ERR's Allan Aksiim sums up his experience and takeaway from the 2023 Lennart Meri Conference, with perspectives of other regions and states brought into perspective at the event this year.
The 16th Lennart Meri Conference (shortened as LMC) took place May 12-14 at the Tallinn Radisson Collection Hotel. As has become customary, the event had many high-level invitees related to security and foreign policy, current and former politicians, three Estonian presidents, several heads of armed forces, the commander of U.S. European Command and several dozen Estonian Foreign Ministry staff among other people I had the opportunity to either talk to or listen to.
Before a brief overview of the discussions can be given it is necessary to point out that it is an invite-only event and the invitation in theory is non-transferable. This creates a different social dynamic compared to a conference that everyone can attend. This could be seen both from the somewhat surprisingly open discussions during closed events and private discussions that could be had during the breaks and while having lunch and dinner. Since for many people this is an event they tend to revisit, it has in general a surprisingly trusting atmosphere considering one of the main topics of focus is national security.
Everything except the publicly broadcast panels were under Chatham House rule, which states that participants can use the information heard but cannot attribute neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s).
Friday showed the value of genuinely different perspectives
The first day of the conference started with an hour and a half long pre-event. Participants could choose between a panel focusing on Russian self perception and the Middle-Eastern focused: Prospects for the Middle-East. I chose the latter and found it insightful. The panel had Arab and Turkish experts who could explain their countries' foreign policy perspectives stemming from their internal politics and foreign pressures.
They were valuable perspectives that brought home that there is a larger world outside the Western liberal democratic states that have to be genuinely understood if Western states want to influence the trajectory of these states or want to be partners in one or several topics. It also helped that the panelists could package their world views into something a Western audience could grasp.
The actual start of the conference was at 5 p.m. with a panel that included the prime ministers of the three Baltic States, renowned historian Timothy Garton Ash and Vice-President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager. It was a classic example of conference Q&A, with the audience offering long comments, which may or may not have been followed by a question.
Among other comments, Prime Minister of Latvia Krišjānis Karinš said that only a complete defeat of Russia in the style of Germany in 1945 will mean long term peace in Europe. Since that is quite unlikely to happen, it was in essence a call to rearm Europe. Many in the panel also emphasized that European security has to be organized against Russia not in cooperation with Russia. Vice-President of the Commission Margrethe Vestager also said as a clear goal that the EU will support Ukraine until the war is won and Ukraine will join the EU, a point applauded by former diplomat Daniel Fried.
During the second day of the conference, experts who took part in the breakfast panel emphasized that undersea cables are increasingly important for communications in the modern age which creates a large security problem because Russia is taking more risks in disrupting such cables and pipelines. Damaging undersea infrastructure has the added benefit of plausible deniability since it is hard to ascertain the perpetrator.
It was also opined that deterrence against aggressive cyber actions needs to be tougher with possible kinetic counter-actions to actually deter. In the same vein it was pointed out that after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbass war, Russia reoriented its info-operations again towards Sweden and other Nordic countries.
The pre-lunch panel focused on NATO on the road to Vilnius. Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said in his opening remarks in the panel that there is a lack of a common definition of what victory for Ukraine means. Tsahkna emphasized that for Estonia it is simple since the basis can be Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenski's ten-point peace plan. It was also said and repeated by many that gray zones in European security are in essence gone since they are almost an invitation to invasion and NATO is the only security guarantee that works. As an interesting perspective, Finnish MP Elina Valtonen pointed out in the panel that for Finland not joining NATO was for a long time a pragmatic choice living next to Russia but for Sweden it was ideological.
From many remarks, questions and discussions between participants the importance of the United States and the decisions and actions of that country were emphasized. As a French foreign policy expert said: "We have to take into account that the U.S. is not a minor ally." So it was simultaneously refreshing to have certain foreign policy discussions where Americans were not represented but it also meant a relevant perspective was lacking.
Another important panel was the next one, where people focused on what the end of the war in Ukraine and the future of Ukraine could look like. Already in the opening statement it was emphasized that the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive will not mean the end of the war. Another important point was the importance of Ukrainian civil society who also have to be partners in defining future peace.
