A Conversation With Jonatan Vseviov
06/01/2023
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A Conversation With Jonatan Vseviov

During her State of the Union address, Ursula von der Leyen said that “one of the lessons of this war is that we should have listened to those who know Putin”. She obviously meant Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, but she also meant Poland and the Baltic states. Why do you think these voices were not heard before the 24th of February?

That is a very difficult question for us to answer because we have lived next to Russia for as long as our states have existed. Obviously, as a very small country we have always been affected by Russia and the developments in Russian domestic and foreign policy. So it is natural that almost all of our attention is focused on Russia. Since the mid-2000s, we have seen an extremely problematic evolution of Putin himself and his entourage in the way they define Russia’s role in international and European security and in the way they pursue their objectives, which are at odds with everything we Europeans have tried to build since the end of the Second World War: a Europe based on a set of principles, the most important of which are national sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also the total unacceptability of aggression as an instrument of foreign policy.All of a sudden, we started seeing in the mid-2000s a Russia that is increasingly revanchist vis-à-vis international and European security. A Russia that wanted to reclaim a sphere of influence within which it would have total dominance over not just Ukraine and other countries in its immediate neighborhood, but also over a significant part of Europe.

Why is it that others who are further from Russia’s borders took longer to recognize this? 

Perhaps there are a multitude of reasons. Oftentimes people point to geography as the main reason. I think this has a role to play, but the most important thing is not the geographical proximity, but the temporal proximity to the horrors of the 20th century that characterized much of Eastern Europe. For many of our western European friends, the true horrors of international politics are multiple generations in the past. We remember it, but the memories are far away. Whereas for us, every person of at least 40-45 years age personally remembers a time when we had occupation and totalitarianism. It is this proximity to the horrors of international security that forces us to be more focused on security affairs and makes it harder for us to forget that international security —and international affairs in general— is a matter of extreme significance. 

It is very nice that the president of the European Commission said that. A lot of people have asked us whether that makes us feel any better. Emotionally, to a certain extent, yes. Unfortunately, that is not relevant today. What we have been saying since the early 2000s and the fact that nobody listened to us is not relevant today. What is relevant now is how we shape the present and the future, and we are very focused on the war right now.

What is at stake in this war?

Instead of being joyful that people recognize now that they should have listened to us last year, what we want is people listening to us now when we say that this is a pivotal war for European security, that this war will end and establish new norms of International and European Security, and that it is in Europe’s — not just Estonia’s   existential interests to ensure that it does not become the norm that under certain circumstances a big neighbor can change a smaller neighbor’s border with force. That it does not become the norm that a big country can decide whether a small country has a right to call itself a nation. That it does not become the norm that big countries divide up their immediate neighborhood into “spheres of influence”. 

Because if this were to become the norm, then it is not going to be just Ukraine that has a major problem, it is all of us Europeans. That is the message that we are spreading right now, and that is the message we need people to focus on and have a very serious continuous debate on what kind of methods and tools to use to best end this war with an outcome that discredits aggression as a tool of statecraft. That is the goal, that is the definition of victory. Short of achieving this, we will be in extremely troublesome times on the continent 

Beyond the defense of Ukraine, what are currently the main fronts that must be defended to prevent this aggression from contaminating the rest of Europe?

Everything is at stake in this war: each and every one of the core principles of European security have come under attack. They will either be strengthened as a result of this war, or they will be fundamentally weakened. The notions of territorial integrity, sovereignty, the unacceptability of aggression, the illegality of war crimes are being tested right now. Furthermore, our own identity as Europeans is being tested.

In your opinion, is a geopolitical Europe the best remedy?

We need a Europe that stands for an international order based on the most basic rules enshrined in the UN charter and basic documents covering human behavior on the international stage, amongst which is the illegality of aggression as a central piece. We are being tested, and we will be seen on the world stage through the lens of how we behave today in the context of this conflict. Western credibility is at stake, which depends not just on the things that we say, not just the things that we do, but primarily on the results that we get. The results matter. We might as well do the right things and say the right things, if we fail we fail.

The Russia that comes out of this war is going to be different from the Russia that went into this war. The same applies for the European Union, NATO, the transatlantic relationship, but also for Ukraine. 

Estonia is the biggest contributor of aid to Ukraine in terms of percentage of GDP. Do you think that Western and Central European countries should do more in terms of the aid they send to Ukraine? And if so, what should their priorities be?

All of us should be doing more, Estonia is doing its best. Every single day we analyze whether there is something that we could do more. The sentence that more should be done applies for as long as it takes to achieve the result that we want to achieve, which is the total discreditation of aggressions. That means the restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity, sovereignty and rebuilding Ukraine as a normal functioning state with its sovereignty fully intact. That is not only because we care about Ukraine as a country and as a participant in European affairs, but also because we firmly believe in these very principles already mentioned that are now being threatened by Russia.

