Latvian President: Only the West’s Weakness Can Provoke Russia

Egils Levits talks about military aid for Ukraine, a special tribunal for Russian war crimes, and how to respond to nuclear blackmail.

By , a Berlin-based entrepreneurial multimedia journalist.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Latvian President Egils Levits.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Latvian President Egils Levits.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Latvian President Egils Levits after their joint press conference with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 9. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Having spent almost 1 percent of its GDP in aid to Ukraine, proportionally more than any other country, the Baltic nation of Latvia has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters. Latvian President Egils Levits—who, in April, was one of the first Western leaders to visit Ukraine after the Russian invasion and meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—has been vocal in support of Ukraine’s European Union candidate status and the need to stop Russian political and economic influence in Europe. 

But the 67-year-old lawyer was showing political and moral support for the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society long before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his latest unprovoked war of aggression. In 2019, for instance, Levits pitched Zelensky the idea for the Crimea Platform, a consultation and coordination format with the goal to “put an end to the occupation of Crimea,” for which he received a Ukrainian state award in 2021.

Foreign Policy recently spoke with Levits about speeding up military aid for Ukraine, the importance of a special tribunal to investigate Russian war crimes, and how to respond to Putin’s nuclear blackmail attempts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Having spent almost 1 percent of its GDP in aid to Ukraine, proportionally more than any other country, the Baltic nation of Latvia has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters. Latvian President Egils Levits—who, in April, was one of the first Western leaders to visit Ukraine after the Russian invasion and meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—has been vocal in support of Ukraine’s European Union candidate status and the need to stop Russian political and economic influence in Europe. 

But the 67-year-old lawyer was showing political and moral support for the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society long before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his latest unprovoked war of aggression. In 2019, for instance, Levits pitched Zelensky the idea for the Crimea Platform, a consultation and coordination format with the goal to “put an end to the occupation of Crimea,” for which he received a Ukrainian state award in 2021.

Foreign Policy recently spoke with Levits about speeding up military aid for Ukraine, the importance of a special tribunal to investigate Russian war crimes, and how to respond to Putin’s nuclear blackmail attempts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: In May 1985, you predicted that “the Soviet Union will be gone from Latvia” in five, 20, or 50 years. What parallels do you see in Russia’s war against Ukraine?

Egils Levits: Peace can only be sustainable if it is based on justice for both sides. And Russia’s aim—to exterminate another country—cannot make Ukrainians feel that peace would be just. Therefore, not even a cease-fire would achieve lasting peace, only if it’s based on the restoration of the full territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The basis for any solution is Russia going back to its own internationally recognized borders, not trying to seize or occupy territory of other states. I believe it will happen because Ukraine has shown that it is possible to resist the Russian army. At the same time, Russia has shown that its army is vulnerable and much weaker than it wants the world to believe. Moreover, while Ukrainians are very motivated—they are fighting for their existence—Russians’ motivation to conquer another country is much lower. 

FP: What does Ukraine lack at this stage of the war, militarily speaking?

EL: Ukraine needs the continued military support of Western countries—that is, NATO and European member states—so it has enough weapons to defend itself and push Russians out of the country. Following a certain hesitation in the first months of the war, I think by now there is a general recognition among all Western countries that we should help Ukraine win the war. This also applies to those countries that belong to the same values family, like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. And the support is growing, especially from the United States, which is the main provider of weapons for Ukraine.

The most important kinds of weapons Ukraine needs right now are air defense systems. The readiness of Western countries, especially the United States, to deliver these systems would boost the resilience of Ukraine, not only on the battlefield but also of Ukraine’s damaged economy because air defense would help keep it running.

FP: Do you fear that weapons deliveries are coming too late, though, given the Russian nuclear threat as well as Russia’s recent devastating attacks against civilians and critical infrastructure?

EL: I would say it’s happening at the last moment. The recent attacks against critical infrastructure may be a temporary success for the Russians, but it will not last long, for NATO member states have learned that delivering weapons quickly is crucial. Arms deliveries from Western countries to Ukraine are now happening at a much faster pace than at the beginning of the war.

Now, while making promises about arms deliveries is relatively easy for politicians if they have the political will, armies face many technical and bureaucratic difficulties. After 77 years of peace [since the end of World War II], a certain bureaucracy has infected the military and defense ministries. Reacting quickly was not the first goal. But now these challenges seem to have been largely overcome, and technical deliveries have been sped up, too. 

FP: A significant portion of Ukrainian power stations are reportedly damaged or destroyed, and last week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia plans to blow up a major dam in a false-flag attack. What are your biggest concerns about the war as winter is approaching?

EL: The danger is real, and I am very worried. Russia is trying these new tactics because it has recognized it is losing on the battlefield. We’ll have to see how big the damage for Ukraine will really be. The severity of the attacks also depends on how fast the Ukrainians can advance. Either way, we have to brace for something as catastrophic as severe flooding and a resulting new wave of refugees.

All of this means that our support for Ukraine should reflect this new situation. Therefore, as I said before, the main necessity and priority is to deliver air defense systems quickly. I trust that once these systems are deployed in Ukraine, any such future Russian attack would not create as much damage as the ones we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

FP: Do your Western European counterparts understand the nature of the conflict in the same way the eastern flank does?

EL: In general, for the eastern flank countries, [Russian aggression] is of the highest priority. In some Western countries, especially those geographically farther away, it is only one of the most important issues. Now, in foreign and defense policy, [the war in Ukraine] is the first question that comes up. But societies usually discuss it in addition to other problems. The difference thus doesn’t lie in responding to these problems but how important they are in public perception. In the eastern flank countries, the public ranks them in first place; in other countries, it ranks lower, albeit still high.

FP: Does this apply to Germany and specifically your counterpart, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, too?

EL: I have met with the German president, who is a good friend of mine, many times and discussed this problem. Steinmeier and the German leadership in general are very realistic in their perception of the dangers and also about what they need to do. 

For Germans, this marked a major change in how they perceived the world for 75 years. They had not seen the danger emanating from Russia, despite it being obvious in the last 10 to 15 years. And there were certain delusions that it is possible to build European security together with Russia. In Latvia, we have always criticized this uncritical view and dependence of parts of Europe on Russian gas because we know that Russia can use this as an instrument of political influence. We were always against Nord Stream 2. Now that Russia has solved the problem, European countries are reacting quickly. We see that the dependence on Russian gas is going down very quickly, and the EU will eventually overcome it.

FP: This week, the German government approved a deal, pushed through by Chancellor Olaf Scholz despite explicit warnings from six federal ministries, to sell nearly 25 percent of a container terminal in the Port of Hamburg to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco. Are you opposed to selling stakes in ports to China?

EL: I cannot comment on this German debate, but we in Latvia will absolutely not. Selling parts of our ports to China or to Russia would be ridiculous.

FP: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has described Zelensky as his “opponent.” Two members of Italy’s new government—Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini—are longtime admirers of Putin. Could European populists hurt support for Ukraine and perhaps even undermine Ukraine’s security?

EL: Concerning Ukraine, the danger is that some populist parties say, against the backdrop of rising energy prices and inflation, that we should not support Ukraine and instead solve domestic problems. This is a very shortsighted answer, for if Russia were to win, it would continue to threaten democracies by trying to meddle in their internal affairs by means of hybrid attacks and so on. So it’s about believing in democracy, which a big majority still does. Of course a minority isn’t sure, but in general they cannot influence the West’s support to Ukraine.

Hungary has a specific position. It doesn’t diverge too much from the general stance of the European Union, but some of its priorities are different. I am hopeful about Italy because the new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has clearly stated that Italy will continue to support Ukraine.

FP: Last week, Estonia’s Parliament declared Russia a terrorist state, becoming the third national legislature to do so after Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, the Baltic foreign ministers just called for a special tribunal to investigate Russian war crimes. Why is such a special tribunal important from your point of view?

EL: It matters because Russia’s aim to make extinct another country marks the first time for such a kind of aggression since World War II. It is the gravest imaginable crime against the world peace order, far from a local or regional conflict between two states, of which we have seen many over the past 70 years that also violated international law.

Let me explain why we therefore need a formal judicial recognition that Russia’s war against Ukraine is a crime of aggression. Two international courts are already dealing with specific aspects of the aggression. But no international court is responsible for the crime of aggression as such, of starting an aggressive war. Therefore, we need to establish a special international tribunal like the ones we had for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and other countries. Such a tribunal would not only deal with the responsibility of individuals but also the accountability of the Russian state as such. This is especially important in the context of reparations: The $300 billion to $400 billion of seized Russian assets due to Western sanctions should be given to Ukraine in order to rebuild it. I believe this is also a task for this special tribunal.

FP: Right now, some 4,000 NATO troops are stationed in Latvia. At the NATO Madrid summit, Latvia was promised a more sizable NATO battle group. Do you feel the pledges are being implemented at a sufficient pace?

EL: The Madrid summit decisions are yet to be implemented. We have signed an agreement with Canada that we will increase the number of troops to brigade size. Deterring Putin from further aggression isn’t possible by explaining to him on the phone what he’s doing is bad and urging him to go back. Our strategy remains deterrence through credible defense, which only works if our borders are safe. Building a credible defense capacity is now the task of all NATO member states. The alliance works as a system of collective defense.

Russia considers the whole of NATO its adversary, which means it would likely attack the weakest part of the alliance’s border. Once Finland has joined NATO, it will add [more than 800 miles] to NATO’s border with Russia. That’s much more than the Baltic states’ borders with Russia. This new border should be protected. At the moment, actually, I would say that most of the Russian army is now in Ukraine, but we should also think about the time after the war. Therefore, it is necessary to guarantee the security along all of NATO’s border with Russia.

FP: On Sept. 21, Putin said he would use “all weapons systems available” to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia. Yet many experts say bowing to Putin’s threats will make nuclear war more likely. What’s your take on “nuclear blackmail”?

EL: Maybe nuclear blackmail wasn’t as loud in the past as it is now, but it has always belonged to the Russian political arsenal. Russia is not provoked by the strength of the West but by its weakness. If the West’s answer is weak, it is an invitation for Russia to go further. That’s Russia’s logic. If Russia knows that using nuclear force would have catastrophic consequences for Russia, as U.S. President Joe Biden clearly told leadership in Moscow recently, then it doesn’t make sense for Putin to use nuclear weapons. That’s our logic.

Benjamin Bathke is a Berlin-based entrepreneurial multimedia journalist. He has worked in online and radio journalism for the past six years and is currently covering migration, media innovation, and technology for a variety of international publications.
Twitter: @BenjaminBathke

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