Minu kõne Matthiae-Mahli õhtusöögil

Feb 20, 2024, autor Kaja Kallas

Dear First Mayor, Federal Chancellor Scholz, Excellencies, President of the Hamburg Parliament, Citizen of Honour Professor Neumeier,

I am honoured to address you on this very special occasion.

Back home, on the Tallinn Town Hall there is a sentence in German which illustrates our common Hanseatic spirit: “Fürchte Gott, rede die Wahrheit, tue Recht und scheue niemand” /Fear God, tell the truth, do justice, and be afraid of nobody/ 

I would like to abide by this centuries-old command and openly tell you the truth as it currently appears to my people and myself. I would like to tell you quite openly, as the old maxim on our Town Hall requires me to do, that my people and I watch with a certain concern how little it is realized what is currently brewing in the expanses of Russia.

From a subjective point of view it is understandable that the breakdown of the Soviet Union caused the West to feel a kind of triumph; it is also understandable, subjectively, that the West concentrated all its hopes and empathies on the true or ostensible forces of reform in Russia. This attitude, however, has brought the West to a risk of wishful thinking.

Those are not actually my words. These words were spoken thirty years ago in this very room by Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after we escaped from the Soviet prison and restored our independence. President Meri was the guest of honour at the Matthiae-Mahl in 1994.

When I read over his speech before coming here today, I was struck by how much of it still rings true. How he warned against wishful thinking towards Russia, because he knew that Russia had not truly changed. He knew back then that while the Soviet Union had collapsed, its expansionist colonialist ideology never did.

Reading his speech in 2024, on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I could not stop thinking about three questions:

What if we had listened – I mean, really listened – to his words back then? Are we listening now? Do we recognize what is actually at stake also for all of us on the battlefield in Ukraine?

Thirty years ago, there was one person in the room who listened and reacted. Some of you may remember it. Among the guests in this hall back then, sat the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin. Upon President Lennart Meri’s speech, Putin did something that had never happened at this ceremony: he abruptly got up and left. It has been described how the look he gave the host was full of contempt, how his every angry step creaked on the wooden floor.

What exactly did President Meri say that so annoyed Putin? It is clear by now that his speech reads like a prophecy of what has happened since then. Putin’s walk-out revealed his true colors very early on. Many just didn’t receive the message or didn’t want to pay attention.

Thirteen years later, in 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, now as Russia’s president, Putin outlined his expansionist ambitions very clearly. Georgia, Crimea, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine followed. And in the last few weeks, he has been making it loud and clear again that none of his plans have changed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I come here almost directly from the Munich Security Conference. There, President Zelenskyy rightly posed the main question we should be asking ourselves now: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why Putin is still able to continue it.”

We need to answer that question – not just in words but actions.

What I missed in Munich was the spirit of victory. Estonia’s mantra during our Singing Revolution within the Soviet prison was: one day we will win, no matter what. Ükskord me võidame niikuinii. That is what we all should be calling at the top of our voice towards Ukraine and to ourselves. Without true belief, no real action would follow. It’s a losing game to build your strategy upon pessimism.

Thucydides reminds us that the secret to happiness is freedom and the secret to freedom is courage. This ancient wisdom is also embedded in the Hanseatic spirit “be afraid of nobody” as the writing on the wall of Tallinn’s Town Hall reminds us.

Fear is a trap that Putin has set up against all of us in the free world. Threats by Russian leaders and pictures of nuclear explosions on Russian state TV are aimed to scare our people and influence our decisions. By sowing fear, they want to change the perception of war in our societies. By getting rid of political opponents – as Alexei Navalny’s death tragically reminds us –, they want to kill all hope. I keep getting questions about what Putin would do if Russia loses. My reply: we should worry more about what he will do if Russia wins. And it does not make sense to keep asking if Estonia is afraid or if Poland is next. Don’t forget, that question really is a question of whether NATO is next. We all have skin in the game. If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, there is no need to ask this question. So let’s not blur our focus but do everything to support Ukraine push Russia back to its territory.

Let’s not make the mistakes of the 1930s. Our mantra should be that defence is not escalation. Resistance does not provoke Russia – weakness does. That was also a very same worry of President Meri when he gave his words of warning back in 1994 in this very Hall, and I quote: “With this approach [of appeasement], one unwittingly becomes an accomplice of imperialist forces in Russia who believe that they can solve their country’s immense problems by outward expansion and by threatening their neighbors.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Believe me, no one desires the fate of Cassandra. Warning about Russia’s imperialistic ambitions not having ended did not bring us any joy, nor did the realisation of that warning coming true. We did this only because we have first-hand experience with Russia.

We should now learn from history that what happens in one place will quickly happen elsewhere – unless aggression is stopped, deterred, and contained.

It is a long confrontation. As President Zelensky reminded us in Munich a couple of days ago: dictators don’t go on vacation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Matthias-Tag is on the 24th of February. On the same date, Estonia celebrates its Independence Day. Two years ago on February 24th, Russia initiated a full-scale war against Ukraine. This is a war against the same values that the newly born Republic of Estonia declared in its Declaration of Independence in 1918: the will for freedom and the desire to choose our own future.

And these are the same values that President Meri called to protect in his speech, and I quote: “Western, and above all German policy, has to make a fateful choice. Either the neo-imperialist policy of a great eastern power will be tolerated, financed, and in the short term, possibly even profited from; that, dear listeners, would be a policy unable to see an inch further than one’s nose. Or the notions of democracy, freedom, responsibility and peace will be helped on the road to success across the whole gigantic area between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean; if one wants to do that, the democratic West should resolutely contribute to the stability and security of the medium and smaller-sized states to the east of the German border. Here I mean the whole area of Central Europe, which in my view reaches from the Estonian border town of Narva, on the Baltic Sea, to the Adriatic, also including Ukraine.” End of quote.

It is time to learn the lesson and end grey zones of security in Europe. Russia thinks it has taken Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic future hostage. It should have no say over who belongs where. As the leaders of NATO and the EU have confirmed: Ukraine’s future is in NATO and the EU.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We must be brutally honest with ourselves – as long as Russia is still bombing Ukrainian towns and marching through its towns and villages, we have not lived up to our promises and principles. We must tell the truth to ourselves. The truth is that Ukraine is running out of ammunition unless we come up with quick deliveries. Long-term commitments are important, but it is also a fact of war that the side having the most ammunition will win.

Unity is our hardest currency. Together we can help Ukraine win this war. We have the resources, the economic might, the expertise. Our strength outweighs Russia’s. Let’s not be afraid of our own power.

Dictators also know that democracies have elections. They think that makes us weak, but if we have a clear goal of victory and a winning strategy in place, our democracies are also our strength and force. Hence, our focus should also be on making sure Ukrainians receive help regardless of party-political distractions and realities within our own countries. Regardless of the comings and goings of elections.

For that, we need to have our public on board, so it is highly important to keep them informed of how our adversaries act and what they think – in short; of what the threats around us are.

Not all intelligence services within NATO share their assessments with the public. Estonian services do it once a year. Why? Because information sharing makes sure the whole of society, including friends and partners abroad are prepared, aware and see the developments in rogue regimes through a realistic lens. Being open is a strength of our societies, it makes it impossible to use a surprise as a weapon. By revealing their methods, we can deter harmful actions and make our societies more resilient against hostile influence. 

This all is even more important because it has become increasingly clear that the frontline of Putin’s so-called shadow war runs through 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 is to influence democratic decision-making – including decisions we make at the ballot-boxes. I recently read about the latest example 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.

One way to interpret it is as a tribute to the leadership that Chancellor Scholz and his government have taken up in support of Ukraine. The Zeitenwende is going ahead with full speed. In democracies, it sometimes takes time to bring about a historic turnaround, but once it gets going, there should be no turning back. In terms of numbers, Germany has given the most aid to Ukraine in Europe. Germany has doubled its military aid to Ukraine in comparison to last year. It is also raising defence spending for now and the years to come, and German commitment to defend also the Baltic Sea region has become a lot stronger.

Ladies and Gentleman,

To stand up against evil, one doesn’t have to be a hero on the battlefield. We all have the power not to stay silent and take action. This is exactly what 60 professors from the University of Hamburg did in 2004 when they successfully protested against the decision to give an honorary doctorate to Putin.

Going back to where I started – this room, thirty years ago. Listen to Putin’s footsteps as he stormed out. Really listen. Are we now going to let him walk all across Ukraine? Are we going to let dictators call the shots? Or are we going to finally learn from history? For that, we need to not be afraid of our own power. Together, we can help Ukraine win its fight for freedom.

Thank you!