Interview: How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Echoes in the Baltic Region

May 2024

Vitalii Rishko

THRI Fellow

Gert Antsu

Director for Ukraine, Moldova, and the South Caucasus at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia

We are thrilled to welcome our new interviewee, His Excellency Mr. Gert Antsu, a prominent Estonian diplomat. Gert Antsu is the Director for Ukraine, Moldova, and the South Caucasus at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia and has served as the Estonian Special Envoy for Eastern Partnership since 2019. He previously worked as Ambassador to Ukraine (2016-2019) and Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland (2012-2016), as well as Deputy Permanent Representative to the European Union. In general, Gert held senior positions in the government sector for nearly 20 years and has contributed significantly to making Estonia the exemplary country it has become. This has included preparing Estonia for membership in the European Union and coordinating the country’s EU policy after the accession, laying the foundations for Estonia’s becoming one of the most pro-European member states.

Before Estonia’s accession to the EU, he trained Estonian civil servants and taught courses on EU affairs at several universities. He also represented Estonia in the European Union’s decision-making process, spending considerable time negotiating with other member states and the EU institutions. Mr Antsu served as the Director for EU Affairs at the Government Office. Having studied at the College of Europe in Natolin, Poland, and the Aarhus University in Denmark, he holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Tartu.

How has the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted the Baltic region, notably Estonia?

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has turned our world upside down – it influences everything in the country. People feel more insecure as the war has moved next door to Estonia. Our trade with Russia, not high to start with, has decreased, and the war has had an impact on the overall economic confidence. There are many more Ukrainians living among us, my son plays football with Ukrainian boys and his football club has moved to hire a Ukrainian coach to train the Ukrainians. It has certainly awoken a huge feeling of solidarity with the Ukrainians – people have donated a lot for the support of Ukraine, the government spends are lot of effort and finances on assisting Ukraine. It has also given visibility and emotional links to everything Ukrainian – more Ukrainian books get translated into Estonian, Ukrainian restaurants are being opened and people pay more attention to, say, Ukrainian wine. On the professional level, it permeates everything we do at the Foreign Ministry – much of our activities is geared towards helping Ukraine win the war, weakening the aggressor, bringing those culpable to justice, helping Ukraine recover from war wounds and so on.

Do you trace a significant change in Baltic states’ defence and security policies, or do you believe they have been consistent with their experiences of Soviet (Russian) occupation and their perception of Russia’s threat as existential, in contrast to other states, particularly those in Western Europe?

On the one hand, we have not had to change our fundamental outlook as Russia has always been our main security threat. On the other hand, this threat has become much more immediate. I’m sure our military and security professionals have been observing the war in Ukraine closely – this is a new type of modern war with extended use of drones or intensive use of artillery and everyone has to learn those lessons. We have increased our defence spending to more than three per cent of GDP and together with Latvia and Lithuania are developing defence infrastructure on our borders with Russia. Being prepared to beat back the enemy and demonstrating it still remains the best strategy for preventing the war.

On the level of security policy, I guess our task has become a bit easier as there is not much need to convince our partners and allies more distant from Russia in the imperialist designs and aggressive behaviour of Russia – this is out there to be seen by everyone. This means that NATO can focus better on defending the Baltic States and actually make us all collectively safer – even if it feels that the world around us has become more fragile. I believe that the West has awoken to the Russian threat and it realizes that we are all in this together and have to work more intensively to enhance our security – spend more on defence, develop our defence industries etc.

The Baltic states are widely recognized as some of the most significant supporters of Ukraine within the EU and NATO. How do you evaluate the level of support provided by the Baltic states to Ukraine? Have they sufficiently aided Ukraine, or is there still potential for further assistance?

