Jüri Luik: Russia-West relations like a dialogue between a deaf and a mute

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Jüri Luik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

My conversation with Jüri Luik takes place at a time when over 100,000 Russian troops are waiting on the border with Ukraine and the West is trying to figure out what it is they are waiting for. Luik – former defense and foreign affairs ministers, ambassador, now deputy chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee – talks about why President Putin acts they way he does and steps democracies can take to counter him.

Russia has moved nearly 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border and the Crimean Peninsula. Have you considered that figure being 40 times the number of active servicemen in Estonia?

I have not in those exact terms as it is hardly a secret Russia has more troops than Estonia. What matters is their level of preparedness, which is very high.

Having 150,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine… Quite scary.

A very grim situation. The Americans put it well in the words of Pentagon press representative John Kirby who said that it is difficult to imagine such forces being there for a training exercise as it would raise the question of what is being practiced. If that scenario is "Ukrainian invasion," launching a full-scale attack would only require a single step.

I'm saddened because our neighbor Russia is the largest country in the world (by land area) and one would think they have enough land and people… It is a great shame they are sabre rattling instead of addressing major domestic problems.

EU High Representative Josep Borrell described it as the "largest convergence of Russian troops near Ukraine's borders" in history. Is foreign policy, when exercised through military force, subject to the principle of Chekhov's Gun where if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off?

Not necessarily. We do not know what Russia sees as the potential outcome of this crisis. It might not be a military solution. Perhaps Russia is looking for greater influence over Ukraine – a "Minsk-3" agreement that would be more favorable for Russia than "Minsk-1" or "Minsk-2."

Therefore, while military action is likely, it might not come to that. A lot will depend on the international reaction based on which the Kremlin will consider which scenarios are feasible.

You presented President Vladimir Putin with your credentials as Estonian ambassador eight years ago. You looked Putin in the eye. Did you – like former U.S. President Georgie W. Bush – see his soul?

(Smiles) Our meeting was very brief. Matters of the soul were not discussed…

President Putin, as he has often done at other meetings, took the chance to demonstrate his Estonian and say, "Tere-tere, vana kere!" (a funny way of greeting someone in Estonian – ed.) to me. He probably remembered the phrase from his days as deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg.

Other than that, we discussed Estonia-Russia relations in a positive and constructive key. Of course, the situation was much calmer than it is now when I went to Moscow.

Do you understand what Putin is after when he amasses troops on the Ukrainian border?

I'm not sure he knows…

Is it a reaction aimed against the West that he accuses of wanting to topple himself and his regime? Putin is convinced that the West wants a new regime in Russia and that everything that is happening has to do with that.

Would the West be willing to coexist with Putin's regime were it able to understand it and if the former behaved differently?

Definitely. We are looking for ways to get along with other countries. But it is clear that acts of aggression against one's people and neighbors make that impossible.

What is driving Putin? Firstly, it is the situation at home as foreign policy is a continuance of domestic policy for Russia. I consider Putin's decision to pass a new constitution and a law that guarantees him lifelong presidency to be a sign of weakness. A confident person would not do these things.

At the same time, it is important for him to demonstrate military might, mobilize his people and try to crawl back his weakening support.

The question is whether the Kremlin has decided on a potential culmination for these processes, as suggested by Secretary General of the Estonian Ministry of Defense Jonatan Vseviov. Where could these tensions end up in Russia's eyes or are we seeing improvisation?

Russian foreign policy is very interesting… There is talk of Putin being an opportunist, successfully using the West's weaknesses to his own benefit. I believe that Putin and Russian foreign policy are the most dangerous when they are prepared, not improvising.

What is clear today is that assembling so many units in one place must follow a plan. Putting together such specific units, starting with landing craft coming from the Caspian Sea down the River Volga, attack aircraft, bombers etc. – it cannot be done based on emotion… There has to be a plan.

