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Former Estonian president speaks about the war in Ukraine and the way forward

At the home of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as the fourth president of Estonia from 2006 until 2016.
Nora Lorek for NPR
At the home of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as the fourth president of Estonia from 2006 until 2016.

VILJANDIMAA, Estonia — Just a couple hours' drive from the border with Russia, the former president of Estonia lives on the farm his family built in the 1700s — a farm whose occupants were forced to flee in times of conflict, and which now serves as a refuge for victims of another war.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016, has long acted as a prominent voice warning about the dangers of Russian aggression.

Those warnings have recently come true, and Estonians have sprung into action. On Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Ilves flew a Ukrainian flag at the family farm, and, within weeks, found himself hosting a family of Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, Estonia as a whole has pledged the most military aid of any country relative to its GDP.

In late April, a couple of months into the war, Ilves spoke with NPR on his family farm about his perspectives on the conflict, the history — of both his family and his country — that led Estonia to be one of Ukraine's biggest supporters, as well as his ideas about the future of the conflict.

Aboard the Isabelle in the Port of Tallinn. The Estonian government asked the cruise company to host refugees, who were overflowing from downtown hotels.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Aboard the Isabelle in the Port of Tallinn. The Estonian government asked the cruise company to host refugees, who were overflowing from downtown hotels.
Natalia Popova plays cards with her youngest son Maxim. They are from Mykolaiv/ Nikolaev, and came to the ship in April.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Natalia Popova plays cards with her youngest son Maxim. They are from Mykolaiv/ Nikolaev, and came to the ship in April.

The invasion

To Ilves, and many others in the Baltic region, Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine was not a surprise — though Ilves recognizes that wasn't the case in the rest of the world.

Estonia and neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, occupied by the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, have a "we told you so narrative," Ilves explained — having made predictions that Russia would continue to act out if left unchecked, particularly after invading Crimea in 2014.

Ilves said Estonia is "used to being attacked," making the tiny Baltic nation more psychologically prepared for the latest incursion. Plus, when Ilves served as president, he met both Putin and his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. Ilves said he knew to expect the unexpected with these leaders, because Russia is not a "rational" country in terms of decision-making.

Estonia's support for Ukraine also stems from previous Russian atrocities that residents in the region still remember.

Ilves's family comes from the Mulgimaa region in Southern Estonia, which was once fairly poor and rural. However, when the U.S. Civil War broke out in the 1860s, the global demand for flax seed rose, and many farmers in Estonia became wealthy. That success ultimately made those wealthy farmers targets of the Soviets, resulting in multiple deportations in 1941, 1945, and 1949; Ilves's family were among those who fled. His parents both independently escaped to Sweden, where they met and where he was born.

Ilves credits the Estonian response to the invasion to these deep, emotional connections. "We know what it's about," he said.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Ilves lives at his farm in Veskimäe near Abja-Paluoja in southern Estonia, sharing his place with four refugees from Ukraine and his family visiting on weekends.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Ilves lives at his farm in Veskimäe near Abja-Paluoja in southern Estonia, sharing his place with four refugees from Ukraine and his family visiting on weekends.

But recent events have also highlighted the stark differences in perspective, llves believes, between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. From his view in Estonia, while the threat of Russian aggression never really faded, it surged into front of mind way back in 2007, when Russia launched a massive cyberattack against Estonian websites.

Ilves recalled going to a NATO meeting to address the denial-of-service attack, one of the first major nation-on-nation digital strikes, and he said that at least one NATO ally claimed Estonia was being "Russophobic."

From that point on, he watched as Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.

"They said, 'No, the Estonians are just suffering from post-Soviet traumatic stress,' dismissing us," said Ilves.

When Germany supported the Nord Stream Two, a natural gas pipeline worth $11 billion that would double the volume of cheap Russian gas flowing to Germany, rather than diversify energy sources beyond Russia, Ilves took that as a sign of a "lack of consideration really for the concerns of fellow members of the European Union and NATO." (Construction was halted in late February, just days before the full-scale invasion.)

"This kind of attitude we've had to deal with for 30 years ... more than 30 years," he said. "It's very much an issue of 'I told you so' ... which I think explains certainly why countries like mine and Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are contributing far more."

Toomas Hendrik Ilves wears a ribbon pin in support of Ukraine.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Toomas Hendrik Ilves wears a ribbon pin in support of Ukraine.
At the home of Toomas Hendrik.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
At the home of Toomas Hendrik.

Russian propaganda

Ilves says what's actually been surprising about the invasion is "how bad the Russian army is" — though he says it makes sense that Russian soldiers might have an inflated sense of confidence, following earlier "victories" in Georgia and Crimea, and because their own propaganda might have infected their ranks.

"They were surprised the Ukrainians didn't meet them with flowers for being liberated," he said. "You know, it's kind of like, don't do your own stash," referring to drugs, or the phrase, "don't get high on your own supply," popularized by the 1983 American film "Scarface."

