Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has emerged as one of Europe’s most combative leaders as the continent grapples with the return of major war.
The 45-year-old’s ceaseless repudiation of Russian aggression—and of those allies who are seemingly hesitant to face it—has earned Kallas vitriol from the Kremlin and a new nickname in the West: Europe’s “new Iron Lady,” a moniker once bestowed upon former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“I don’t know how to answer this,” Kallas said, laughing, at the nickname during an exclusive Newsweek interview at the Stenbock House—the official seat of the Estonian government—in Tallinn last week ahead of the Lennart Meri Conference.
“I guess it shows that I’ve been very firm about the issues that I’m talking about. And I think it is meant as a compliment. Although maybe in some countries, it’s not. I think it’s actually illustrating the point that we are being heard now. And I think it’s recognition for us, as Estonia. It’s good that we are recognized.”
Kallas has certainly been firm. The Estonian prime minister, who took office in 2021, has consistently been among those urging an ever-tougher response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and agitation around NATO and European Union borders.
Her government was among the first to send lethal aid to Ukraine as Russian troops massed for their February 2022 invasion, and since they crossed the border Estonia has led the way in military aid to Kyiv.
Now, Kallas’ new government is increasing military spending to 3 percent of GDP—above the 2 percent target agreed by NATO states in 2014—and pushing its NATO allies to do the same.
Estonia—described by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as “one of the most hostile states towards Russia”—has also been in the hawkish vanguard on sanctions on and political isolation of Russia, plus a staunch backer of Ukrainian EU and NATO membership, and Kyiv’s proposed war crimes prosecutions of Putin and his top officials.
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry via email for comment.
‘We’ve Tried Your Way’
Estonia and its Baltic allies long warned against European détente and economic cooperation with Moscow. At NATO’s edge, the Baltic states have faced the constant threat of Russian meddling and intelligence operations, watching warily across their frontiers as Moscow’s troops staged regular exercises imitating a future invasion of the region.
The Estonian—and wider Baltic—outlook has been shaped by its bloody modern history. The country was part of the Russian Empire until its collapse in 1917, after which Tallinn enjoyed 22 years of independence. Then came the Soviets in 1939, occupying Estonia per the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split control of eastern Europe between communist Moscow and Nazi Germany.
Soon enough that deal broke down, with Nazi troops seizing the Baltics as part of their genocidal drive to the east. Vengeful Soviet troops returned in 1944 and stayed until the union collapsed in 1991.
Kallas’ own story echoes that of many compatriots. Her great-grandfather was a key figure in the establishment of the first Estonian Republic in 1918 and then served as its first secret police chief.
Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were deported to Siberia by Soviet authorities in the post-war purges. Her father, Siim Kallas, was one of independent Estonia’s first prime ministers after the fall of the Soviet Union, serving from 2002 to 2003.
Kallas lived under Soviet occupation until she was a teenager. For Estonians, Russian imperialism is recent history.
The Kremlin’s full-scale war on Ukraine—the latest phase in an armed conflict going on since Moscow seized Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014—has prompted somewhat of a political reckoning in Europe.
“One lesson from this war is we should have listened to those who know Putin,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in September. “We should have listened to the voices inside our union—in Poland, in the Baltics, and all across Central and Eastern Europe.”
But the public self-flagellation from Western European officials and member states does not necessarily translate into practice. “We are being listened to more,” Kallas said. “I’m happy about this.”
“Next year, it will be 20 years that we have been in the European Union and NATO. And so far, we have been doing the listening. But 20 years is quite a long time. So, maybe it’s time to move from that. And I actually have the feeling that we are being listened to.”
“But I also hear sometimes, ‘Okay, we should have listened to you then. But we know better now because we are the adults in the room.’ And then I always say: ‘We’ve tried your way. Maybe you should listen to us now.'”
A Security Mandate
Kallas is coming off the back of a decisive March election victory, her center-right Reform Party securing more than 31 percent of the vote ahead of the far-right EKRE party in a distant second with 16 percent. Kallas now leads a coalition government with the support of the centrist Estonia 200 party and the Social Democratic Party. Kallas’ third cabinet will maintain and deepen its pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian foreign policy.
“I think it was very important because the main topic of our elections was security,” Kallas said of the national appeal of her foreign policy offering. “I had a lot of meetings with people…I would ask, ‘What do you want to know, what are your worries?’ I was thinking that probably people would talk about the cost of living or issues like this.
