Andris Sprūds: Russia bogged down in Ukraine, will not attack other countries [INTERVIEW]

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President of Russia Vladimir Putin. / Foto via [kremlin]

Russia has bogged down in Ukraine, largely due to the Ukrainians’ courage and determination. An attack on another country would be a suicidal move,” Professor Andris Sprūds, head of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, stresses in an interview with EURACTIV.pl.

 

 

Karolina Zbytniewska, EURACTIV.pl: French President Emmanuel Macron calls to avoid humiliating Vladimir Putin. How do you see this argument in the context of the war in Ukraine?

Professor Andris Sprūds: On one hand, it is a challenge for Europe and especially for our region to continue to engage with an aggressive country, which invades sovereign nation. Now I think the crucial thing is to show that we absolutely don’t accept what Putin is doing. At the same time, we must do as much as possible to support Ukraine, with all means, including military means.

But at the same time we also realise that there are different voices in Europe that we should take into account. We can disagree with some of them; still, we understand that some countries do not perceive Russia as an existential threat for them as much as we do and they believe there is a need to engage (with the Kremlin). So we in Europe still have a lot to learn on how to explain and defend our positions, how to advocate our own policies and how to work out a united approach with regards to Russia. So it is mostly about diplomacy.

To your knowledge, are there any other countries that do not want to humiliate Putin and believe he should be allowed to save his face? How to address this rift within the European Union, especially in the situation when the countries find it more and more difficult to agree about the sanctions?

I would not said there is a deep rift within the European Union. Conceptually, we are on the same page. We all agree that we should support Ukraine, that Russian agression in Ukraine is absolutely illegal, condemnable and punishable.

But at the same time, questions obviously arise on how we deal with Russia, also in the future. To make it clear: I would not certainly like to justify the French position. But we also know that it is diplomacy that usually brings end to wars. The power of many European countries lies in their ability to play the diplomatic card. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, there are some countries that keep a very principled position, but there are also countries which try to keep the windows open for some some kind of engagement with Moscow, even though I myself believe this is not the right time for interaction.

The EU has approved its six package of sanctions (against Russia). I believe we should go on with the 7th and 8th package and proceed with the sanctions until the Russian army withdraws from Ukraine. But we should realise that it will not be an easy and quick process, and it will probably take a while. Still, we must advocate our own policies, like an EU candidate status for Ukraine. Let’s do as much as we can for Ukrainians, because what we do for Ukrainians, we actually do also for ourselves.

What do you think is the role of geopolitics in this conflict? How geographical proximity or distance shape the perception of the war in Ukraine?

Geography is a very formative factor. We can even see it in the European Union that geographical dimension shapes policies. The closer you are (to the conflict zone), the more vulnerable you feel. Geography is obviously not the only factor. It is also about the similar size of countries, or common historical experiences. It is also about how you want to position yourself in the EU.

Still, geography remains pivotal. It is because geography involves direct security challenges and tasks that a country should address. The frontline countries are always the most worried because the issue concerns their own region. In such circumstances, cooperation with allies matters a lot. And that’s why we are eager to collaborate with allies with whom we believe we are in the same boat.

Moreover, geography comes with some historical experiences. If a country has some historical traumas from the past connected to Moscow, this historical experience lead to certain security concerns. Those concerns tend to awaken as Russia attacks Ukraine.

How would you assess the current vulnerability of Latvia and the remaining two Baltic states?

We, of course, share our borders with Putin’s Russia, which is an aggressive country that shows disrespect for the sovereignty of other nations. So we are on the front line. Apart from that, our vulnerability also results from the limited resources. We are small countries, which does not help as well. And there is also the question of our Soviet Union legacy. One more obstacle is that our societies are not so consolidated as one might think. There are no rifts between us, but some differences and divergences happen within the societies, which also leads us to a question how the society would behave in a situation of conflict.

But there is a bright side as well. There is a general trust in the countries’ security systems. Another asset is being a part of the wider alliance. And that’s perhaps exactly why we are so sensitive in our reaction when someone in NATO opts speaks about engaging with Putin. The North Atlantic Alliance is extremely important for us, as it addresses our vulnerabilities. Therefore, we are very much concerned whenever disagreements arise that we feel may result in potential rips within the Alliance.

Speaking of the Alliance, how should NATO strategically respond to the war in Ukraine? Should it consider further bolstering its presence on the Eastern flank or in the Balkans?

