‘No alternative to Ukraine joining NATO,’ Estonian President Alar Karis tells Arab News

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Updated 15 May 2023

‘No alternative to Ukraine joining NATO,’ Estonian President Alar Karis tells Arab News

‘No alternative to Ukraine joining NATO,’ Estonian President Alar Karis tells Arab News
  • Estonia among 30 nations calling for special tribunal to try Russian officials in absentia for alleged abuses in Ukraine
  • Karis said his country would not rule out accepting Sudanese refugees

TALLINN, Estonia: There is no alternative to Ukraine joining NATO, Alar Karis, the president of Estonia, told Arab News in an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in the capital Tallinn on the margins of the annual Lennart Meri Conference on Friday.

In recent days, 95 Estonian legislators have signed a statement calling for Ukraine’s immediate ascension to NATO at the alliance’s July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, claiming it was the only option for ensuring world order, peace and security.

Karis said the Estonian government was seeking a “road map” for Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO to strengthen the bloc’s collective security against Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year.

“The same with the EU. We need to have these steps, concrete steps, of what one country has to do to become a member,” he said.

However, there is currently little alignment between key NATO member states on the timing or necessity of Ukraine’s inclusion in the bloc, with Hungary, Germany, and even the US voicing concerns over the move.

In September, asked if Ukraine’s request for accelerated membership in NATO is something that Washington was ready to consider, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said the best way to support Kyiv is “through practical, on-the-ground support” and that “the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time.”

How do nations on NATO’s eastern fringes react to this attitude of the Biden administration?

“Different countries, of course, have different opinions,” Karis said. “The same also with EU membership. So that means we have to discuss and explain how and why it’s important. It doesn’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about it. So we should discuss how to reach this goal. It doesn’t mean we have to keep silent also in Vilnius.

“It is important to be a member of an alliance, and the only ally, defense ally, which is now available is NATO. There is no other way actually. But that would require all member states to approve.”

For Karis and other Eastern European leaders, it is a matter of collective defense.

“It’s not only us. It’s not only Estonia — Latvia, Lithuania and now Finland. It affects all of us. It’s not only Europe. There is also a transatlantic dimension,” he said.

“So, as I said, you have to explain why it is important, and go back to history, looking for a future because there is no other alternative. What’s the alternative? If somebody comes up with an alternative, we can discuss. But there is no alternative at the moment.”

Drawing a parallel with the Baltic state’s past, Karis said: “Estonia was in the very same situation at the beginning of the 1990s, or even the end of the 1980s, when we were about to leave the Soviet Union. We had started to talk about NATO already.

“And even when we regained our independence, in the beginning of the 1990s, we still had Soviet forces here in our country. And we started to discuss NATO membership and we managed to get this membership, and now we are already 19 years a NATO member.

“So we have to start the same discussions with Ukraine, although there is a war going on at the moment.”

NATO Article 5

Not everyone views Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO as the best security guarantee. Some argue that aggressively expanding NATO into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence has actually provoked Moscow, forcing it to act out of self-defense.

In a survey of 7,000 people in 14 Arab countries, conducted for Arab News by the UK-based polling agency YouGov, most felt it was NATO and US President Joe Biden that were to blame for the situation in Ukraine.

Other analysts have argued that had Ukraine’s NATO membership been expedited prior to the war, the Russian invasion would likely never have happened, as Moscow would never have dared challenge Article 5 of the NATO charter, which obliges members to lend collective support to any member when attacked.

Estonia has been a member of both the EU and NATO since 2004, placing it under the protection of the wider alliance. With a 183-mile shared border with Russia, Estonia and other frontier states are considered especially vulnerable to acts of aggression or retaliation.

Drone attack mystery

On May 3, a drone was shot down over the Kremlin in Moscow. Many commentators believe the incident constituted a direct attack on President Vladimir Putin, raising fears of a potential Russian retaliation against Ukraine or a NATO member state.

Owing to its NATO membership and the guarantee of collective security, Karis said he was not concerned about the possibility of a retaliatory attack.

“First of all, we don’t know where the source of this attack is. So it’s not clear at all,” he said. “And we have been next to Russia for centuries, so we know what to expect and what not to expect. We are not afraid of anything.

“As I mentioned, we are a member of NATO’s alliance. And I do believe, and we do believe, that Article 5 still is going to work. So we are not afraid of any threat. Of course, we have to be prepared. That’s why we need to increase our defense budget, to have more NATO forces on our ground to train and practice and so forth. So this is how to deter Russia.”

Alar Karis, the president of Estonia, speaking to Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas in Tallinn. (AN Photo/Ali Salman)

Cybersecurity strength

Estonia has come under attack on a different front — in cyberspace. Last year, it was subjected to a record number of cyberattacks by pro-Russian hackers. Still, Karis said his country’s cybersecurity defenses were top notch.

“We were first attacked in 2007. And we started to prepare ourselves, to defend ourselves, to build up our cybersecurity defense system. And it’s really good,” he said.

“We are all under constant attack, not only our country but many countries. Nothing really has happened so far but we have to continue preparing and developing our defense system as far as cybersecurity is concerned.

“And the same actually in Ukraine. We have assisted the Ukrainians and they have been defending themselves very well as far as cybersecurity is concerned or cyberattacks are concerned.”

Given Estonia’s position as a leader in the digital transformation of commerce and services, among countries in the region it perhaps offers the most opportunities for hackers to try their luck.

“We have to develop our defense system, and we are doing it constantly,” Karis said. “And not only us but together with other countries. And we even have NATO’s security defense center over here. So there are many ways to be prepared.”

While Karis highlighted Estonia’s cybersecurity prowess, he refused to be drawn into discussing whether the nation’s defense analysts have determined who was behind the Kremlin drone attack.

“There are many conspiracy theories, of course, among Russians themselves as well,” he said. “We do not know and this is not our aim to figure out who has done it, at least from our point of view. But of course, we follow the news of what the result of this kind of investigation is.”

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International tribunal

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, launched a scathing attack on Russia’s conduct in Ukraine, accusing Russian forces of exhibiting the same “brutality” as the Soviet troops in eastern and central Europe during the Second World War.

Kallas called for a special international tribunal to try Russian officials in absentia for alleged war crimes and abuses, which she claimed had gained the backing of 30 nations, including Ukraine, Lithuania and the new entrant to NATO, Finland.

“Russia has to be accountable for these crimes and atrocities that they have made,” Karis said. “I have been to Kyiv and the Kyiv suburbs, so I have seen what this aggression has done in Ukraine. So that means they have to be accountable.

“There should be a discussion about what kind of court, what kind of tribunal is going to have any effect on this situation. It’s an ongoing discussion.

“Estonia and some other countries have proposed a special tribunal … the most prominent are neighboring countries, which realize it’s important. And we have a history, again, after the Second World War the Soviet Union didn’t have any tribunal over the atrocities against our nation and other nations of theirs.”

Asked whether the establishment of such a tribunal for Russia but not for Israel concerning its treatment of the Palestinian people constituted a double standard, Karis said the two issues were entirely separate and had to be addressed on their individual merits.

“We’re just discussing now about the war in Ukraine and not different conflicts around the world — other conflicts as well, not only in Israel and Palestine,” he said. “So, it’s a case we want to solve first and then we can continue with other conflicts in other regions in the world.”

Urmas Reinsalu, Estonia’s former foreign minister, broke with the EU’s stance on the issue of Israel and Palestine late last year when he said the Baltic state would no longer vote for UN resolutions condemning Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“It’s the position of a former foreign minister. And now we have a new government,” Karis said. “You can ask our new minister of foreign affairs what’s his opinion or what’s that government’s opinion.”

Sudan refugees

Ukraine is not the only conflict on the international agenda. The violence in Sudan, which began on April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, has raised the specter of a new influx of displaced people into Europe.

European nations, alongside Saudi Arabia, acted quickly to evacuate foreign citizens from Sudan and have mobilized aid deliveries to help those displaced by the fighting and the collapse of infrastructure.

Although grappling with the arrival of some 50,000 Ukrainians on Estonian soil, Karis did not shy away from the question whether, in principle, Estonia would be welcoming to Sudanese refugees.

“If we discuss the matter and make sure that we are able to take, and how many we are able to take,” he replied.

But would he flat out refuse to take Sudanese refugees?

“No,” he said, adding: “We have limited resources and we already have so many refugees from Ukraine. So, it’s impossible to take another, let’s say, 10,000 or 20,000 migrants from Sudan. But of course, there are other countries who have taken and will take, probably, like Germany and some others.

“Of course there is a burden for these countries who are next door. But I think we start to understand more about what’s happening, what kind of migrants are coming from different countries.”

For the time being, there is a great deal of goodwill and openness among Estonians to assisting refugees from Ukraine. But if the war drags on for several years and burdens on the economy grow, how sustainable is this longer term?

