Meelis Kiili: What is to be done and who is to blame?

Maj. Gen. Meelis Kiili.
Maj. Gen. Meelis Kiili. Source: Defense League

Those behind evil works need to be justly punished. Those who have enabled criminals and allowed them to remain in control of the state through their actions or inaction must offer compensation for the physical and moral damages of the war. Homes can be rebuilt, while lives cannot be reclaimed, Meelis Kiili writes.

"There are no desperate situations, only desperate people," talented military commander Heinz Guderian has said. Ukraine's situation is difficult and complicated but not desperate. On the contrary, the Kremlin criminals are fighting a confident Ukrainian people.

When Stalin attacked free and democratic Finland, he was also expecting a quick victory and for the global proletariat to unite. Instead, he managed to heal wounds the civil war had left in Finnish society and unite the entire nation against its eastern enemy. Putin did the same in Ukraine in 2014.

The Red Army had a massive advantage in terms of personnel, armament and firepower, while the Finns had the desire for freedom, the necessary motivation and the will to defend themselves. Highly motivated fighters have historically been successful, also when facing overwhelming odds.

We can see the defensive will of the Finns in historical documentaries and read about it in books. The will of the Ukrainian people is brought to us live courtesy of our information society. Napoleon saw the moral element outweigh the physical one four to one. Looking at the Winter War and the war in Ukraine today, the difference might be greater still.

Ukraine's regular and territorial army is more lightly but no worse armed than its Russian counterpart. The Russians had a substantially bigger advantage in the Winter War, considering the weaponry of the time. The Finns were, with the exception of Sweden, alone. While they received a few letters of support, there was no real help. Ukraine has the entire free world with its resources, arms and political muscle behind it.

Finland managed to evacuate its civilian population before hostilities began, while the Ukrainians are forced to do it under fire and in between skirmishes. Russian armed forces are purposefully targeting residential areas to break the Ukrainian people's will.

Such strategic mistakes have been made before. The allies bombed the German cities of Essen, Köln and Hamburg during World War II in hopes that the ensuing hell on earth would break the enemy's will. The result was just the opposite – the productivity of the Ruhr Valley military factories grew instead.

Finland retained its independence in WWII and achieved a moral victory. The Ukrainians will also remain independent. Moreover, this war will turn Ukraine into a strong country, a force to be reckoned with both globally and regionally.

What is to be done?

History is in the habit of repeating itself. Why does the Russian society support leaders that steer it toward inevitable doom? Professor Peeter Loorents has suggested that enduring foolishness needs to have meaningful reasons. In order to comprehend this meaningfulness, one needs to first try and understand cultural differences and the factors and rules that shape them.

Statements by Putin and Lavrov insult one's intelligence. Looking at Russia's UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya's performances, one cannot help but ask whether someone like that has even a shred of self-respect or humanity left.

One could be forgiven for thinking, in the information day and age, that the Russian people understand as much, condemn it and choose the high road. But that which makes sense in one culture is not self-evident in another. Putin's popularity is heading up as the Russian people admire his "heroism."

A part of this is the effect of [Russia's] strictly censored media and lack of information but there is more to it than that. This kind of Z-ombification still occurs in Estonia with its free and unrestricted information space. What phenomenon could cause people to support insanity? Why do people follow a leader who has robbed them of their future?

Peeter Volkonski explained in a radio interview from years ago why Estonians should not hold their breath when it comes to an apology from Russia for crimes committed during the days of war and occupation. Prince Volkonski said that Russia and Russians have two sempiternal questions: what is to be done and who is to blame?

The first is so complex and multifaceted that an answer has never been found. It has yielded such chrestomathic works as Nikolay Chernyshevsky's book "What is to be Done?" and Lenin's political pamphlet of the same name. The eras that both works treat with ended in disaster. Has any lesson been learned? Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's realization of "we wanted the best, but it turned out like always" suggests not.

Putin is toeing the same line: something must be and is being done. He has said: "Everything that's simple is effective." The Russian state ticks to the tune of corruption, and while it is simple, it is also inefficient. Systematic attempts to destroy the Russian intelligentsia also contribute.

