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'Not only the full victory of Ukraine is important, we need to defeat Russia' - Estonia's Ambassador Annely Kolk

'Not only the full victory of Ukraine is important, we need to defeat Russia' - Estonia's Ambassador Annely Kolk Annely Kolk, Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine (Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

Humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, the confiscation of Russian assets, Ukraine's victory, Russia's defeat and the road to peace, negotiations with the European Union and NATO, and threats from Moscow and other issues were discussed with Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine, Annely Kolk, in an interview with RBC-Ukraine.

Since the start of the full-scale war, Estonia has secured its position as one of Ukraine's main allies in the West. The small country confidently holds the first place in the world for the total amount of aid provided in relation to its GDP – over 1.6%, according to calculations by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Tallinn will continue to assist Kyiv, committing to allocate at least 0.25% of the country's budget for military aid in the coming years.

Furthermore, Estonia is actively promoting Ukraine's interests at the political level, whether it involves the confiscation of Russian assets, accession to the EU and NATO, or other key issues for us.

As Ambassador Annely Kolk emphasized in a conversation with RBC-Ukraine, there are several reasons for this: the shared historical experience of Soviet occupation, the potential threat from Russia, and the Estonians' realization that Ukraine is currently deciding not only its own fate but also the future of the entire democratic world.

Estonia ranks first in the world in terms of assistance to Ukraine in proportion to the country's GDP. How did you manage to do this?

— We have always supported Ukraine and we started our military assistance even before the full-scale war.

We were afraid of what may happen here. And because of our common history – we both were occupied by the Soviet Union and so we know what the brutal neighbor is capable of – that's why basically the whole Estonian society started to support Ukraine since the beginning.

At that time I was an ambassador to Turkiye, Iran, and Azerbaijan. And from the very early morning of the 24th of February, we received instructions to do everything possible to gain publicity and get help for Ukraine.

The whole society was mobilized, there was no question for the politicians. From the beginning, already since 2014 but even more since 2022, the Estonian society very much understood what will be at stake here, that the security architecture of Europe, of the whole democratic world will be decided here. And so we started to advocate a lot in the European Union, in the UN for helping Ukraine.

And this has continued and like you said we have been number one according to the amount of aid to Ukraine in proportion to our GDP. But I think it's fair to take into account that we are a small country – 1.3 million people.

So for us, it has never been a question. And I know that our Ministry of Defense and all other ministries keep thinking every day about what else can we do, what else can we provide to Ukraine when we are facing the energy crisis here.

Can you please name the main items of Estonian military aid to Ukraine, in particular in the IT sector, as Estonia co-chairs the IT coalition? And how does your country help Ukraine besides the military sphere, in the humanitarian sphere, in reconstruction?

— Yesterday I read through all the notes about our help and it's 10 pages altogether. We have given javelins, ammunition, different equipment, drones, also military hospitals and medical equipment, whatever we can just find.

As for humanitarian aid, we have provided more than 30 million euros humanitarian aid and that has gone mostly to the IDPs and to help with the energy sector and all other fields where urgent help is needed. And we have always hoped that when we are the first ones, even if the amounts are not that big in absolute figures, it really matters and we have been pioneers in these fields and also we have provided a huge amount of development cooperation and assistance.

As for the military help and IT in particular, at the end of last year our government decided to make a long-term commitment. And so we provided in the budget that for the next four years, every year we will provide 0.25% of our GDP to the Ukrainian military aid.

Посол Естонії Аннелі Кольк: Важлива не лише повна перемога України, а й поразка Росії

Annely Kolk, Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine (Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

We are an IT country. And then it was, of course, the sphere where we also started to think about what we could do. And together with Luxembourg, we started the IT coalition. The main aim is to provide Ukraine with NATO standards in communication, the ICT sector, as well as in cyber defense.

I should mention that we are also the co-founders and members of the Tallinn mechanism, which is also about cyber defense assistance. We even have a front office of this Tallinn mechanism here in our embassy and another office is in Poland, and we are really active in this sphere.

