Security policy is not cheap nor is it easy
A conversation with Jonatan Vseviov, an Estonian diplomat and secretary general of the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs. Interviewer: Lesia Dubenko
LESIA DUBENKO: Let me start with a very straightforward question. Is Russia losing its war against Ukraine?
JONATAN VSEVIOV: Yes.
But is Ukraine winning?
How do you see it?
It is going to take a little bit of time. The definition of victory is the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its right to choose its foreign policy course and alliance relationships, and that is the only goal that I heard my Ukrainian interlocutors present. It is also the only goal that can safeguard security for the core principles of European security architecture and the notion of territorial integrity and sovereignty. They are all under attack, not just Ukraine as a sovereign nation. Every war ends one day. Ultimately, there are two options for peace. Either the aggression will be fundamentally discredited as a tool of statecraft or, unfortunately, it will become the norm. The democratic world stands behind Ukraine and is willing to support it politically, economically and militarily, and also raise the cost of aggression until victory is achieved.
But to win we need more weapons, no?
Absolutely. More weapons, more economic and reconstruction assistance and political support to keep hope alive. By raising the cost of aggression, the West and Estonia make sure everybody understands that we will not tire and we will not lose focus. On the contrary, as the aggression continues, we will keep introducing sanctions and other restrictive measures, including politically isolating the aggressor. So that they would finally understand that the only offer that they had the only option is to stop the aggression. This is why the cost of continuing aggression is higher than stopping it. Another strategic pillar of our policy is to ensure that there is no impunity for those who committed war crimes in Ukraine or the crime of aggression. This war is as illegal as it is unjustified.
Decision-making, however, is at times slow as there are 27 European Union member states, even more in NATO. As the democratic community, we also include the key partners from the G7. Accordingly, building consensus around tactical decisions, especially nuanced ones with huge stakes, within our governments takes time even when we have the strategic goal in sight. Even though it’s frustrating for independent observers and sometimes Estonia, still throughout the last almost 12 months, now almost a year, a similar pattern with regard to military assistance, sanctions, and political isolation of Russia, has taken place. First, there is an issue that paves the way for a discussion. Many consider the topic to be raised too soon or beyond reason and say no. Then there’s a further debate and sooner or later, usually in a few weeks, these positions weaken, and the decision is adopted, though with certain caveats here and there to maintain consensus.
If you remember before February 24th, there was a lot of controversy as to whether it would be smart to provide Ukraine with any sort of weapons. Later, the focus shifted to different systems, including western-made ones, and so on. Still, every time we managed to reach a decision. So, I think it is safe to expect these debates to continue in the future, but I think it’s equally safe to assume that the free world will not tire. And instead of taking steps back or instead of just standing we will keep moving forward and break the taboos of the day. It also has to include a clear process for rebuilding what was destroyed. But not according to the old standards. To quote US President Joe Biden, to “build back better”. The faster we get there, the better off. Unfortunately wars are costly, they are not over as soon as we would like them to be over. But Estonia will continue working politically and diplomatically to convince our friends and allies that we should do more and work faster.
You served as Estonia’s Ambassador to the US, correct?
I served in the United States during the Trump administration as the Estonian ambassador. But as an Estonian diplomat, I also worked during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
During the Trump administration there were some challenges with transatlantic cooperation. Now, there seems to be more unity. Yet, still, even President Biden not that long ago hinted at the possibility of some cracks. What is your take on the current Europe-US relationship?
There were several areas of cooperation where we moved forward. But also, there were several very intense disputes between the EU and the US, also between individual countries and the US. Primarily, it was all about the atmosphere, which was not positive. Now the atmosphere is very, very strong. We are brought together not so much by our particular leaders or other politicians, even though those individuals matter. But much more by fundamental values and principles, upon which we’ve built our societies, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which are the cornerstone of all free market economies. A lot of people have argued for quite some time that the 21st century will be a difficult one for democracies of the world. That there will be competition, and we may even have to defend our way of life and a world order that is based on these similar principles. Yet, when people give speeches on this matter, they may conclude that these are only theoretical constructs. The aggression in Ukraine has made everyone, at least in foreign policy, realise that history is back, it is not over. All of those who argued that the West needs to stick together and actually do the hard work to defend their way of life was right.
Security policy is not cheap nor is it easy. It cannot be handled carelessly one day and then forgotten about. It requires hard work. Paradoxically, Russia’s aggression is driving us closer, reminding everybody why we created the institutions such as NATO to provide for the common defence, and very importantly the European Union to ensure peace and development and stability on the European continent. So, I think that these difficulties will end up strengthening the bonds and reminding decision-makers of the general public as well as the importance of our alliance.
Let’s talk about Estonian-Russian relations. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently said that it has long been no secret that Estonia is one of the most hostile states towards Russia. How does that statement make you feel?
It makes me laugh because the spokeswoman used the word hostile while Russia is conducting large-scale military aggression against Ukraine. It’s just simply ironic. I don’t think that Russian spokespeople should be using those words. I think they should be ashamed. Perhaps individually deep in their hearts they are. I understand it is their job to use such words. It is ridiculously obvious because the only hostile country on this continent right now is Russia with its war and the crimes committed in Ukraine. Estonia wants parity in our diplomatic relations. We consider our diplomatic workers in Moscow and Tallinn to be important, but we want the number of diplomats in both of those respective embassies to be on an equal level for reasons that I think are self-explanatory. We are certainly ready to ensure parity no matter what the Russian side decides. To a great extent, this is because Russia is hostile towards the most basic tenets international law and European security. After all, they are the ones waging this unjustified illegal war.
