How Much Pain Is the West Ready to Endure?
The LMC 2022 (15th Lennart Meri Conference, 13-15 May 2022, Tallinn) was the first major international foreign and security policy conference to take place after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war inevitably set the tone of the conference, its origins and consequences forming a thread that ran through every panel from start to finish.
In the opening session, Tempus Fugit – Time Flees, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna (participating virtually and forced to leave suddenly by an air raid alarm) observed that Europe’s longstanding strategic ambiguity had been misinterpreted by Russia as encouragement. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas added another perspective on the lessons of history: “It is clear, that war for small countries means only devastation, while it’s more ambiguous for big states, where war can be glory.” The West can, however, shape tomorrow’s history lessons by helping to ensure that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine does not pay off. Achieving this will depend far more on the West’s resilience—defined by Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, as the “amount of the pain we are ready to endure”—than it will on Russia’s military power.
The closing session of the conference, Trusting Who We Are: Baltic Regional Security, guided by the President of Estonia Alar Karis, coincided—to the near unanimous approval of the conference participants—with Finland and Sweden’s historic decisions to apply for NATO membership. As Ambassador Jüri Luik, permanent representative of Estonia to NATO, remarked in another panel (Heroes? NATO on the Doorstep of the Madrid Summit), “Estonians were jumping up and down with joy” at the news that the Baltic Sea would become a NATO lake. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Latvia Artis Pabriks noted that the Baltic states have worked to develop their resilience and self-defence capabilities, concluding that “we are not indeed afraid of Russian strengths, as the main danger arises from the weaknesses of the West,” which must be able to consolidate and adjust.
A Collective Fight on Many Fronts
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated both the fragility of peace and order in Europe, and the need for coordinated and robust responses to an aggressor. The atrocities taking place in the middle of our continent are evidence of the shallowness of civilisation. But at the same time the energy and commitment that civil societies and governments have shown in their solidarity with Ukraine may mark a turning point in the democratic West’s awareness of the need for collective resilience. In a session entitled Наша Славна Україна: Rise Up, Ukraine, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence Dr Celeste Wallander argued that the outcome of the war must be no less than Russia’s strategic failure. Whether the West will hold to its commitment to support Ukraine until the end of this brutal war remains to be seen, but the audience responded emotionally and positively to the plea of Dr Hanna Shelest (Director of Security Programmes, “Ukrainian Prism”) to not waste Ukraine’s sacrifices.
The post Second World War security architecture and the web of international organisations that held it together are now in ruins. Opening the pre-event entitled Too Old to Rock’n’roll, Too Young to Die? The OSCE at 50, the President of Poland Andrzej Duda stated that international organisations “need commitment to the purposes, principles, and aims of all their members”. What is the answer, he asked, when one member – Russia – violates an organisation’s fundamental principles? In various breakout sessions, the conference explored whether international organisations, the UN, OSCE, and ICC to name but a few, can maintain their relevance. In this context, we should remember the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: as Heraclitus said, nations should fight for their rights as they fight for their town walls. Despite the worries expressed by many participants, there was broad agreement that efforts should be made to repair the international system, but this should be the responsibility of a collective enterprise rather than a single state.
Another front is the fight for justice. The CEO of Bellingcat Christo Grozev, describing his team’s commitment to document war crimes in Ukraine and push for justice for victims, explained that this fight may be long, but cannot be abandoned. Meanwhile, new features have also emerged on the information battlefield. The war for minds fought by citizens on social media, and new methods of open-source investigative journalism can have considerable impact on an aggressor as, in the case of Ukraine, did the West’s intelligence services’ dramatic shift towards publishing their intelligence. The consequences of these shifts were discussed by US DNI Avril Haines, Editorial Director of Riddle Russia Anton Barbashin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Poland Piotr Krawczyk, and Flemming Splidsboel Hansen of the Danish Institute for International Studies in the Night Owl session To the Limit: War, Social Media, and Intelligence.
As the conference took place just before NATO’s Madrid Summit, the Alliance and transatlantic relations more broadly were very much in focus. One speaker delivered perhaps the key takeaway: we have the best transatlantic relations ever, but for the worst possible reason. As an aggressive Russia will likely be a problem for some time, we need a relevant NATO ready to revise plans for its eastern and northern fronts.
Little Hope of Imminent Change
The LMC has long been known for its Russian expertise and analysis. A special Russian language event “Хотят ли русские войны?“: Russian Self Perception from Within and Without, organised in cooperation with the Open Estonia foundation, gave Estonia’s Russian speaking population an opportunity to engage in the conference also. We were happy to include Alexey Levinson, leading analyst from the Levada centre, as the only speaker from Russia this year.
Agenturaeditor Andrei Soldatov, editor-in-chief of The Insider Romand Dobrokhotov, and political analyst Artyom Shraibman were among those who shared their insights into the perceptions of Russian and Belarussian (forced) exiles, in particular considering whether and to what extent is it possible for them to influence political processes in their homelands. The panel agreed that the nature of emigration has substantially changed in the era of social media, and that physical exit no longer means exit from social circles of communication. But Russia and Belarussia’s immediate future was painted in dark tones with little hope of imminent change.
