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LMC 2023

New Emerging Security Reality

The 16th Lennart Meri Conference (LMC), entitled “Incipit Vita Nova – So Begins New Life”, took place in the Radisson Collection hotel in Tallinn, Estonia, 12-14 May 2023. Centred around the local and global impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the security architecture and on international relations, the conference discussed the new emerging security reality.

It featured three days packed with insights from distinguished policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel, and academics who gathered in Tallinn from around the globe. The western perception of the war in Ukraine as Russia’s imperialistic aggression against a former colony is not necessarily shared worldwide. The dividing lines between the democratic west and the global south became sharply visible after the start of Russia’s full-scale military aggression. In the global south, the west is often accused of hypocrisy, of being unsympathetic to the food and energy security challenges of others, and of controlling a disproportionate share of global wealth. The panel, I Dwell in Possibility: Global perspectives after the War, agreed on the urgent need to tackle this problem and to gain better mutual understanding. Monica Juma, National Security Adviser to the President of Kenya, said: “It is a big issue about framing. We need to look [at our relations] in a more nuanced and sophisticated way.”

This issue was also the main theme of Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Fiona Hill’s Lennart Meri Lecture, a special honour as the only keynote speech of the conference. The LMC team was especially proud to have Dr Hill on the stage as a female Lennart Meri Lecturer after more than 10 years. In her speech, she stressed that building a new type of relations should start with attentive listening to partners and interlocutors, something that the US and its allies have often missed. “We must push back,” said Dr Hill, “against Putin’s disinformation and anti-US and NATO narratives. The United States and Europe will have to engage the rest of the world in an honest conversation about the stakes of this war and actively listen to their feedback and concerns on specific issues.”

The war in Europe is creating a conceptually new security situation. This year’s LMC paid greater attention to ‘hard’ security topics and included more high-ranking military personnel among its speakers and audience. From the opening panel of the conference until the last, the conference addressed the democratic west’s options, and their consequences, in the light of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius.

In the opening panel, Incipit Vita Nova – So Begins New Life, Timothy Garton Ash observed that the period of post-war illusion—the view that everything can be solved by negotiations and economic interdependence—ended in February 2022 and that now, “defeat would be the best thing that could happen to Russia”. The three Baltic Prime ministers (Krišjanis Karinš, Ingrida Šimonyte, and Kaja Kallas) sent a strong, unified message about the need to accept the new security realities and to rapidly integrate Ukraine into European and NATO structures.

In the closing panel, A Time to Build: Principles for a New Security Architecture, Ambassador of Germany to Poland Thomas Bagger referred to Germany’s inability to believe, that a war could begin because it would be suicidal for Russia’s business model: “And it was, and yet it happened. Our own imagination failed us,” he said. The shock converted into Germany’s “zeitenwende”, marking not only a change in policies, but also a major mental shift in understanding that for foreseeable future European security should be organised against Russia, and no longer with Russia. NATO’s SACEUR General Christopher Cavoli stated that the future of the Alliance and its commitment as guarantor of peace and stability for its allies will continue to be of vital importance both in the political and military senses, noting that, “It is our duty to be prepared to defend the whole Alliance”.

NATO’s stance on Ukraine featured in several heated debates throughout the conference. The prevailing perception of Ukraine is as a member of the European and transatlantic family, but the NATO summit in Vilnius in July will be a critical test of whether the lessons of NATO’s Bucharest summit have been learnt. Although support to Ukraine seems to be unwavering, as observed by the US ambassador to Estonia George P Kent in the panel, Ukraine: What We Live For, What We Die For, there remains, as Eliot A Cohen, professor at Johns Hopkins University stated in the panel, They Rise or Sink Together: NATO on the Road to Vilnius, a danger that Russia will succeed in wearing the west out. Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies, explained his country’s stance in the Ukraine panel: “We want peace more than anyone else in this room, but we need to be very realistic and understand what brings peace.” He made clear that this it is not negotiations and softness with Putin.

The LMC has been well known for its Russian expertise. The need to understand the undercurrents in Russian society and its modus operandi in an era of mid- to long-term confrontation is more important than ever. The conference considered to what extent current Russian opinion polls should be trusted, and the roles of emigration and investigative journalism in exile. Inside Russia, the differences between big cities, provinces and rural areas are deepening. Under repressive conditions, Russian civil society is either non-existent or is in survival mode, resistance is muted, and loyalty to Putin prevailing. The current situation has deep historical roots and follows the logic of a falling empire. Thirty years ago, it was premature to celebrate the bloodless and peaceful fall of the Russian empire, but today we are seeing the revisionist and bloody aftermath. As Mary Elise Sarotte (professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS) said in the panel, What’s Past is Prologue: The West and Russia, Putin is obsessed with history and his attack on Ukraine on the 30th anniversary of its independence was not coincidental, but the “deadly anniversary of divorce”.

The conference featured global perspectives on Russia’s changing role in the international arena and its ever-growing dependence on China from Africa to the Middle East. The special pre-event, All Men Dream, But Not Equally: Prospects for the Middle East, heard about perceptions of Russia, the US and China from the region. It was clear that colonial pasts play an important role in today’s international dynamics. Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Arab News, explained that China’s involvement carries no negative connotations in the MENA region, and its successful role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran has improved its image even further. This is, for the US, a rather worrisome development. Seth Jones (senior vice president and director of the international security program at CSIS) stated that although the Middle East is not the centre of attention while the US is focused on China and the war in Europe, the issue of Israel as well as China’s role in the Middle East remain serious concerns for America, while the role and capacity of Russia to be a credible actor in the region seems to be overestimated. China’s influence was further discussed in the panel, A Sea of Troubles: The Indo-Pacific Region. Acknowledging that the war in Ukraine has direct implications for China-Taiwan dynamics, the panel weighed possible ways to improve regional security. Akiko Fukushima, senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy research, explained the new logic of multilateralism. The principal difference between Russia’s and China’s stance on the international order was excellently characterised by Bobo Lo, independent international relations analyst: “Russia benefits from anarchy and disorder, China wants to modify the order and rules, and in a revisional way, to play within the borders.” President Lennart Meri once said that politics is a factory producing the future. During the conference, in intense discussions and heated debates, in open sessions, side events and Chatham House rule panels, and closed-door meetings in the margins, at least some of the fabrics of future politics were woven. The speakers, moderators, and participants all played a significant role in this process. Continuing this process and tightening the ties and relations in the LMC community remain key priorities for the LMC team.

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.

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Partners and supporters of LMC 2023 were the Estonian Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government Office, NATO Public Diplomacy Division, the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Foundation, Swedbank, Jaan Tõnisson Postimees Foundation, Baltic-American Freedom Foundation, the US Embassy in Estonia, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the City of Tallinn, European Commission Representation in Estonia, BLRT Group, Infortar, Milrem Robotics, Tallinn Airport, Hyundai Estonia, Iris Janvier and Tohi Distillery. The research partner for the event is Elering.