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Europe’s New “Iron Lady” Estonia’s Kaja Kallas

Europe’s new “Iron Lady”, Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, is one of the strongest voices for an uncompromising stand against belligerent Russia.

Brussels (30 June – 28). Having grown up under the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Kaja Kallas was urging EU leaders to take the Russian threat seriously long before the invasion of Ukraine

On Saturday, the Reform Party chose climate minister Kristen Michal to replace outgoing Kaja Kallas, who is the EU’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.  

The unanimous decision to nominate Michal was made following a closed-door meeting by the party’s governing board only two days after Kallas was proposed as the EU’s new foreign policy chief. 

Russia is less than thrilled about the EU’s new top team, the Kremlin’s spokesperson said Friday — not that Brussels will care one bit.

Dmitry Peskov predicted relations between Moscow and Brussels likely wouldn’t improve anytime soon with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa as the EU’s top brass.

The European mood has changed. Russia must loose and get out of the Ukraine. Combat losses are staggering and reports of outbreak of Typhus and Cholera reaching Brussels. Casualties of war reaching World War I levels.

“We don’t think that European diplomacy will act in any way to normalize relations,” Peskov said. “The prospects for relations between Moscow and Brussels are bad.”

He singled out Kallas, who will replace Josep Borrell as the EU’s top diplomat, saying she “is well known in our country for her absolutely irreconcilable and sometimes even rabidly Russophobic statements.” Mr. Peskov does not realize that occupation of a European country is an outdated concept.

Kallas has been one of the Kremlin’s fiercest critics, ordering the removal of Soviet monuments in her country and offering unwavering support to Ukraine as it battles Russia’s aggression, efforts which have earned her a spot on Moscow’s wanted list. An EU official went so far as to say she “likes to eat Russians for breakfast.”

Unyielding, Clarity and Uncompromising

Critics fear Kallas’s unyielding nature makes her the wrong fit to succeed Josep Borrell but allies admire her strength and clarity. And clarity is much in demand in Brussels.

Kaja Kallas will be giving up a lot to return to Europe to succeed Josep Borrell as the EU’s foreign policy chief.

Her 18th-century offices at the top of the picturesque old town in Tallinn marry elegance with efficiency, with the neoclassical cabinet chamber capable of projecting business papers on to the wall. Outside there is a balcony on the edge of Toompea hill where Kallas sometimes sits, with glorious views over the town and the Gulf of Finland.

But for the last year Kallas has appeared destined to leave the hothouse of Estonian politics, and on Thursday she was approved by EU leaders as the bloc’s next high representative for foreign policy.

One of Kallas’s great strengths is the clarity of her values and the apparent absence of doubt with which she translates them into policies. She knows what she thinks and she knows how to say it, and can do so fluently in many languages, including French, English, Finnish, Russian and, of course, Estonian. It is what has made her the first European leader to be put on a Russian wanted list. Not surprisingly, her appointment, a clear statement to Russia, will be seen as a risk by some, especially at a time of discord over Ukraine.

High representatives are supposed to meld the conflicting voices of 27 countries into one unifying position, even if that can be fraught and frustrating – as Borrell has found in his clear desire to be more critical of Israel’s war in Gaza.

But her defenders say Kallas, a child of coalition politics, is more subtle than her reputation as a hammer of Moscow suggests. She is aware that different histories and geographies drive different countries’ views. She may not be as academic as Borrell, who is in his element in an international relations seminar room, but is a voracious reader of history, counting the professors Timothy Snyder and Timothy Garton Ash as friends.

Her argument is that Russia is a revanchist imperial power and to listen to Moscow’s threats, she insists, is to give into the fear. She favors ending sanctions loopholes, more arms, war crimes tribunals, the seizure of Russian assets, banning Russian tourists from the EU: the whole package. Recently she has expanded her concept of the Russian threat to include the use of other disruptive methods including migration, disinformation and sabotage.

“Achieving peace or a ceasefire on Russia’s terms does not mean the suffering will stop. Worse, Putin will always want more and no country in Europe will then be safe,” she told the Guardian in a recent interview.

Kallas is not just a rhetorician; she comes up with practical ideas including common debt to persuade arms manufacturers to build factories.

But her clear-headedness – or dogmatism, depending on how you see it – has come at a price. Kallas is the first to admit she is more popular internationally than at home, and her decision to raise taxes to increase defense spending, anathema to a liberal party, has been a form of political suicide domestically. She can laugh at herself, and she may need much of that gallows humor in the years ahead.