Estonian President: Russia's Intentions Laid Bare

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and other leaders of former Soviet republics gathered recently in Georgia to show solidarity with that country's leader. Ilves says the conflict has laid to rest the post-Soviet belief that Russia won't attack any other country.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The conflict in Georgia is of special concern to people in other pro-Western countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Estonia is on the Baltic Sea, population 1.3 million.

Since 2004, Estonia has been a member of the European Union and NATO. The head of state is President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was raised in an émigré household and educated in the U.S. He now joins us live from Estonia. Welcome to the program.

President TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES (Estonia): Greetings.

SIEGEL: I'm looking at a map that was published in an Estonian paper, and without the benefit of knowing Estonia, and I can't read the legend, but it certainly appears to show Estonian readers how Russia would go about invading your country. Is that a common fear in Estonia today?

President ILVES: Actually no, it isn't. Certainly being a member of NATO and the European Union gives us quite a bit of confidence, but as you can imagine, given the events, people will speculate.

SIEGEL: That point, though, Georgia has aspired to membership in NATO, and while President Saakashvili often appears beside the flag of the European Union, Georgia is not a member. Do you feel that membership in those organizations do guarantee the safety and ensure the security of Estonia?

President ILVES: Well, NATO guarantees the security of Estonia, but I also see them as organizations that helped us very much become more firmly democratic, and that's one of the reasons I think why so many countries aspire to membership, because in addition to the security and the well-being, it makes these societies far more stable.

SIEGEL: But does it mean to you that you assume Europe and for that matter the United States would respond differently to a conflict between Estonia and Russia than it has responded to Georgia and Russia?

President ILVES: Well, there is the famous Article 5 in NATO, the sort of Three Musketeer clause, as it were - one for all and all for one -and in fact it is a collective security treaty, which means that indeed were something to happen, NATO would respond, just as we went into Afghanistan when NATO called us.

But I think the crucial problem here is not so much that we fear invasion but rather that what we have seen in the past seven days is a collapse of the sort of post-1991 paradigm; that is, that we need not worry about Russia attacking any - some other country, and all defense planning on the European continent has really assumed that Russia would not invade a country because it is now different. And having shattered that, I think this is where the big - where we're all perplexed, and I think we're in for a major re-think.

SIEGEL: It appears that in the cease-fire agreement mediated by France, the Russians were permitted a clause that permits them to, and I quote, implement additional security measures. Some read that as a loophole that allows for the Russian army to do what it wants in Georgia right now.

Did the French and - the French acting on behalf of the European Union, did they let people down in that mediation effort?

President ILVES: Well, that was the initial six-point plan, but that's been - I mean yesterday in the meeting of E.U. foreign ministers the whole approach was beefed up a bit. But we are concerned about what the settlement will look like, obviously, and for us it's vitally important that Russian troops get out of Georgia, especially given the horror stories we hear of their behavior.

SIEGEL: Before I let you go, does what you're seeing in Georgia this week, despite your very vocal opposition to it and that of other leaders of countries that used to be in the Soviet Union, does it in some way threaten to alter policy, even if subtly, and make people feel we should be more cautious, we should do nothing that might be so reckless as to give Moscow a pretext to bully us?

President ILVES: Maybe in some quarters, but as I've said, I think what we're in for is a very long-term debate and discussion on European security, given that the fundamental assumption we had was wrong, and I think that Secretary Rice, in calling together the NATO ministerial for next Tuesday, the first point that will be discussed is Georgia, and the second one is NATO relations with Russia after what has happened. I think that will be the core debate for quite a while.

SIEGEL: President Ilves, thank you very much for talking with us.

President ILVES: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia.

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