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Freedom is not for free – we all pay for it

Freiheit ist eines der Dinge, an die wir nicht denken – bis wir sie nicht mehr haben. Welchen Preis Freiheit hat und warum wir keine Angst haben sollten, um sie zu kämpfen, erläuterte Kaja Kallas, Premierministerin von Estland, in ihrer Rede an die Freiheit 2024. Hier folgt die ganze Rede zum Nachlesen.

Fotos: Stefan Popovici Sachim

Estonia and Austria are a vivid example of how a shared space of values ​​has been reached through different – sometimes opposite – developments in the course of one century.

After the Second World War, in 1955, Austria escaped from the control of the Soviet Union by pledging neutrality in its constitution. Austria joined the EU in 1994. Estonia escaped fifty years of Soviet occupation when it restored its independence in 1991. We joined the EU and NATO ten years later, in 2004.

We have both become prosperous, peaceful and democratic countries – both members of the European Union and the Eurozone. The European freedom and solidarity that we share is grounded in democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. And we also know that these values are required not only for individual freedoms and the wellbeing of our people, but also for our own security.

Estonia and Austria are both strong supporters of the rules-based international order and international law – a defensive shield against a vision of the world where might makes right and where bigger neighbours can overrun smaller ones with impunity.

We do not think about freedom until it’s gone

Freedom is one of those things people don’t think about until it’s gone. Freedom for many got another meaning after Russia began its large-scale attack against Ukraine on the 24th of February, two years ago this month. Russia’s aggression reminds us that for freedom to prevail, you must be ready and able to fight for it. Freedom itself is priceless, but to keep it always has a price.

Estonia and the painful lessons in history 

Estonia has a painful lesson in our history about freedom – we lost it, and we lost a fifth of our population to Soviet terror. In fact, before the Second World War, Estonia declared itself neutral – balancing between two evil empires. Despite this, we were occupied by both. Back then we felt we were forgotten and abandoned behind the Iron Curtain, forced into the Soviet Union for half a century. 

We have learnt a few things from this, and this also explains our policy decisions:

First, you need to fight for your freedom, whatever the odds. Because not fighting is worse. Today Ukrainians and President Zelensky are proving the same thing to the entire world every single day.

Second, in Estonia we believe that, if you want peace, you must also show that you are prepared for war. Estonia has been spending 2% of its GDP on defence for many years and now we have increased our defence spending to 3% of our GDP. We have long had a conscription service and our armed forces are based on reserves.

Third, as soon as we escaped from the Soviet prison, we decided we would be Never Alone Again. Never again without friends and allies. That is why we decided to join NATO and the EU.

No business with war criminals

Politicians have the responsibility to formulate hopeful yet realistic visions for the future. During the past two tragic years, there have been several hopeful developments: Ukraine has put the free world’s military, humanitarian and economic aid to great use. Ukraine is an EU candidate country now. Putin is under an arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court, and we are discussing international tribunal modalities among the leaders. There are clear movements within the G7 and the EU on how to use Russia’s frozen assets for reconstructing Ukraine – which is not only strategically, but also morally and legally the right thing to do.

Ukraine’s reconstruction must take place already now – kindergartens, bridges, homes for foster families for children orphaned by the war are among what Estonia has helped to build. Reconstruction combined with European integration and reforms is the perfect boost for Ukraine’s economy and it also helps Ukraine move closer to the EU.

We must continue isolating Russia on the international arena, be it economically or politically – there should be no business as usual; in fact, there should be no business at all with war criminals. Every euro that continues to fuel Putin’s war machine helps to prolong his war of conquest in Ukraine. Let’s not act like an outright aggressor is just one of us. 

We have not done enough

Unity is our hardest currency. Together we can help Ukraine win this war. But we must be brutally honest with ourselves – as long as Russia is still bombing Ukrainian towns and aims to conquer the country, we have not done enough. The hard truth of war is that the side who has more ammunition will win. So, Ukraine needs our long-term support. This means assistance that reaches them, regardless of party-political distractions and realities within our countries, regardless of the comings and goings of elections. That is why my government has pledged to spend 0,25% of the GDP for military assistance to Ukraine over the next four years.

It all costs money, and I am aware it is politically difficult to explain the situation in countries where there are better neighbours. The hard truth is that objective circumstances today don’t give any reason to believe Russia would change its policy of conquest. So, it would be a false hope that there will be peace in Ukraine tomorrow.

The explanation we owe to our people is that this difficult security situation within Europe is here to stay and we must all adapt accordingly. Our primary focus must be on making sure that Russia’s aggression ends in defeat – only then can we be sure that it will not continue or expand its aggression in the future.

