Estonian president warns Penn audience of Russian aggression

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President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves speaks at a conference held by the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies at The University of Pennsylvania Thursday night. (courtesy of UPenn/Laris Kreslins)

President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves speaks at a conference held by the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies at The University of Pennsylvania Thursday night. (courtesy of UPenn/Laris Kreslins)

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves address sounded the alarm about Russian expansionism while speaking to the Association for Advancement of Baltic Studies at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Thursday night.

Ilves, who grew up in New Jersey, used the speech to call attention to the importance of academic research’s role in informing foreign policy.

“I remember coming [to Penn] in 1993-94 and I actually heard people talking about ancient ‘Baltic tribal hatreds.’ I exaggerate, but not much,” he said. “In order to get beyond that, we need the broader academic community to also address that.” 

Born in Sweden to parents who fled Estonia during World War Two, Ilves was raised in Leonia, New Jersey and got his PhD in psychology at Penn. Later, he worked as a journalist for Radio Free Europe.

Following the end of Soviet occupation, he moved to Estonia, and brought a love of technology with him. He has credited his 8th grade math teacher with teaching him computer programming.

As his final term as President comes to a close, Estonia is one of three former Soviet nations with functional democracies and free press. It’s also a member of the European Union and NATO.

Technological advancements have made the country a global model for connectivity, and given it a nickname: E-stonia. Citizens file their taxes, check on prescriptions and vote online.

But as Russia annexes parts of Ukraine and Georgia, Ilves worries the West is minimizing concerns about aggression:

“Russia’s behavior, ladies and gentlemen, demands a decisive and united response. It’s not a Ukrainian crisis, it’s a Russian invasion. The Ukrainians are not in a crisis. They are invaded. They’re occupied- they’ve had territory annexed,” said Ilves.

But perhaps more worrying to a son of refugees, are populist movements gaining traction in the far right and left parties of the European Union.

Ilves sees parallels in history to now — that inaction among leaders during crises leads the public to seek candidates that sound decisive — even if that will undermine the federation keeping the peace.

Ilves continued, “For they all know too well that this path that we’re on will be the end of Europe —and a return to the might makes right mindset of the 1930s. In that kind of Europe everyone will lose. But the first ones to lose will be the small.”

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