Russia Puts Leader of NATO Member Estonia on a Wanted List over Removal of Soviet-era Monuments

AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, File
Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks with the media as she arrives for a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonia’s prime minister has been put on a wanted list in Russia because of her efforts to remove Soviet-era World War II monuments in the Baltic nation, officials said Tuesday as tensions between Russia and the West soar amid the war in Ukraine.

The name of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas appeared on the Russian Interior Ministry’s list of people wanted on unspecified criminal charges. While independent Russian news outlet Mediazona first reported Tuesday that Kallas was on the list, it said she has been on it for months. The list includes scores of officials and lawmakers from other Baltic nations.

Russian officials said that Kallas had been put on the list because of her efforts to remove World War II monuments.

Kallas dismissed it as Moscow’s “familiar scare tactic.”

“Russia may believe that issuing a fictitious arrest warrant will silence Estonia,” she said. “I refuse to be silenced -– I will continue to vocally support Ukraine and advocate for the strengthening of European defenses.”

Estonia and fellow NATO members Latvia and Lithuania have pulled down monuments that are widely seen as an unwanted legacy of the Soviet occupation of those countries.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, numerous monuments to Red Army soldiers also have been taken down in Poland and the Czech Republic, a belated purge of what many see as symbols of past oppression.

Moscow has denounced those moves as desecrating the memory of Soviet soldiers who fell while fighting Nazi Germany.

The inclusion of Kallas — who has fiercely advocated for increased military assistance to Ukraine and stronger sanctions against Russia — appears to reflect the Kremlin’s effort to raise the stakes in the face of NATO and European Union pressure over the war.

“Estonia and I remain steadfast in our policy: supporting Ukraine, bolstering European defense, and fighting against Russian propaganda,” Kallas said, pointing to her family’s history of facing Soviet repression. “This hits close to home for me: My grandmother and mother were once deported to Siberia, and it was the KGB who issued the fabricated arrest warrants.”

It’s the first time the Russian Interior Ministry has put a foreign leader on a wanted list. Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys also are on the list, which is accessible to the public, along with scores of officials and lawmakers from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

“This, of course, is a kind of reward for people who support Ukraine and support the fight of good against evil,” Lithuania Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, adding that those on the list should be careful while traveling to third countries in the future.

Mika Golubovsky, editor of Mediazona’s English-language service, told The Associated Press that Kallas and other politicians from the Baltic nations have been in the Interior Ministry’s wanted database since mid-October and was the only head of state on the list.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed that Kallas and Peterkop were on the list because of their involvement in removing monuments.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a response to action by Kallas and others who “have taken hostile action toward historic memory and our country.”

Russia has laws criminalizing the “rehabilitation of Nazism” that include punishing the desecration of war memorials. Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top criminal investigation agency, has a department dealing with alleged “falsification of history” and “rehabilitation of Nazism,” which has ramped up its action since the start of the war, according to Mediazona, which broke the news on Kallas’ addition to the wanted list.

Mediazona, which downloaded and studied more than 96,000 individual entries in the database, said it also includes scores of Ukrainian officials and foreign nationals accused of fighting alongside Ukrainian armed forces. The entries usually don’t specify the charges or when the person was added to the list.

Golubovsky noted that not every high-profile addition to the list is publicly announced by the authorities. Officials in the Investigative Committee probably initially added Kallas and other Western officials to the list to score points with their superiors, he said, and the Kremlin only used it in its rhetoric about the West attacking Russia’s historic memory after it was disclosed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that ridding Ukraine of far-right, neo-Nazi groups is one of the central aims of the war, but he has offered no proof to back his repeated claims that such groups have a decisive voice in shaping Ukraine’s policies.

The inclusion of Kallas could also mark an attempt by Moscow to counter last year’s arrest warrant against Putin issued by the International Criminal Court over the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The Interior Ministry’s list also includes ICC President Piotr Hofmanski, as well as judges and prosecutors.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Meta spokesperson Andy Stone are on the list too. Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which are banned in Russia.

While it means little in practical terms since contacts between Moscow and the West have been frozen during the conflict, it comes at a time when European members of NATO are growing increasingly worried about how the U.S. election will affect the alliance.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has rekindled the fears of NATO allies that he could allow Russia to expand its aggression in Europe if he returns to the White House.

“‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?'” the Republican front-runner recently said he told an unidentified NATO member during his presidency. “‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay.'”

That statement sharply contrasted with U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge “to defend every inch of NATO territory,” as the alliance commits all members to do in case of attack.

Trump’s statement shocked many in Europe, drawing a pledge from Poland, France and Germany to bolster Europe’s security and defense power.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters Tuesday that “encouraging the Kremlin to attack any NATO ally or alliance territory really puts our soldiers -– U.S. soldiers and our allies’ soldiers — in greater danger. Doing so, making those types of statements, is dangerous and frankly irresponsible.”

While Putin insists he has no plans to strike any NATO countries unless they attack first, Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released an annual report Tuesday noting that Russia has significantly increased weapons output and warning that “the Kremlin is probably anticipating a possible conflict with NATO within the next decade.”

There also are scores of Belarusian nationals on Russia’s wanted list, including opposition figures, rights advocates and journalists who are being sought by authorities in Minsk. Leanid Sudalenka of Viasna, Belarus’ oldest and most prominent human rights group, told AP that Russian and Belarusian databases have been synchronized as part of the close relationship between the two nations.

Sudalenka, who fled to Lithuania last year after serving three years in a Belarusian prison and is on the list himself because of new charges, called it “an ugly conflation of two dictatorships that joined forces in prosecuting active people who protest against those dictatorships and the war.”