Estonia's president: Ukraine towns look much like those elsewhere in Europe

President Alar Karis.
President Alar Karis. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The 15th annual installment of the Lennart Meri Conference takes place this weekend, bringing noted academics, journalists, politicians and others to Tallinn to focus on foreign policy, defense and security at a time when Europe is facing one of its gravest crises since World War Two.

Estonian President Alar Karis gave the keynote speech at the event's official opening dinner on Friday evening, which follows in its entirety.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

President Lennart Meri, in whose honor this conference has been named, stands in our memories as a great Estonian, but also as a great European.

His insight into Europe's history was truly exceptional. His own life mirrored the story of Estonia in the twists and turns of the 20th century, tragic in so many ways. This led him to the firmest belief – Estonia must return to Europe in cultural, political, and economic terms. But not only – Estonia needs to be attached to Euro-Atlantic security with the firmest ties possible. Through becoming a NATO ally. Through signing up to the promise of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty: one for all, and all for one.

President Meri understood it better than anyone that history is far from being over. That the fissures of the European continent have not yet been filled with the concrete of brotherly love, as he once said.

This winter, we have seen war return to Europe. We have seen attempts to redraw the dividing lines in Europe, to return to the ideology of spheres of influence. The Russian demands to return to a pre-1997 status in Europe, powerfully brought September 1939 back to us here in Estonia. This is when Mr. Molotov and Mr. Ribbentrop sealed our fate for the next 50 years. To be legitimized later, after the end of the war at the Yalta conferences.

During my visit to Ukraine in April, I saw first-hand that war in 2022 is not so different from the images of the Second World War. Deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, killing and torture of local residents, untold damage to towns and villages. Towns and villages which, by the way, look similar to towns and villages all over Europe.

Perhaps it should not be so shocking after months of gruesome video footage from Russia's war in Ukraine. But it still is. Children playing in the rubble of their homes. Emergency workers looking for victims in collapsed buildings next door. Cars on the roadside, burnt out and crushed by Russian tanks. The stories of Ukrainian women and children being tortured and raped by soldiers, of people being forcibly detained and deported – these awaken the collective pain of Estonians who went through the same traumas under Russian occupation.

Whenever I talk about war to the people in Estonia, I never forget to mention that Estonia is a member of NATO. And NATO is the strongest military alliance in the world. Nobody wants to mess with those guys. Am I right?

And yet, when there is a brutal war of aggression going on next door, it is clear that something has gone wrong. On the day that Mr Putin gave the order to proceed with the so-called special operation in Ukraine, deterrence failed. After many prominent Western heads of state had engaged the Russian leadership, after the threat of sanctions and pledges of support to Ukraine had been repeated time and time again, Moscow just didn't care.

Of course, no one factor is exclusive in determining an outcome. Russians underestimated the Ukrainian will and capability to fight, and overestimated their own. They –like, I might add, a few Western leaders – didn't believe that a nation Russia had looked down on, even denying its existence, would fight so bravely.

 Likewise, Moscow didn't expect that the shock of invasion would consolidate the West. That we would promptly deliver what has been called the "mother of all sanctions". That unprecedented levels of military, financial and humanitarian aid would be provided to fortify the Ukrainian defenders. That even outside the usual North American and European crowds, countries across the world would be appalled and horrified by what Russia was doing in Ukraine.

I suspect part of Russia's miscalculation lies in past experience. Western reactions to the Russian attack on Georgia and the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea and the proxy war in Donbas were considered weak by Moscow. Likewise, Russia had for years made badly disguised attempts to undermine Western societies. Through corruption, through cultivating influential politicians, and by polluting our information space with its poisonous propaganda. The list goes on. Why should the Kremlin believe that this time, our actions would match the strength of our words?

