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Estonian Foreign Minister On Russian Expulsions


A growing number of Russian nationals working abroad are being sent home. This is punishment for the alleged poisoning of a former intelligence officer and his daughter on British soil. Estonia is one of the latest countries to act, moving to oust a Russian military attache while speaking out against the tactics of its powerful neighbor.


PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: The aim of all these actions has been to break our unity. This has clearly not happened. We are standing together.

GREENE: That's the voice there of Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid speaking with the BBC this week. Now, Russia and this former Soviet republic have endured a fraught relationship. Russia is widely blamed for a devastating 2007 cyberattack on Estonia that crippled the country's infrastructure. And let's bring in now the foreign minister of Estonia, Sven Mikser. He's on the line from the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Mr. Foreign Minister, good morning.

SVEN MIKSER: Good morning.

GREENE: So what was this Russian military attache doing inside your country?

MIKSER: Well, it's not a tradition to provide too much detail on what exactly it was doing, but I think it suffices to say that its activities were not in full accordance with the principles of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. So I think that while most of those diplomats who were expelled or who were told to leave this week by members of the European Union or other friendly, allied countries they are engaging in activities that, well, cannot be described as friendly. But I think the fact that we managed to do it in such a coordinated manner sends a very powerful political message, as well, to the guys in the Kremlin.

GREENE: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about how coordinated this was. I mean, your announcement came, you know, very quickly after the announcement from the Trump administration. Did President Trump or anyone in his administration reach out to your country to work on this?

MIKSER: Well, we coordinated very closely with our European Union partners. It was a coordinated action by the European Union member states. But obviously we were also in very close contact with other international allies and partners. And I think it's very important that the allies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean managed to do these things together. I think it sends a very, very powerful message. Well, we managed, well, to present a coordinated front when it came to applying sanctions on Russia following the aggression against Ukraine.

Now following the poisoning of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, we are again sending a coordinate message. And I think that this is exactly how we should be talking to Russia. The language that they understand is the language of strength. When we are divided, when we are disorganized, I think they are going to interpret that as a sign of weakness to be exploited. So I think this is exactly the right way to do it.

GREENE: I mean, they might see a show of strength, but they have also reacted in the past. I mean, as we mentioned, Russia is viewed as responsible for a cyberattack on your country a little more than a decade ago that, I mean, all but shut down much of Estonia. And that was reportedly in response to Estonia taking down a Soviet-era memorial. I mean, given that history, how concerned are you that Russia might do something to your country in reaction to this?

MIKSER: Well, I think that when it comes to expelling diplomats then the response usually, normally, is pretty symmetrical. But I think that's when - well, we can expect Russia to send out diplomats from those countries who took part in this coordinated action.

GREENE: But what about more? I mean, could they do a cyberattack or something very destructive?

MIKSER: They may try to respond asymmetrically. I think this is what we should be expecting. When it comes to the cyberattack in 2007, I think it would be an overstatement to say that it shut down our country. I think we managed to get our act together pretty well. And obviously when it comes to anything digital then 10 years is an extremely long time. So a lot has changed. But I think we are pretty well. We are - our situational awareness in Estonia is very good. And so in some ways, I suppose we are even better prepared than many of our friends and allies in the western part Europe or North America to respond to Russian activities.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to Sven Mikser, he's the foreign minister of Estonia, about his country's decision to oust a Russian military attache. They were joining other countries in punishing Russia this week. Mr. Foreign Minister, we appreciate it. Thank you.

MIKSER: Thank you very much. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.