Russia Boosts Troop Presence In Eastern Europe, Stoking Neighbor's Fears
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world when he announced Russia had achieved its objectives and is withdrawing most of its forces from Syria. But Russia has solidified its presence in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula two years after its invasion.
Other nations in the region worry about the role of Russia in the future. Hannes Hanso is the defense minister of Estonia. He joins us now in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
HANNES HANSO: Thank you.
SIMON: Do you worry that what happened to Crimea could happen to Estonia?
HANSO: Well, I think we need to look a little bit further back into history when we talk about Crimea. Actually, Russia invaded two parts of a sovereign country, Georgia, in 2008. And I think Russia was encouraged by the lack of, sort of, principled approach by international community to that issue. And they was encouraged by try again in 2014 by invading Crimea on top of it. Of course, it has also invaded or aided the, you know, illegal occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk region. Am I worried? Of course I'm worried.
President Obama notably said in a recent issue of The Atlantic - I'm going to read the quote - "The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russian no matter what we do."
So does that make Estonians feel more or less secure - or confident that the U.S. would rally to their side?
HANSO: Well, I'm very confident of our allied relationship with not only U.S., but NATO as a whole. It's quite clear that the strength of the alliance is in its unity. But also, when we return to the topic of Ukraine in that context, I think it's important to understand that we have learned a bit from the Georgia experience. There are ongoing sanctions against Russia, and we have taken a very strong approach. And maintaining that the unity, I think, is a key. And Russia will exploit any differences that allies would have to its own benefit. So we, of course, in NATO's eastern region understand what is at stake here. And I think we shouldn't just return to the business as usual unless Russia changes its ways. It knows what it has to do.
SIMON: United States is working with Russia to try and concoct some kind of agreement that might end the Syrian civil war. Let me ask you this bluntly. Do you think Russia can be trusted as a partner in the international community?
HANSO: Well (laughter), Russia is now a player in the Middle East and in Syria. And Russia has sort of bombed its way onto the discussion table, clearly. And I don't think Russia's really doing any favors by handing this sort of oxygen mask to a dying regime of Assad. It's not going to resolve the problem. It's a proxy war. And in Russia is now one of the main actors there. And can they be trusted? Well, I'm an Estonian. We have lived with Russia over the very long period of time during the occupation also. So clearly, that lasted for decades. Can it be trusted? Well, I couldn't say yes right now.
SIMON: Do you have any concern that in between the threat from ISIS, the terrorist attacks in Western Europe and, for that matter, an American administration that has openly called for the pivot to Asia, that that will divert attention from your neighborhood in Europe?
HANSO: Yes. This is a challenge when you talk about tensions in our region because of Russia and the Middle East. Clearly, we don't want it to be a competition. NATO is the largest military organization in the world. It can face these challenges. I'm convinced about that. And also, one thing that I'd like to stress - Estonia has been a very solid ally with the U.S. I mean, we have been involved in Iraq. We have been in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, in some places in Africa. So we don't see security as sort of a one-way street. It's a two-way street.
SIMON: What do you say to Americans who say - look, I wish Estonia, wherever it is, all the best, but I don't think its fate is anything that really relates to me?
HANSO: I mean, it is a fairly fundamental thing. I mean, what would you like the world to be like? I mean, I want freedoms. I want democracy. I want the, sort of, basic things - human rights and all this sort of things. And I believe that your country does the same. So I think there is a link that sort of forms the basis for what we do together.
SIMON: Hannes Hanso is the defense minister of Estonia. Thank you so much for joining us.
HANSO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.