“So far, we have been able to give shelter, give education to Ukrainian children, and give jobs,” Karis said. “But then again, we are not the only ones here, because Finland is next door and they propose that if there are too many and we cannot manage with refugees, they will take them. That’s why you need allies and friends.”

He added: “Of course, we are a small country, with limited resources, also military-wise, but we still can provide ammunition and some other things as well. And our people giving humanitarian aid, these numbers are also very high. So we are trying.

“But of course, it’s not only Estonia, but also the US has limited resources if this war lasts dozens of years. So, we have to make sure that this war is going to be over as soon as possible.”

Alar Karis: Biologist turned president

For an apolitical academic whose background is in molecular genetics, Alar Karis created a sensation when he replaced the incumbent president of Estonia in the second round of voting on Aug. 31, 2021, with almost unanimous support in parliament.

Since then, Karis has sought to strengthen Estonia’s relations with its EU, NATO and OECD partners as well as the wider world, including the Gulf countries, while underscoring the need for a rules-based world order and respect for the principles of international law. To this end, he has repeatedly drawn attention to Estonia’s achievements in education, innovation and digital transformation.

For instance, visiting the Estonia pavilion at the Dubai Expo in 2020 in March last year, Karis mentioned that Estonia had the highest number of unicorns per capita in Europe, had a lot to offer in education technology, and had made maximum use of e-services in the public sector and businesses to build a digital society.

At home, Karis has expressed a desire to talk to the different people and communities, including ethnic Russians, who make up Estonia’s population of 1.2 million. The war in Estonia’s neighborhood has, however, obliged Karis to be a vocal defender of the government’s staunchly pro-Ukraine foreign policy.

He has described the Russian invasion as not only an attack on a neighboring country but a war on transatlantic values and democracy itself.

Before becoming president, Karis served as the rector of both the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the University of Tartu, led the work of Universities Estonia a number of times, founded the University of Tartu-spawned Visgenyx, and worked at universities in Germany, Britain and the Netherlands. Born on March 28, 1958, in Tartu, Karis has been married to Sirje Karis since 1977, with whom he has three children and five grandchildren.


Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise

Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise
Updated 28 September 2023

Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise

Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise
  • High-tech facility will offer 24/7 security and community services

LONDON: Serbia has opened its first “smart” police station, drawing on the technological expertise of the UAE, Emirates News Agency reported on Thursday.

The initiative was inspired by the success of Dubai Police’s smart police stations, which offer 24/7 security and community services without human intervention.

The new high-tech police facility is part of the UAE and Serbia’s collaboration and exchanging of expertise in security, policing and crime prevention.

Bratislav Gasic, Serbia’s interior minister, praised the UAE for its support in establishing the police station, highlighting it as a testament to the growing ties between the two countries.

Lt. Gen. Abdullah Khalifa Al-Marri, commander-in-chief of Dubai Police, said the venture is part of the UAE’s strategic efforts to strengthen its international partnerships in line with the vision of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

“Our shared objective is to transform Serbian police stations, combining Emirati innovation and Serbian security expertise. These smart police stations will provide various services in multiple languages 24/7 without human intervention, mirroring the SPS in Dubai,” he said.

UK, French defense ministers in Ukraine for aid talks

UK, French defense ministers in Ukraine for aid talks
Updated 28 September 2023

UK, French defense ministers in Ukraine for aid talks

UK, French defense ministers in Ukraine for aid talks
  • Their visits came ahead of Kyiv’s first Defense Industries Forum
  • “I’ve been back to Kyiv this week to ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky what he needs to win,” UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said

KYIV: The British and French defense ministers visited Kyiv Thursday to discuss further military aid to Ukraine to bolster Kyiv’s counter-offensive against Russian forces.
Their visits came ahead of Kyiv’s first Defense Industries Forum, where Ukrainian officials were set to meet representatives from over 160 defense firms and 26 countries.
“I’ve been back to Kyiv this week to ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky what he needs to win,” UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said on his first trip to the Ukrainian capital in that role.
French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu is expected to hold talks with Zelensky and his new Defense Minister Rustem Umerov.
“We know that this war is going to last... We must ensure that tomorrow we continue to be reliable in our aid to Ukraine,” Lecornu said, after laying flowers at a memorial to Ukraine’s fallen soldiers.
Both Britain and France have supplied Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles which the Kremlin says can be used to strike Russian territory.
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for more Western arms, including longer-range weapons, to regain occupied territory.
Kyiv launched its counter-offensive in June but has acknowledged slow progress as its forces encounter lines of heavily fortified Russian defenses.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who also visited Kyiv on Thursday, said Ukraine was slowly clawing back territory from Russian forces.
“Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses,” he said.

