June 9, 2023

To Speak or Not to Speak with Russia: A Baltic Way

AP Photo/Scanpix
AP Photo/Scanpix
After the news from Bucha emerged in April 2022, Lithuanian protesters coloured the pond in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius red.
After the news from Bucha emerged in April 2022, Lithuanian protesters coloured the pond in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius red.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the diplomatic scene witnessed many collective walkouts at international venues when the representatives from the aggressor country took the floor – a symbolic gesture of protest and disgust with the Russian policy and those who defend it.

The image of Russian diplomacy has, indeed, suffered greatly. Previously respected in the West for its professionalism, erudition, and reputation of its high-ranking diplomats, Russian diplomacy was demoted to the mouthpiece for the most outrageous lies and unbridled cynicism meant to justify the war.

The Devil We Know

The Baltic diplomats, of course, will say that that at no time since the 1990s has Russian diplomacy been respectful or respectable. At the receiving end of insults and accusations for the ethnic minority policies or memory politics, the Baltic diplomats had to constantly defend themselves both in front of their Western partners and at home. At times, they were forced to explain that they were not the “neo-Nazis” or “rabid Russophobes” but sovereign nation-states committed to upholding international law. Russian diplomacy had three modes of communication with the Baltic states: vicious, condescending, or absent.

France, Germany, and the US tried to treat Russia as a partner – not always an easy one but still a partner, with whom cooperation was important to solve some shared problems. Aside from business interests, there were questions of a global scope – such as nuclear non-proliferation, crises in Africa and the Middle East, and sanctions regimes – in which Russian participation was needed. It was influenced by an assumption – not necessarily a naïve one – that a skilful negotiation can affect the position of any stubborn party involved. The West had a wealth of the Cold War experience of sitting down at one table with the Kremlin, and Russia was far from the only “difficult state” after all.

The Baltic nations, in the meantime, were toiling to distance themselves and the rest of Europe from Russia, warning about the dangers of “dealing with the devil.” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted that dialogue was not a policy in and of itself. His Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaitė, was among the first to call Russia a “terrorist state” (already after the annexation of Crimea in 2014), adding that talking to the aggressor was as dangerous as allowing its fighter jets to fly over our heads. The Baltic logic was simple: stay away and keep the danger away. The fewer contacts with Russians we had the better we were, as one Lithuanian security official once summarised this approach. Latvians and Estonians were, arguably, more moderate. In 2019, the Estonian president even travelled to Moscow. However, the general trend in the region remained clear: containment and distancing.

Things did change in 2022. Baltic diplomats might be tempted to revel in their “I told you so” moment. Yet, we must put the current developments in a larger context. Western diplomacy has centuries of balancing interests, seeking compromise, building trust, and avoiding a major war behind it. It also knows that there are no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. In the best traditions of Metternich and Talleyrand, European destiny is believed to be built on a continuous give-and-take. To rephrase Hedley Bull, if diplomacy were to remain the major institution that glues the international community together, we would have to build some kind of relationship with Russia.

Western Europeans have, indeed, miscalculated Russia’s long-term intentions, and they have also admitted that the prudence of the Baltic States would have been a better strategy. They did not, however, deem Russia inherently corrupt and indefinitely non-frequentable. Even today, not all Western diplomats are ready to burn all the bridges with Russia, a country waging a brutal war in violation of the most basic norms of international law, whose president is under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. They still admit a possibility that those bridges might be needed one day – in case Putin wins this war and stays in power.

Europeans have little shared understanding of how to address Russia today in diplomatic terms. These disparities revealed themselves during the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna in February 2023. Nearly 20 member states openly urged the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deny visas to the Russian delegation that consisted of many individuals already under Western sanctions. Austria chose to follow the international practice that compelled host countries to allow foreign diplomatic missions to attend such meetings. Although all 20 states were disappointed, Lithuania was the only one to boycott the summit, claiming that it found it “politically and morally inappropriate” to sit in the same room with the representatives of a criminal state. The rest took it as an opportunity to tell the Russians directly what they thought. For instance, Latvia’s representative suggested Russians follow the course of its warship in the Black Sea. Others demonstratively exited the hall.

No Good Options

Alas, there is no correct solution. Communication and non-communication are diplomatic techniques: which one to choose and when in order to ensure that the vital interests of security in Europe are protected should be a matter of serious deliberation. The Baltic states are ardent advocates for the non-communication option. Since 2022, those diplomatic forums where Russia is still welcome have resembled the dialogue of the deaf. But both Russian diplomats and their Western counterparts continue to play this game. Without offering any progress, this kind of dialogue only emboldens the Russians by making them feel that they are being listened to.

The communication channels, however, exist not only to transmit information but also to measure the intentions of one’s interlocutor on the other side, especially when they are suspected to be dangerous. Lithuania was quick to expel the Russian ambassador from Vilnius and recall its ambassador from Moscow in April 2022. The embassies are still in the respective capitals but, at this point, barely functional. It does not seem to bother the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as it has been declaring Russian diplomats persona non grata since 2014. Reportedly, there is not much to do in Moscow these days anyway. Estonia and Latvia might have been wiser to keep their diplomatic eyes and ears in Moscow, which also allowed them to keep the Baltic voice at the European caucus of the diplomatic corps. The Estonian ambassador left Moscow only in February 2023, with the Latvian ambassador following suit in solidarity.

Akin to the hotline between the Soviet and American leaders after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the communications channels with Russia today must remain operational in case the situation changes, and dialogue can be re-established. The Baltic diplomats do admit that there will be a time when more regular communication will be warranted. The question is when.

If the isolation of diplomats is to send a message – that Russia’s behaviour is not to be tolerated by the West – we must remain firm in our words and deeds. Most importantly, we must avoid sending mixed signals, which is why the Baltic states tend to overreact when a Western European leader talks about allowing Russia to save its face.

Sunflowers in front of the Ukraine Embassy in Riga during Ukraine’s Independence day on 24 August 2022. EPA/Scanpix

Dealing with the Devils

Recently, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė suggested, “Europe should think of and develop its security system without Russia.” Other Baltic politicians indicated that Russia should be expelled from the OSCE and even from the United Nations. It is worth remembering, however, that those platforms were created not for the pleasure of getting together but precisely to address the deficit of communication between adversarial states, thus trying to make uncertainties more manageable.

The OSCE was a product of fierce negotiations between the Soviet Union and the West on arms control and human rights. It was only in the 1990s that it finally started producing consensual documents. If the OSCE were discarded, all the commonly agreed documents – including the Helsinki Principles – could become void. Before we rush to dissolve an international organisation, we must ask ourselves whether we will be able to build something better in its place.

As historian Pierre Grosser said in 2013, diplomacy in the 21st century is going to be about “dealing with the devils.” Now, we have to agree on who those devils are and how to deal with them, while remembering that no details are trivial when it comes to European security.

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.

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