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We should not have let Putin become what he is today

An interview with Linas Linkevicius, the former minister of foreign affairs of Lithuania. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze

February 26, 2022 - Linas Linkevičius Vazha Tavberidze - InterviewsUkraineAtWar

Photo: Lithuania Ministry of Foreign Affairs (CC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mfa_lithuania/32289764318

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: Recently, the Russian Federal Council Spokesperson used an interesting term while speaking about Ukraine: “Forcing Ukraine to Peace”. We’ve heard that turn of phrase before in Georgia. Is what we are seeing now a bigger chapter from the same book?

LINAS LINKEVICIUS: I have said this before and I will say it again: Russia’s has its own vocabulary, where words have different meanings than what we’re used to. When it is annexation, they call it liberation; in Georgia’s case it was “liberated:, as you probably well know and feel to this day. When they are talking about negotiations – this means “blackmail”. They are the best peacekeepers around, because for them it means taking pieces of land and keeping it. So when Putin said on the eve of this disaster that he is ready to look for diplomatic solutions – we should have realised that something entirely different was about to take place.

I have this feeling of guilt and debt, especially on behalf of the West – for our indulgence, for the empty dialogue which led to nowhere, for our appeasement, for the blindness as we raised the greatest tyrant and the most dangerous dictator of this age. We should never have allowed Vladimir Putin and Russia to become what they are today. I am not saying that it was my country’s position or my personal – but if somebody is still surprised as to why all this is happening, I would urge them to remember the speech Putin gave at the Bucharest summit, I remember it very well, when he flatly told NATO leaders – who are you negotiating with? Ukraine is not a country, it is a non-entity, it’s artificially created. Nobody listened much to him back then. A few of us said – look, he says that because he means it. After that came Georgia. But we again chose not to learn the same lesson when we saw 20 per cent of Georgia’s land occupied. Nothing happened, which means the price was agreeable. Then it was Crimea in 2014. Now, he is taking another step – and he will not stop as long as keeps winning.

How satisfied are you with the scale and severity of western sanctions so far?

Sanctions are important, of course. They could be stronger. SWIFT, for instance, is not yet on the table. In general, we are still calculating sanctions when people are dying as we speak and as Kyiv is under assault. Sanctions might be already too late [for Ukraine], but they should be imposed regardless. Immediate, severe sanctions. Russia should be cut from the civilisation as that is what they did themselves basically.

Why now and not earlier, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked?

We, Europeans, we need consensus. There were always voices of scepticism or even open opposition. There was scepticism about the energy sector, for instance. But what was done yesterday, it was at least really something, a step in right direction. And I expect more. Ukraine should be supported economically, financially. We should arm Ukraine – we should have given them weapons before, but some thought that this would too provocative. But a country has a right and duty to defend itself. And if Ukraine is able to deal enough damage to occupants, that’s a very tangible argument [for Putin]. And if they will not be able to conduct this blitzkrieg which they were planning, that will be also be a good argument to stop this war.

Zelenskyy says world is watching “from afar” and Ukraine is “left alone” to fight Russia – is the criticism fair?

Absolutely. We were delusional about Russia; that they wouldn’t invade, that they are interested in the Minsk agreements and we should talk about that. This so-called dialogue, even the word has become so toxic. Diplomacy is not something that should be applicable for the current leadership in the Kremlin at all, because they follow only gang rules. So when certain presidents are calling Putin again to talk to him, I do not know what their reasons are, it seems very strange for me. 

Back in 2015, you said and I quote: “we can’t trust a single word of Russian leadership, Russian statements are worthless”. Why has the West failed to comprehend what you have been saying for the last six years?

We are humans. We will show empathy to others, if something wrong is happening to them, but if it’s not happening to us, we still have this delusional thinking that it won’t happen to us at all and we remain in our comfort zone. This line of thinking was prevailing for a long, long time. The mood has changed dramatically in the Netherlands after the downing of MH17. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko was big, Skripal was bigger. And after Navalny, everyone paid attention. This delusion now seems to be disappearing, as even leaders who were sceptical before, or even openly sympathetic to Putin and Russia, now they are saying they were wrong.  But again, it is already too late.

And? What will be borne out of it for Putin and his crew?

I recall this wreath-laying ceremony on the on the tomb of unknown soldier on February 23rd. Putin laid down the wreath, knowing that tomorrow he will send soldiers to die – basically for nothing; for his ambitions. What is that if not a spit on all these people, basically on human life. If this man has decided to commit suicide, to kill his own country, what are others doing? This strange meeting of the security council members, where they were standing up, one by one, answering questions – these will be the very same questions they will be asked by judges at their own Nuremberg Trial later on. Putin probably will not be around, like Hitler, but these people will be, and they will be asked that question and they will be forced to answer.

Who do you think will organise such a trial?

Well, I can tell you who will not. Definitely not the United Nations. If it will not be reorganised, they are capable to do nothing, basically. This conflict once again shows that this organisation is hopeless, basically, when major crisis erupts, and especially when a permanent member of the UN Security council is behind such a conflict.  

Today Ukraine, but whose turn it will be next? Could it be your country?

We are a part of NATO. So if Putin decides to challenge NATO in the Baltic states, that will be total madness, because that will mean mutual destruction. Maybe he is mad enough to try that, but I guess even though madness has no limits, that would be too irrational even for him. Why go over to NATO when you have other pieces of land close by? There is Moldova with Transnistria. Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan – which was partially taken in the shadows recently, we didn’t even have time to discuss it, it happened so quickly. There are plenty of pieces of this cake left around for him, a lot of things to do without a global confrontation. And it will be done if he will not be stopped.

Linas Linkevičius is a Lithuanian politician and diplomat. He served as defence minister in 1993–1996 and again in 2000–2004. He was Lithuanian’s ambassador to NATO and Belarus (1997-2000), and most recently the minister of foreign affairs between 2012 and 2020.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.

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