Work together to fight Russian aggression, Estonian President Alar Karis tells students during U of T visit

Estonia's President Alar Karis speaks at an event hosted by U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy on Nov. 22, 2022 (photo by Jamie Napier)

Estonian President Alar Karis warned against Russian aggression and called on the world to mobilize in support of Ukraine at a sold-out event at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy this week.

“The Euro-Atlantic security architecture and our shared values face the most serious threat since the end of the Second World War,” said Karis at the Nov. 22 event. “In Europe, that threat comes from Russia, and how we respond to it will have implications for the world we live in for decades to come.

“We may have briefly believed that the world had changed and borders, at least in Europe, would not be changed by military force, that people could choose their own form of government and generally live in peace. However, as became clear on 24th February 2022, the empire next door had awakened, and begun reclaiming its sphere of influence once more.” 

In his address, Karis described how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts go far beyond Ukraine, aiming to destroy the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and restore dominance over the Baltic States and Poland.

Estonia’s President Alar Karis ​​​took part in a Q&A moderated by Andres Kasekamp (photo by Jamie Napier)

Karis spoke with an in-person audience of Munk School students and community members at the school’s Campbell Conference Facility. He was welcomed by Munk School Director Peter Loewen and took part in a lively Q&A moderated by Andres Kasekamp, Elmar Tampõld Chair of Estonian Studies at the Munk School and a professor in the department of history in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

It was a great honour to host President Karis here at the Munk School,” said Loewen. “His deep commitment to upholding our shared democratic values in the face of aggression is inspiring. I share his conclusion: ‘The only thing we can do now is to do everything to help Ukraine.’”

Prior to speaking at the Munk School, Karis attended the Halifax International Security Forum and met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In his speech, he emphasized the importance of Canada’s role in our shared international security. “The value of the trans-Atlantic bond goes beyond the numbers of troops and weapons systems. It is a political community, a community of values, and we have demonstrated already that we are much stronger together.”

“Putin’s strategy for the moment is to coerce us into giving up on Ukraine by imposing costs on our societies. His primary tool is to weaponize its energy resources by restricting their accessibility, thereby threatening shortages, and by damaging our economies through inflation. In his immediate neighbourhood, Russia can also use hybrid warfare to scare and destabilize. This includes sabotaging energy infrastructure, using the migration weapon and carrying out cyber-attacks.

“We must be prepared to overcome these challenges, and not allow those tactics to cow us.”

Estonian President Alar Karis spoke with Munk School students and community members (photo by Jamie Napier)

Karis described Estonia’s own efforts to increase its national military capabilities, find alternative sources of energy, enhance energy infrastructure and secure its own borders with Russia in the face of this pressure. He also spoke of Estonia’s efforts to support Ukraine, taking in 60,000 refugees – equivalent to four per cent of the country’s total population – and giving the equivalent of a quarter of its total military budget in equipment and weapons in support of the war effort.

Karis is not the first Estonian leader to have visited the Munk School, which is home to the only endowed chair of Estonian studies in North America. In 2018, then-Prime Minister Jüri Ratas gave a public lecture, followed by former President Toomas Ilves in 2019. Karis, a molecular geneticist and biologist by training, was sworn in last year. He had earlier served as rector of the University of Tartu (a U of T partner institution) and visited U of T in that capacity in 2009.

Hearing directly from Estonia’s president was particularly important for Aleksa Gold, president of the Estonian Students Association U of T, and a four-time Estonian national swim champion. “It was a real privilege to have President Alar Karis join us at U of T and provide important insights into and educate us on the current turmoil in Europe. Being a student, especially one whose cultural roots come from a small nation, it was special to have the country’s leader come and take time out of his schedule to be with us and teach us valuable lessons.”

Chloe Qin, a third-year history major, was struck by Karis’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine. “It is incumbent upon Estonia and Canada, two of the leading democracies in the world, to defend liberalism by supporting the efforts of courageous Ukrainians in the defence of their homeland against Russian aggression.”

For Karis, the need to support Ukraine is personal. “It is important to realize, that when we talk about abstract concepts – security architecture, democracy, freedom – we are actually talking about very real consequences for real people. Violence, death, and destruction happen to people.”

“In Estonia, we have experienced the same things you see on your screens happening in Ukraine,” said Karis. “In fact, many Estonians had to flee to Canada and other free countries in the 1940s to avoid the same fate that befell the inhabitants of Bucha, Mariupol, Kherson. We will always remain grateful to Canada of accepting Estonian refugees, some of whom, in their desperation, crossed the Atlantic on self-made ‘Viking boats’. And we are grateful to Canada for doing its important part in NATO, the organization that safeguards our collective security and through that, our shared values.”

Karis implored the audience to continue fighting aggression and for the democratic values that bind our countries.

“We must all think that this is our business. I still remember what it meant to live in the Soviet Union – and many Estonians do. This is why we will not stop fighting for freedom and we will not stop helping others who do the same. I hope that we are in this together.”




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