We know already from our history, back to 2007, that Russia is committing war not only on the battlefield but against the civilians, against the infrastructure, and in all these hybrid formats.

And what happened in 2007?

— We had massive riots of the Russian-speaking minority and massive cyber attacks.


— Yes. So our experts worked days and nights to encounter this. And that was the first time when it was really brought to the public that Russia is committing cyber attacks on a huge, large scale. And again, like it happens here, without any reason, just because they can.

As for the humanitarian sphere, I learned that you take care in particular of the Zhytomyr region. Can you tell me more about this?

— Yes, this is the development cooperation. We had 4 million in 2022, 8 million in 2023, and for the next 4 years, we have 56 million dedicated to development cooperation. We have chosen one region, the Zhytomyr region, and we are doing most of our reconstruction projects there.

We have an overwhelming approach. When we are building a kindergarten, we are also training the kindergarten teachers, we bring them to Estonia, and we provide all the equipment to the kindergarten. So that it shouldn't be just a building, one concrete establishment, but providing everything that is needed. And that has been quite successful. For this and the next years we have many many other projects.

Just recently, a week ago, our Minister of Foreign Affairs was here, and together with the Olena Zelenska Foundation, they opened a foster family house for those who had to leave their homes in the parts of Ukraine that are now occupied. And we also started to build new foster family homes, especially for those who had to leave their homes and everything.

When should we expect the bilateral security agreement between Ukraine and Estonia to be signed, and what may be the main provisions of this agreement?

— We have finalized it months ago. We started quite early and we had a very good and intensive cooperation with the Ukrainians, but we just haven't found yet the time to sign it.

And also we were the first ones to announce that we will include in our bilateral agreement the provision of a long-term commitment to provide 0.25% of our GDP to Ukraine. And I know that many other countries followed our lead after that.

Is your country and other Western countries ready to invest in the recovery of Ukraine while the war is still in full swing and the prospects of its ending are not yet visible?

— Absolutely. And we were the first ones who started to reconstruct Ukraine, you know, just after the beginning of the war, because it's very important to give people hope. And this is our gratitude to the Ukrainians for their resilience. I have been in this kindergarten in Ovruch, four times, and when you see the small kids, their eyes… You know, it goes without question that we should start rebuilding now and yeah, if there is another missile attack and damage by Russia then we will build it again. And also I think it has sent a clear signal to investors as well.

To the private sector? Because they risk with their own money.

— Yes, absolutely. And also, you know, it is the signal for the people, Ukrainian refugees in Europe who want to come back home. So, definitely, we are going to continue it and we encourage all countries to do the same and not be afraid of the aggressor.

Estonia recently passed a law regarding the confiscation of Russian assets. How will it work and what sums in absolute figures are we talking about? And generally, how to best use these billions and billions of frozen Russian assets that are frozen in the West?

— That's also one area where Estonia was again the pioneer. We were the first ones to start talking in the EU and in the world that we should use the aggressors' frozen assets to rebuild Ukraine and to pay for their damages because we believe in Ukraine and its victory. It will come one day. And after that, of course, the perpetrators will be taken to court and they will have to pay anyway.

Our law stipulates the usage of all profits from the frozen assets. So it's different from the European Union's and also the G7's approach to that. Of course, we support that as well. But we are still working hard that all frozen assets themselves should be used for the sake of the Ukrainian reconstruction.

We don't have a huge amount of Russian assets in Estonia, but again, we show the world that this is possible, in our understanding the European Union law allows this and there are no obstacles.

Посол Естонії Аннелі Кольк: Важлива не лише повна перемога України, а й поразка Росії

Annely Kolk, Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine (Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

Let's talk about the situation from a bird-flight view. Russia was unable to achieve its goal during the Kharkiv offensive. At the same time, we started to regularly achieve military aid from the US and other nations as well. The issue of transferring the funds from the frozen Russian assets is moving forward rapidly. The US and other countries also allowed us to carry out strikes on the border territory of Russia. So there's a bunch of positive news. So don't you agree that the general atmosphere is becoming slightly better for Ukraine than it was, say, half a year ago?

