Marko Mihkelson: 2023 - Ukraine's war for freedom will determine our fate

Marko Mihkelson.
Marko Mihkelson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Marko Mihkelson (Reform) writes that the question for the upcoming year is whether the short-term logic of the defensive line will prevail, and with it a (temporary) modus vivendi with a terrorist Russia, or whether Ukraine's resilience and success on the battlefield will inspire a fundamental shift in strategy and lead to the strategic defeat of Russia's terrorist regime.

The Ukraine's defensive war for the preservation of the state and the freedom of its people is the central theme of the year, and all significant international events for Estonia are connected to it. The outcome of the liberation fight in Ukraine has a direct impact on our future and the world in which we will live. For the first time, Estonia, as a free and independent nation, has the opportunity to define the boundaries of the new world, rather than having its own fate determined by others.

Fear of World War III is paralyzing

Russia's aggression against Ukraine is far more serious than a simple regional conflict. We are well aware of this, because Russia's goal is to destabilize the Western security space, thereby plunging Estonia into a geopolitical storm.

Several of our partners have recently avoided using the term "war" in diplomatic language, presumably to reduce the likelihood of a larger military confrontation. Fear of a third world war paralyzes Western countries preventing them from pursuing strategic objectives and taking the necessary steps to achieve them.

This is where Estonia and other like-minded nations come into play. Never before in the history of our independence has Estonia had the opportunity to influence the course of the world politics with such a powerful voice and internationally guaranteed power (European Union, NATO, United Nations). Our own War of Independence, which occurred more than a century ago, may have been the last time when success against the aggressor forces indirectly contributed to ousting the Bolsheviks' dreams of world domination.

Neither the Tartu Peace Treaty nor the following it hope for neutrality could save us, sadly. Born in 1917, Russia's terrorist regime soon gained a dominant position in a world exhausted by the first world war and was prepared to change borders by force to impose its own order in Europe.

Stalin's efforts to unleash a major war were undoubtedly geared toward the destruction of the entire Western world, but he had to settle for a partial victory in the end. In spite of this, the Soviet empire reached its greatest physical size and global influence in the second half of the 20th century, the loss of which the current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin views as a major geopolitical catastrophe and which he is willing to risk high stakes to reverse in the current war.

Through decades of mass indoctrination, Russia's collective consciousness has developed a distinct understanding of the country's nature, the extent of its borders, and its attitude toward the rest of the world, according to which there is no wicked genius called Putin behind this war.

Estonia is well aware of the historical and geographical scope of Russia's imperialist war against Ukraine, which began with the takeover of Crimea on February 20, 2014. All of this historical context is essential to keep in mind as we attempt to predict possible developments in the coming year, both on the battlefield in Ukraine and in international politics. Not only is the future of Ukraine and Russia at stake, but the outcome of this war will have significant repercussions on the global order.

The year ahead could bring ground-breaking developments

In terms of our most important objective, the absolute victory of Ukraine (i.e., the liberation of all the area recognized in 1991) and the strategic defeat of the Russian terrorist regime, the new year could bring radical changes.

Despite optimistic hopes and forecasts, we must be prepared for the possibility that it will take longer than twelve months to accomplish these objectives. While time is of the essence, as Russia contributes to the West's perceived weariness and disintegration, we must not let this distract us from our main goal of supporting Ukraine in achieving victory.

The creation of a shared understanding among Western nations regarding the international measures required to ensure peace and security in Europe will be one of the most important concerns of 2023.

Fundamentally, the question is whether the short-term logic of the defensive line (pressure for premature peace) and the (temporary) modus vivendi with a terrorist Russia will prevail, or whether Ukraine's resilience and battlefield success will inspire a fundamental change of course and lead to the strategic defeat of the Russia's terrorist regime.

The logic of the defensive line, which, at least at the start of the year, appears to be the chosen approach in the major capitals, does not guarantee sustainable peace and stability in Europe. It would be the worst answer because it would permit the Russian leadership to consolidate what has been won by force, to legitimize the crime of aggression, and to prepare for a new, much larger war against the West.

Western leaders seeking an ideal peace are misled by the belief that a status quo ante bellum with Russia is at least partially attainable. The cautiousness of the core democracies is understandable; in the absence of a more coherent Russian policy, upsetting the strategic equilibrium could have unforeseeable repercussions. Moscow exploits precisely this anxiety and the absence of a unified Western strategy. The Kremlin hopes that the West will fear worsening the situation and hence refrain from providing Ukraine with the armaments that would enable it to liberate Crimea quicker and more efficiently, for instance.

A good time to focus on more coherent policies

This year, there are no big elections on the Western domestic political calendar, so it is a good time to focus on policy coherence and, more significantly, game-changing decisions.

Russia, on the other hand, hopes that the West will miss this opportunity and that the 2024 elections in the United States and the United Kingdom will distract Ukraine's two most active major donors. In the European Union, the focus will be on elections and the formation of a new commission in the next year.

The coming months will therefore be critical for the endgame of Ukraine's war of liberation and the subsequent international influence. Given Estonia's active role so far both in providing aid (Estonia has provided more aid to Ukraine as a share of GDP than the Western powers combined) and in maintaining a diplomatic front, the outcome of the March elections to the Riigikogu is not insignificant from an international perspective.