I'm convinced Russia had a very good plan for the occupation of Crimea [in the spring of 2014] that was created back during the days of Viktor Yushchenko (president of Ukraine in 2005-2010 – ed.) when he said Russian troops were to leave Ukraine. A serious plan [for conquering Crimea] was laid down back then.

Improvisation, imperial excitement seemed to follow in Eastern Ukraine as the successful Crimean operation made Russia feel like it could go all the way to the Dnepr. Let us recall that Putin wanted to annex the whole of Eastern Ukraine or Novorossiya.

Putin gave an interview to the Financial Times in July 2019 where he said that risks need to be calculated and taking foolish risks without realizing the consequences is unthinkable. What is Putin risking today?

Every country, including Russia – that is not North Korea – needs an international network to exist. The economy is global as are finances and technology these days. Russia does not have all the necessary technological elements for drilling operations.

He is risking weakening the country's economy and through it his own regime.

I believe Moscow is most afraid of so-called sectoral sanctions that would and have already hit its gas and oil industry and financial sector. Recent sanctions from USA that follow a comprehensive cyberattack by Russia prohibit U.S. banks from trading bonds issued in rubles. Bonds issued by the Russian central bank and finance ministry. It serves as another hindrance for the Russian economy, as does the fact that both the EU and USA have all but stopped oil and gas drilling cooperation with Russia.

If we consider the climatic conditions of drilling in the Arctic Ocean – very difficult conditions. It is said that Russia has depleted its easily accessible oil and gas reserves and now needs to drill in the permafrost, under the Arctic Ocean in a situation where only the Europeans and Americans have that technology. Sanctions saw international oil companies pack up their drills and leave Russia.

Toomas Sildami intervjuu Jüri Luigega Autor/allikas: Priit Mürk/ERR

You've said that the Kremlin's anti-Western sentiment is based on this idea that Russia is surrounded by enemies that wish it harm. In truth, many Western countries would be more than glad to smile if only Moscow gave them reason to.

I'm sure. But we need to keep in mind that Putin's regime is largely based on anti-Western sentiment where Russia is portrayed as a fortress defended by a great commander.

Becoming constructive in its relations with the West or undertaking domestic reforms, finding common ground with democratic forces would improve relations – there is absolutely no doubt.

But I believe that Gorbachev's legacy matters to Putin – he saw that even modest democratic reforms or pro-West sentiment can weaken the regime at home, while it completely brought it down in the case of Gorbachev [in 1991].

Vladimir Putin has likely chosen difficult relations with the West over his regime wavering.

As concerns its poor relationship with the West, it is possible the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border is a way to test the resolve of the new U.S. administration.

What would serve as the best foundation for relations with Russia as we see it today – dialogue, ignoring it or deterrence?

All three. But resolve above all.

NATO members care about Article Five, that it remains in effect and credible. It is not just a matter of political declarations but trainings, development of defense forces… It matters a great deal to Estonia as a NATO ally.

What matters in the EU context is that the union can react to all manner of aggressive steps aimed against the West quite flexibly and decisively. It is clear that no one will be going to war, but all manner of economic measures sanctions, including aforementioned sectoral sanctions – they are quite effective.

Such sanctions definitely help deterrence and containment. Putin's Novorossiya project failed and they couldn't even take all of Donetsk and Luhansk.

As concerns dialogue, diplomatic relations are a part of how things are done in normal countries. We must remain open to dialogue as it always pays to know where the Russians stand on various things.

However, reaching any kind of agreement is very complicated today.

"We need to talk to each other," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, admitting there are still plenty of conflicts between Russia and the West. The topics and keys in which Russia and the West would be talking are very different.

A dialogue between a deaf and a mute. (Smiles) There have been attempts at that dialogue – most recently EU High Representative Josep Borrell's famous Moscow visit…

… that was very dramatic.

It was indeed. It proceeded on this presumption that it is possible to simply discuss matters with Russia in the diplomatic dimension – keep discussing things until there is some convergence.

However, Russia sees every round of negotiations as having winners and losers.

Many have criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for proposing to meet with Putin to discuss matters. Critics are saying it made Biden look weak. What do you say?

