Kristjan Prikk, Estonia’s man in Washington, sees no imminent Russian invasion of the Baltics following its carnage in Ukraine. But he’s clearly worried that if the world doesn’t teach Vladimir Putin a lesson soon, the consequences for Europe could be severe and frightening.
The Washington Diplomat asked Prikk if the current war will spread to his tiny country and the two other Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania.
“I don’t see this as an immediate concern,” he replied. “But Russia has violated every single principal of European security. Considering the scale and intensity of this current war and what’s at stake, if the end result is anything short of clear strategic failure and a net loss for Russia, then all of us should be afraid of this war sowing the seeds for further wars.”
On April 14, Russia threatened to deploy nuclear weapons in and around the Baltic Sea region if Finland and Sweden join NATO. Yet Baltic leaders have dismissed the “empty threat” by Dmitry Medvedev—deputy chief of Russia’s Security Council and former president—because, they say, the Kremlin has already placed tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
“I would not even focus on this Baltic country or another, or even Poland for that matter,” Prikk told us. “The thing is that Russia cannot perceive that they’ve been successful as result of this aggression. They should not consider this as a model for any next action.”
Despite the war, Estonia has full diplomatic relations with Moscow. In fact, two days before our interview, Russia’s new ambassador presented his credentials during a ceremony in Tallinn.
Prikk: ‘We’d be stupid or negligent to ignore Ukraine war’
Prikk, 45, has represented here since May 2021. In fact, it’s his third posting to Washington; he previously served as economic and trade attaché from 2002 to 2006, and then as a defense counselor from 2010 to 2013.
Before his current job, Prikk spent three years as permanent secretary of Estonia’s Ministry of Defense, where he managed the country’s defense forces, its foreign intelligence service and the Centre for Defense Investments. From 2015 to 2017, he was director of national security.
Prior to joining the Ministry of Defense, Prikk worked at the Foreign Ministry on issues related to NATO’s enlargement and its partnership with Russia, Ukraine and Georgia in the Security Policy and Arms Control Bureau (2006-07). He was also a foreign trade and WTO specialist at the Foreign Ministry in Tallinn (1999-2002).
Prikk is also a reserve officer in the Estonian Defense Forces, belongs to the Kaitseliit (Estonian Defense League) and holds both a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Estonia’s University of Tartu (2000) and a master’s from the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Program (2013).
We spoke to Prikk at his temporary office on K Street while the aging Estonian Embassy at the corner of Massachusetts and Florida avenues—built in 1903 by a doctor for his personal residence—undergoes extensive reconstruction.
“We’d be either stupid or negligent not to pay attention to what’s happening in Ukraine,” Prikk said, noting that Estonia just celebrated 18 years as a NATO member. “We cannot just talk about this or that NATO country being next [to be invaded by Russia]. After all, this would mean, is NATO itself next?”
This is because, under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, an attack against one member state is considered an attack on all allies. Therefore, given Estonia’s status as a NATO member, its position is very different from that of a country like Ukraine or Moldova, which is outside the alliance and therefore not protected by Article 5.
“There should be no room for miscalculation as far as NATO’s priorities and political will,” Prikk said. “We have to push ahead with support of Ukraine, raise the costs for the aggressor, and beef up the defense of NATO.”
Estonia plans to boost defense spending to 3% of GDP
With only 1.3 million people and an annual per-capita income of $23,027, Estonia is the smallest and most prosperous of the 15 republics that made up the ex-USSR. In fact, Estonians generally don’t like their country to be referred to as a “former Soviet republic” at all—given the fact that they enjoyed 22 years of independence before the Red Army invaded in 1940.
That occupation effectively ended in 1991, when Estonia regained its independence along with its sister Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania. By all accounts, Estonia has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. A member of both the European Union and NATO since 2004, Estonia—the birthplace of Skype—enjoys near-universal internet access and almost zero public debt.
Yet when it comes to defense, the country has spent about 2% of its GDP on defense for the past 11 years. Prikk said Estonia will now raise that to 3%.
“We have plans on what to do with this money. But we also need to step up the Allied component of our ‘deterrence by punishment’ to “deterrence by denial.’ We have to deny even the possibility of serious military gains on NATO territory.”
So far this year alone, Estonia has supplied Ukraine with close to $250 million in defense-related assistance—mainly Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-tank mines, ammunition, howitzers, small arms, medical devices, field hospitals, gear and clothing.
“Russia miscalculated the will of the West. This is a very clear signal to us that the deterrence model we’ve built up along NATO’s eastern flank—which relies on a small footprint of Allied troop and the promise of reinforcement—is not adequate,” he said.
Estonians extend Ukrainian refugees a warm welcome
Asked whether NATO should establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine—which is what the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been urging from the get-go—Prikk demurred.
“We as NATO should focus on the things we can and will do, rather than on the things we cannot do. I personally would like to focus on the effect we want to achieve, rather than the means: to protect civilians and make sure they are not killed,” he said.
“The way we see it, Russia should not get anything it did not already have on Feb. 23 [the day before its invasion of Ukraine],” Prikk said. “They should not get recognition of Crimea or the Donbas as part of Russia. And when it comes to sanctions, even if there is a cessation of hostilities, they’ll most likely have to remain because afterward, we will have the issues of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, war crimes and who’s going to pay for the damage.”
In addition to government assistance, Estonian individuals have donated millions of euros to nonprofit groups aiding Ukrainian refugees. Led by people such as Estonian high-tech millionaire Ragnar Sass, they’ve have raised money to fill ambulances with medicine, then driven those ambulances to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, more than 25,000 Ukrainians have flooded the tiny country, an influx that would be equivalent to seven million refugees arriving in the United States.
“There has been a huge outpouring of support for Ukrainians, and I’ve been moved by the way our people have tried to welcome them. On the other hand, if this does not end, we’re going to see the number of refugees mushrooming,” he said, warning that up to 100,000 Ukrainians could enter the country, according to government predictions.
“There was a considerable Ukrainian community in Estonia even before the war. They consider it a friendly place—and also close enough to Ukraine that they can go back quickly,” he added. “Despite everything that’s happened, most of these people would like to go back as soon as possible.”