What he means is that Russian officials have been insisting so long that they're only out to rescue oppressed Russian minorities across the former Soviet Union. Because of that, they may not have anticipated the staunch Ukrainian resistance to being invaded.

"You start believing what is just a propaganda line," he concluded.

Russian officials also like to suggest that liberal democracies simply can't succeed in the former Soviet Union, due to cultural differences, said Ilves. Estonia, which has become increasingly wealthy and modern in the last 30 years, is seen as an aberration, said Ilves, when it should be seen as an example of what's possible.

Even so, even parts of Estonia remain vulnerable to Russian propaganda, including Narva, a city on the border with Russia where many ethnically Russian people still live and where there are still supporters of the Putin regime, despite the invasion.

In Europe, the challenge of perception is real, Ilves says. Russian propaganda painting Eastern Europe as backward and corrupt, Ilves believes, has been successful in Western Europe.

"I think Ukraine has been a sort of a big victim of this kind of disdain," he said.

But despite corruption and flaws present in the government, Ukrainians are fighting to defend their liberal democracy, Ilves said, and he believes they deserve the support of likeminded countries.

"They clearly need heavy arms," he concluded.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Fighting for a place at the table

One of Ilves's top priorities when he served as Estonia's foreign minister from 1998 to 2002 was to bring Estonia fully into modern Europe, elevating its status financially, culturally, and perhaps most importantly, defensively.

Prior to when he served as foreign minister, Estonia had not been seeking to join the European Union — but Ilves pushed for the young country to go in that direction. For one, he said, he knew that some countries that might oppose allowing Estonia into NATO would not be able to keep them out as easily, if at all, if they were part of the EU.

"The reason I did that was that Estonia, like its southern neighbors, all it cared about was NATO for fairly obvious reasons," he said. "But my foreign policy experience and being in Washington before that convinced me there was no way we would ever be allowed into NATO because of opposition of Germany, France, the UK, and some other countries. But if you join the European Union, they can't veto you. So when I came here, I said, 'OK we're going to reorient toward the European Union, and not only reorient, but we're going to work our butts off to get in there.' "

Joining the European Union is not just a matter of "signing up," Ilves explained. It's a matter of organizing the entire country to fit within European standards, from food safety to other regulations. For example, he said, the unpasteurized milk from the farm down the road from his home requires an incredibly specific process to be sold and served, including the exclusion of all chemicals.

"You don't just join the EU ... there is a whole body of laws," he said.

It took five years of hard work for Estonia to join the EU, Ilves said, but it did help Estonia get a leg up in applying to join NATO. Now, Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is home to a NATO Cyber Center of Excellence.

Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is home to a NATO Cyber Center of Excellence.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is home to a NATO Cyber Center of Excellence.
Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical, who is helping to relocate refugees using her job relocation software at Port Noblessner.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical, who is helping to relocate refugees using her job relocation software at Port Noblessner.

A digital path forward

Even as Russia wages war in Ukraine, Ilves thinks that the major conflict of the future between "authoritarian states and democracies" will primarily be fought in the digital space.

"You can have proxy wars, as you do in Ukraine ... but the contested battlefield will be digital."

Ilves has long placed importance in technology, particularly in its ability to elevate his country and its place in the world. Ever since an ambitious math teacher taught him to program in high school in Leonia, New Jersey, where his family was living at the time, Ilves saw the value of technology. He knew it could be his country's way into the future.

It wasn't the easy or obvious path for a country that didn't gain its independence from the Soviet Union until 1991.

"When Estonia became independent, we were very poor," he said.

He was also concerned if Estonia tried to slowly follow the example of other countries simply to catch up, they'd always be behind. So, it required a massive technological leap to get ahead of others. While Estonia started small, acquiring computers for local schools, everything was ultimately digitized. Estonia's been known as a digital haven ever since, where everyone is born with a digital ID used to vote and access government services.

Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical, who is helping to relocate refugees using her job relocation software at her office.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical, who is helping to relocate refugees using her job relocation software at her office.
Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical.
/ Nora Lorek for NPR
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Nora Lorek for NPR
Karoli Hindriks, CEO of Jobbatical.

And it's brought a lot of success; there are currently 10 tech companies in Estonia valued at more than $1 billion. Many tech executives, including Karoli Hindriks, are the ones directly contributing to Ukraine's aid. Hindriks, the CEO of Jobbatical, uses technology to help relocate employees — and now she's using the same system to help refugees flee to new countries. Another entrepreneur, Ragnar Sass, is donating vehicles, drones, and other technology directly to Ukrainian troops.

But in addition to pioneering within the digital space, Ilves says he believes there needs to be a new international alliance based around the concept of digital conflict — one that isn't planned around geographical proximity the way NATO is.

"In the digital world, distance and time makes no difference. I say, you know, Tallinn, Torino, Toronto, Tacoma, Tokyo, they're all equidistance. And so in the digital cyber era, security should no longer be based on geography," he said.

"We need an alliance of liberal democracies that share cyber capabilities," he concluded.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.