Absolutely. We can argue that Germany or France and some other countries that could be faster and more determined in terms of their support (for Ukraine). But if we look as the whole NATO alliance, we see that its member states have done a lot to support Ukraine. Many of the NATO countries’ citizens also joined the foreign legion and fought in Ukraine.

But supporting Ukraine is only one task. Another task is supporting the frontline countries, which are NATO members but which still feels vulnerable. The defence of those countries should be enforced by deploying more troops and equipment there. For instance, in the Baltic countries, we see more Danish, Canadian and Spanish forces are deployed with the equipment. Americans are also increasing their presence, similar announcement was voiced by Germany.

And those are only a few countries that are taking or planning such steps this days. Meanwhile, France is increasing their forces in Romania, so it’s not just about the Baltic countries, but about the whole Eastern flank. The deeds the examples of which I have just mentioned are NATO’s answer to the needs of its most vulnerable countries in this specific geopolitical situation.

Latvia has quite a large community of Russian speakers. Meanwhile almost all the Russian media have been blocked because of the peace-threating content. But those media actually have a diverse content, including entertainment, cooking shows, or fishing programmes (Ohota i Rybalka TV channel on hunt and fishing). Are you not afraid that the Russian-speaking community may be discontent by this move? What entertainment are they going to watch on TV in evenings? I know we have war. But at the same time, these people are Latvian citizens.

It is a matter of the society’s integration and consolidation. Before 24 February, I have always believed that we are a democratic nation with a pluralistic society. Even if we disagree with some of the information coming in, we nevertheless are a nation that welcomes different minds and takes into account the vulnerability that it may involve. However, now the situation has changed quite a lot. We have realised that even cooking shows or entertainment programs are being used for spreading propaganda. Consequently, a need arises to cut this propaganda flow, at least for now.

I think in the long term perspective we might come back to this issue and discuss reversing this step, but this is about our fundamental values. May we be a democratic society that believes in pluralism, but at the same time we have a duty to defend ourselves. Maybe we should consider producing our own material in Russian, along with Latvian? Should we still separate the Latvian- and Russian-speaking communities 30 years of independence? Many European media broadcast also in Russian and that may be one solution of the dilemma how to preserve democratic and diversified society, while at same time protect our own values against the blatant propaganda.

And I think we will come back to the issue once the war ends. Then, those fundamental questions might be certainly asked: what can still be allowed (to broadcast in Latvia), what should remain banned and how we build our own information space. But at the moment, in the face of the war when propaganda is sometimes even entangled in entertainment content, we cannot legitimise Russian invasion of Ukraine. Not in the time when too many media become a sort of hybrid warfare.

On the other hand Latvia is now hosting many opposition Russian media, including Meduza news portal, Dozhd TV, Russian Deutsche Welle, Novaya Gazeta. Why do you think this media choose Latvia for their new headquarters and not other countries?

Riga has always been a regional hub of intellectual engagement with different voices. Even before the WWII, Riga was also a popular migration destination for the Russian exile leaving Soviet Union and we see some repetition of that historical experience. Riga is a quite multicultural, multinational, and multilinguistic city, also at the formal level, with different communities. We have preserve our tradition of inclusiveness. That’s why we also welcome different media outlets and groups that oppose the authoritarian, if not totalitarian system. This tradition continues and I find this good. I mean those outlets those people choose.

And I think those outlets and those people feel good in Riga. Our location makes us a good point to observe the events both in Europe and in Russia. This is our advantage. In overall, I find it a win-win situation. We can benefit from hosting the mentioned outlets, whereas they can enjoy the environment that is free from the authoritarian influences and this way they can address Russian speakers in the Baltic region as well.

What do you think will be the next phases of the war and how do you think and when could it end?

I would wish for a quick solution which would satisfy all of us and satisfy our values. For years we have advocated for a rule-based world order and the right of sovereign nations for the sovereignty and independence of their countries. In this case, I would believe that Ukraine can quickly counterattack and with the European support will kick out Russian army beyond the borders. This is a scenario we ought to promote, even if it involve some wishful thinking.

Another scenario is a partially frozen conflict with some escalation from time to time, and with some demarcation lines agreed. Unfortunately, we must also prepare ourselves for this kind of scenario and continue to support Ukraine as much as we can. Russia has had some more protracted wars in the past, be it Crimea war back in the 19th century, be it Japanese Russian war, the first World War, as well as the more recent experience of Soviet Union, and Russia in the Afghani war. A protracted war might not be the advantage of Russia, but we must be prepared that such a war make have place in this case.

