There is no reason to assume that history in the 21st century will necessarily be less complicated or less bloody than it was in the 20th or 19th centuries. To cope with global competition, we have to strengthen a common front with the countries that share our worldview, both in fundamental issues but also in the coordination of everyday matters of practical politics, says Jonatan Vseviov, the secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.
The war has been going on for 14 months [the interview took place in April]. How realistic does it seem today that Ukraine will achieve its goals – that is, liberate its territory?
Russia’s Plan A was probably to achieve its goals through negotiations. It had failed already before 24 February 2022 when both the West and Ukraine rejected the Kremlin’s “security accords.” Russia’s Plan A 2.0 was to kick in the door into Kyiv and take over Ukraine in a few days or weeks. They expected the West to respond – but only superficially – and then revert to the status quo. That plan also failed.
Now, Russia has moved to Plan B – the war of attrition. Putin has not abandoned any of his strategic goals of reshaping the security architecture of Ukraine and Europe. Russia was only forced to resort to Plan B due to the powerful resistance of the Ukrainian military and the whole of society, as well as the unity and determination of the West. Yet it is my deep conviction that Putin wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night believing that he can still get out of this conundrum. And that he can still achieve his goals — not overnight, but eventually.
We should refrain from assuming that this war is, in any way, over or has been won until that actually happens. The war in Ukraine is substantial and fundamental enough that its outcome will de facto set new norms for at least one generation. It will determine whether aggression is a legitimate tool in international politics. Whether territorial integrity and sovereignty apply as principles. Whether the EU and NATO will survive as the pillars of European security. Whether international law and a rules-based world order are just buzzwords, or whether we will actually enforce them.
We have been doing the right things but not always at the right pace. It is as if the war in Ukraine were a non-existential issue. We have approved ten sanctions packages (and are currently working on the 11th) not because we have had ten rounds of new spectacular ideas but because it simply takes time for us to build consensus. Albeit understandable, it is frustrating from a historical perspective. Amidst a crisis that is existential for Europe, our foot must constantly be on the gas pedal. Yet this has not always been the case.
It is time to confirm – with actions, not words – that we will not tire and that we will not fan Russia’s hope of the West soon circling back to negotiations. This hope must be smothered, and all our daily efforts are directed towards this end. Neither side has backed down on what they wish to achieve, so it is still too early to crack open the champagne.
Jonatan Vseviov assumed office as the secretary general of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 2021. Before assuming his current duties, he served as Estonia’s Ambassador to the United States from August 2018. Between 2008 and 2018, he worked at the Estonian Ministry of Defence, rising to the post of permanent secretary. Mr Vseviov is the author of the Concept for Comprehensive Approach to Defence in 2009 and the National Defence Strategy of 2010 –documents that led to significant conceptual change in organising defence in Estonia. He has also been involved with the preparation and implementation of NATO’s present deterrence and defence posture components, including the execution of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states and Poland.
Are you worried that if Ukraine fails to achieve considerable success on the battlefield this spring or summer, the West will develop war fatigue and stop supplying enough weapons to Ukraine?
What is at stake in the confrontation between the West and Russia are the fundamental principles of a rules-based world order and European security. Economically, everyone will be worn out. Militarily, not only Ukraine and Russia but also the West will be worn out, albeit indirectly, because large-scale arms shipments come from our own warehouses. Politically, everyone will grow fatigued – the question is who will be the first to change course.
It is the test on our foreign policy to keep the West not only united but also focused on ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Will the situation become more difficult for us? Of course, it will, but so it will for Russia. Our goal is not to win a participation trophy.
And neither should this race end in a tie.
A tie would mean defeat. A tie would mean we have accepted that under certain conditions, aggression is a tool that helps the aggressor get – even if only in part – what it wants. It would mean we have accepted that the fundamental principles of international law – as it pertains to genocide, war crimes, and aggression – are meaningless.
