Russia has come to occupy an outsize role in U.S. foreign policy and the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, and who knows more about the Bear than the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? They were devoured by the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II, liberated with the collapse of Communism, and have been threatened constantly, in ways big and small, as Russian President Vladimir Putin sets about trying to build anew a Russian Empire.
So we sat down earlier this week to talk about all this with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who kindly took a break from the United Nations General Assembly to drop by The Daily Beast offices in Manhattan.
At a time when Donald Trump seems to think the Russians can do no wrong, and Hillary Clinton’s passionless pose makes the threat from Moscow sound vaguely academic, these two statesmen have some hard-earned insights about the importance of European security, disinformation and propaganda efforts by Putin to undermine or subvert democratic societies. They also talk about the future of NATO, cyber war, and the rise of reactionary politics and politicians .
What follows is a condensed transcript of the wide-ranging hour-and-a-half-long discussion The Daily Beast conducted with Ilves and Linkevicius.
On whether this is the moment for the Baltic states to say ‘We told you so’ with respect to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive strategies.
Linas Linkevicius: We definitely were [among] those who helped to open eyes and ears, maybe, to show the importance and power of propaganda, which was really used as an asymmetric threat, I would say as a weapon… In a conventional confrontation, you’d have an artillery attack and then the real battle. Now you can brainwash, and then come.
That was the example of Crimea because people were brainwashed by state-controlled media. Locals were waiting for when bandits and fascists were coming to kill them. They were convinced this was going to happen, and they were very happy to welcome Russian soldiers because they came to save them.
Toomas Ilves: We’ve been facing this dezinformatsiya [disinformation] ever since our independence, in many ways already before that. I remember as an ambassador — in ‘93, ‘94, ‘95 — in Washington, constantly having to defend myself or my country at the State Department in the face of completely outrageous and nonsense claims made against it. People took seriously outright lies.
On Donald Trump’s questioning of whether or not the United States would defend an invaded NATO ally, as mandated by Article V of the Atlantic Charter, and his supporter Newt Gingrich’s recent comments that ‘Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.’
Ilves: It was just odd, having been the ambassador to the United States in 1994 when the “Contract for America” was introduced [by Gingrich]. It was very explicitly put in there, “the Baltic states to join NATO.” The Republican Party position, under Mr. Gingrich, was to bring the Baltic States into NATO. Now we’re viewed as a “suburb.”
If Estonia or any member-state was invaded and Article V was not invoked, NATO will fall apart. If it fails once, the alliance will no longer exist. This is what is really the glue in Europe, too, because you never know who will be next.
And it’s worth reminding people that Article V has been invoked only once, on September 12, 2001.
Linkevicius: For a long time there was this perception that such threats are very far away and do not concern the United States or even Western Europe. Then we had Ukraine and the MH17 crash, for instance. Those who thought this is all far away now noticed that the threat was affecting families here and now. At the end of the day, be it Narva [in Estonia on the Russian border], Latvia, Lithuania — we are the same alliance. We still believe the U.S. will remain a key ally to Europe.
On the rise of far-right and far-left movements in Europe with ideological — and possible financial — ties to the Kremlin.
Ilves: If you look at the funding of far-right parties in Europe—where’s the money coming? We do know that 9 million euros was given by Russia, through a Czech bank, to [French National Front leader] Marine Le Pen. We know that this is not an isolated case. This is happening elsewhere. So why would we be surprised to see these strong campaign efforts and successes and advertising of far-right parties that either are explicitly known to receive money or are less well known in the public?
As for the European far left, it has very little to do with Marxism-Leninism these days. It has more to do with anti-Semitism, racism, anti-migration. They claim to be left-wing but they’re espousing positions which would actually be classically brown.
Linkevicius: Molotov already exists looking for his Ribbentrop. [An allusion to the secret pact between the Soviet and the Nazi German foreign ministers before World War II that gave the Soviets the Baltic states as part of their “sphere of influence.”]
Ilves: I think there are a number of little Ribbentrops running around. But Molotov hasn’t found a good enough deal yet.
On allegations that Russian intelligence was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and fears that it may try to interfere with the U.S. election as well:
Ilves: We [Estonia] were attacked in 2007. It was a very sophisticated cyber attack, but it did happen and it had a profound economic impact for a very short time. There is no element of schadenfreude now that the U.S. is going through the same, but there is a thinking that runs, “OK, now maybe you get it?”
You don’t have to have a massive thing happen. … You screw one election, one state, maybe one district, clearly hacked and you undermine faith in the entire election. That’s all you need to do.
Frankly, I am surprised by the lack of a call for a political response in Washington. Until you do call it out, there’s nothing there. You have to publicly draw a line in the sand.
On the accusation that a more aggressive policy toward Russia — be it by directly arming Ukraine or intervening in the Syria crisis against Russian interests — will spark “World War III.”
Linkevicius: As you probably know, it’s not a secret, we provided military assistance to Ukraine. We made it public. It was a small, symbolic gesture, needless to say. But it was also a hint or reminder that let’s help a country which is facing aggression from a force that is bigger and providing professional missile systems, tanks. …
We’ve always seen this desire [by Russia] to destroy the European security architecture because it’s wrong. They’d like to design everything not according to international law but self-invented rules.
And always there is a strange reaction by the West, which seems to be willing to simply abandon the rules.
It is as if, upon seeing someone violate traffic lights, you decide to remove these lights and declare that henceforward there will be no violation.
Ilves: We will have to come to terms with this one way or another soon. Since this behavior has gone unchecked for so long, there will come a point where it will cross some boundary and it will be ugly and bad. Our worry, of course, in our part of the world, is that they don’t do it with us.
On a lack of European unity against Russia’s not so stealthy invasion of Ukraine, and on continuing sanctions against Russian officials and institutions.
Ilves: The four EU countries that have suffered the most in terms of effect on GDP, percentage-wise, in the European Union are Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania. The countries that are demanding the end of sanctions have really suffered in a minuscule way but they’re making a lot of noise because they claim pressure from their domestic business communities. Give me a break. We three — the three Baltic countries — have had the biggest damage done, and you don’t see us wavering.
Linkevicius: Let’s not forget in this conflict who is the aggressor and who is the enemy. Because it’s a big temptation now to say all of them are not delivering, all are equally guilty, morally and practically. No, again let’s be frank: Russia is not just denying being a party to the conflict, but how can we expect Russia to deliver if they’re not even recognizing being part of the conflict. Needless to say, they hold the key to the resolution of the conflict.
On the failing Ukraine “ceasefire” and the prospect for a political settlement to the two-year-old war.
Ilves: Been there, done that. The six-point agreement hammered out by [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy in August of 2008 to end the Russian-Georgian war — the fourth point said that until there was the complete removal of Russian troops, relations would be frozen with the European Union. During the same French presidency, a month later, when the Council of Europe voted to begin its partnership and modernization program with Russia and dropped all sanctions, Sarkozy came out and said, “Thank God common sense prevailed.”
This is a case where we will need very strong U.S. leadership because I don’t see it currently, especially in the run-up to big elections in 2017, in Europe—any strong commitment by either governments in power or opposition to actually address these issues. I think we’re headed for a rocky time. And this is the time when U.S. stability, a forceful role by the United States in foreign affairs, will be needed.
Video by Sara Sayed