— Yes, definitely, and we have been waiting for these developments for so long. More and more countries in the West understand what is at stake here and that it's really not only about Russia attacking Ukraine. Russia has this imperialistic approach and desires and they have never disappeared.

I think that the great work of the Ukrainians themselves, and their resilience have also shown the world that we should do more, we should act. I'm very positive that this will now bring the utmost needed help to Ukraine, especially to the front lines.

Also, I have to mention that the Russian regime itself, Putin and his regime, and their actions have also created a very sobering understanding in the West that it's not like a one-time military operation.

So I'm very hopeful that as more and more help is coming Ukraine will be able to win the war as quickly as possible.

The peace summit last weekend also created the atmosphere and showed the Russian regime that they are basically alone. Okay, they have friends. North Korea…

And China.

— But we need the other countries of the Global South to understand that this war influences further world order. We are doing 100, 120, 150, 200 percent to really talk with the Global South, our ambassadors in these countries keep doing that.

To be honest, it is not enough to show only the pictures of the devastation. Yes, it's not that impressive, let's be frank.

It was impressive back in spring 2022 but now – not so much.

— It's more now about what Russia has said publicly, and what are their ambitions about having the Russian Empire back – I think many countries in the Global South are starting to understand that if Ukraine does not win the war if it ends with some sort of a ceasefire or with some temporary solution...

When you take the Russian self-proclaimed President Putin's statement a couple of days ago the peace negotiations should take into account 'the reality'...

'The reality on the ground' as he puts it.

— Tonight was the reality, you know, this constant bombing. This is Russian reality. And how is it possible to even imagine that this is the partner to talk about peace?.. When you look at the history of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have abandoned and neglected all the agreements they were part of.

Do many of your colleagues in the European Union, especially from the countries that do not share a common border with Russia, that are further to the West, understand 100% what you just said? Maybe they understand, but do they agree with you?

— Yes, definitely. And, well, you see it yourself. I can assure you that all European Union and the Democratic West understand that Russia cannot win and Ukraine cannot lose. But maybe not all of them understand that there is a lot at stake here. Maybe this is yet not fully agreed with us. Of course, Russia has shown its true face and my colleagues see it very clearly but the politicians are acting upon the public opinion. And there is Russian propaganda...

How to fight it? Russia invests, I believe, billions and billions in it globally, and what do we have against it?

— I'm very honest with you. We are very late with that. We knew it, actually, to be honest, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that Russian influence, their propaganda machine, that their whole regime is built upon the occupation and all these imperialistic views.

Now we need to be more active on that, and at least to get the awareness of the people in Western Europe, wherever in the world, that it's fake news, it's propaganda, and everything is a lie.

Russia spends billions and billions, and Russia has different formal and informal ties with the leaders of many Global South countries, what are our arguments against this?

— I agree that it is a very difficult job because Russia has also very cleverly invested in their economies. Many of these countries are dependent on Russia. I'm very hopeful that these global South partners have also had their lessons learned from the cooperation with Russia and that eventually, you know, when Russia is not obliged to the agreements here, I think it does the same there.

And more and more information is coming public that Russia is recruiting mercenaries from Africa and also lying to them – I hope that it will come to light one day. Of course, we have to do our utmost to bring our narratives to show what is at stake and what they might be losing as well. And I think that Syria should also be a good example for the Global South partners.

So generally do you see an opportunity for Ukraine to seize the initiative in the foreseeable future? I'm not talking only about the battlefield but about a political or geopolitical initiative.

— Definitely. I've been here for almost a year and I see what the Ukrainians are capable of, how innovative and how clever and resilient they are and they can also bring global communities with them. So I'm absolutely confident. We just need to do more, to give more help to them and especially so that they can fight on the battlefield, that they have sufficient ammunition, and that the leadership can concentrate on the other efforts.

I am confident that those countries who are committed to implementing the United Nations Charter, that those countries eventually will take the democratic side.