By now, Europe should have learned that paying for our stability with the freedom of other nations buys neither stability nor security. This is not a politically viable option. In many ways, this lesson has kept the West focused and going. Russia has been inflicting much pain on Europe, but Estonia must make it clear that this pain will only grow if the principles – that have upheld security in Western Europe for over 70 years and in Eastern Europe for more than 30 years – are de facto renounced.
The West has been more united than Russia ever expected. Yet we can see some faltering. Perhaps most clearly in France, where President Macron has been going solo and displaying vaguely concealed anti-Americanism. Let us put it in the context of his potentially failing to deliver on domestic policy in the next four years, which will make him more and more involved in foreign policy. Could this turn into a longer-term problem?
Words matter, actions matter more, but outcomes matter most. We do not know the outcomes yet. Words, though, are harmful if they create the impression — even a false one – that Western unity has been shaken. This feeds into the Kremlin’s hope that it only has to hold out for another month or two since even if the Western unity was not superficial, it is temporary. This hope is what keeps the Russian war machine going.
Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of another member state and interpret what they have said (or intended to say) and whether their words have been taken out of context. Let others do the explanation. On behalf of Estonia, I can confirm that there is no alternative to transatlantic cooperation – not when it comes to the war in Ukraine or any other strategic challenge facing us in the 21st century.
This does not mean that Europe should not be stronger. Indeed, it should, both mentally and politically. Above all, we need to direct more resources to get things done on the world stage. Part of it is, of course, defence spending. However, another part deals with how well we can target development cooperation to achieve our political goals and with how much diplomatic leverage we have internationally. There is plenty of room for improvement. Instead of (seemingly) detaching ourselves from our key allies, we must focus exclusively on improving our own capacity in the practical dimension.
Regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Russia will remain Estonia’s neighbour. Today, our borders are quiet, because Moscow’s resources have all been directed towards Ukraine. Yet the Russian army will undoubtedly return to Pskov and Luga. Should we be content with NATO’s new defence plans?
Without a doubt, Russia will remain a strong influence on both Estonia and Europe. Some form of relationship with Russia is inevitable. Based on the outcome of this war, this relationship will need to be reevaluated. But the primary prerequisite for development is trust – knowing that the other party intends to fulfil the obligations assumed. Right now, that trust is missing.
This has almost always been the case throughout Russia’s history.
And it is especially true now. There is not a single written security commitment that Russia has not directly violated. Once the war is over, we can begin building relations – if Russia genuinely wants to do so. It will have to prove this desire by convincing us, step by step, that it intends to fulfil the most basic agreements.
Today, we can hardly see a change in Russian security policy. NATO has acted adequately – in strategic terms – by accepting Finland, and hopefully soon Sweden. Functional integration into NATO’s collective defence is not an overnight process; it will probably take years. It took us years. But this development will have a positive impact on the security institution. NATO itself has changed gears in recent years, especially since 24 February. Having been neglected for decades, collective defence has gained momentum following the Madrid summit.
Is this momentum enough?
We never know, and we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. In Estonia, we are always impatient. In part, this is inevitable: as a border state, we perceive the risks and dangers more acutely than countries located farther away from Russia do. In the grand scheme of things, we are all moving in the right direction. NATO has largely overcome conceptual problems and is now dealing with the question of resources, which is a purely practical matter. Building a functioning military capability – that agrees with the interests of the defence forces of the alliance – costs an extraordinary amount of money.
I would like to come back to the 2% question. It was already accepted years ago as a bare minimum but, as we all know, has not been reached. As a former defence planner, I can confirm that defence spending is transformed into real military capability only after years and years of spending at best. Unlike house renovations, where you invest today and have new tiles on the walls a month later. For decades, Europe has not been adequately funding its own military capability. To offset this shortfall, all allies have to allocate a minimum of 2% of GDP to defence spending in 2024, as well as to make sure this money is spent on building military capability and not wasted on extraneous activities. Today, Estonia even holds the position that 2% is actually too low of a target.
The disputes within NATO have to do with new technologies, new opportunities, and new challenges. These are the military-strategic debates over how we can ensure safety through deterrence. Thankfully, we no longer have to argue over whether collective defence is necessary or whether Russia is even a threat.