Estonia is also willing to seize Russian assets to give to Ukraine, and your country is already developing the legislation for that. How do you think Russia will respond if you do indeed seize such assets?
Let me clarify. We are fully aware of the legal difficulty of achieving this goal, but we have made it clear that this is indeed our goal to find a legal way within our constitutional parameters and that of relevant international law to confiscate the assets – or at least some of them – that we have frozen, to make the damages self-imposed by Russia. It is difficult. Yet even the most difficult problem has a solution, so the government has decided to first advocate at the EU level, saying it should be given priority and that potential solutions at the European level can be thought through, including by the lawyers that the European Commission and other European institutions have in their ranks. Secondly, our lawyers from the ministry of justice need to go through this analysis to not determine whether this is doable, but how to do it. This analysis should indeed be completed very soon, and this is not to pre-judge its result as it could then take some time to draft the necessary acts. So, we may not be in a position to implement everything very immediately.
My question is based on the fact that Russia always spews out threats, and they said that if you take their assets they are going to respond. It is unclear as to what that response entails. Do you have any ideas? Could it perhaps even be a military response?
We’ve gotten used to these threats during and before this war. Again, it’s very ironic that they are saying that there is an ongoing large-scale military aggression the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War. This already is a realisation of several awful scenarios that most people hoped would never materialise. So, it is ironic to be even discussing additional threats in the context of what is already taking place. Secondly, the use of fear as a tactic aims to paralyse our policy. Our response should be calm and calculated, and we should always recognise that demonstrating fear is not a wise policy option in foreign policy.
You touched upon the creation of a special tribunal. Ukraine is very keen on the idea of establishing one and is willing to have a vote in the United Nations. Do you think that its establishment is actually realistic given that pro-Russian sentiment around the globe differs? In the Global South, for instance, it is quite strong.
This is not a question of whether some people or countries are pro-Russian. It is a question of whether we are pro-international law or against international law and whether we are pro-accountability or against accountability. I am certain that if we manage to deal with the very complicated legal aspects correctly, and come up with a truly well-crafted wording, then the world will recognise that this is not a question only about particular countries’ interests or policies, but this is indeed a matter of principle for all those who care for stability and international law. So, I think eventually the crime of aggression, which is clearly taking place, will need to be addressed not only politically as most of our parliaments and governments have already condemned the aggression, but also through legal proceedings. There’s a lot of work that is already taking place is regards to war crimes, but we need to find a way to address the crime of aggression as well because, as I said, we are defined by the outcomes of this war. The world is watching, and we have to stay true to what we preached for decades, which is a world order based on international law and that we promised to defend certain basic rules of international behaviour, which Russia violates today. So, we need answers, including a lot of things that are legal in nature that addresses these crimes from a legal perspective. It’s going to be a complicated task, but even the most complicated tasks can be solved if people work together and address them. I can assure you that Estonia is doing everything it can together with Ukraine and a number of other countries to find the best way to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice and create the right institutions, with the right frameworks to make everything legitimate.
So, you are certain that such tribunal will be established?
I’m absolutely positive that the world will be able to find a way to address the crime of aggression and those responsible for it.
An array of experts is now hypothesising that Russia may indeed collapse. Do you concur? If yes, what would that entity look like in your opinion?
I do not know and I do not want to predict. The future is always very unpredictable. That’s why it’s the future. I think our goals as the West should be that we need to push Russia back into Russia. Afterwards, it’s for the Russian people to decide on questions relating to the domestic and foreign policy and what they want. Our goal is to make sure that Russia does not invade its neighbours and in cases where it does, for it to stop the aggression and have the full territorial integrity of the neighbours restored.
How do Estonia and the EU envision cooperation with Russia and Russians, whether led by Putin or someone else? Do you believe that Russia is capable of becoming … well maybe not a full-fledged democracy but something akin to say Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy”?
Again, it depends on what the Russian people themselves want and what they end up deciding. But clearly what has happened cannot be ignored. February 24th is extremely consequential and will shape the future in significant ways. Even if the war is over one day, we cannot just simply go back and bypass the facts that have indeed taken place since. One of the things that have broken, and I don’t need to explain this to you and the Ukrainian people, is trust. Trust in Russia as a neighbour and trust in this notion that Russia intends to fulfil the commitments that it accepted voluntarily. So, any sort of a future will have to include a lengthy process, if Russia so desires, of rebuilding trust and the commitments that Russia decides to take upon itself. After all, Russia is currently violating not just the core unwritten rules of international behaviour, but also the legally binding big strategic significant agreements and the narrower ones too. So, I think if one day peace is back on our continent, and we start to rebuild our relationship with Russia, it will take time, during which, hopefully, step-by-step we can move forward. But I am convinced that there is no sudden jumping back to business as usual.
Do you see any changes in Russian society or perhaps Russians living in Estonia that suggest that they no longer want to listen to propaganda?
This is a very difficult question to answer because every individual is different. To summarise this and offer you a simplified answer then, yes, people are always smarter than even authoritarian rulers think they are. People always see through the propaganda better than even the propagandists think they do.
Are you confident that Ukraine will retake Crimea and all the lands currently occupied by Russia?
Yes, absolutely. The question is how to get there and the method. I obviously do not have a crystal ball and I cannot predict the future. But it is achievable and it will be achieved.
Jonatan Vseviov is an Estonian diplomat and secretary general of the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs. He served previously as Estonia’s ambassador to the United States.
Lesia Dubenko is a Ukrainian political scientist and analyst. She is a graduate of Lund University (MSc in European Affairs) and covers issues relating to international affairs, migration and disinformation.
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