The chaos and civil war following the October Revolution forced many intellectuals to leave the country. Those who stayed where liquidated/executed with Lenin's ukases. Those who survived got hit by Stalin's repressions later on. Intelligent people are a danger to autocratic regimes and need to be suppressed and destroyed. Of course, a nation of 140 million people can recreate its intelligentsia, but this lack of consistency means that every new generation is weaker than its predecessor.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had its own effect. When the Iron Curtain fell, talented individuals had the chance to leave the "workers' paradise" and realize themselves in developed countries. It now seems that Putin's Ukraine aggression has delivered the final blow. An increasing number of intelligent Russians are trying to leave the country before its borders are closed for good. Therefore, that question of "what is to be done" remains unanswered. But the outlook is not good for a nation sporting an unpredictable history and living in the mythological reality created by its leader.

Who is to blame?

The question of "who is to blame?" is easily answered: the others. A truly deep-rooted conviction. In 1939, Estonians were to blame for wanting to be free and independent. And therefore, we needed to be liberated from ourselves.

Today, Putin is liberating the Ukrainians from themselves. They are "to blame" for wanting to be free, to be European. If we were to explain the Russian word izvinit (to apologize) in parts, we would be left with iz and vino (without guilt). In other words, no one needs to be absolved of guilt because they're not guilty to begin with. This could explain the phenomenon that allows the nation's capacity of independent thought to be manipulated. But I'm sure the truth of the atrocities committed in Ukraine will reach Russia eventually. Because while you can restrain and inhibit information, you cannot stop it from spreading.

Will they be condemned? Probably not, because people in Russia hold on to what they want to believe, and it is nicer to think that they were on the righteous path of liberating someone even if it was really a simple act of conquest.

There is little hope for change for as long as there is no collective sense of guilt. Should we blame the entire Russian people? It is easy to condemn, harder to understand. Condemning everyone amounts to condemning no one. Nevertheless, the society as a whole is not blameless in this.

Those behind evil works need to be justly punished. Those who have enabled criminals to remain in control of the state through their actions or inaction must offer compensation for the physical and moral damages of the war. Homes can be rebuilt, while lives cannot be reclaimed.

All we can do is hope, while the hope that the Ukrainians and other peoples the Russians have oppressed can forgive them in the coming generations is thin indeed.

What next?

Let us hope that our wish for all of our neighbors to be peaceful and stable is granted one day. But mere hope is little more than consolation for fools. One cannot choose one's neighbors, and we must admit that we are likely in for a long and relatively restless period complete with continued confrontation.

What we need right now is strategic patience, confident behavior, wise policy and a purposeful activity plan. We need to support Ukraine in what is more than just their conflict. It is a clash of civilizations where the Ukrainians are also fighting for us.

We can all do something. Hundreds of volunteers have contributed their time, money and spiritual support for the Ukrainian women and children running from the war. But it is a national, international even crisis the solving of which cannot be delegated to volunteers and nonprofits. It requires a concrete and timely activity plan and coordinated administration to rally our society for Ukraine and for our own benefit.

Those who represent Estonia in international organizations must also represent Ukraine. There is no way back to a cushy life and complacency, which message we need to drive home with the decision-makers of our partners and allies.

If Russia is incapable of learning lessons from history and bent on repeating past mistakes, we must help them. The Peloponnesian War lost Athens its influence. It was not about Athens' military and navy having been considerably weaker than Sparta's. The Sicily campaign was simply too great a task. It exhausted the country's economy and population and, most importantly, left the Athenians without allies, left them alone.

Russia, with its decayed economy and isolated population, also finds itself alone. While their great leader tells them that sanctions and isolation can only render Russia stronger, reality is different.

The rest of the world is marching forward, while Russia is moving backwards. The situation can no longer be compared even to stagnation in the former USSR, it is even more destructive for the economy and people. If that is the choice of the Kremlin and the Russian people – so be it. Estonia has joined the other free nations of the world on a different path. This path also exists for people in Russia if they should find it.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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