“It was always about security. It was always about Ukraine and the war, and the worries regarding defense. So, yes, the mandate was for that.”
But Kallas’ public mandate has not prevented a deadlock in the Estonian parliament—the Riigikogu—over proposed cuts to family benefits and tax hikes, which the ruling coalition says are needed to fund the country’s rearmament.
“We are in these very difficult times when we have to make very difficult decisions,” Kallas said. “When everybody promised to increase defense spending to 3 percent of our GDP, then this also requires additional funds. It doesn’t come from any foreign country; it comes from our taxpayers’ pockets.”
“If we are going with the pledge, it means that it also requires additional funding,” she said.
Assuming Kallas’ coalition can make it through the current parliamentary turmoil, the prime minister and her top officials have made clear their intention to push NATO and EU allies to as tough a Russian strategy as possible.
Speaking at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit this week, Kallas told attendees: “Russia is a pariah state that needs to be isolated. There’s no room for flirtation with the idea of resuming to business as usual with Russia. Our joint pressure against Russia must increase, not decrease.”
In the Estonian capital—around 125 miles from the Russian border—the prime minister told Newsweek that the onus is on Moscow to end the fighting.
“The war ends when Russia realizes it was a mistake,” Kallas said, “like they did with the war in Afghanistan. They can’t win. When they realize that we can’t win this war, then they stop. That’s why it’s very important that we are behind Ukraine, saying that we are ready to go on as long as you, we are supporting Ukraine as long as it takes.”
“The other thing I’m calling for is to wake up to the new reality,” Kallas said of the broader confrontation with Moscow. “Maybe some think that this will pass…I don’t think so.”
“The 45-year-old’s ceaseless repudiation of Russian aggression—and of those allies who are seemingly hesitant to face it—has earned Kallas vitriol from the Kremlin and a new nickname in the West: Europe’s “new Iron Lady,” a moniker once bestowed upon former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.”
She’s been one of Ukraine’s best friends during this terrible war, and one of mafia land’s staunchest opponents. Iron Lady is a very apt nick for her, and the original Iron Lady, Margret Thatcher, would be pleased about it.
Interesting fact: Mrs. Kallas has bigger “balls” than the three Western leaders Biden, Macron, and Scholz … combined.
Brilliant lady, simply brilliant.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as “one of the most hostile states towards Russia”
If the Bike is spewing her vitriol towards you, you know you are doing something right.
“…Ursula von der Leyen in September. “We should have listened to the voices inside our union—in Poland, in the Baltics, and all across Central and Eastern Europe.”’
This reminded me of what a politician said about 6,000 miles west of Crimea in 2014 when he did nothing to stop the flow of ruzzki helicopters going into Ukraine, “There is no military solution to the Russian occupation issue.” Well, I guess he should have listened to the local experts because that’s exactly what we have today…because of his actions and inactions then.
Obumer was a total idiot, and he still is, because he has not a lick of honor, like Clinton, to come forth, declaring what grave mistakes he made in Ukraine/mafia land. I shall NEVER forget the “military aid” he sent Ukraine as a response to the Crimea theft and the war in Donbas; blankets and broken Hummvees. This deep embarrassment is forever a blemish on the United States.
I think she is taking it very far.
Estonia can spend 3% of its GDP, which seems impressive but we are talking about hundreds of millions.
Their army is more like an overpowered police force than a real standing army.
Estonia does almost totally rely on NATO partners, so I think this money is better spend on social services and the economy,
as Russian aggression is not something such a small army can do much about, but societal unrest in a what is still a poor country is.
I think as long as they are showing NATO they are taking defense seriously they are good.
2.5% will do just as well as 3%.
Estonia simply does not have the population, strategic depth and the economy to seriously fight Russia.
I do encourage more offensive spending, but there where it matters: Germany etc.
I think that Estonia knows what it’s doing. It is a staunch supporter of Ukraine that’s putting its money where its mouth is, setting a good example for others to follow.
Yes, but I think they should be wary not to spend too much on sheer symbolism.
Spending 3% on defense is a heavy burden on such a small economy, while the result is maybe an army 5% of what Ukraine has, probably even less.
Maybe they should also consider to merge the Baltic armies, as together they can be a more serious deterrent as separately they have more like 3 heavily armed police forces rather than real armies.
Bert, Estonia knows where it is best to use those weapons at. They are basically useless, being stored in some arsenal. In Ukrainian hands, they help to destroy the roach army. In arsenals, they do nothing.
Why should they merge armies? All three Baltic States are NATO members.