How Arabic language influences everyday lives of Filipinos 

How Arabic language influences everyday lives of Filipinos 
Updated 28 September 2023

How Arabic language influences everyday lives of Filipinos 

How Arabic language influences everyday lives of Filipinos 
  • Many Tagalog words of everyday use trace their origin to Arabic 
  • First Arabs began to reach the Philippines around the 1000s 

MANILA: As they wish others well or express gratitude, Filipinos often use words that were not originally present in their native languages. Few know that one of the main sources of those terms is Arabic, which centuries ago had major influence on the region. 

The first Arabs began to reach the southern Philippines, especially the Sulu and Mindanao islands, around the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era — a few hundred years before Islam began to dominate the region around the year 1380, when the first mosque was established in Tawi-Tawi. 

“It’s a long story if we speak of the influence of Arabs in the Philippines. It could be dated probably as early as the ninth, 10th, 11th century onward,” Prof. Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, told Arab News. 

Like in most of Southeast Asia, the influence of Arabic and Arab culture began through trade with coastal communities, from where it spread further into the islands that nowadays constitute the Philippine archipelago. 

Later, Islam entered the same way. And it was one of the most peaceful processes. 

“Why? Because apart from the traders, the conversion happened, in fact, through intermarriages,” Wadi said. 

“The remnants of the influence could be shown in Filipino languages.” 

The term most Filipinos use to say “thank you” is “salamat” — deriving straight from the Arabic “salam” (peace). The phrase “alam mo ba?” — “do you know?” — comes from the Arabic ‘‘ilm,” which means knowledge. 

And there are many more such terms, without which everyday conversations may not be possible. 

One of the most popular Tagalog words is “mabuhay,” which can be translated as “may you have a long life.” 

Wadi said: “The root word is ‘hayy,’ which means life (in Arabic).” The opposite, death, which is “namatay” in Tagalog, is also derived from Arabic, from the word “mawt.” 

He added: “Even our basic concepts of life and death are actually Arabic … Deep in our psychology and spirituality is the Islamic influence.” 

They are also reflected in the culture of the predominantly Catholic country, where nowadays Muslims constitute roughly 5 percent of the population. 

Wadi believes this is what possibly makes it easier for Filipinos to connect with the Arab communities that host nearly 2 million of them in the Middle East. 

“When they go to the Middle East, Filipinos can easily relate with Arabs,” he said. 

“I think it is because there is the rootedness of their relationships that is traceable to their past.”  

NATO’s secretary-general meets with Zelensky to discuss battlefield and ammunition needs in Ukraine

NATO’s secretary-general meets with Zelensky to discuss battlefield and ammunition needs in Ukraine
Updated 28 September 2023

NATO’s secretary-general meets with Zelensky to discuss battlefield and ammunition needs in Ukraine

NATO’s secretary-general meets with Zelensky to discuss battlefield and ammunition needs in Ukraine
  • Zelensky said that Stoltenberg agreed to make efforts to get NATO members to help provide additional air defense systems to protect Ukraine’s power plants
  • Stoltenberg said that NATO has contracts for $2.5 billion in ammunition for Ukraine