If Estonia were to reverse its support for Ukraine and its policy of confrontation with Russia, it would significantly weaken the common front of those countries that oppose premature and conditional peace and see the current situation as a unique opportunity to build an even more unified and powerful free Europe. Ukraine's incorporation into the Euro-Atlantic security community is a crucial aspect of the latter.

In an optimistic scenario, this year's elections in Estonia, Finland and Poland will boost the power of Northern and Eastern Europe as a whole and pave the way for a more bolder vision of the European Union's future to be debated among its members.

Considering how far the European Union was from granting Ukraine the chance of membership a year ago and where we are today, there is a real possibility that this commission will still support the Ukrainians' ambition to begin accession talks.

To make this a reality, however, the members of the European Union need to work out a way to adapt to and likewise shape the rapidly shifting geopolitical environment in both the East and South.

This is why 2023 is a particularly important year for the European Union, in order to lay a good base for next year's elections and the shaping of the next commission's foreign and security policy plan. Clearly, skeptics could argue that nothing can change soon and that Ukraine will spend years on the sidelines. Sadly, though, these voices of caution do not take into account the impact of the ongoing war.

As the WWII altered the political map of Europe, so too will Russia's imperialist war. It is better to be prepared, and Estonia has a significant say in this matter.

NATO and Crimea

A free, united, and peaceful Europe is inconceivable without Ukraine's membership in NATO. While the Ukrainian president's application for membership was met with open dismay and diplomatic resistance from many NATO members last fall, this July's Alliance summit in Vilnius is a golden opportunity to begin delivering on the promise made in Bucharest 14 years ago that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become NATO members.

As hosts, the Lithuanians will do everything possible to ensure that the meeting results in a shared understanding of what should happen and how it should happen, so that the Black Sea, like the Baltic Sea, becomes NATO's internal sea.

The preparations for the Vilnius Summit are strengthened by the fact that Finland and Sweden will be able to participate as full members following the expected decisions by Hungary and Turkey. Hungary has vowed to ratify the accession protocols in February, but the Turkish parliament is still awaiting a "yes" from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before to the June elections. The latter, in turn, presupposes progress in relations between Ankara and Stockholm. In any case, no one is counting on a miracle, but on effective work at the diplomatic level.

The NATO summit in Vilnius should also be significant in that the Alliance will have a new Secretary General, the 14th in a row. Jens Stoltenberg has been in office since 2014. The extension of his term of office is proof of the positive reception of his performance. As the role of the Secretary General is to be the senior diplomat and spokesperson for the alliance's member states, the appointment of a new leader will have a stronger role than before.

It will depend on the person elected which signal NATO sends to Russia, its greatest existential threat. Will consensus emerge at the behest of the forces driving defensive tactics, or will the Alliance find the courage to guide Europe's emerging security space? In the latter case, some candidates from the alliance's eastern wing would have a good chance of becoming secretary-general.

Both militarily and diplomatically, the most decisive battle of Ukraine's liberation war is being fought over Crimea. The Ukrainians' success under Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson has transformed the liberation of Crimea from a distant dream into a real possibility. This could happen in 2023 and would be a watershed moment in both the ongoing war and the transformation of the entire European security landscape.

In Russia, of course, they understand what is at stake. The loss of Sevastopol and the whole of Crimea would presumably be a major blow to the current terrorist regime's war chest. The raising of the Ukrainian flag over Sevastopol could be as painful for the Kremlin as the destruction of the Tsarist fleet in the Tsushima Strait battle in May 1905. Therefore, it is not impossible that a new attack on Kyiv will be launched this year to discourage the Ukrainians and bind their forces. This will require a new and larger mobilization wave, which will inevitably have to include the population of Russia's major cities.

Putin's rhetoric and the instructions given to his propaganda army show that the Kremlin has no intention of abandoning its strategic goals. Their ongoing objective is the destruction of the Ukrainian state, while simultaneously undermining Western cohesion and preparing the decisive blow to dissolve NATO.

Ukraine needs more firepower

If we ask what strategy Western nations would employ to resist Russia's objectives, the year 2023 has begun with many unanswered questions. There is still no consensus in major Western capitals on Ukraine's military backing, particularly in terms of offensive weapons (the Leopard tank saga is just one example).

The steps taken so far on aid and sanctions policy have helped Ukraine to make progress, but for decisive battles they need more firepower, both on the battlefield and in diplomacy.

Increasing the United States' contribution to a level equivalent to Estonia's, or one percent of GDP (about $260 billion), and defining a post-war Europe with its allies would aid in preventing a deadly stalemate on the Ukrainian battlefield.

In Afghanistan, the United States has spent almost two trillion dollars over the past two decades to combat the threat of terrorism and strengthen regional stability, but the outcomes are doubtful. Supporting Ukraine in the ongoing battle has yielded the most tangible peace dividends of any previous direct or indirect Western intervention in a conflict. It demonstrates to the global South, among other things, whether or not the West is capable of defending the world order established over the past many decades. China, in particular, is keeping a close eye on events and may use the West's weakness to exert influence over Taiwan, even to the point of military intervention.

2023 will be a very tough year in international politics; after the masks fall, at least in Europe, only courageous and principled leaders will be able to achieve peace and avert a major catastrophe.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy shaped 2022 as a leader, but this alone will not be sufficient to accomplish a greater triumph. Even though Estonia and other smaller states will contribute significantly, the United States' willingness and readiness to assume a stronger and more active leadership role alongside its partners in establishing the new world order will be critical. 2023 could be the last opportunity to do so.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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