Maasikas: West underrated Ukraine's importance to Russia's imperial thought
EU ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine Matti Maasikas said a slew of very smart analysts were gravely mistaken ahead of the war in Ukraine when they believed Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn't cross over into outright war. This proved the West underestimated Ukraine's importance to Russia's imperial thinking.
ERR: Let's start by asking where are you personally right now?
Matti Maasikas: I am in Chisinau, Moldova. I left Kyiv together with the last of the EU delegation employees on the second day of the war, and will be moving from here to southeastern Poland, where I will set up an outpost and help people at the border. And be able to cross over the border to the Ukrainian side from there.
ERR: What is the latest info you have on what the current situation in Ukraine is like?
Maasikas: In war, the situation is constantly changing, and this is a recorded interview. But what can be said is that the Russians' first plan failed — they didn't manage to quickly capture Kyiv. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky himself and the [Ukrainian] government failed to be neutralized. That doesn't mean that the Russians won't try again. Right now they're regrouping, and the coming days are still of absolutely critical importance.
ERR: How bad was the situation in Kyiv when you left there?
Maasikas: You could hear explosions in Kyiv. It was known that two nights in a row, the Russians tried to take over two different airports near Kyiv in order to land air assault troops there and then capture Kyiv with an air assault operation. The Ukrainians successfully defended both airports.
When we left Kyiv, you could hear light explosions here and there, but I didn't see outright action. What we did see on the road was how quickly Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces had mobilized: there were barricades being guarded by armed people. The Ukrainians' commitment to defense is absolutely incredible!
ERR: What have you as ambassador to the EU been dealing with there for the past nearly week — just under a week, actually?
Maasikas: The first priority is of course to take care of my people, as with any leader. To ensure that my Ukrainian colleagues are in as safe of conditions as possible. To help those who want to leave Ukraine do so.
As usual for an ambassador sent to another country, I'm reporting information to my headquarters in Brussels. I am helping shape the policy that the EU has adopted regarding Ukraine and Russia. And all of the EU's aid to Ukraine is qualified as humanitarian aid. So it can specifically help people who are in trouble right now. This is taking up most of our time — what this will look like in real life, how we can quickly get humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
ERR: How difficult has it been to do any convincing in Brussels?
Maasikas: Not at all. Not at all. Sometimes people think that Brussels, and the EU, are terribly slow and cumbersome, and when we implemented the first round of sanctions against Russia in 2014, then I took part in those discussions as Estonia's representative, and we argued for weeks. Now the first sanctions package was drawn up a week ago; it was done in two days. And the next packages over the weekend are being done in hours. So it is clear to everyone what the situation is.
European Council President Charles Michel has been talking about how Ukraine is defending its democracy and, with it, European democracy. [European] Commission President [Ursula] von der Leyen is saying that Ukraine is our family. And High Representative [of the EU] for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is saying that the EU, a peace project, is donating €450 million worth of deadly weapons to Ukraine. Right now, we don't need to convince anyone in Brussels or Europe anymore.
ERR: What does Ukraine need? What does it need from Estonia, Europe, everyone?
Maasikas: Weapons. It needs humanitarian aid, it needs fuel, and it may or may not need resolute steps against the aggressor, against Russia. Ukraine has received and will continue to receive all of these. Look at these sanction packages that were draw up over the weekend. Placing sanctions on Russia's central bank is an absolutely extraordinary step, and this is having a very strong impact.
By the time this goes live, I believe that [Russia] will have already been kicked out of SWIFT, and this is a good thing to stress. Closing or keeping open one's airspace is within each member state's own jurisdiction; that's not something that can be decided in Brussels. On Sunday, all EU member states closed their airspace to Russian planes, one after another. That's the mood right now. Democratic governments are also seeing what the people's mood is right now. All of these steps are being taken and being taken incredibly quickly.
Ukraine of course also needs hospitality and understanding regarding those people who have currently fled the war in Ukraine. According to yesterday's UN data, that figure was somewhere around 420,000. There will be more. Wait times at border checkpoints are ranging from 15-60 hours right now. People are coming and coming and this hospitality is highly anticipated.
ERR: Will these steps taken by Europe, by the entire world and by Ukraine itself stop the aggressor?
Maasikas: We'll see. Imposing sanctions on Russia's central bank will no doubt severely restrict Russia as the aggressor state's opportunities to finance this war and its own activities.
ERR: Speaking a little more broadly, looking at the big picture and trying to think several steps ahead, what is the best possible outcome with this war in Ukraine ending?
Maasikas: Let's not speculate. Likely the only answer I can give you is that the aggressor will be driven off. And more. That some steps from 2014 will be reversed. But let's not speculate.
ERR: But considering that Putin has already been brandishing nuclear deterrence, how big is the threat that this situation will spin out of control in the sense that we end up with a large-scale war?