KYIV: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss the status of the war and needs of troops on Thursday, the day after Russia accused Ukraine’s Western allies of helping plan and conduct last week’s missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters on the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Zelensky said that Stoltenberg agreed to make efforts to get NATO members to help provide additional air defense systems to protect Ukraine’s power plants and energy infrastructure that were badly damaged in relentless and deadly attacks by Russia last winter. He also reminded the secretary-general of the persistent attacks that often strike civilian areas, including 40 drone attacks overnight.
“In the face of such intense attacks against Ukrainians, against our cities, our ports, which are crucial for global food security, we need a corresponding intensity of pressure on Russia and a strengthening of our air defense,” Zelensky said. “The world must see how Russia is losing dearly so that our shared values ultimately prevail.”
Stoltenberg said that NATO has contracts for 2.4 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in ammunition for Ukraine, including 155 mm Howitzer shells, anti-tank guided missiles and tank ammunition.
“The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we become to ending Russia’s aggression,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia could lay down arms and end its war today. Ukraine doesn’t have that option. Ukraine’s surrender would not mean peace. It would mean brutal Russian occupation. Peace at any price would be no peace at all.”
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova had said the attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Crimea had been coordinated with the help of US and UK security agencies, and that NATO satellites and reconnaissance planes also played a role.
Ukraine said without providing supporting evidence that the attack had killed 34 officers and wounded 105 others. But it also claimed to have killed the fleet’s commander, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, who was shown on Russian state television on Wednesday speaking with reporters in the Black Sea city of Sevastopol.
Unconfirmed news reports said Storm Shadow missiles provided to Ukraine by the UK and France were used in the attack on the Russian navy installation. The UK Ministry of Defense, which in the past has declined to discuss intelligence-related matters, didn’t comment on Zakharova’s remarks.
The meeting with Stoltenberg came the same day the French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu visited the memorial wall that honors fallen soldiers in Kyiv and the day after UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps met with Zelensky to reaffirm the UK’s support for Ukraine and pledged to provide more ammunition as Kyiv’s counteroffensive plods forward toward the season when damp and cold weather could slow progress.
Shapps, who hosted a Ukrainian family in his home for a year, said that he was personally aggrieved by what the country had endured.
“Our support for you, for Ukraine remains absolutely undented,” Shapps said in a video posted by Zelensky. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with you. We feel your pain of what’s happened and we want to see a resolution, which is the resolution that you want and require.”
Zelensky has pushed for Ukraine to join NATO, but at the organization’s annual summit this summer in Lithuania, members of the trans-Atlantic military alliance pledged more support for Ukraine but stopped short of extending an invitation for the country to join the alliance.
NATO leaders said during the summit that they would allow Ukraine to join the alliance “when allies agree and conditions are met.” They also decided to remove obstacles on Ukraine’s membership path so that it can join more quickly once the war with Russia is over.
Zelensky said Thursday that Ukraine is working on a plan that will outline practical steps for Ukraine to align with the principles and standards of NATO.
“And it is very important that the allies have agreed that Ukraine does not need an action plan for NATO membership,” Zelensky said.

American soldier who crossed into North Korea arrives back in the US, video appears to show

American soldier who crossed into North Korea arrives back in the US, video appears to show
Updated 28 September 2023

American soldier who crossed into North Korea arrives back in the US, video appears to show

American soldier who crossed into North Korea arrives back in the US, video appears to show
  • North Korea abruptly announced Wednesday that it would expel Pvt. Travis King
  • His return was organized with the help of ally Sweden and rival China, according to the White House

SAN ANTONIO, USA: The American soldier who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas more than two months ago arrived back in the US early Thursday, video appeared to show.
North Korea abruptly announced Wednesday that it would expel Pvt. Travis King. His return was organized with the help of ally Sweden and rival China, according to the White House.
While officials have said King, 23, is in good health and the immediate focus will be on caring for him and reintegrating him into US society, his troubles are likely far from over.
King, who had served in South Korea, ran into the North while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18, becoming the first American confirmed to be detained in the isolated country in nearly five years. At the time, he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.
He has been declared AWOL from the Army. In many cases, someone who is AWOL for more than a month can automatically be considered a deserter.
Punishment for going AWOL or desertion can vary, and it depends in part on whether the service member voluntarily returned or was apprehended. King’s handover by the North Koreans makes that more complicated.
Video aired Thursday by a Texas news station appeared to show King walking off a plane in San Antonio. Dressed in a dark top and pants, he could be seen speaking briefly with people waiting on the tarmac. He shook hands with one before being led into a building.
Emails seeking comment were sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the Air Force and the Army.
Officials earlier said he would be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. He is expected to undergo psychological assessments and debriefings, and he will also get a chance to meet with family.
He will be in military custody throughout the process since his legal situation is complicated.
Many questions remain about King’s case, including why he fled in the first place and why the North — which has tense relations with Washington over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues — agreed to turn him over.
The White House has not addressed North Korean state media reports that King fled because of his dismay about racial discrimination and inequality in the military and US society.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that King made such complaints but verifying that is impossible.
On Wednesday, Swedish officials took King to the Chinese border, where he was met by US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the Swedish ambassador to China, and at least one US Defense Department official.
He was then flown to a US military base in South Korea before heading to the US
His detention was relatively short by North Korean standards.
Several recent American detainees had been held for over a year — 17 months in the case of Otto Warmbier, a college student who was arrested during a group tour. Warmbier was in a coma when he was deported, and later died.
North Korea has often been accused of using American detainees as bargaining chips, and there had also been speculation that the North would try to maximize the propaganda value of a US soldier.
But analysts say King’s legal troubles could have limited his propaganda value, and Biden administration officials insisted they provided no concessions to North Korea to secure his release.