Посол Естонії Аннелі Кольк: Важлива не лише повна перемога України, а й поразка Росії

Annely Kolk, Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine (Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

A month or something ago, President Zelenskyy had a meeting with Ukrainian journalists and he said that the Western partners don't want Russia to lose the war. Well, they would like to see Ukraine winning the war, certainly, but not in a way that Russia loses because there will be unpredictable consequences, collapse, all these issues with nuclear weaponry, and so on. Do you agree with such a statement?

— Yes, I agree with this statement of the President. Actually, I said already a year ago, that there are countries that want Ukraine to win but do not want Russia to lose.

But it doesn't work this way.

— I know that's the dilemma. It's mostly those countries that have huge economic ties with the Russian Federation. And they don't imagine Russia to lose because then their economies are losing a lot.

But I think that this narrative or this fear has also changed to the side of Ukraine. A little, but the situation is changing. The war goes on and these countries see that Russia is not a reliable partner anymore. And that Russia has really played these cards, very openly, very publicly, – that nobody is safe.

As for Russia's constant threats of nuclear weaponry... I think it shows that they are sort of losing ground and just using threats towards the West in a way they shouldn't do.

And what about the prospects of Russia's collapse – in case it loses the war and some processes start and there will be like 20 Russias fighting with each other, and refugees and all this stuff?

— I have to be honest, I don't believe that my eyes will see a democratic Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have seen that the Russian Federation has built step by step its imperialistic views. I can't foresee Russia collapsing to 10 Russias and them fighting each other.

But we are saying that not only the full victory of Ukraine is important, but also we need to defeat Russia. That is also the second goal. They have to understand that the aggression doesn't pay off and that they will really feel it for the next many, many, many years. And hopefully, then the people will also see the consequences of the sanctions, of all these restrictive policies and that maybe changes are needed.

And maybe not.

— Yeah, but at least the victory of Ukraine is the milestone that is needed, at least to ensure that there might be positive democratic changes in the future. When there is a frozen conflict, when we leave grey zones, and when Russia doesn't feel defeated then we will start all over in a year, two years, or three years.

And how does Estonia see the way to end the war and achieve a just peace? We had a Peace summit, maybe something else is needed? Or do we have just to keep fighting until we win on the battlefield?

— There is no one good recipe. We have now the Peace Summit, we have Zelenskyy's 10-point peace plan, more and more countries coming together and discussing nuclear safety, which is really important, the food security, which should be really understood by the African nations, the deportation of the children and also bringing back the prisoners of war.

Of course, it's important to help Ukraine win on the battlefield but also we need other steps, like the isolation of the Russian Federation from all international organizations, international forums, and all these sanction packages. We know that sanctions work not immediately, but they are effective and we see it already. And so all these steps, we hope they will lead one day to the defeat of Russia. And of course, the sooner the better. And that's what the West is working really hard at.

In your opinion, does the fear of 'escalation' still influence the Western decision-making regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war?

— I don't think, anymore. Now we see that more and more countries are providing Patriots and other air defense systems. Many countries don't restrict Ukraine from using their weapons to attack targets in the federal territory of Russia. Now we see that the US has lifted all these restrictions.

Not all, still they prohibit us from attacking somewhere deeper in Russia because there will be 'escalation'.

— Yeah, but still, can you imagine these decisions two years ago?.. It means that these threats of escalation – they are not there anymore. And I think Russia is also very well getting that point.

What is Estonia's stance on the issue of sending Western troops to Ukraine, in particular Estonian troops?

— We have said that we are ready to discuss it. It's not a red line for us. We are just hoping for the common position of NATO or the European Union and our leaders, I mean, especially the Defense Ministry, are discussing it and they said recently that nothing is out of the table for us. And we have trained Ukrainian instructors now on our soil.

Can the success of different hard-right and ultra-right parties in the recent EU elections somehow influence future EU policies toward Ukraine?

— Well, that's a good question. And of course, that remains to be seen in the near future. But I also would like to say that very often when we see during the election campaigns – those candidates often say out loud things. They promise things the voters want to hear. And once they are part of these organizations, once they have been elected, then the reality starts from there.