One can always meet. Presidents meet with one another all the time, and our president has also met with her Russian counterpart.

The problem is that it has remained unclear how it could help solve the question of the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border. It would be sensible to wait for Russia to take some steps that would either lead to the conflict being resolved or at least demonstrate that Russia is serious about wanting to resolve it.

Simply meeting will look like something Putin has earned by stationing troops.

Analyst for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) Edward Lucas had described it as a clever move by Biden, as refusing to meet would emphasize Putin's irrelevancy, while agreeing to meet with the U.S. president immediately following new sanctions would come off weak. Is your train of thought more straightforward?

Russian foreign policy is inert, a blunt instrument. It was described by Henry Kissinger who had a lot of dealings with the Russians when he served as secretary of state and national security adviser to presidents Nixon and Ford.

Russia has a clear goal and is usually not bothered by diplomatic maneuvering around it. They keep their eye fixed on the ball, as the Americans would put it. However, things are different if sparking a dialogue with USA was the goal all along.

There will be no war in that case?

Yes, while I cannot realistically imagine this massive operation serving no other purpose than sending the Americans a signal. Therefore, I remain skeptical in terms of that being the main reason for the troop buildup.

There are several reasons some of which are psychological.

One aspect that is not often discussed but remains very important is that the Russians do not regard Ukraine a serious country. Putin said back in Bucharest [at the 2008 NATO summit] that Ukraine is put together of the pieces of several empires.

He has maintained this philosophy for a long time, doing it more or less publicly at different times. The entire Novorossiya project hinges on it. In other words, that if we, the Russians, do not get what we want, we can destroy Ukraine's fragile statehood. Russia's former deputy prime minister [current deputy head of the administration in charge of the so-called Ukraine question in Crimea] Dmitri Kozak said as much recently when he suggested Ukrainian statehood might be jeopardized by the country taking certain steps. A very sharp statement indeed by a Russian official.

Jüri Luik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The reality is that if Putin decides to wage war, there will be war?

If Putin decides to go to war, there will be war. It is clear there is no one who can stop him.

Many support sanctioning oligarchs that could be done as a way of warning Russia, while I would not put too much faith in it. We are not dealing with wealthy people who have influence on Putin. They are people holding Russia's money that Putin has given to them. It is utterly unlikely to imagine they will ever get angry and tell Putin he has crossed the line.

Sanctions need to be carefully considered in terms of what they might produce and their realistic effect on Russia. I believe sectoral sanctions to be the most effective.

Were the West to say it will stop buying oil and gas from Russia – that would be strongest of all?

It would be… a very strong move. Definitely one that would affect the Kremlin's conduct.

It is another matter whether the West is prepared to take such a step. It does not seem to be the case today. Germany is not prepared to drop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project in which case we are talking merely about a pipeline and not gas itself.

Such a dramatic step could only be taken under extraordinary circumstances; for example, in the case of a conflict between NATO and Russia. No one has even threatened anything of the sort today.

What should Brussels tell Kiev should Ukraine ask for a NATO membership action plan (MAP)?

Different countries have difference stances.

What should be Estonia's position?

I have no doubt Estonia would support giving Ukraine a MAP.

The worst thing would be the alliance falling out as a result of this matter. That would mean that a) Ukraine would be denied a MAP and b) the alliance would demonstrate being split, in other words, weakened support for Ukraine.

Diplomatically, it is very important to gauge what the West could realistically do versus the things arguing over which would create unnecessary tension.

Ukraine will not be able to secure a NATO accession roadmap?

It will be difficult at the least. But never say never in diplomacy. Therefore, we cannot rule out that consensus regarding a MAP will be found as one possible deterrent. But it does not exist today.

There are agreements between Ukraine and NATO that allow the country to pursue active cooperation with the alliance. There are many different levels – political, technical, military… Real support is what matters. Ukraine needs ever more extensive weapons aid. The Americans have done these things well…

Turkey is selling Ukraine battle drones.