I also ask – do threats of serious but unspecified consequences generally deter aggressive, expansionist behavior? I argue that there are not many examples in history where this has worked. Deterrence by punishment is never as effective as deterrence by denial. The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote: "No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes." We would all do well to keep this in mind when considering how to restore and then to maintain security in Europe. Including here, on NATO's eastern flank.

So looking back, I am absolutely sure that an important factor in the path to war was that Kremlin decision-makers were sure that they would not have to contend with the West directly, at least in military terms. During the escalation phase, several Western leaders made it clear that no direct military help by their armed forces would be forthcoming. Quite a few delayed or refused sending armaments, presumably in the hope of de-escalating tensions.

NATO politely affirmed its open door policy but took pains to point out that Ukraine is not subject to collective defense. There may also have been a feeling in Moscow that Kremlin can dictate terms in its neighborhood – as the US is turning its attention from European matters to China and the Pacific.

The message that the Russians got in the run-up to the war was – we will be very angry if you attack Ukraine, but you can be sure that we will not join in their defense. The only other real deterrent – sanctions – was something Putin was willing to accept.

It is hard for us here in the West to accept that while the rest of Europe has built a democratic, just, and peaceful order, Russia has remained in 1939. That somewhere, in splendid isolation, is a dictator, plotting an inhumane war. A dictator, who belongs in a history book, is actually in power. While we, westerners, are going about our daily business of making sure people have jobs, are getting vaccinated, and are not burdened by excessive heating bills. And all of a sudden, we are faced with a genocide at our doorstep.

Only passivity and fear can help Russia win this war. Both passivity and fear inside Russia, and in the West. And the fact that we are so not used to enduring challenges, and making real sacrifices. I know that thousands have been arrested in Russia for protesting against the war. I know that there are still some brave journalists trying to do their jobs. But we need more. People in European countries understand the situation well, and are ready to support Ukraine. This now needs to be matched by the bravery of decision-makers. The Ukrainian people are setting a powerful example: Freedom is not free.

So let's stop talking about what we cannot do and start talking about what we can do. This crisis is asking a lot from us, our leaders and our people. But at this point it should be clear to anyone that security in Europe, defense of democracy in Europe, is not possible without paying a price. We have to face our fears.

In particular, we must get over the fear that our actions will provoke Russia. Indeed, it is the contrary – firm action is the only brand of deterrence that will work. Once we have let go of our self-deterring instinct, it is time to reformulate the western strategy towards Russia. As I would argue that we still haven't fully come to grips with what Russian invasion means for the European security order. And how we will respond. The previous strategies of forging economic ties, trade relationships hasn't worked. Containment hasn't worked. It is time for something bolder.

I am heartened by the five sanctions' packages by the EU, but we must get to banning Russian oil. I am encouraged because many NATO allies have stepped up their military aid, and are providing training, intelligence to the Ukrainian war effort. Estonia has sent military equipment in the sum that amounts to one third of our yearly defense budget. Just last week the government approved another round of howitzers and ammunition to be sent. I invite all my NATO and EU friends to try to surpass us.

I am also hopeful that NATO will put in place a credible defense posture on its Eastern flank. A real forward defensive posture that will not allow another miscalculation in the Kremlin. It must be robust enough to act as deterrence by denial. But we have to be ready to go even further. Indeed, as far as we need to go to make sure that Russia loses this war, and a free, democratic Ukraine prevails, with its territorial integrity intact.

For too long Mr. Putin has done a great job in deterring us, it is time to turn the tables. Mr. Putin's expansionist dream to create the great Novorossiya cannot prevail. How long can we keep asking: who´s next? We must put an end to this.

My message tonight is addressed to you all in this room, decision-makers in capitals, and the people in Europe: Every individual now bears responsibility to fight this threat to Europe and its values. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

Thank you all for listening, and I wish you a good night!

With thanks to the Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia.

The opening panel discussions at the Lennart Meri Conference can be viewed here, and ERR News is linking to other broadcast discussions through the weekend's events.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Andrew Whyte

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: