European unity over the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is proving difficult to maintain in the face of the war’s impact on inflation and living standards across the continent, Estonia’s prime minister has said.
Kaja Kallas also criticised the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for trying to provide Vladimir Putin with a diplomatic way out of the conflict, saying the only effect was to give the Russian leader the belief that he will not be isolated or face justice for his army’s war crimes.
“We are at a point when sanctions start to hurt our side,” said Kallas, who has gained a growing reputation for standing up to Putin. “At first the sanctions were only difficult for Russia but now we are coming to a point when the sanctions are painful for our own countries, and now the question is how much pain are we willing to endure. It is different for different countries. The unity is very hard to keep. It is getting more and more difficult because of high inflation, and energy prices.”
She added: “Gas might be expensive, but freedom is priceless. People living in the free world do not really understand that.”
She said that as a teenager she had been liberated from a Russian totalitarian prison – Estonia was annexed by the USSR until 1991. “I know what it feels like and this is the experience of central and eastern countries,” she said. “But this is an experience that some western European countries do not have, so the values might go out of the window as soon as you feel the pain on your side.”
Estonia has the highest inflation in the EU, and Kallas’s coalition government collapsed last Friday leading her to scramble to form a new government in alliance with social democrats.
Kallas criticised Macron for talking to Putin, whom she accused of committing war crimes. “I do not see any point in talking to him if we want to get the message through that he is isolated and the message that he will not escape unpunished for this and will be held accountable for all the crimes committed,” she said.
“I am very worried by the premature calls for a ceasefire or peace, since a ceasefire does not mean the atrocities will end in the occupied territories. We have already made this mistake three times, in Georgia, Donbas and Crimea, and we cannot make this mistake again.”
She said by the end of the Soviet occupation of Estonia the proportion of Russians in the population had risen from 2% to 30%, and she feared the same fate in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Macron recently repeated his view that Putin must not be humiliated, underlining the divisions between those who say Putin must be defeated and be seen to be defeated, and those who say simply he must not win.
Kallas said: “Putin can well save his face by going back to Russia because his forces are in a sovereign country.”
She also said she was afraid there was not going to be a EU embargo on Russian gas any time soon, but she had proposed an alternative to Germany – that it stop paying Moscow for its Russian gas purchases, and instead put the money into an escrow account that goes towards reparations and the rebuilding of Ukraine. She said “this would send a clear signal to Russia that for every building you destroy, you are going to have to pay for this”.
Kallas is due to meet the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, on Tuesday when she will stress to Berlin that the EU is making the right decisions, but at too slow a pace for Ukraine.
Kallas, in London to see Boris Johnson and other UK ministers, said that if her plans to form a new coalition failed, her government was likely to be replaced by another coalition that included rightwing extremists who sympathise with Russia, oppose Ukrainian refugees and still do not recognise that Joe Biden was elected as US president legitimately.
Kallas felt forced to collapse her coalition with the Centre party last Friday after weeks of rows over preschool education and welfare benefits, leaving the Centre party to look for allies on the far right to try to form a majority government. She said the far right in Estonia “use the same speaking points as Vladimir Putin, opposing Ukrainian refugees and claiming this is all war hysteria”.
She said the far right had never recognised Biden’s election because they were supporters of Donald Trump.
The Centre party is trying to form a government in conjunction with the small centre-right Isamaa party and the far-right EKRE Conservative People’s party of Estonia, reproducing a coalition that was in office from April 2019 to January 2021.