The main question we should be asking is that if there is anything that can deter Vladimir Putin, what is it? The answer is simple and staring us right in the face, and we all know it – it is strength. Only strength can stop violence, Lauri Vahtre writes.
The war is far from over and the "war after the war" hasn't even started yet, while we are already seeing attempts to draw conclusions. Why not. One of the most exciting topics is to what extent Russia's aggression and Ukraine and the West's answer to it call into question the sacred principles of tolerance, involvement and openness.
It is not scholastics or mere philosophizing. At the heart of the debate is how to avoid such horrors in the future or at least minimize the chance. In simpler terms, we need to ask ourselves whether societies that defend and prioritize freedoms made mistakes they can learn from and hopefully avoid making in the future. Hoping first that this future will still be there.
The initial conclusion is not difficult to draw: we have been too soft and naive in our efforts to include and through it reeducate the aggressor; put too much stock in the proverb that a kind word can conquer a foreign army.
Russian propaganda networks serve as one example of this, with proposals to shut them down labeled anti-free speech and democracy from one year to the next and efforts made to paint those suggesting it almost black-hundredist. Shutting them down has suddenly proved possible, whereas free speech has not disappeared as a result. The only logical conclusion is that those who were painting the labels (mainly journalists and politicians looking to curry favor with them, if we are being honest) were simply wrong and have silently admitted the fact.
However, we can already hear claims to the contrary (see Andris Feldmanis' "In defense of tolerance"). That everything is how it should be, there is a united democratic front, the West has demonstrated its strength that is based on flexibility that in turn owes to tolerance and gentleness: flexible but unbreaking.
It is suggested that this flexible West can change course, if necessary, while rigid authoritarianism cannot, and that critics of the West's softness are, either knowingly or unknowingly, steering it towards the latter.
Do not believe such treatments. They are little else than an attempt clad in philosophy to convince oneself and others that weakness is strength and good children do not need punishing. All this on the backdrop of the roar of artillery and Volodymyr Zelenskyy's exclamation that had the West armed Ukraine with the right ordnance in time, the war would already be over and not to Ukraine's detriment.
Ifs and buts aside, Zelensky should know better than we do, and if the West's dawdling results in 10,000 killed and raped Ukrainians in a situation where they could have been saved through more rapid action, those looking to justify the West's "flexibility" are taking on a heavy burden indeed.
Do they really have nothing better to do? It seems very strange to be worrying about the West becoming a little more conservative and heedful of common sense today, when the Ukraine war is ongoing and there remains the very real threat of a crazed Putin attacking the rest of the Western world.
Besides, how should the world become a better place if it refuses to learn from its mistakes? The first precondition of learning, development and progress is admitting mistakes. Yes, we made a mistake. After which we can ask ourselves where it was made, where the data was inaccurate, where we erred against logic, where and why the equation had a y instead of an x?
Of course, I understand that this particular mistake is very painful to admit after a considerable number of people have been suggesting (for decades) that the West is going too far with its so-called tolerance and involvement. We've known all along. The Czechs and Slovaks tried to stuff flowers in the barrels of Soviet tanks in 1968, and we all know how that ended.
But the "liberal consensus" in Estonia and the West simply laughed off these warnings and proceeded to treat Russia like a mischievous but kindhearted schoolkid who needs to be included in games time after time, so what that he tends to give classmates a bloody nose and throw stones in windows. He has a lovely and delicate soul (Pushkin and Glinka etc.) that must not be wounded.
Well, we got what was coming. Just as one is hard-pressed to find Russians willing to admit they are disappointed in their people, it is near-impossible to find those of the involving and tolerant persuasion ready to admit efforts to defend and include those who are "different" went a little overboard, at least when it comes to Russia. Rather, I have yet to hear any such voices.
Feldmanis justifies the West's alleged flexibility in claiming that it managed to change course and get its act together, while Putin's regime lacks such capacity. As said before, we should first ask why the West needed to change course in the first place, while tyrannies are perfectly capable of abrupt about-turns.
Let us think back to George Orwell's "1984" in which a number of institutions are constantly busy rewriting history because recent enemies had become friends and vice versa. Not to mention Stalin's sharp changes of course in policy and even ideology. No advantage for tolerance and flexibility is to be found here.
While the West did manage to change course, it is much less clear what contributed – whether it was flexibility and softness or the fact that it had retained a critical mass of conservative and clear-thinking people.
However, let us move on. The main question we should be asking is that if there is anything that can deter Vladimir Putin, what is it? The answer is simple and staring us right in the face, and we all know it – it is strength. Only strength can stop violence.
In the rare case of a warm and tolerant person having stayed with the text until now, this is likely where they will be paralyzed with fear: that is precisely the kind of strength-based world we do not want! They would be sure to add that violence being kept in check by brute force would send us back to barbarity, that brute strength is nothing but counter-violence and one is not preferable to the other.
That is perhaps the greatest and most fateful mistake made by the proponents of nonviolence and one they continue to make. Those two things are not the same and the world is not tired of hatred. The world will never tire of hatred. Mahatma Gandhi was wrong, and if he was wrong about that, he might not have been all that wise to begin with.
Only strength can keep violence in check, which we can see for ourselves in Ukraine. But that does not mean the two forces are equally bad. There is a massive difference between using as much force as possible and using as little as possible but as much as necessary. This is where the difference between tyranny and democracy manifests. Tyrants wield as much violence as they can and wherever they can, while democracies only resort to it to end violence.
The only way the democratic world has to prevent horrors like what we are seeing in Ukraine is to make sure potential aggressors know: we know how to do it just as well as you, if not better, and we will not hesitate when the time comes. We can destroy your soldiers and will bomb your cities if that is what it takes.
However, as we have allowed things to deteriorate to the point they are now, let us not waste time vindicating the softness of the West but channel all our strength into helping the victims of aggression. If direct military intervention is impossible, we need to lend strength in other ways, including in the form of brutal and destructive weapons. Brute strength.
Whether we refer to this world as strength-based or something else is a matter of taste. The world is based on strength whether we like it or not.
It is high time we admit this, stop looking for strength in softness and concentrate on making sure we have enough strength and that we only use it in the service of noble goals. So that tolerance and softness can find safe haven behind its back in which to pursue performance art, condemn the legacy of colonialism and be oh-so open.
Editor: Marcus Turovski