In a candid conversation with Kyiv Post, Estonia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Kristjan Järvan explains why Estonia is “100% for Ukraine,” how Tallinn is drawing inspiration from Ukraine’s e-government systems, and why each Russian is responsible for the Kremlin’s war.

Lesia Dubenko: Hello Minister, thank you for agreeing to have this conversation. You have recently visited Ukraine. What was the main purpose of the visit?

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Kristjan Järvan: I was there to meet with Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov. The cooperation between Ukraine and Estonia has been going on for a while now. We once helped Ukraine set up the basis of the e-government in Ukraine, and it was inspiring to hear that Mr. Fedorov had decided to launch it after visiting Estonia in 2019.

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Now, our collaboration is entering a new stage, with Estonia preparing to test a pilot of the Diia app, which is a great example of a mobile-first e-service. We’re in a very interesting phase where we’re drawing inspiration from Ukraine that was once inspired by us.

Correct me if I’m wrong but no country in the EU has anything like Diia.

Admittedly, the public services in European countries are problematic. As a rule, most services are scattered, not one-stop-shop.

In Estonia, for example, we have a portal for e-services, which can be accessed via phones, but it’s not mobile-first like Diia. I definitely agree with Mr. Fedorov that since we spend so much time on our mobile phones, we should also be able to comfortably connect with the government and get services there. So, we’re not looking for extra features. Like in the private sector, we’re focusing on usability instead, making it as easy as possible for the end user.

One other purpose of the visit was to enhance our cooperation in the cybersecurity domain, so we met with representatives of the local agency to share case studies. After all, not only is Ukraine being attacked by Russia in cyberspace, but all the countries supporting it. Thanks to our cooperation, Moscow’s offensives have had a truly minimal effect.

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Estonia has been attacked by Russia many times. In fact, one of them took place as early as 2007. Are we talking about sharing this kind of expertise?

Indeed, the 2007 attacks were coordinated with some Russian civil unrest in Estonia following Estonia’s decision to remove a Soviet-era statue. As a result, Russia launched multiple attacks on our e-systems that enabled us to gain a lot of knowledge on how to fight these attacks, which led to the inception of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in 2008 in Tallinn.

Then in 2014 the war started not on the ground, but also in cyberspace. Because of our view of history and our distrust of Russian promises, we became a target too.

And what is the situation like now? Especially after Estonia’s recent decision to remove the T-32 tank in Narva? Have the number of attacks increased?

While the all-time high was recorded in April, the number did go up significantly.

Then again, we knew from the beginning that because of our strong support for Ukraine with sanctions and arms supplies, Russia would attack us in cyberspace. So, we made additional investments, increasing the defensive layers of the public services. These measures paid off immensely, rendering Russia’s attempts to undermine Estonian public services completely ineffective.

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Some attacks, however, were aimed at the private sector against financial institutions and telcos. Several weeks ago, for example, Russia attacked our three biggest media outlets, downing and slowing down them for a couple of hours. However, the state quickly got involved, helped them with extra security and the situation was solved.

I think it is a strong message: what Russia fears the most is free media.

Before the war, many thought that Russia’s attack would lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian e-government system and Diia in particular. However, this hasn’t happened. In your view, is it because Ukraine prepared well? Perhaps, Estonia contributed?

I think so, even though I don’t know how much Estonia contributed there. We helped set the architecture of Ukraine’s Trembita data-exchange system by creating a safe protocol for two databases to validate the communication between the two, so that you can trust the queries coming from one database to another and not just giving out your database information to a hacker, who is no less unwelcome than a terrorist country. Since 2002, when Estonia started developing these solutions, there have been many upgrades. In short, the security issues have been thought through for Trembita.

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Besides, Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014. Minister Fedorov saw the attacks coming against IT, so Ukraine prepared well in advance and did a great job making sure it stays secure and holds up.

Fedorov is an awesome guy, I have to say. He shared some ideas of what the future is holding for the Diia app, and they really are quite something. Unfortunately, I can’t say more than that.

Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) / Twitter

You can’t blame it all on propaganda

Let’s touch upon politics. You represent a country that has a very clear-cut approach toward Russia. How does that impact your communication with your EU counterparts?

Let me give you an example. My mother is the business director of the Estonian National Museum. Recently, at an event the Danish Museum workers approached her and said that for years we thought Estonians were paranoid. Now we see that you have been right all along.

The same goes for Finland. Despite the Winter and the Continuation Wars, for quite some time their approach to Russia was to find a balance between East and West. They did not want to make anyone angry and viewed the Baltic States’ decision to join NATO somewhat skeptically. Now, the Finnish PM Sanna Marin acknowledged that the Baltic states were right.

But as with every situation, distance matters. The further you go from the problem, the more you worry about your daily life.

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That said, I think the biggest mistake that Estonia has ever made was to sign a treaty with Russia to let their military bases in as we thought it would save our people. It didn’t. The horrendous events in Bucha, Mariupol, and other places once happened in Estonia too, with the Soviets killing, raping, and deporting people. Estonia will never forget that, and this is why we are standing with Ukraine so strongly.

Russia hasn’t changed. And the biggest question now that the EU is discussing is whether the people are responsible for their government’s actions.

Are they?

Of course.

Why do you think so?

It’s about the people you want to lead you. Even in dictatorships, if the citizens rise up, there is no way even the biggest army can help a dictator stay in power.

You can’t blame it all on propaganda. When you see some Russian women saying that it’s alright to rape Ukrainian women and demolish apartments, it’s clear that they are equally responsible for what is happening, even if they don’t support the system. The very same way Ukrainian citizens are responsible for protecting Europe against evil, which is why we have so much respect for the Ukrainian people and so much disrespect for Russian citizens.

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At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for our government’s action. After WWII, the Soviet Union and Germany went two different ways. While the German people took responsibility for their actions, even those that they had not been aware of, apologizing for 60 to 70 years, the Soviet Union took pride in carrying out genocide. The Katyn massacre in Poland is a good example. They, including the younger generations of Russians living in Estonia, think they were liberators. In reality, they did exactly what they are doing in Ukraine. It’s not liberation. It’s terrorism and war crimes.

How come Germany, which took responsibility for its actions, has such a relaxed approach to Russia then? Let’s take the visa ban as an example. One of the arguments that they used was that it is Putin’s war, which is why the Russian people should not suffer as a result. There is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise, and yet they still advocate this notion.

It’s easy to use the economic interest argument only. But it’s not only that. Their past plays a significant role, too, because of WWII and the Nazis. There are many people who wish to avoid war at all costs. All their lives they were regarded as warmongers, so now they would do anything to make themselves seem otherwise. Though understandable, it’s always like that with values. Once you take them to the extreme, they become detrimental.

You were also talking about the younger generation in Estonia who are supportive of Russia. They have access to the internet and all the info they possibly want to access, and yet they’re no different from the older generation of Russia supporters. Why do you think they’re like that?

Naturally, it’s not the case with everyone. Many Russians condemn the war in Ukraine. However, the ones like that are either saying why stir the pot, leave that tank alone – or they have a different view of history. After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The values that these people received come mostly from their parents and Russian media, which people still consume using satellite dishes or VPN since we banned them. And as a rule, people like to read what confirms their views, it’s very unpleasant to look at facts that prove you’re wrong.

While in Narva, the easternmost city where many Russians live, some romanticize the notion of Great Russia. But they can also see what’s going on over the border and how the economic well-being is far lower there, so they don’t want to be part of Russia. And that’s understandable, because in the end, people want to have a home, family and go to work.

And they want to do it in countries that are “Nazi,” which is how, for example, the notorious Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyev describes Estonia for example.

Yes. It’s also true that the media is always looking for conflict. So when Estonia decided to remove the T-32 tank, national TV was automatically looking for people who are very passionate about the tank. And there were some, such as the young kids, the so-called “protectors of the tank.”

They, however, did not do much as Estonia carried out the task professionally. Later, some babushkas took to social media, asking where the tank and its “defenders” were, and that was it.

“We’re willing to pay the high price”

On a different note, Russia’s economic influence in the Baltic region is tangible. What’s the situation like now?

Indeed, the influence is present. If you look at the reasons for the inflation, it’s not just the energy crisis that plays a role. Back in 2021, Russian import percentage in the Baltic states was very high, so, yes, Russia has impacted our economies.

After the bans, however, the companies importing raw material from Russia had to find alternatives. Since restructuring the economy takes time, they have to import at higher prices.

But that’s the price we’re willing to pay.

And what about the business links? How has the war impacted them?

Not much at all. There were some businesses owned by Russians – none of them strategic, however. Those of any significance got banned. We are, however, examining disturbing information regarding offshore methods for gas imports, because ultimately we’re one hundred percent for Ukraine, which is also why we’re pushing for more sanctions, including the visa ban.

To that end, on Aug. 31 EU ministers decided to suspend the 2007 deal that facilitates the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian nationals. Is that enough for Estonia – or are you looking for more impact?

Let’s put it that way, the way you put it: We’re looking for more impact.

How will Estonia continue helping Ukraine in the future, including when it comes to EU/NATO accession? 

Every EU and NATO country knows that we’re fully committed to getting Ukraine in as fast as possible. Although we can’t promise anything, as some countries are bigger than us, we’re going to continue one-on-one discussions about that and push things forward.

Do you feel that the sentiment in those bigger countries is changing?

Yes. It’s a question of whether there’s peace forever or there’s war. Ukraine has shown that we must work to have peace. War is a reality and not everyone is good. People don’t change, and if you don’t take that seriously, bad things can happen. This is what’s changing the mind of many European countries.

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