Yes. We need to ask the Ukrainians what they need.

It is entirely possible that ramping up sectoral sanctions is necessary to ward of the threat of aggression. A lot can still be done and we have by no means reached the height of sanctions.

The EU is not prepared to lay down new sanctions for the troop buildup today. What about explosions in a Czech munitions warehouse that saw the involvement of Russian military intelligence? Czechia is one of us after all.

I believe that sanctions should be laid down both because of the troop buildup and because Russian military intelligence agents blew up a Czech munitions warehouse killing two innocent people.

There is no doubt in my mind that the EU should act more decisively. It is very dangerous to allow such things to simply fade away without reaction.

The Czech Republic is asking EU and NATO countries to expel Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover. How should Estonia react?

I would leave this up to the government.

Putin told the Financial Times with passion two years ago – the interview took place in the Kremlin and lasted until 1 a.m. – how the liberal idea will lose its dominion and dictate in the West… Perhaps those words hold the key, or at least one of the keys, as to why Putin is doing what he is doing?

Putin is one of many heads of state to have advertised the idea of closed nationalism. There are such politicians in the West, Donald Trump shared many of these ideas. Of course, I would refrain from comparing the two as Putin represents an undemocratic and imperialistic state and is using his powers for aggression at home and abroad. Just as there was a conflict between the camps of market economy and communism during the Cold War, an ideology to counter political liberalism has now been created and is being vocally promoted by Putin but also the leaders of China.

A new mental front line has been created. It is sometimes suggested that while there was an ideological conflict and debate during the Cold War, it is everyone for themselves today. That is not strictly the case. We have a number of countries, most of them authoritarian dictatorships, talking about the death of liberalism and the need to find the best possible – for them undemocratic – way of governing to strengthen their own regimes.

Are we seeing a continuation of the Primakov Doctrine according to which Russia should not be a pro-West European country but rather a Eurasian country looking east?

Yes, even though Russia's close partnership with China is above all political and ideological. What needs to be kept in mind is that the two countries are in two completely different leagues. China is today an economic colossus that does not need Russia as its ally. China is militarily strong and politically independent enough not to need an ally they would have to consult on every little detail.

While China and Russia might vote similarly in the UN Security Council when defending their illiberal world order, there will not be allied relations such as between NATO members for the two countries.

The Chinese have never recognized the occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The relationship is far from what Russia possibly wants it to be.

That said, Russia has enough people, especially military and security policy experts, who know that while China is a friend today, it could be a very effective, very strong opponent tomorrow, considering its geographic location, military power and population.

Seven Isamaa MPs recently asked Prime Minister Kaja Kallas whether Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets' recent signals according to which Estonia should move forward with ratifying its border agreement with Russia constitute her personal initiative or whether it is the official policy of the government. Neither you nor former Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu are among them. Why is that?

My stance on the border agreement is different. I was involved in drafting the currently unratified border treaty, direct negotiations when I was still serving as ambassador to Moscow. Personally, I believe it is important to ratify the agreement, even though it is difficult to see Russia agreeing to it either in the short or long perspective.

But I firmly believe that Russia and Estonia need a mutually approved and agreed boundary line that is clearly marked and can only work to strengthen Estonian security.

/…/

Are you bored in politics today?

No, I cannot say that. Politics is actually quite exciting.

It is clear that domestic policy is different from foreign policy or international activity. But it is exciting in other ways. Because it has been a very long time since I was last an MP during what has been a long political career… It is very nice to be able to see how the parliament operates.

I believe that the picture the media paints about the parliament is inaccurate.

Perhaps there is inability to explain how it all works, but looking only at the bills we discuss, questions, comments, procedural steps – it is very serious work. You are a frequent visitor to the parliament and I'm sure you have seen that it is not all horse trading. We are addressing honest and important matters.

/…/

Are you not tempted to return to diplomacy or foreign relations?

Everything I have done in life has been interesting… Both foreign and domestic policy are exciting in the Riigikogu.

Jüri Luik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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