For Estonia, supporting Ukraine is an existential issue – Ukraine has to win the war, otherwise the consequences for everyone, including the international order, will be catastrophic. We saw the threat of Russian full-scale invasion early on and provided military assistance already before the start of the full-scale invasion. Since then, military support to Ukraine has reached 1.4 % of our annual GDP. Even if in some categories we have transferred to Ukraine everything we had, we are certainly not done yet. The Estonian government has decided that we will continue to support Ukraine militarily at least by 0.25 % of our annual GDP every year. Our two countries will soon sign a security agreement that will lay down our long-term agreement. We also continue on the daily basis our support, especially in areas where have certain advantages – for instance, Estonia is the coordinator of the so-called Tallinn Mechanism in Kyiv, that is, coordinating the cyber assistance of the coalition of the willing.

Besides helping Ukraine win the war, we are also transferring our experiences of reforms and European integration. Adopting EU rules is a challenging task for any country, especially so during a war but Ukraine has so far performed admirably well. We are also one of the first countries that has started the recovery reconstruction in Ukraine, concentrating on the Zhytomyr region. We have constructed a kindergarten in Ovruch and financed restoring a bridge in Malyn, now we are working on constructing family housing for orphans in the region. So, we are definitely there for the long haul.
We are also supporting Ukraine on the road to NATO membership – in the future, it will not be possible to imagine the security and defence in Europe without it involving Ukraine.

For Estonia, supporting Ukraine is an existential issue”

Are there any specific areas of cooperation between the Baltic states and Ukraine that have shown promise, and what opportunities exist for even more fruitful collaboration in the future?

Estonia as a global pioneer of electronic governance has long supported this field in Ukraine. Today Ukraine has an advanced mobile-based e-governance system but I believe there is still potential for future cooperation, that also includes learning from the Ukrainian experience.
Second, European integration as such is extremely knowledge-heavy – a candidate country has to take over the requirements of thousands of EU legal acts. We went through the process of EU accession 20-25 years ago and many of the people that were active at that time are still around, so we are ready to share our experiences and practices.

Third, as I said earlier, the war is bringing us closer and that also includes military industry. Ukraine has gained a lot of experience and at the same time is need of modern weaponry, including drones, so there is certainly scope for deepening cooperation in this field.
These are just some examples – there are countless other areas where we can learn from each other.

Sanctions remain highly debated in political and research circles, particularly concerning Russia’s ability to exploit loopholes with the assistance of neighbouring states like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. Also interestingly, Lithuanian and Latvian companies are accused of re-exporting alcohol to Russia despite the war and sanctions. What is the Baltic perspective on sanctions imposed on Russia, and how do Baltic states view the EU’s overall sanctions policy towards Russia? Will “business as usual” prevail in this respect?

We have seen it as our duty to ensure that the “business as usual” approach would not prevail – we have to limit the economic and financial means available to the aggressor as much as possible. Estonia has been active in discussions on sanctions in the European Union and on the global price cap on Russian oil. Certainly our own economy has lost out as a result of the sanctions but if we want Russia to lose this war, there is no other option. We will continue to work on new sanctions and on preventing the circumvention via third countries.

Linked to this, we are pushing for the use of frozen Russian assets for the benefit of Ukrainian, including for buying weaponry and ammunition. We have our own draft bill pending in the parliament and we have been pushing for an EU-level decision as well.

I cannot overlook to ask about addressing the challenges associated with uncertainties concerning aid to Ukraine from the United States, a significant contributor to Ukraine’s security. Could the EU potentially increase its support or buy some time for the United States to resolve its internal divisions amid presidential elections?

I am very happy that strategic common sense prevailed in the US and the 61 billion military assistance package to Ukraine was adopted. However, this alone will not be enough to win the war. The EU still needs to step up a gear in its own military support to Ukraine. In the short term this means finding more air defense assets to protect Ukraine from Russian missile and drone attacks, shells for the Ukrainian artillery suffering from shell hunger, and everything else that the Ukrainian Armed Forces need. In the long term it means significantly improving the defense industries of EU countries in order to produce enough weaponry and ammunition to protect ourselves in case of a major future war – and help Ukraine win the current one. The first results are there – the EU is already increasing it production capabilities and Ukraine is obviously the main beneficiary.

Share this on social media