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Vseviov on Russia's stalled Ukraine war: It's who'll go over the edge first

Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jonatan Vseviov in Vilnius.
Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jonatan Vseviov in Vilnius. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Russia's ongoing war of aggression in Ukraine has reached a point where neither side's victory is in sight on the battlefield. But Russia hasn't changed its strategic objectives, and is still hoping to defeat Ukraine and the West behind them with its war of attrition, said Jonatan Vseviov, secretary general of Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Not one of Russia's major goals that Vladimir Putin has had since the early 2000s already has changed in the course of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Vseviov said at a meeting with the Estonian press. To restore its empire, Russia wants to take control of Ukraine and establish a buffer zone between the West and itself in Eastern Europe.

While it was once thought that Moscow's desired buffer zone wouldn't be as extensive as it had been during the Cold War, the ultimatum Putin issued at the end of 2021, prior to launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, demonstrated that Russia's demands, at least in the longer term, would include the former Eastern Bloc as well.

Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever to believe Putin's promises about not attacking other countries either, as he has already repeatedly demonstrated that he won't keep them, Vseviov continued. Both Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 as well as its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 proved as much.

War has plateaued

After its failed attempt to capture Kyiv and quickly take control of Ukraine, Russia changed its tactics, switching over to waging a war of attrition instead. This is the context in which the current situation must be viewed – Russia is hoping to outlast the West, whose support continues to sustain Ukraine's resistance, Vseviov said.

According to the ministry official, it's as though the war has hit a plateau, which major wars typically do for a time, and at that point this plateau state can seem to last forever. But of course that isn't the case – between sides with conflicting interests, one of them is bound to break first, either in terms of capacity or in terms of will. And they'll lose.

That is what Putin is betting on right now – that time is on his side, Vseviov said.

"But the West must show – in words and in deeds – that this isn't the case; that our will endures, and that we are capable of contributing with significantly more potential in the long term as well," he stressed.

According to the secretary general, the West has been trying since the start of the full-scale war to convince Moscow to change course.

"We're trying with sanctions and isolation to raise the price of aggression for Russia," he explained. "By comprehensively supporting Ukraine, we're maintaining their resilience and hope for a better tomorrow. In fighting against impunity, however, we're establishing norms, among other things, with which to lay stronger foundations for security in the future. We have done all of this right, broadly speaking, though often too slowly. Of course, a well-considered and ultimately right step is better than no step at all, but we must realize that in a war of attrition, even lost time has its own significance – speak nothing of the lives lost in the course of this lost time."

Vseviov pointed out that demonstrating long-term support is especially vital now, when Putin is counting on imminent political changes in the West that will throw us off course.

"Especially crucial are the kind of steps that in themselves already send the signal that we will not fall "back to normal" without a change of course on Russia's part," he said. "The work of the International Criminal Court (ICC), particularly Putin's arrest warrant, is one such step. We must also find a way for the crime of aggression itself to be tried by an international tribunal."

He also noted that one of the key issues of the current foreign policy season is the use of Russia's frozen assets, which is already being discussed.

"There's clearly a strong pragmatic justification for using these frozen assets – they are needed to support Ukraine," Vseviov said. "There's a normative justification as well – aggression as a crime must receive a suitable response. But there is also a strategic reason for moving ahead with the utilization of frozen assets – it signals that we really mean it when we say that aggression is unacceptable and that it has consequences."

He stressed that if the West can manage, using such steps – but also continuously helping Ukraine toward EU and NATO membership, supporting them with long-term military aid and continuing to raise the cost of aggression for Russia – to persevere through 2024 despite various election campaigns, then that will be essential to even Moscow understanding that time is nonetheless in fact on Ukraine and its supporting international community's side.

"Then the change of course will come too," the secretary general said.

"In the meantime, however, Russia will of course try to undermine our unity and pry at our resolve with various false messages – hinting, for example, at their willingness to make peace," he continued. "Right now, however, they are not an indication of Moscow's changed objectives, but rather the most classic trap they've tried to lay for us yet. No one has actually fallen for it, however, as Europe has generally learned that Chamberlain-like behavior will not lead to Churchillian results."

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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