The key areas that we should focus on are raising the cost of this aggression for the Russian regime — through sanctions, political isolation and other measures — so that Russia itself would realize that the path that they are on is a dead end, and that they need to change course. Secondly, we should be helping Ukraine in three key areas: humanitarian, economic and military assistance — especially now that Russia is systematically destroying Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. We need to do our best to provide for a more or less normal life for the Ukrainian people. We should be helping Ukraine monetarily with absolutely everything that is necessary for waging this sort of a large-scale conflict.

How far should this support go?

Estonia has given everything possible, and we do not believe that there are weapons systems that should be off limits because of their nature. Everything is necessary: air defense, artillery and missiles, but also tanks, armored vehicles, boots, clothes and rifles. We should also provide Ukraine with something that is harder to measure: hope. What the Russian Federation is doing militarily, through the systematic destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, is not just aimed at destroying the viability of Ukraine as a country, but also at destroying the hope for the return of a normal life for the Ukrainian people.If we are to be a geopolitical actor, we need to realize that hope is as important as any weapon system or any financial aid package. The Ukrainians need to be sure that we are fully on the side of their success. 

Obviously, achieving European Union member status or NATO member status —  which are two things that the Ukrainians are officially requesting — might take some time and might not be easy. But it is up to us, as Europe and as the political West, to make it clear through our actions and words to the Ukrainian government and people that, however difficult it may be, both doors are open. Both goals are achievable and have as much likelihood for success as they did years ago before this war started. Our task is to keep hope alive.

Finally, we should be focusing on the notion of accountability for the crimes committed: the war crimes but also the crime of aggression. This is important for our own identity because if we are a society based on the rule of law that stands for a rules-based world order, then there is no other way for us but to be true to the words that we speak. If we are to close our eyes, to ignore the fact that crimes are being committed, if we are to simply offer political statements, if we are to fail to uphold these principles that every crime merits an independent judiciary investigation, a trial, and eventually punishment if found guilty, then frankly we redefine ourselves. Not only in our own eyes, but also in the eyes of the world.

Just like with every other thing in this war, ensuring accountability for those responsible for crimes is not going to be easy. It is not an intellectually, legally or politically simple proposition. We are not arguing that it is simple. What we are arguing is that this proposal for accountability must be at the very heart of European foreign policy.  

Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and again in 2014 in Crimea, the international community had the opportunity to deter further Russian aggression. What do you think was missing at that time?

We have, as Europe — and as the political West — failed to stop Russian aggressions. We have failed to stop Russian aggressive policies vis-a-vis the European security system. But we have succeeded in many areas. Strategically, we have not been successful at deterring Russia’s expansions. One can draw a direct line from 2008 in Georgia, to 2014 in Crimea and then to 2022. One can obviously continue drawing this line if we were to fail this time as well. The difference is that, as opposed to previous years, all masks have now fallen. 

I think it is typical of democracies that we tend to take time to realize that action needs to be taken. It is always easier to postpone an action, especially when it is hard and demanding. But if history is any guide, then I think it is safe to assume that sooner or later, when democracies are pushed too far, we eventually react — and we react with force. I hope the time has come now, with the falling of the masks on February 24th, that sooner or later the democracies of the world will push back successfully. Considering the collective political, economic and military power of the democratic world, I have no doubt that we will prevail against Russia, the Putin regime, and the alternative model they present.

Do you think that Europeans are ready to go far enough?

The question is whether we want to prevail now, or whether we will allow this problem to grow bigger. It is already extremely costly at the moment, especially for the Ukrainian people. A country of 40 million people is suffering unimaginable pain. We, in Europe, are feeling the pain economically. Estonia now has more than 3% of its population that are Ukrainian refugees and we are suffering from inflation over 20%. It is very expensive, but who would have thought that the biggest war in Europe after the Second World War would be cheap? 

If we think that this is costly, all we need to do is wait to see it grow bigger, then we will see the real cost. 

Our advice to our European friends is: let’s pull together now, remain focused, and do everything we can, as soon as we can, to end it now and there, before we have to end it later and elsewhere. Sooner or later we will have to stop the policy of the Russian regime that is aimed at destroying European security. I think it would be wiser to end it sooner — we should have done it before.

What are the risks and benefits associated with these measures to discourage Russia’s ability to wage war?

All these measures relate to the first pillar of our policy, namely increasing the cost of this aggression. Since the early days, since before the war even, when Western leaders tried to deter Putin from initiating this war, they promised economic countermeasures unlike anything the world has ever seen. Some prominent viewers called it “ the mother of all sanctions”. Others have compared the response we would launch to sending the Russian economy back to the Middle Ages. War began, notwithstanding our efforts to deter it. We have moved in the right direction by sanctioning Russia’s economy, even if we have sometimes been frustratingly slow. We are frequently negotiating new sanctions packages not because we are constantly getting new ideas, but because in democracies it takes time to build consensus.

