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LMC 2022

Evil is Real: Time to stand up

What words are there when a country launches an all-out attack on its neighbour? “Evil is real,” I posted on Twitter on the morning of 24 February. We must recognise the evil of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and be more courageous in our response.

Alar Karis

President of Estonia and Patron of the Lennart Meri Conference

From left: Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Latvian President Egils Levits and Estonian President Alar Karis meeting in Kyiv, 13 April 2022. AP/Scanpix

The peace that had reigned in Europe since the end of the Balkan wars seemed to many to be permanent. The prevailing mindset was that conflict between nations which in the 20th century would have culminated in war could now be resolved diplomatically. Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its overt support for separatists in Donbas were not enough to shake this faith in peace.

A murder admitted to in advance

Russia’s aggressive foreign policy certainly rattled those countries that feel Moscow’s chill breath on their necks. But in many capitals, the frayed nerves on the eastern edge of NATO and the EU were looked upon with a certain disdain. We were, they asserted, merely suffering from post-traumatic stress due to our history. More tactful, but no less dismissive, were the reassurances that central and eastern Europe had nothing to fear: there was no chance of Russia starting a war in Europe.

Those who said these things have been forced to admit that they were wrong and that we were right all along.

Some countries favoured positive engagement with Russia. They hoped that tying up a dangerous, neurotic partner with economic deals would result in mutual dependence and the partner losing all interest in going to war. This too was a mistake – as many of those who pursued it have now admitted.

There is no schadenfreude to be derived from this, at least for me. I feel only heavy-hearted. Nonplussed that even in Estonia in late 2021, the prevailing thought was that as much of a danger as Russia presented, it was very unlikely to launch a large-scale military attack in Europe. We did not want to believe that this irrational solution was possible.

My legal adviser, Hent Kalmo, one of Estonia’s foremost philosophers of law, wrote in the cultural weekly Sirp that, “In hindsight, the attack against Ukraine reads like the story of a murder admitted to in advance. Up until the very last moment, no one wanted to see it as anything other than a diplomatic manoeuvre, or to believe that the wheels of the Russian war machine were about to start rolling.”

In many capitals, the frayed nerves on the eastern edge of NATO and the EU were looked upon with a certain distain.

In many capitals, the frayed nerves on the eastern edge of NATO and the EU were looked upon with a certain distain.

Many of us failed to recognise this evil for what it was. It was simpler to believe that Russia would eventually come to some sort of agreement with the West. We hoped that international organisations would be able to maintain peace, but none of them – from the UN down – could prevent this conflict.

We found it hard to comprehend that Russia would choose geopolitical isolation and act, as Tsar Alexander III once said, as though its only allies were its army and its navy.

And when Russia did launch its brazen war of conquest against Ukraine, intent on destroying the nation, we announced that … we would not get involved. We would give Ukraine weapons, yes; we would pile political and economic sanctions on Russia, yes; but the West would not intervene on Ukrainian soil.

I think that was a mistake. It reassured Russia that the war would remain a matter between Moscow and Kyiv.

Averting further catastrophe

One idea that I have written about bears repeating. The time has come for us to get over our fear of thinking outside the box. Russia is blockading Ukrainian ports, including grain vessels. World Bank president David Malpass has warned that the war will exacerbate the food crisis in many poorer countries, with record rises in food prices – as much as 37% – leaving hundreds of millions of people below the bread line. “This is a human catastrophe,” he said, “which will soon become a political challenge for governments.”

As Western allies, we must not be afraid to debate whether and how, in the spirit and letter of the UN Charter and if invited to do so by the Ukrainian government, we could act to keep the port of Odesa open to Ukrainian grain vessels. The Ukrainians say that their silos already hold 20 million tonnes of grain, likely to rise to 50 million tonnes after this year’s harvest. This is too large an amount to be delivered to the global market by railway. Selling it would both earn Ukraine the money it needs to keep running, and help to alleviate the food shortage casting a shadow over poorer countries. The West should assert itself on the Black Sea and guarantee the safe passage of commercial vessels. This would be a true humanitarian mission, particularly for countries in Africa.

When Russia launched its brazen war of conquest against Ukraine, intent on destroying the nation, we announced that … we would not get involved.

Certainly, reaching such an agreement would be very difficult, requiring political will and courage on the part of many countries, including Turkey, which would have to allow warships to escort grain vessels through its straits into the Black Sea. But I harbour hopes – much as they may be dashed – that Russia would not dare to attack Western ships protecting grain vessels in Ukrainian territorial waters.

We must do more

I recently asked one of Estonia’s most astute ambassadors what he thought this war has taught us. “Diplomacy without strength does not prevent war,” he said. “Nor does mutual economic dependence when you are dealing with an authoritarian regime. What is needed is the physical presence and deterrence of a united NATO.”

No doubt all of us have felt powerless in the face of the images emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Governments have been pressed to explain why they are not doing more to stop the aggressor.

And that is what we must do: more. We must provide Ukraine with more, and more effective, weaponry so that it is better able to defend itself. We must impose on Russia more targeted and more powerful sanctions. We must help to document war crimes, because there are faces and names behind every manifestation of evil – those who commit them, and those who order them to be committed. We must enter Ukraine on humanitarian missions, like safeguarding grain vessels or clearing mines.

We must be resourceful. We must be determined. We must be courageous. And we must not allow ourselves to tire of, or become resigned to, this war.

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