The closer you get to Russia, the clearer the picture. This weekend’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn, an annual security shindig named after the country’s revered first president, highlighted misunderstandings and insights.
A whiff of contrition was in the air. Senior Germans lamented their country’s greed and gullibility in past decades. Americans who had been involved in the gimmicky and disastrous “reset” with the phony-liberal Russian president Dmitri Medvedev in 2009 lambasted the West’s past tolerance of Kremlin militarism and violence. It was now clear (they said) that these had been baked into the Russian system since the mid-1990s. A French representative repeatedly assured his hosts that his country was committed to their defense; why President Macron’s tergiversations made such assurances so necessary was not explored. Swedes and Finns, who in past decades treated their Baltic neighbors as uncouth and hysterical, denounced Russia, praised NATO, and celebrated a newfound common regional identity.
Estonians are too polite to boast, but few participants were in any doubt about the country’s efforts in support of Ukraine (it has given more than 1% of its GDP in military and other aid). Nor did its hefty defense budget (now heading for 3% of GDP) escape notice. The idea that Russia is inherently and deeply imperialistic — once dismissed as Baltic post-traumatic stress disorder — is now commonplace. So too, is the idea that Ukraine must win not only the war decisively, but also the peace: with reconstruction, reparations, and, most important of all, NATO membership. Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s newly re-elected prime minister, emphasized the need for accountability for Russian war crimes. It is time permanently to break the cycle of aggression, she said.
Last year’s conference was in the nerve-jangling early months of the war. This year the news was better, but an air of impatience also hung over the conference hall. Why does everything take so long? Russian threats of nuclear escalation have proved hollow; we know what the Ukrainians need. Why not just give it to them?
That would have been a good question for the Americans, but the global hegemon chose not to send any representative. The no-show also avoided having to confront the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine. This will stall, at President Biden’s personal insistence, at the alliance’s upcoming Vilnius summit. Some hear ominous echoes of the disastrous fudge at NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008, when a Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine was blocked by the then-German leader, Angela Merkel. That paved the way for Russia’s war against Georgia a few months later.
But the picture is quite different now. Europeans are championing the alliance’s expansion, while it is the Americans who have cold feet. Ukraine was a basket case then; now, it is a hardened, capable ally. In any case, the gamble of 2008 clearly failed: Russia saw the empty promise of eventual membership as both a bluff and provocation.
The biggest challenge to the conference consensus came from a different quarter: countries that see the Ukraine war chiefly through the prism of anti-Americanism. It is a striking fact that so many of the world’s biggest democracies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa — are indifferent or outright hostile to Ukraine’s plight. The people best able to explain the nature of modern Russian imperialism may be those who have themselves experienced Soviet colonialism, and also, thereafter, years of being patronized, neglected, and exploited by the rich and arrogant. The conversation between what we used to call “eastern Europe” and what we used to call the “Third World” was just starting at this year’s conference. Expect it to continue.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.