Intellectually, we could have done everything we have done up to now on February 25th, and in hindsight, we should have done it. We could have ended this conflict sooner. And since the early days it has been clear to us that if we are to seriously impose costs on Russia, then we need to address their energy exports and the revenues they get from it. We have been arguing for a total ban on Russian oil and gas from the beginning. We understand it is probably not doable because we need to build consensus step by step, so we are offering alternative ideas. For example, we tried to see if a system similar to what was done in the 1990s with Iraq would be feasible. We have been proposing multiple ideas because it is not only something that Europe can do, but we need other democracies to do the same.

If deterrence has failed, do you think these sanctions are still worthwhile?

Nobody argues with the idea that this would really hurt the Russian economy. I have yet to hear a single argument against it. What people have argued is that, by doing so, it would hurt us as well — to which we have always replied “yes, we know”. But the Russians will hurt us anyway. Even if we don’t want to realize it, the Russians think it’s a struggle against us, not just against the Ukrainians. Not militarily, but strategically, against us Europeans and the world view that we promote. So they are doing their best to change our political course and they are using pain, fear, and the trappings of false hope to do so. In the spring, when we were talking about sanctioning Russian gas, there was no consensus because people were afraid it would hurt them. What did the Russians do? They cut the gas off themselves. 

With the oil price cap, it was feared that setting it too low would disincentivize the Russians from selling oil on world markets, creating chaos that would push up prices and hurt our economies. Our argument was that the Russians are going to do everything in their power to hurt us through higher world oil prices. No matter where we put the cap, if we put it on at all, it might take them a while and they might not succeed, but this is what they want. The question is not whether it will be painful, but whether the measures that we initiate are successful and serious enough to change Russia’s war policy. 

What we are doing now is making sure that the price cap is implemented. We are dependent on Europe, but also the United Kingdom, the United States and other democracies. Secondly, we look forward to reviewing the oil price cap to bring it down, because our objective should be to reduce Russia’s revenues, and we will support any measure to do so. The sooner we do this, the better our chances of succeeding in ending this war and bringing a stable peace to Europe.

We have seen a shift in Russia’s energy exports from Europe and the G7 countries to mainly India and China. Is there anything that can be done to reduce these gas and oil flows?

We need to see how the implementation of the oil price cap actually goes. Hypothetically, the West has a lot of power in the global economy. For decades it has been fashionable to say that the world is changing, becoming multipolar, that other regions and countries are becoming more important… and this is all true. But when the democracies of the world manage to really cooperate, we remain the most powerful players in world politics. 

We can do unimaginable things, economically, politically and in other areas. Whether we will actually be able to implement our policies or not depends on a lot of things, on our own coordination, bureaucracies, competence and so on and so forth. So let us see how the implementation of the oil price cap goes.

What is required is absolute unity – not just in Europe – , absolute resolve and focus. Unity in of itself is not enough. We can have unity by sitting down doing nothing. We need to realize that ending this year with a result that maintains these core principles upon which we have built our security is not just one of the priorities in our foreign policy, but the top priority. If we are able to stay the course and go all the way, until aggression as a tool of statecraft is totally discredited, then we are able to do everything, not only with oil, but also with luxury goods, cars… everything. If not now, then when? If we are unable to do it vis-a-vis this aggression in Ukraine, then how are we, as the democratic world, going to survive the 21st century?

How can this be done without deviating from the underlying values and principles of European construction?

As Churchill said, when presented with a choice between dishonor and war, you may choose dishonor but you will get war. On the one hand, as Estonians, we are extremely optimistic. We tend to believe in the strength of the democratic world, perhaps more than many others, because we have seen totalitarian regimes collapse, we have seen freedom take over. We have gone from a country occupied by the Soviet Union to a member state of the European Union and NATO, from having no landline telephone in most apartments to the most digitally advanced nation in Europe. We therefore have immense confidence in our own abilities, and we are sometimes surprised that other observers, those who comment on this war in the international press, seem to be more afraid of the defeat of the aggressors than of our defeat and that of our fundamental principles. 

This is shocking and surprising because it alludes to a fundamentally flawed line of thinking that we can somehow lose all the fundamentals in Ukraine and somehow miraculously maintain all these things and our own identities elsewhere. The sanctity of borders, the illegality of annexation, the concept of sovereignty did not apply there, for whatever reasons.

Despite the current strong support among European citizens for aid to Ukraine, is there a risk of “war fatigue”?