Maasikas: A slew of very smart analysts were gravely mistaken as preparations were underway for this war. They said that Putin wouldn't actually cross over into outright war. They said that Ukraine isn't actually significant enough to Putin, that he wants to sit down with the Americans and get recognition and some kind of concessions.
And that is a fundamental mistake that the West has been making for 20 years already. They hear something, see something that Putin does. The things that he does are very public. The article he published last summer about Ukrainians and Russians. It's very easy to pick up on the threat there. But they still think that it isn't actually in his interests. It isn't in Russia's interests as we see it. But this kind of analysis underestimates Ukraine's importance to Russian imperial thinking. All of this that is going on right now is because of Ukraine, and not because of some kind of global policy. Two days after Ukraine declared its independence on August 24, 1991, Yeltsin's people and Gorbachev's people flew into Kyiv on a plane to persuade the Ukrainians to recant. Ukraine is that important to Russian imperial thinking.
ERR: On the subject of Putin's potential downfall, who is the one who can actually finally oust him from power?
Maasikas: I am not a Russian policy specialist; I am not a Kremlinologist. I don't want to speculate about this.
ERR: But how big of a threat does Estonia face that Putin will somehow punish Estonia for participating in a coalition against him?
Maasikas: That is a question for the Estonian agencies that are constantly monitoring and analyzing the situation. Putin's current focus is on the war with Ukraine.
ERR: And based on current info, Putin underestimated Ukraine's strength, thinking that the West is very weak?
Maasikas: Yes, that does indeed seem to be the case. The Ukrainians' commitment to resistance is incredible. The Ukrainian army has been preparing for this for eight years. The fact that Russia has failed to achieve its objectives within the first few days can no doubt be chalked up primarily to the will to defend of the Ukrainian army but also of the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian political leadership.
Another thing. We have seen how these Russian troops have been brought in near Ukraine's borders since the beginning of November. This means that many of these troops have been in outdoor conditions for months already; this wears on a soldier. This isn't easy, and many equipment-related issues are a mess as well. This has also now helped Ukrainians fend off attacks.
The West's unity is completely unbelievable — how Europe and its member states, NATO — how all its allies, the G7 have mobilized with absolute unity.
ERR: Let's talk about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before he was the current crisis leader Zelenky, you had worked together with him previously. What kind of person is he, that he got into politics as a comedian? What is he actually like?
Maasikas: As much as I have seen him, and as much as I as a diplomat have followed him as a state leader, he is open. He is, if it can be said — because power can change someone, as we know — still a fairly normal person. For example, when I have meetings with him or we ambassadors sometimes have dinner with him, then he lets his advisers speak as well; it's not a case of only I will shine here.
He is also prepared to answer somewhat unpleasant questions, and knows the details of quite a lot of things. I can't say that he has any sort of distinctive political ideology. But he has pushed through several big things, big reforms, that are very unpopular. For example permitting the sale of agricultural land. There was no international obligation, no IMF or EU obligation to do so. He just did it because it seemed to him to be the right thing to do, and he pushed it through.
Now he has quickly risen up as a strong wartime leader, with his personal bravery in remaining in Kyiv. He is posting videos from there where he is showing that he is in Kyiv, that they are working, that they are resisting. He is talking to dozens of foreign leaders every day. Many people, civic activists who were previously very skeptical, are now posting on Twitter, saying, "This is my leader — dear Volodymyr Zelensky" and so on.
ERR: Why did this happen, or how did he nail this in responding to this war?
Maasikas: By radiating self-confidence. He's saying we will fight back, we will win, I'm not leaving Kyiv, although there was a lot of talk about just how much danger he is in. He himself has said that he is Vladimir Putin's Target Number One.
There is reason to believe that the neutralization of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian president by any means has been the Russians' goal, and this has not been achieved.
ERR: But does it make any difference whether the president were him or someone else — would Enemy Number One still be the president of Ukraine?
Maasikas: Undoubtedly. This is seriously a battle of life and death.
Many people who voted for Zelensky for other reasons still somehow believed that his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was somehow more believable as commander in chief. But would you look at that, Zelensky has now risen to the occasion.
ERR: And in conclusion, how emotional has all of this been for you personally? One cannot be prepared for these kinds of things, as you yourself said.
Maasikas: My emotions are not just under control, but also of no consequence at all right now. What are important are the emotions of those people, the emotions of those Ukrainians who have to spend the night in a bomb shelter, in a subway station in Kyiv, and who are targets and are fighting.
Let us help Ukraine. Let us help Ukraine with weapons, with fuel. Let's help Ukraine politically. I know that Estonian diplomacy is doing absolutely incredible and intense work. And let us show our hospitality. Refugees are coming from Ukraine. Let's show them that we really do care.
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Editor: Aili Vahtla