An Interview with Ambassador Kristjan Prikk

By The Fletcher Forum

As part of The Fletcher School’s annual Political Risk Conference, Estonian Ambassador to the United States Kristjan Prikk was invited to give a keynote address. During the conference, Senior Forum Editor Alexander Thomas had the opportunity to sit down with Ambassador Prikk to discuss the current geopolitical conflicts shaking the world as well as how Estonia and the United States fit into all of them.

THE FLETCHER FORUM: Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. My name is Alex Thomas and I would like to thank you for joining us today at Fletcher and for being willing to sit down and speak with the Fletcher Forum for an interview. My first question pertains to your path to becoming an ambassador: How did your experiences and upbringing shape your desire to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?  

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: It’s a long story, but I will try to keep it as compact as possible. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, so my country, Estonia, was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. It remained in Soviet hands until 1991. I was born in 1977, so my formational and informational years were when Estonia was still a part of the Soviet Union. However, my grandparents and their generation, they had experience from living in a free world, yet were sometimes hesitant to discuss it because the Soviet KGB system was still in place and people were not free to really talk about things that the Soviets did not like. But still, my grandparents and other people of their age told stories of life when Estonia was an independent country and when we used to share the possibilities that other Western countries had; for example, if someone wanted to travel to or study in America, that was a possibility. So, I grew very interested in all things international, and when I had the opportunity to actually be a part of the effort to make Estonia better-known in the world, I seized the opportunity. I’ve been posted three times to the Embassy, very uncommonly, all three times to Washington. In the meantime, I’ve mainly worked on security policy and defense issues back in Estonia, and my last position was within the Defense Ministry.  

THE FLETCHER FORUM: How has Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine changed the security relationship between Estonia and the European Union, as well as between Estonia and NATO? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: I don’t see any fundamental changes in either relationship. Estonia has been a member of both the European Union and NATO since 2004. We’ve had a very clear view since we regained independence in 1991, but certainly also since we became members of both organizations. We have certain security concerns of our own, concerns that we have not been quiet about and that have always been related to Russia’s growing aggressiveness and assertiveness. But at the same time, we’ve always wanted to be responsible and trustworthy allies. We understand that if our allies need us somewhere or if our EU partners need us somewhere, we better try to be there so that when we need them, they’re also with us.  

THE FLETCHER FORUM: One of those places where Estonia’s support has been needed is in the Black Sea region. Can you comment on how Estonia has contributed to security in the Black Sea region and its relationships with allies in that area?  

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: Our primary role vis-à-vis the Black Sea region’s security stems from the fact that we have partnerships and cooperation with Black Sea region countries that are not members of the EU or NATO. Of course, we have an excellent relationship with the EU and NATO member countries that have a coastline along the Black Sea, for example, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. We have taken the approach where, just as Estonia was helped out by many of our current allies when we were a fledgling democracy in 1991, we’ve been concentrating our assistance and efforts to Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia – all countries located in the Black Sea region. These countries in some cases face quite similar challenges that Estonia did when we regained independence: how to set up modern economic infrastructure that supports free trade and investments; how to deal with rule of law issues; how to build a modern, capable military rather than a military stemming out of the Soviet tradition. So, these topics have been central to our role in helping these countries. Additionally, one very important area where we cooperate with these countries is in the digital transformation of the society, and how to, in particular, develop e-services for citizens. This is an area where Estonia is quite proud of our contribution.   

THE FLETCHER FORUM: You mentioned the role of economic infrastructure and sanctions earlier. Currently, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the only countries within the EU that have outright banned natural gas and oil imports from Russia. Do you see that changing in the future? What other economic power can Estonia deploy within the context of the Russia-Ukraine war? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: As far as Russian oil and gas goes, I see this transformation as inevitable. We may not see as quick developments as one would like, but we are not talking about a three- or five-year perspective; we are talking about an immediate response where countries are getting rid of their Russian dependency. It’s not just a matter of moral assessment of Russia, even though that makes up a large component of it. It is, to a large degree, about the acknowledgment or understanding that Russia is not the kind of partner that can be relied on in the long term, and we would rather get rid of the dependency that may burn us year in and year out.  

In terms of economic power or levers, one of the areas where we do have slightly more experience than other countries is everything related to cryptocurrency. We were one of the first countries to bring cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency transactions out of the shady area, so to say. We were one of the first to create a legal framework for trading cryptocurrencies in 2014, and we have seen the positive side and shortcomings of that move. This is the reason why we want to tighten cryptocurrency sanctions related to Russia; to make sure that crypto is not the loophole that can be used for everything that is otherwise sanctioned in the normal banking world. 

THE FLETCHER FORUM: On the line of cryptocurrency and cyber, does Estonia currently have any red lines relating to cyber-attacks from Russia that could trigger an Article 5 invocation with NATO? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: There has been a lot of discussion regarding any hypothetical cyber-attack and whether that would constitute a red line. Just like with conventional attacks, if one reads Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which founded NATO, which is the basis of the collective defense principle of the alliance, Article 5 leaves room for something called “constructive ambiguity.” In the text of Article 5 or any interpretations, nothing states that if Country A sends a soldier to a particular point and the soldier shoots using a weapon, that this would constitute Article 5 – nothing like that is said. It refers to “armed aggression” against one or many countries. So, the approach that we have when it comes to cyber-attacks is just like with conventional weapons – when we see it, we will know that it’s armed aggression. Mostly, what we should be looking at is if the eventual effect or impact of the cyber-attack is comparable to something in the real world that we would consider an armed attack using conventional weapons. If people get killed, if there is destruction of property, or if the state’s existence is put into question by a deliberate attack using cyber tools, then this is an Article 5 situation. 

THE FLETCHER FORUM: Has Estonia considered developing offensive cyber capabilities? If so, are they being coordinated with NATO? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: In NATO, there is a group of countries that has declared that they are willing to, if requested or needed, set their cyber capabilities without going into detail on the kind of cyber capabilities. But certainly, it would deal with both the defensive as well as offensive side. Estonia is one of those countries that has agreed to, if necessary, subordinate our cyber capabilities to NATO command and control. 

THE FLETCHER FORUM: There have been many discussions in the media about expanding or enlarging NATO membership to include Sweden and Finland. What is Estonia’s position on including those two countries, as well as generally on the idea of NATO enlargement?  

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: In general, our position is very clear and simple; Estonia is one of the countries that has benefited from NATO allies actually fulfilling the promise of Article 10 of the Washington Treaty that foresees the possibility of every country in the Euro-Atlantic area that is interested and fit to join NATO, that this option is open for these countries. So, we have benefited from that. From this position we don’t see any moral or practical reason, or excuse to deny this opportunity to any other countries that fit this description, and with the recognition that, as always, enlarging NATO is something that is between NATO and this particular country. Also, there’s never been an exception where NATO has pushed or pulled anyone to join NATO, but this is something that has to wait.  

Now as far as Swedish and Finnish membership is concerned, for these countries, they have not made their final decision yet. This is 100 percent for them to take this decision. But we are not making any secret that for the Baltic Sea region, and in a wider sense the northeastern part of Europe, the ascension of Finland and Sweden to NATO would be a positive step that would further contribute to stability and prosperity of this region. 

THE FLETCHER FORUM: One of the justifications that Putin has used in the context of Ukraine pertains to protecting Russian speakers living within Ukraine and broadly invoking the principle of Responsibility to Protect. I understand that the Narva municipality in Estonia is 88% ethnically Russian and roughly 96% of the population there are native Russian speakers. What is the reaction of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Russian speakers in Narva, and what is the reaction throughout Estonia specifically on the line of Russia seeking to “protect” Russian speakers abroad? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: Yes, the interesting thing with Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric is that firstly we’ve heard quite a few excuses or pretexts for invading Ukraine. So, for different audiences, there are different pretexts for invading Ukraine. Secondly, it’s interesting that this immense willingness to “do good,” now I’m being ironic here, and to “help” or “save” people in other countries is quite strange against the backdrop that no one has asked him to come and save them. We have seen a serious transformation of people’s attitudes and also serious shows of defiance to this “Russian liberation” in Ukraine up to the point where I hear from my Ukrainian friends how their friends, who are actually native Russians and that have lived in the eastern part of Ukraine, are now trying to, even though they speak very poor Ukrainian, use just Ukrainian because they claim that they are inherently antagonized by what Russia is doing.  