A certain polemic was created by the comments of RAND analyst Samuel Charap who pointed out that changes in territorial control may not mean that the fundamentals of the war in Ukraine have changed. The war might not even end when Ukrainian troops push the Russian troops to the international border. A grim perspective was given in the same train of thought – both Russia and Ukraine shall remain a threat to one another indefinitely because neither can fully destroy the other's military.
Yet the Ukrainian in the panel pointed out that Russia not only can be but must be defeated. As Andrii Zagorodnyuk said, Russia must be deterred from starting another war and also the Ukrainian society is from experience very skeptical of negotiations with Russia. As many pointed out, Western policymakers have realized this as well.
Saturday also had a panel focusing on the relations between Russia and the West and the only keynote of the entire conference – the Lennart Meri lecture. The panel after that focused on the Indo-Pacific. Due to a surprisingly intellectually invigorating discussion, I missed the several simultaneous night owl discussions but the opportunity was worth it. There are not many events where one can explore the opinions of NATO staff members or the heads of national armed forces.
The scary reality of a nuclear war was my breakfast session choice on Sunday. The first major question to focus on is how do you reduce nuclear risk when the other side embraces risk? The clear focus was Russia but also the problematic North-Korean nuclear program was discussed. One of the panelists said succinctly how difficult it is to have international agreements with Russia or other such states: "We knew the Russians were violating the treaty while they were signing it."
Yet due to historic reasons and Soviet legacy, Russia seems to still be serious about nuclear arms control and, according to an expert in the panel, Russians think about it more than the U.S. where know-how of strategic nuclear thinking has atrophied after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Global perspectives after the war was the next larger session that brought experts and policymakers from what could simplistically be called the Global South but in reality represented countries and regions that can be as different compared to each-other as they are to the West. This was another panel where the value of perspectives came up. For example, it was pointed out that for many African countries the rhetoric of democracy vs autocracy doesn't attract that much attention in the context of Russia's war against Ukraine but sovereignty and territorial integrity do. The territorial integrity of states is something the African Union has also emphasized, since almost all African borders are artificial and do not follow clear ethnic divisions and so the borders are accepted to avoid future conflicts.
The fact that many African and other non-Western states have not openly criticized Russia for the invasion of Ukraine was dissected from different angles. Yet it came down to the fact that Western powers did not care much for the region until recently and this was acknowledged by more Western voices in the panel. "For 30 years we only got lectures," was a perspective given to exemplify the lack of true Western interest, which should and could be rectified by engaging with the countries involved, also in geopolitics. At the same time, I heard simplistic juxtapositions in the panel between the United States invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Sunday ended with a panel focusing on what could be the new security architecture after the Russo-Ukraine war. As was the case here and somewhat with other panels, many ideas and visions were conditional on how well the Ukrainians will succeed in liberating their country from Russian occupation. It was reflected in the panel that it was a failure to project Western economic rationality on Western adversaries like Russia, because Russia invaded regardless of the predictable negative economic effects to itself.
The diversity of views between Western states regarding threats was also cleverly worded by a panelist: "Even when threat perception differs, it does not have to mean disunity". Yet at the same time it was brought out that Western political structures can be slow in decision making, yet the political process is the very point of the organization. Regarding the upcoming Vilnius NATO summit, it was emphasized by a panelist that he has heard repeatedly from senior French and German officials that Vilnius will not be the Bucharest summit in 2008, where Ukraine and Georgia were not given a membership action plan to join NATO. Georgia was attacked by Russia in the same year, Ukraine in 2014.
Although much can be said of the content and atmosphere of the conference, it was telling that the event was pretty packed and with more popular panels it was difficult not only to get a seat but even to fit in the room. Also many remarks and points of view in the event were widely discussed during and after the conference on Twitter.
It is also relevant to point out what was not discussed – Moldova, Belarus and Georgia were barely mentioned. A point noted by a Georgian embassy staff employee who still assured that his country desires European integration. Also as an attendee brought out as a great plus for the Lennart Meri Conference - the food was plentiful, diverse and delicious.
Editor: Marcus Turovski