I am very impressed, but not in any way surprised, by the way European citizens are reacting to this war. When the people of Europe saw the images from Bucha, the reaction was natural. We remember our own history, what these atrocities are like and what they can lead to. No other country is as fatigued as Ukraine. Obviously, fatigue is growing. It is growing everywhere, but also in Russia. If we are to believe that we can somehow put an end to this by abandoning basic European ideas of security and return to a good life as before, then we are clearly mistaken. We must end it in a way that maintains the European security order based on these fundamental principles. The sooner we end it with a victory for Ukraine, the sooner we can focus on economic prosperity again. I don’t think there is any other way.

It is impressive how the public opinion in Europe has reacted. The media’s role is crucial in this. Even though the images are awful, this is the reality of the 21st century in Europe. The purposeful targeting of civilians is not a byproduct of Russian military operations. For months now, the civilian population has been the main target. The way the media covers this, the words used need to be truthful and straightforward. In addition to all of this, leadership is important. We have made speeches as Europeans about the importance of strengthening Europe and Europe becoming a geopolitical player, but you don’t become a geopolitical player by talking about it, you have to behave like one. 

Zelinsky has proposed a 10-point peace plan with conditions. Since Putin does not seem to want to accept Ukraine’s request, how do you see the conflict ending? Under what conditions?

Putin has formulated his vision for the future of Europe, for future relations between Europe and Russia and for the future of Ukraine. He has formulated it repeatedly in his speeches and in strategic documents. What Russia wants is a total veto over the whole of Ukraine and a return to the days of European security affairs in the middle of the 20th century, when great powers had spheres of influence. The return to the pre-1997 era in NATO security affairs, for example, is synonymous with the demand for a gray area where Russia has its sphere of influence and de facto power over countries’ security policy decisions. Unfortunately, this vision is fundamentally at odds with everything we have tried to do in European affairs.

Putin’s goals are fundamentally at odds with everything that we have been trying to do, and everything that Ukraine has been trying to achieve. As I said earlier, this war will end with peace. But considering where Russia’s strategic goals are, and Ukraine’s strategic goal of remaining in existence — which is the most basic strategic goal a country can have —, the peace that comes after this war will either accept our understanding of what the core fundamentals principles of international affairs are, or it will accept Putin’s. One or the other. Then, there will be a role for diplomacy to play. 

How do you see the situation continuing on the Estonian side?

We believe that at the end of this war we will have to ensure Ukraine’s full territorial integrity and sovereignty, not just for the sake of Ukraine but for the sake of these ideas, for the sake of European security and then obviously, eventually, we will need to negotiate a new relationship with Russia. We need no reminders of the fact that Russia remains a neighbor of ours. We realize that, it’s a fact. We need to somehow manage the relationship, but it has to start from our perspective and from the premise that the cornerstone of everything that we do is the sanctity of these core principles of European security. Then, we need to deter Russia’s future aggression.

If Russia is willing and interested in cooperating with us, we Europeans must have the assurance that, unlike today, the future Russia will actually respect the commitments it voluntarily makes. Because currently they are violating all of them, with the possible exception of the production of strategic nuclear weapons. We, NATO, the European Union and Ukraine, are violating none of the core commitments that we have made. We haven’t invaded Russia and we haven’t violated the arms control agreements. When some of our Western allies decide to opt out of arms control treaties — like the Americans with the INF Treaty — they follow the procedures of the treaties and opt out. But we are not violating it. Assurances are needed, but it is Russia that needs to assure us, not the other way around.

What is the impact of the war on the prospects of European strategic autonomy?

This war is going to change everything because of the fundamental nature of the conflict and its magnitude. It will change Ukraine, Russia, but also the European Union, and I think we are already seeing the difference. In 10 months of this war, Europe gave fewer speeches about being a geopolitical actor and started to act as a geopolitical actor. I think that, slowly but surely— sometimes frustratingly so— we Europeans are learning to manage the power we have, and we are gaining confidence in it. We are also slowly realizing that when we see shortcomings in areas where we lack power, it is not enough to complain about it in speeches. What is needed is action. This is what we see today in Europe.

If this war ends well for the fundamental principles of the European security architecture, it will automatically end well for the idea of a strategic Europe. Then, our confidence will grow even more, and we will be able to act as a strategic player in world affairs and as a partner to other democracies. If we do not uphold the most basic of our own principles in Ukraine, we could at best make speeches that the whole world would laugh at. People will not be interested in the elegance of the speech, but in the results we achieve.

I am optimistic that once the war is over, Europeans will be more confident, more united and more comfortable with the power they have and how to fill the gaps in that power. This war is now teaching us that to improve ourselves in world affairs we have to make sacrifices and make our contribution. If we want to be serious about military matters, we must spend money on defense. We have to take positions and defend them, not only verbally but also, if necessary, through sanctions, through votes in the UN General Assembly, through lobbying the rest of the world in order to support our views. Nothing is easy. This is a real test of whether Europe can be a strategic player. It is about whether Europe can act as one in world affairs, in the interest of all Europeans and all Member States, not just those on the border with Russia, but all of us. We better succeed.

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