Now about Estonia: the same thing applies. Firstly, no one has asked for any help from Russia and in our case, particularly in Narva, what’s even starker and even clearer to see is the difference between the living standards, freedoms, available education, available work, work conditions, and available social protections in Estonia. I know that on the other side of the river from Narva, across the Estonian border, there is a Russian city where people there know very well the different life they are living compared to those in Narva. Furthermore, as an Estonian resident, all these Estonian Russian speakers have the liberty to live, travel, work, and study all over European Union. And for understandable reasons, this freedom is much more appreciated than the freedom to travel from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok in the east of Russia. 

THE FLETCHER FORUM: To conclude, I have two questions about the U.S.-Estonian relationship. First, what are the most important aspects of the U.S.-Estonian relationship, and second, what are areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Estonia that could be strengthened in the future? 

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: Well, this year we are celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations between Estonia and the U.S., and with all the crazy things that have happened in the world and with more countries in the world right now than there were in the beginning of the 20th century, 100 years is quite something. Now what makes our relationship so special is that for 51 years of our relationship, Estonia was effectively de-facto not independent. We had our people and our land, but it was annexed and occupied by the Soviet Union. But the United States was the country that kept the hope alive by declaring just a few weeks after our country was annexed and occupied that the U.S. would not recognize the unlawful occupation and incorporation of our country into the Soviet Union. This was the fundamental basis for not only our diplomatic corps still being represented in Western capitals throughout the occupation, but this was also the legal basis for us restoring our country after the occupation ended. We had a clear case to claim that we were not a new country popping up from the ruins of the Soviet Union, but we are a country that is regaining independence – a very important distinction.  

Secondly, since regaining independence, my country’s case can be shown to those who think democracy cannot deliver and that the Western world is not capable of doing good, and can prove those people wrong. My fellow Estonians have worked hard to get us to where we are, but very importantly, American leadership and many other partnered allied nations in Europe have made efforts, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, to get us back on the track of a normal, democratic, prosperous nation. And we succeeded in that. So, I think it is a remarkable story that should be an inspiration for us, but also for Americans. Thanks to this, you’ll always find lots of friends in Estonia; we know that your country has stood up on this matter and has helped us and many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe to get to a much better place than we’ve been in our history.  

And you asked regarding future areas of cooperation – our relationship will certainly remain focused on the security and defense issues. But when talking about security and defense, we should not only think about boats and rifles. I, for example, think we have a lot left to do on the issue of trusted connectivity. After all, our world and everything we do, everywhere we go, is increasingly reliant on connectivity in one way or another. Whether this means a proper road, a proper bridge, a working cell phone network, or a fiber optic cable, we have to make sure that this connectivity is fit for the times, but also secure so that our democratic societies can rely on these connections and autocratic societies don’t prey on us. After all, even if we build a new bridge these days, it has a magnificent layer of data software that is collected: who uses this bridge? When is this bridge maintained? And so on and so forth. We need to make sure that we understand the risks and opportunities for our societies, and I believe that [The United States and Estonia] are both quite connected and digital societies, so we can work on many of these issues together.  

THE FLETCHER FORUM: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for the opportunity to sit down and talk with you. This has been a wonderful conversation; thank you very much for your time.  

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: Thank you, Alex, very much. And again, every meeting that I have here, every person that I meet here, it’s a great opportunity for me. I come from a country of 1.3 million people which is just a medium-sized city here. And it’s actually quite amazing to me to have had the opportunity to represent my people in the way that my fellow ambassadors from countries hundreds of times my own country do. I thank you for getting in touch with us and for being interested in Estonia.  

THE FLETCHER FORUM: Of course – but I do have to admit, you’re actually the first person I have met from Estonia, so the bar is quite high.  

(Both laugh)  

AMBASSADOR PRIKK: This is hilarious – and why should you have met someone from Estonia? With only 1.3 million of us, it’s a very slim chance. But, you have an absolutely amazing country here. It’s probably the best job to have as a diplomat; representing the interests of Estonia here in Washington.  

THE FLETCHER FORUM: I’m glad you’re enjoying your posting here. Thank you once again for your time.  


This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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