And should this be a long war, if we mean the economical point of view, the European Union has five or six bigger potential than Russia. We have all the cards to outplay Russia economically and to make life hard for Putin. But also this part of the society that initially supported the “special operation” will realise that a protracted conflict might be not to the benefit of Russia and actually was not what Putin promised at the beginning by invading Ukraine.

Do you think that Putin can also turn his side on other countries?

Russia has now some element of overstretch and it is being bogged down in Ukraine. It is also thanks to Ukrainian bravery, people encouraged to fight with Russia. So for Russia to fight with someone else would now be in many ways self-destructive sort of endeavour. The more would it be self-destructive for Russia to attack NATO countries. NATO members, with all the disagreements, show their resolve to respond in a united way should there be some invasion on NATO member countries.

Still, there are some countries which are more vulnerable than others. We speak about our own vulnerabilities, but if you look broader, the most vulnerable countries are the countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, and especially Kazakhstan the – in general, countries in the post-Soviet space which do not belong to NATO. Georgia has been willing to be part of the Western world, of the European Union and NATO, but at the same time it remains very cautious in its stance because it would most likely even be difficult to support Georgia if something happens in South Caucasus. Geography matters.

Some United Russia politicians have questioned the Lithuanian’s independence. It is not the first time that Baltic countries’ independence is questioned by Russia. But now we have the war-time reality. Do you find it just a stupid provocation or there might be any follow-up?

I would say that this is a part of the hybrid warfare in a war between the West and Russia. I expect even more direct attacks by Russia on the legitimacy of other states. But those are also appeals aimed at the domestic audience, an effort to create a certain picture at home that actually Russia is now fighting the war not only with Ukraine, but with the whole West. And the West is understood as including the Baltic countries, which also influence other countries in the approach to the conflict.

That is why the Baltic countries have been and will still be a target of Russian propaganda, also this propaganda which tries to undermine the legitimacy of the Baltic states – if not globally, then at least among the Russian population in those countries.

So I would not expect any follow-up. Why should we feel threatened? Of course, we should take into account all the risks and challenges and take them seriously. But as we belong to NATO, it is unlikely that Russia will attack us militarily.

If you become a Defense Minister after the October’s election, how would you change the direction of Latvian defense policy, especially on the EU and NATO?

I must say our defense policy has been very relevant and very ambitious, especially after 2014 when we decided on increasing our defence spending to the 2% of our GDP and strengthening our defence so that we are a committed and responsible ally, while at the same time developing our bilateral partnerships with our important allies, including the US and Poland.

Nonetheless, I think Latvia can still be more active on the EU stage, not instead of NATO and the transatlantic link, which is absolutely indispensable for us, but engaging in different formats of European cooperation. There is also a discussion emerging these days in Latvia about selective obligatory military service. Lithuania, for instance, have introduced selective obligatory military service after 2014, Estonia even earlier. So I think it may be an issue to be discussed also here in Latvia.

Another important element is regional cooperation with hopefully soon the new NATO members, Finland and Sweden. And I can underline once more that Poland also plays a very indispensable political and strategic role in making the region more stable and secure.

All in all, I would not try to pursue any fundamental changes, I would certainly put on continuity of the policies that are in place right now. Maybe I would only add some elements, change an angle a little bit, or put more emphasis on some matters.

You mentioned Poland. Everyone says Poland is doing a good job during the war supporting the refugees while also being hawkish together with the Baltic States against Putin. At the same time, our government has some troubles with the rule of law. Do you think that the priority on security issues puts the mentioned topic on the back burner in the relations between the countries?

First of all, we would like to have like-minded policies within the European Union. Of course, we have seen some differences concerning the countries’ domestic policies, but the security issues now make us feel there is other, more urgent challenges to address than the divergences within the EU. I also believe things have developed and some compromise have been found between the European Commission and Poland. More difficult is the situation with another Visegrad country (Hungary).

Anyway, security has now become a priority number one and we realise how important it is to be on the same page in this domain. This I hope will also have a positive spillover effect so that we will try to solve other problems and make bridges also in other fields. For the Baltic countries, the disagreements between, Brussels and Warsaw are always very inconvenient and we would like to see those bridges built as quickly as possible.


Andris Sprūds: Rosja ugrzęzła w Ukrainie. Nie zaatakuje państw NATO [WYWIAD]

Rosja ma teraz poważne problemy, niejako „ugrzęzła” w Ukrainie – podkreśla w rozmowie z EURACTIV.pl dr Andris Sprūds, szef Łotewskiego Instytutu Spraw Międzynarodowych.