That does not mean that disputes have become easier; on the contrary, resource issues are far more complicated because they have to be discussed by defence and security experts together with the military. These are rarely the same individuals or institutions who are ultimately responsible for formulating the budget. This is where we can expect a major shortfall in the near future. Addressing it will not be effective immediately but only in five or even ten years.
I can state with full confidence that at no point will Estonia sit at the summit table and declare that our security has been completely guaranteed or that we no longer have any requests and suggestions. This will never happen. It is not a box we can check off. Russia’s course has been clear for more than a decade now; Putin has been consistent and transparent about his policies. He has always said what he will do and has always done as he said. The sad reality is that figuring it out collectively took us quite a while. And there is no point in first rule of defence planning: it takes years for defence investments to translate into military capability.
It is hard for me to share your optimism, as I continue to hear several allies suggesting we avoid irritating Russia too much. This applies to the fundamental decisions of whether to provide certain weapons and, more importantly, whether to accept Ukraine as a member of NATO.
The more political the topic, the more spirited the debate. This is normal in democratic countries and applies to disputes between the government and the opposition, or the government and think tanks, as well as within the government itself. What I mean is that specific decisions have been approved by NATO – that is, we have clearly taken the course towards collective defence. At the same time, even in NATO’s own history, there were many unanimous decisions that, when looking back, seemed to follow the wrong course or simply outlived their time. Hence, the debates are always in progress.
On a larger scale, serious discussions – about how to formulate our fundamental security policy strategy towards the war in Ukraine and towards Russia – lie ahead. 24 February was the day when the masks fell off. However, Ukraine had been at war for many years by then. There was a war in Georgia in 2008. Crimea was annexed in 2014. Cyberattacks were launched against Estonia in 2007.
24 February 2022 was pivotal because, at least temporarily, it was impossible to pretend that what we saw was not what was really happening. Russia posed a challenge not just somewhere in the grey zone, on the fringes of the principles, but at the very heart of our approach to security. However, international politics – and history as a whole – often swings like a pendulum. Once one thing has become clear, the pendulum starts moving in the other direction, inspiring doubters, questioners, and revisionists.
Again, I can only speak on behalf of Estonia when I say that we are ready for an honest discussion, both behind closed doors and in public. If anyone today thinks that it is possible to act like Chamberlain without being called one, they are delusional. Estonia intends to make sure that as the outcome of this war, the concept of spheres of influence being a practical political solution is thrown into the dustbin of history.
The farther away people are physically when looking at international relations, the more theoretical their approach is. They are more likely to draw arbitrary lines on the map and say, “This is where one sphere of influence ends and the other begins,” adding, “As long as there is peace.” We had the “honour” of enjoying such peace on our territory for 50 years. Many of our current allies refused to accept the occupation, yet every Estonian family can attest to the crimes committed on our land. We will never accept an approach that draws spheres of influence – no matter what they are called – on the map of Europe.
Moreover, based on our own experience and that of the rest of Europe, we believe that the grey area between Russia and the democratic West destabilises the region and breeds conflicts. That is why we have been working hard to ensure that countries that seek, want, and are prepared to join an alliance that builds a security architecture – with NATO and the EU as its cornerstones – should get the opportunity to do so. This has brought benefits not only to the individual members but to Europe as a whole, as well as the entire democratic world and its stability.
If someone wants an honest debate, we are ready to have one. But if someone wants to design a policy behind closed doors and present it under false labels, we will not let that happen. We remember the previous experience of silent surrender well enough; we lived through the mistakes of the 20th century. It has barely been 30 years since we finally managed to shake off those mistakes, which is why they are still fresh in the memory of most of our current diplomats and politicians. Good luck to anyone who wants to debate against that.
