independence.

And also we know that Ukraine is fighting not only for us, but instead of us. When I was Defense Minister in 2016−2017, we saw on the other side of the Baltic borders more than 120,000 Russian troops ready to go. The question was whether Putin would give the command or not. But these troops mainly are gone. They’re not existing anymore. They were sent to Ukraine and they are dead. So instead of us, Ukraine is fighting with them. This is the other reason.

The third is that the gray areas on the security policy are like the green flag for Putin. It was in Georgia; it was in Ukraine in 2014. Now it’s the full-scale aggression with the genocide, the deportation of children, and all the awful things about which Ukrainians know better than me. But we must push Russia back to Russia. We must make the price of this aggression so high that they never want to do it again against whoever.

We put to the parliament the law that creates a legal frame for the first time in the European Union that allows to use the Russian frozen assets already during the war to support Ukraine. So this is the strong narrative for those who are worried that their taxpayers' money is going to Ukraine and that Russia must pay for that.

«According to a bill, Ukraine will be able to ask Estonia to channel money from frozen Russian assets to use for the reconstruction. Then, the Estonian judicial system comes into play and will have to decide whether specific frozen assets can be transferred or taken over. So it will be a process that takes time, but the end result will be worth it,» — Margus Tsahkna in his piece for EER.

We’re trying to do many things at the same time. For instance, regarding the aggression crimes, which are the leadership crimes. Now Putin and Lavrov enjoy immunity because of international law. So we are trying to establish the international special tribunal.

I think, the other way around, Ukraine will be our security country if it becomes a full member of NATO, and we should definitely support it. In that case, Ukraine will be the only NATO full member who has been fighting against Russia using NATO weapons. Which is experience. And can you imagine how experienced, big, and capable the Ukrainian military power will be? So talks about the threat in the Suwalki Gap or at our borders will be different. Because Ukraine can guarantee our security as well. So this is not only about the support Ukraine, but the other way around.

This is a perfect historical window for every side. And also the enlargement process of the European Union. We are pushing it very heavily. Because without enlargement, I couldn’t have this interview with you. And we could have been occupied again. So we know exactly what it means.

Ukrainian soldiers during a combat mission / photo: 128th Separate Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade

— Yes, it’s like a window for a secure future.

— Yes. Also, the very well-educated, smart people of Ukraine can offer a lot to the European economy and its growth. So this is an opportunity for Europe as well.

«We must finish this war not only technically, but also based on international law»

— You’ve mentioned a special tribunal on the crime of Russian aggression. Was it crucial to bring Russian leadership and Russian occupying forces to justice right now? How can it be done?

— I have many so-called practical talks like «Okay, let’s cease-fire, and let’s find peace.» But after the Second World War, there was a Nuremberg tribunal. And it was actually the last war that was finished in a decent way, in the meaning of the subsequent re-establishment of international law. The institution of international law on the leadership crimes of aggression was created. It was the first time to take away any kind of will of aggression (the International Military Tribunal tried 21 of the most important surviving leaders of Nazi Germany in the political, military, and economic spheres — ed.). We are not talking about war crimes. We are not talking about the crimes against humanity and all the other things. These are in International Criminal Court jurisdiction.

We are talking about leadership crimes. Now we need to establish a special tribunal for that and lose the immunity for Putin and his associates. And they must be responsible for the aggression crime which is a leadership crime. And this is very important, not only for Ukraine but globally. If we want to have a rule of international law and democracy, we must finish this war. Not only technically, but also based on international law, based on values. So that Russia will never have any kind of idea to make the act of aggression again.

We were occupied as well. And we were in the middle of the Second World War as Ukrainians and all the other nations. But the Soviet Union was not put under trial. Because they were the winners. And it has repeatedly happened again so we must finish this on all different levels.

Author: Olha Kyrylova

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