We should be learning from history that what happens elsewhere will quickly happen here – unless aggression is stopped, deterred, and contained. That is why the best way to secure ourselves is to make sure we help Ukraine to win its fight for freedom.

Foto (146 von 185) Kopie

"The best way to secure ourselves is to make sure we help Ukraine to win its fight for freedom."

Kaja Kallas

Europe has to reinvent itself over and over again

Our Europe is something that will never be ready – after each crisis, after each enlargement, after the formative experiences of each new generation, Europe has to reinvent itself over and over again. This is necessary to remain meaningful and relevant to our people. And this is necessary to deliver not only hope in a better future, but also tangible benefits, including security to our own people.

The Covid pandemic made us think out of the box, and thanks to joint procurements we managed to secure vaccines at revolutionary speed. The same should apply to our thinking now that there’s a seriously worsened security environment right behind our borders. And indeed, the Russian war against Ukraine has brought along serious shifts in thinking among European countries. It has shifted the security policy of Finland, now a NATO member, and Sweden, a soon-to-be member. Austria's decision to join in the German-led Sky Shield air defence programme is another example of a changed approach.

Within the EU, we have agreed to jointly procure one million rounds of artillery shells to Ukraine, and we are discussing joint procurement and joint ownership of defence capabilities within the EU. This all is a clear illustration of this shift in thinking. There’s no freedom, no economic prosperity without national security. Hence, the direction is clear – European countries must make sure that they are able to deter and defend themselves also from outside threats and attacks. This is necessary to secure our common market, economic prosperity and the wellbeing and freedom of our people.

The many fears and traps

I am aware that there are many fears linked to these tremendous and speedy changes. Uncertain times are full of traps.

There’s the trap of hope – the hope for quick solutions. It is only human that we all want this war to end quickly. I do not know anyone in Ukraine who is "for war." The people I know are for their freedom, for self-defence, for living their lives peacefully. They want the war to end. But history has shown time and again that not every peace dove carries a real message of peace. And not every peace treaty secures a peace that lasts.

Then there’s also the trap of negotiations. That’s the hope that once we allow Russia to get away with a land-grab, Russia’s appetite would be satisfied. The wish to negotiate also comes from those who wish to stabilise relations with Russia no matter the cost.

And there’s the trap of fear. Threats issued by Russian leaders and pictures of nuclear explosions on Russian state TV are aimed to scare our people. By sowing fear, they want to change the perception of war in our societies.

Russia is provoked by weakness

That leads us to what has been called the trap of self-deterrence. Fear of escalation creates self-deterrence. As a result, some argue that to help Ukraine defend itself from aggression means to escalate. My reply: defence is not escalation. Resistance does not provoke Russia – weakness does.

And finally, there’s the trap of disinformation. While fear is one tool that the Kremlin uses to prevent democratic leaders and societies from supporting Ukraine, then disinformation and influence operations are another one. The frontline of Putin’s so-called shadow war is located in the hearts of our own democracies: universities, parliaments, media and other institutions.

The Kremlin’s disinformation is reaching wide audiences via social media; it sits literally within our pockets, phones and apps. The aim of Russia’s influence operations are to create distrust and change our policies, they aim to deter our societies from supporting Ukraine, spark domestic divisions, and influence democratic decision-making – including decisions we make at the ballot-boxes. The latest example is from Germany where a vast anti-Ukraine disinformation campaign against the government via the social media platform X was discovered. The target was the support of the German government for Ukraine – more than one million German-language posts were sent from an estimated 50,000 fake accounts.

Foto (100 von 185) Kopie

"Resistance does not provoke Russia – weakness does."

Kaja Kallas

There have also been several recent examples of influence operations. Among the latest examples are a European Parliament member from Latvia who the European Parliament is now investigating for decades-long cooperation with Russian intelligence and security services. A joint journalistic investigation recently revealed that an adviser to the German Bundestag deputy of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party might be a Russian intelligence agent. In my own country, our internal police recently detained a long-time University professor from Russia who is suspected of engaging in intelligence activities. The best vaccine against such threats is to speak openly about these incidents. That is why Estonian internal police has a long track record of revealing the stories of caught spies also to the wider (international) public.

Freedom is not for free. We all pay for it. And we need to explain the cost to our voters. We mustn’t be afraid – in fact, it is fear itself that we must fear the most. Like my father has always told me, only freedom will give certainty, will conquer fear and will guarantee a fair economy.

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