Putin is 'enjoying himself' with military build-up, Estonian premier says

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks during an interview with Reuters in Brussels
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By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Estonia's prime minister said on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying the international attention generated by Russia's massive military drills on Ukraine's borders and is looking for a successful war to lift support at home.

Speaking to Reuters, Kaja Kallas also said the situation was extremely grave and that Moscow must not be given any kind of concessions as long as it maintained more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine. It would be a negotiation at gunpoint, she said.

"I think he is clearly enjoying himself, being at the centre of attention in the West, because there were years when he was maybe somewhat overlooked," Kallas said before a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels to discuss the crisis.

"But now, with the different Western leaders visiting him, everybody constantly speculating what he's thinking or what he might do ... this is making him definitely very important," she said of the man who has dominated Russia since 2000.

Putin's separate meetings with the French and German leaders at a glistening table six meters (20 ft) long have been broadcast around the world. On Wednesday, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro flew to Moscow for talks with Putin, and he has had several telephone calls with U.S. President Joe Biden.

The Kremlin has denied any plan to invade Ukraine and says troop movements within its own borders and demands for security guarantees from the United States and NATO are legitimate responses to Western aggression.

Kallas mused that the Russian troop build-up could be, in part, designed as a distraction from domestic pressures. Putin has come under scrutiny at home over Moscow's handling of the pandemic with more than 700,000 COVID-19 deaths in Russia, according to Reuters calculations based on state statistics, and only half the population vaccinated.

"When the popularity goes down, then you need a successful war to boost the support. So that is also something that Russia or Russian administration has used before," Kallas said. "So I think these things are definitely related."

Moscow has sought guarantees that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, never be allowed to join NATO, a demand which has been rejected by the alliance as running counter to a country's freedom of choice, although it has said membership is a distant prospect.

Kallas said Putin was trying to reassert Russia as a global power, noting that he saw the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century.

"The only one who can de-escalate is Russia. Russia has created this situation and can also take a step back," she said.

"I'm very cautious of any kind of negotiations, of offering Russia something because we shouldn't forget the big picture, which is that the gun is pointed at Ukraine really and you can't have negotiations at gunpoint," she said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Philippa Fletcher)