May 18, 2022

These Challenging Times Demand an Unbending Response

A mural of Hitler, Putin and Stalin created by graffiti artist Tuse in Gdansk.
A mural of Hitler, Putin and Stalin created by graffiti artist Tuse in Gdansk.

There can be no illusions about the rest of the world’s relationship with a Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin.

We sometimes like to say that we live in challenging times. Today, this is not just a throwaway phrase, but a statement of fact. Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine is testing Europe’s resilience. For many, Russia’s resumption of military violence was a great surprise. But for us in the Baltic countries and others in eastern and central Europe, it was not unexpected. We well remember that freedom is not given for free but has a price. The Soviet empire, and its successor state Russia, do not give up easily or peacefully. Today’s new reality only confirms our warnings that Russia is not a state governed by the rule of law, and that it will respect international obligations and agreements only when it is in its own interests to do so. Russia treats the so-called ‘near abroad’ states as its back yard, an area of ‘vital ​​national interest’, and expects the world to take this into account — if it does not, it will simply not be respecting Russia.

Anyone surprised that Russia now denies the Ukrainian people their statehood should recall the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. At the NATO-Russia Council, President Putin rebuked NATO leaders: “Who are you working with? With a country that does not exist, it is only an artificial derivative?” The Danish Prime Minister and future NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tried to retaliate on behalf of the Alliance leaders: “Mr President, this is not the way we talk about our partners”. Others simply shrugged. But some of us, though clearly a minority, insisted that Putin meant what he had said. Few believed it at the time, but Russia was already testing the West.

Georgia’s forewarning

During the same meeting, the Allies also clashed among themselves over whether to grant Georgia and Ukraine the NATO Membership Action Plan. Some Allies categorically opposed this, arguing that it would provoke Russia. But the same minority of eastern Allies argued that, in fact, it would be not granting the Membership Action Plan that would provoke Russia. It would be a signal that the Allies were not ready to reach out to these countries and would allow Russia to feel unopposed there.

War broke out in the South Caucasus shortly after the summit. Russia occupied twenty per cent of Georgia’s territory. The reaction of the West was sharp and principled, but very quickly faded away as the calls to be pragmatic and realistic grew louder. Just a few months later, the West returned to its usual rhythms of cooperation, hiding behind the deplorable formula of ‘agreeing to disagree’. Some of us warned that letting Georgia fall would set a precedent for allowing Russia to act with impunity — Russia would certainly not stop at Georgia. I remember mentioning Transnistria and Crimea as future threats, although these possibilities seemed unlikely at the time. Our friend Ronald Asmus, a great supporter of NATO membership for the Baltic states, titled his book on the war, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West. It may have shaken the world a little bit but, unfortunately, it did not wake it up. The aggressor learned lessons and realised that the costs of its hostile occupation could be tolerated. But the West did not learn any lessons.

Russia turns on Ukraine

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 attracted more attention and resulted in more sanctions and the freezing of cooperation. But Russia saw no need to review its policies. Its war machine had been activated and would be very difficult to stop.

Towards the end of 2021, even the clear evidence that Russia was no longer limiting its interests to Donbas but was preparing for a major military invasion of Ukraine did not persuade some of our colleagues to take decisive action. They frequently repeated that in the event of an invasion sanctions would be crushing. We reminded them that, despite its denials, the Russian army had been operating on Ukrainian territory for a long time. The war had been going on for eight years already. We warned them that if an invasion was imminent, sanctions and preventive measures were needed now, not when Ukraine was destroyed, and thousands killed.

Even as Russia launched a full-scale invasion, not all Allies saw an immediate need to provide the maximum assistance to Ukraine to allow it to defend itself against the aggressor. It seemed to many that arming Ukraine would only prolong the conflict and result in more deaths and, even then,  Russia would still win. However, it turned out that helping Ukraine paid off. Russia’s planned three-day blitzkrieg failed and it was forced into a longer war. But the very fact that international organisations still cannot intervene to stop the brutal killings of civilians, women, and children in the middle of Europe shows their helplessness and leaves unanswered one of the most important moral questions: are civilian victims worth less if they are not members of NATO or the EU?

The UN’s failings

There are other questions too. Do we have a credible, functioning, legal framework for resolving conflicts and wars in the world? The answer is no. When the UN Charter was drafted after the Second World War, it simply did not occur to the drafting countries that one of the victors over fascism, one of the permanent members of the Security Council, would itself become an aggressor and occupier. That it would violate basic human rights in the most serious way and abuse its veto in the Security Council. Now, not only is the UN Security Council unable to influence any aspect of the conflict, but it also cannot even pass resolutions to commit its members to the minimum standards of humanitarian protection for the victims.

The same happened in 1995 after the Srebrenica massacre, still remembered as a disgrace for the UN and the international community. In 1999, after much hesitation, NATO eventually decided to intervene to stop Milosevic’s genocide of Kosovo Albanians. But even then, the UN had not issued a mandate to act. The UN can adopt General Assembly resolutions that take the patient’s temperature, but do not make for a cure.

If the world’s democracies fail to fundamentally revise the UN Charter after the war in Ukraine, confidence in global justice will fade even further, alongside the already fading belief in the values ​​that democracy has failed to defend. Russia and Belarus have turned from autocratic regimes to totalitarian ones. In the international arena, they are exploiting the weaknesses of democracy and abusing legal loopholes and established mechanisms. They may use the same vocabulary as us, but their context is completely different. We play one game, say football, while they play by the rules of rugby.

Russia’s macabre cynicism

For Russia, peacekeeping has nothing to do with peace — rather, it means military intervention to suppress undesirable regimes or leaders. I often say that Russians are the best peacekeepers. They take pieces of land — and they keep them. For them, negotiation means nothing but blackmail, used to gain time as they search for new places to apply political and military pressure while giving the impression of pursuing normal diplomatic processes.

In 1945, Churchill prophesied that, “The fascists of the future will call themselves anti-fascists.” Today, Russia attempts to justify its aggressive actions with noble causes. It speaks of Ukraine’s ‘denazification’, even as it uses Nazi methods and the ideology of the exclusive supremacy of the Russian nation to deny Ukrainians their own right to independent existence. There are often civilian casualties in war, but it is rare for an aggressor to deliberately target and kill civilians. It is macabre for Russia to claim that its soldiers are protecting civilians from genocide as they murder children, and rape and kill women.

There can be no illusion that Putin will give up his mystical geopolitical ambitions while he remains in power. There can be no tolerance of or illusions about the rest of the world’s relationship with a Russia ruled by this leader. Every test of the West by Russia is a stress test. We must learn, albeit belatedly, the lessons we have failed to learn so far. Either our democracy withstands shocks and becomes stronger, or it shatters.

Linas Linkevičius’ writing is part of the article series written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2022 special edition of the Diplomaatia magazine. More articles: