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A former president of Estonia predicted Russia would invade Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's war in Ukraine has finally driven both Finland and Sweden to abandon decades of neutrality and seek NATO membership. Estonia joined the alliance nearly 20 years ago. Its former president, Toomas Ilves, has long been a voice of caution when it comes to the Kremlin. And he still has a message for both the West and NATO. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin recently visited Ilves at his family farm in Estonia.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: We follow the GPS to a pair of coordinates in the middle of the forest in southern Estonia to the family home of former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The birds are chirping. The farm is peaceful, in direct contrast to the war in Ukraine, raging less than a thousand miles south of us. Ilves' family first got here in the mid-1700s but fled in the 1940s. He's been fixing it up for the last few decades.

TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES: This is what I saw when I got here - collapsed buildings.

MCLAUGHLIN: But it's not just Ilves living here, at least not for the last month or so.

ILVES: One of them DM'd me on Twitter.

MCLAUGHLIN: Ilves has been hosting two Ukrainian refugees.

ILVES: Picked them up on the side of the road.

MCLAUGHLIN: It might sound crazy for a former president to pick up a few strangers from the internet and have them stay with him. But for Ilves, this is all deeply personal. In this region, you grew up hearing about Russian atrocities.

ILVES: We thought these were the kinds of stories that grandma told you, and turns out that grandma was not exaggerating.

MCLAUGHLIN: He means Russian massacres like the one in Bucha, the Ukrainian city on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, in March.

ILVES: Bucha was not a surprise to us.

MCLAUGHLIN: His own family were refugees who fled to Sweden, where he was born. He lived all over the world, including the U.S. He learned to program computers when he was 16 in New Jersey. Later in life, he became one of the first Estonian ambassadors to the United States, the foreign minister, and finally the president of Estonia.

But we wanted to visit Ilves, who left office in 2016, because he's one of the smartest guys there is when it comes to Russia. He's actually met Putin. He was not surprised about the invasion.

ILVES: The war itself was something that no one thought would happen, aside from a few nervous people like me.

MCLAUGHLIN: Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Afterwards, Ilves was a key figure in shepherding the young country into the European Union and NATO, safeguarding his home from Russian aggression. For Ilves and most Estonians, it was a matter of life and death. But that took years of hard work. Ilves recalled facing a lot of skepticism, even at home, that joining the EU was the best path forward, including from the prime minister.

ILVES: We're flying back and - he liked to drink his gin and tonics. And then we're flying back in the plane. He goes, Ilves, are you serious about this EU thing? I said, yeah, yeah. I think we have a chance.

MCLAUGHLIN: By getting on the same page as Europe, Ilves knew it would be almost impossible to keep Estonia out of NATO. But then other members still felt Estonia was too alarmist about Russia, even after a major Russian cyberattack hit Estonia in 2007.

ILVES: We went to NATO and said, we're being attacked. And one of the countries there said, oh, you're just being Russophobic.

MCLAUGHLIN: The war in Ukraine might be changing things. Even countries known for their neutrality - Finland and Sweden - have applied to join NATO. Still, Ilves' skeptical attitudes will change long-term because Estonia has been sounding the alarm about Russia, and it didn't prevent this war.

ILVES: We told you so. Yeah, yeah, we did. But it hasn't made any difference. The attitudes have not changed, I don't think.

MCLAUGHLIN: He says Eastern Europe has been painted with a broad brush as corrupt and, as a result, not taken as seriously.

ILVES: The West Europeans have been patronizing, arrogant and dismissive of East European, NATO and EU member concerns for 20 years.

MCLAUGHLIN: Estonia does get a lot of calls these days, though, particularly on how to defend against Russian cyberattacks. And over the years, Ilves has had a lot of visitors. He walks us around the sprawling farm, giving us a tour.

ILVES: The government from 2008 brought a tree in. That's the Dutch tree.

MCLAUGHLIN: There's a tradition that started back in the early 2000s after Estonia joined the EU and NATO. Everyone that visits brings a tree.

ILVES: All of the trees you see here, except basically the big, big spruce there, I have planted in the past 30-plus years.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's been a little while since a new tree was planted.

ILVES: I think this is the most recent tree that was planted here was - Turkey came and planted a tree 'cause they're in NATO.

MCLAUGHLIN: But with so many countries interested in following in their footsteps, it's a good thing there's plenty of room to grow here.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Estonia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.