I am not very pessimistic, and especially with regard to my country, nothing will change in the attitude towards the support to Ukraine.

How long may the negotiations about our accession to the EU last? Our leadership sets overambitious goals, like completing everything in two years, which many experts consider to be technically impossible.

— Well, in our case, it took 10 years, but I also have to say that we were not in the middle of the war. There was not that urgency. But here we see also what Ukraine has managed to do during the war, all these reforms that are needed. So I mean, it's unbelievable.

So I wouldn't set any deadlines because we don't know. But it will not only depend on Ukraine, it will depend on all 27 member states and also the procedures in the European Union. These procedures have been there for more than 40 years, so it all may take time, but when I see the reforms and all the speed and the dedication of the leaders, of the people, I remain optimistic that it could be less than 10 years.

2030 looks like something that may work.

— At least we are doing our part. We have also named our expert to help Ukraine in these negotiations, our previous main negotiator for Estonian accession to the European Union. And I know that all other European countries are very dedicated to helping Ukraine.

Посол Естонії Аннелі Кольк: Важлива не лише повна перемога України, а й поразка Росії

Annely Kolk, Estonia's Ambassador to Ukraine (Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

NATO and the Washington summit. Everyone here understands we will not become a member of NATO before the war ends. That's clear. But why doesn't NATO want to give us at least a political invitation to the alliance?

— Well, concerning Estonia, we have supported giving Ukraine that invitation, and also we know that NATO will give the ultimate protection that Ukraine will need. We know it ourselves because we are members of NATO and we advocated for it very strongly already in Vilnius (previous NATO summit in 2023 - ed.). We are advocating right now, but we know that there are 24-hour discussions with the other partners to find the solution.

That's our utmost goal, to go a step further from the Vilnius summit decision. We have to give a signal that Ukraine will be a NATO member one day. And we hope that we can manage to go further from Vilnius. And regarding Russia, they understand very well that this is also going to happen. Even if Ukraine does not get the exact invitation, there will be stronger wording, and we hope so.

The last set of questions is about your country and the Russian threat to your country. Recently I had an interview with your colleague, the Ambassador of Latvia to Ukraine, Ilgvars Klava. And he told me that Latvia, his country is getting ready to repel potential Russian aggression, but I quote, 'we do not believe that the risk is very high at the moment'. What about Estonia? As we know the Russians recently committed some provocative actions on the Narva river that separates the two countries.

— Since the regaining of independence, we have built a strong army, and membership in NATO was our goal. And over the last 10 years, we had high expenditure for the defense budget, because we have always known that we are where we are geographically.

That you are on the top of the list of potential threats?

— Well, not maybe at the top of the list, but they are our neighbors. This is already dangerous. And they have already occupied us.

But I can agree with my Baltic colleague that we don't see an imminent threat right now from Russia because we are a NATO member and attacking us means attacking NATO. So this will be a new reality then. But of course, we see these hybrid attacks that Russia is constantly doing, starting with the GPS jamming of the planes, and now the removal of the buoys from the river.

So of course we are preparing, and accelerating our preparations, defense preparations. But I don't see any panic or fear.

Russia has long portrayed Estonians, as well as other Baltic nations as 'fascists', long before 2014. So, does it all continue in the same way? Does Russia try to use the Russian ethnic minority to provoke any unrest or disorder inside your country?

— Russia has accused us of being Nazis for 20 years. I was once posted to the UN in Geneva. There were constant statements and threats from the Russian Federation regarding their minority in Estonia. And well, of course, they have lived quite a long time under Russian propaganda, especially in Eastern Estonia.

But over the last 10 years, the government has really paid attention to that. Those people, many of them came to Estonia during Soviet times, and they are still there. However, Russia is just near, you can walk over the bridge. I think it shows something that they prefer to stay here. Even if they criticize the authorities, the oppression of the language rights, and all this stuff. But still, they prefer to live in Estonia because they understand that the Russians in Estonia enjoy more human rights than Russians in Russia.