Is it realistic for the West to have more or less reasonable cooperation with China today? Are we being delusional in the same way we were about Russia 10–20 years ago? Just like Moscow, Beijing has been quite open about its ambition to undermine democratic values and the US’ position as a world leader. Estonia’s new Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna made it fairly clear that if the US and China were to enter into war over Taiwan, we would side with our ally.
First of all, I would like to state the official policy of the Estonian government: our commitment to NATO’s Article 5 is ironclad. We always underline it, both publicly and privately.
When it comes to the global dynamics of the 21st century, in which China plays a key role (even though there might be others who wish to redefine the balance of power), it is wise to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The competition is no longer merely diplomatic or military but involves economy, disruptive technologies, and strategic connections. The latter include bridges and pipelines, as well as information technology. The one who controls them will determine world politics.
The primary task for Europe, and the West is to ensure maximum independence from countries that do not share our fundamental values. In the case of Russia, Estonia – together with its neighbours – has been ringing the alarm bell for years by warning that the West’s strategic dependence would be used against us. The question is not whether the gas imported from one place burns differently than the gas from another exporter.
Europe has overcome its dependence on Russian energy with surprising ease.
Yes, but we still cannot see the full picture. Let us put it like this: in 1916, neither St Petersburg nor Berlin could make any conclusions about how well – or how poorly – they had weathered the war. Premature conclusions make one look stupid later on, when developments brought on by the war have caused the empires to collapse. We find ourselves in the same situation today: we have only survived one winter.
Our own deliberate policy was only part of the overall success in overcoming this dependence. Remember that Russia itself shut the tap – both figuratively and literally in the case of Nordstream – believing that it would bring us to our knees, and was proven wrong. Yet it is too early to tell how it will end.
Of course, dependencies are far more complex and far more important when it comes to modern technology. We can hardly even fathom the role that technological progress will play in geopolitics or foreign policy. Technological development has accelerated greatly. The flow of information and working practices will radically transform in the next 10–20 years. Already today, there is fierce competition both internationally and domestically.
What should we do? Point number one: we need to open our eyes and recognise that world history did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall or the expansion of NATO. History continues with the same brutality as it always has. It is delusional to think that a part of Europe managed to close itself off from history after World War II. Estonia’s experience shows that one cannot hide from history—history will always catch up. There is no reason to assume that history in the 21st century will necessarily be less convoluted or less bloody than it was in the 20th or 19th centuries. History is in our hands, and we must be up for the challenge.
Point number two: European powers, indeed, commanded the global political arena in the 19th century, while the democratic community dominated the economic and technological spheres in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the dominance of Western-style democracy is by no means guaranteed. Quite the opposite. It is a multipolar world, where every Western country is small when taken separately, with the exception of the United States. It was eye-opening for me to sit across from a UN ambassador who represented a country with a population of over one hundred million people but spoke about his “small-country” status.
Could that be just posing?
It depends on who you have sitting next to you. If it is a country with a population of more than a billion, one hundred million pales in comparison. Ukraine is small next to Russia but huge next to Estonia. On its own, Germany – the largest country in Europe with 80 million people – is a small country on the global stage. Ms [High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica] Mogherini was right: Europe consists of countries that are small and countries that have not yet realised that they are small. If we are not able to maintain a common front with the countries that share our worldview – both on fundamental issues and on routine matters of politics – we risk losing this global competition.
Occasional summits where we go over our principles are not enough. We must take cooperation and coordination to a practical, day-to-day level when preparing a joint response to the challenges in front of us at a fundamental level. The war in Ukraine is the first serious test of the 21st century, with all the principles underlying our way of life now at stake. Whether we pass this test will be determined by the outcome of the war, not by how successfully we have strung together words or imposed sanctions leading up to that. The outcome matters, and the world is watching.
Here, too, there are countless areas to improve. Despite our well-designed organisations, we have largely been coordinating policies ad hoc. The West has to put in a lot of effort to strengthen our unity. Nothing comes easy or should be taken for granted. I would like to clarify that the West here means not only the West of the 20th century but also other like-minded countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. In operational policy coordination, we are at the elementary school level, while the test we are taking requires a PhD.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.