Europe’s future was discussed from different angles in many sessions. A special event arranged in cooperation with the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Happy Together: Western Balkans, Together with Whom?, discussed possible future scenarios for the Western Balkan states. The panellists agreed that the EU, created as a guarantor of peace, needs to rethink its aspirations and principles—today, it needs new political solutions, not bureaucratic ones. Meanwhile, the breakout session Still Waiting for the Train: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia agreed on the urgency of membership decisions for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. These panels, featuring among others the Deputy Prime Minister of Moldova Dr Oleg Serebrian, President and CEO of NED Damon Wilson, and the head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House Orysia Lutsevych, urged Europe to show more courage.
Estonia is known as a leading expert in and enthusiast for digital issues. The digital aspects of foreign and security policy which, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechia Jan Lipavsky pointed out in a session entitled Computer World: Digital Security are global and do not depend on geography, have always been a focus of the LMC. Noting that while the democratic world has made efforts to define the rules of the game and made significant progress in some fields, Dr Alina Polyakova, Director and CEO of CEPA, expressed deep concern over the lack of technological cooperation between the US and the EU and argued for rapid improvement here to avoid continuously lagging behind China.
The Waiting Dragon
Developments in the Indo Pacific region have global effect and will also directly impact Europe. China’s role—described by international relations analyst Dr Bobo Lo as “increasingly assertive, globalist and self-confident”, was also discussed during multiple sessions of the LMC. In the Visions of China panel, speakers from China’s neighbourhood discussed the security shifts in the Indo Pacific region and the complex picture created by different interests and priorities. Defence Minister of Singapore, Dr Ng Eng Hen pointed out that international rules are existential for small states if the natural laws of international relations—“big fish would eat small fish and small fish would eat shrimps”—are to be avoided. While Singapore tries to maintain relations with both global players in the region, Australia has made its security choices and paid for them in aggravating its trade relations with China. Dr Natasha Kassam, Director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy at Australia’s Lowy Institute, explained the serious deterioration of Australia-Chinese relations over the last eight years.
The war raging in the centre of Europe also has global effects and implications, from aggravating the nuclear threat, through unrest in Central Asia, to looming famine in the MENA and sub-Saharan regions. Further from Europe, however, views on the war are less clear cut. The Central Asian states are trying to balance on a razor’s edge to satisfy their own interests and those of China, Russia, the EU, Turkey and other actors. The collective West lives in a bubble and should recognise that the MENA countries perceive the West, especially the US, as an unreliable partner, partly to be blamed for the war. And it should take heed of the bitterness that sees it accused of double standards, unconditionally ready to help Ukrainian refugees, but indifferent to the atrocities in Syria. To discuss these questions, we were happy to host HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal, BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, Professor Aziz Burkhanov from Nazarbayev University, and Executive Director of the Centre for European Perspective Katja Geršak among our contributors.
Energy Solutions Without Russia
The war has also added a new security aspect to energy policy, forcing a rethink in Europe even as meeting the goals of the Green Deal and Paris agreements remain urgent. Nuclear energy is back on the table prompting strong emotions, but the need for new technologies and new solutions is evident. In the panel Beds Are Burning: Energy, Climate and Geopolitics Senior Adviser of Equinor Geir Westgaard explained the essence of the dramatic changes in Europe’s energy market: “The days where the West believed that mutual investments in energy would somehow promote peaceful coexistence with Russia, are behind us.” There will be no reverse. However, moving to low carbon energy will not come for free—there will be an impact on social spheres and public opinion. As editor-at-large of The Hill Steve Clemons pointed out that everybody wants to see green energy until reality bites. Then, “white nationalists in the US do not give a damn about Ukraine, they do not want to pay a high gas price.”
While trying to manage sky-rocketing energy prices, problems at its borders, and the biggest refugees flows since the Second World War, the West must also deal with the erosion of democracy. Many worried voices were heard throughout the conference, but people need hope and the fight for a better future cannot be dropped. As Dan Fried, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and seasoned civil servant stated in a special Lennart Meri Lecture: “Progress is possible but never beyond challenge … It is possible over time, on confidence that tyrants do not have the last word.” The titles of the sessions for this year’s LMC were inspired by pieces of music. Throughout the conference, participants offered many alternative songs and titles, adding a little fun and joy to an event held in uncertain and worrying times.
The Lennart Meri Conference
The International Centre for Defence and Security and the Lennart Meri European Foundation organise the annual LMC to acknowledge President Meri’s continuing legacy in foreign- and security-policy thinking. The conference aims to encourage curiosity and debate, highlight unity and diversity, and foster liberty and democracy. Each year since 2007 the LMC has brought around 500 distinguished policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel and thought leaders from around the globe to Tallinn.
Partners and supporters of LMC 2022 were the Estonian Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government Office, NATO Public Diplomacy Division, the National Endowment for Democracy, Swedbank, Jaan Tõnisson Postimees Foundation, Baltic-American Freedom Foundation, US Embassy in Estonia, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, City of Tallinn, European Commission Representation in Estonia, BLRT Group, Infortar AS, Saab, BAE Systems, Tallinn Airport, Møller Baltic Import SE, Hyundai and Iris Janvier. Elering contributed as an ICDS research partner.
In 2022 we will revert to our usual annual routine. The LMC 2023 will take place in Tallinn, on 12-14 May.