Here’s What the Experts Say About Managing Putin

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Many Americans and Europeans flatter themselves by seeing the war in Ukraine through a false prism.

Too often, we think we have sacrificed for the Ukrainians. We pat ourselves on the back for providing expensive weapons and paying higher heating bills to help Ukrainians win their freedom — and we wish they’d get on with it.

In fact, what’s clear here in the Baltic countries is that it’s the other way around: The Ukrainians are sacrificing for us. They’re the ones doing us a favor, by degrading the Russian military and reducing the risk of a war in Europe that would cost the lives of our troops.

“We have by our support for Ukraine defended ourselves,” said Egils Levits, who concluded his term as Latvia’s president this month. He used his last full interview before leaving office to argue that the West should provide Ukraine with more weapons to ensure that it recovers all its territory, including Crimea — so that Vladimir Putin’s aggression is thoroughly discredited.

The NATO summit here this week moved toward adding Sweden to the fold, kept everyone united and generally went well; the only loser was Russia. But the real test isn’t whether fine words are offered in front of cameras, but whether Western countries step up their arms transfers to Ukraine to increase the prospect that the war can actually end.

“We all have to do more,” Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told me. She’s right, and I’m not sure that everyone in the West gets that. President Biden has done an outstanding job of alliance management — one reason the summit went so well — but I believe he has been too cautious and reactive in providing weaponry that Ukraine needs, such as precision long-range missiles and fighter aircraft.

As one looks back over the last couple of decades, many in Germany and across Western Europe and America were lulled into the fiction that post-Communist Russia was a gentler bear. In contrast, the Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — were ahead of the curve in their warnings about Putin, so in the run-up to the summit I’ve traveled through the three nations to get their take on Ukraine and Russia.

To be frank, they still think we’re somewhat naïve.

“We should give more support now so that Ukraine can prevail,” Levits insisted, and he warned that it would be a great mistake to end the war with a deal that gives Crimea or other parts of Ukraine to Russia.

The Ukrainian 35th Marine Brigade at a mortar position in eastern Ukraine.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“That’s absolutely a bad idea, because it would provoke the next war,” he said. “The conclusion for Moscow would be clear: The West is weak.”

The Baltic countries are cleareyed about Russia because of their history. The Soviets seized all three countries during World War II and ruled them harshly until they won independence in 1991. Prime Minister Kallas’s own mother was deported by cattle car to Siberia.

Yet Russia has never fully confronted this history, and that may be why 70 percent of Russians said in a 2019 poll that they approve of Stalin — and why they say in polls today that they approve of Putin.

To break this cycle, Kallas said, it’s important to make Putin fail, and to hold him accountable in a war crimes trial.

If Putin ends the war with a chunk of Ukraine, she said, dictators would get the message that aggression pays, and “Nobody could really feel safe.”

The Baltic countries are motivated because they fear that if Ukraine falls, they could be next on the chopping block. Estonia has contributed more to Ukraine’s war effort as a share of G.D.P. than any other country — from howitzers to mobile sauna units (Estonians love their saunas). Kallas wishes that other countries had done more to accelerate their arms transfers to Ukraine, rather than send them in dribs and drabs.

“I sometimes think: Would the outcome be different if we had given all the military aid we are giving now already in March” last year, Kallas mused. “Because then maybe Russia would have realized sooner they made a mistake.”

One reasonBiden has been slow to send long-range missiles and fighter aircraft to Ukraine is concern about provoking Putin into using tactical nuclear weapons. Both Levits and Kallas dismiss that argument, and it’s worth listening to them given their record of being right.

“Russia or Putin is provoked by weakness, and not provoked by strength,” Levits said. He noted that while we don’t know the full story yet, it seems that when the mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin crossed every red line and directly challenged Moscow, Putin’s response was to negotiate, conciliate and de-escalate.

Kallas likewise wants to see the West provide more weaponry — including cluster bombs — to help Ukraine win.

“If we give out signals that threatening us with a nuclear bomb actually will get you what you want, all the dictators will want to have a nuclear bomb,” she added. “That is waking up to a much more dangerous world.”

We’re right to celebrate a successful NATO summit. But especially if Ukraine struggles to recover large swaths of territory in this counteroffensive, there’ll be feckless grumbling in Western capitals about the price we’re paying and the favors we’re doing Ukraine. Anyone tempted to think that way should listen to the Baltic leaders, because they’ve learned the hard way how best to manage unruly bears.

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