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The 'we win, they lose' mentality is alive and well in Northern Europe

The 'we win, they lose' mentality is alive and well in Northern Europe

Visiting Baltic foreign ministers make flawed case for maximalist war aims in Ukraine

Analysis | Europe

Three Baltic foreign ministers gathered earlier this week to make the case for embracing Ukraine’s maximalist war aims and pursuing a total defeat of Russia.

“Ukraine is not fighting for their own freedom; Ukraine is fighting instead of us,” Estonian FM Margus Tsahkna proclaimed when he joined the FMs of Latvia,and Lithuania at the hawkish Hudson Institute think tank on Monday to share their perspectives on security issues in Northern Europe.

The Baltic officials also argued for the continuous expansion of NATO to deter Vladimir Putin — including eventually allowing Ukraine to join the alliance—and the necessity for “American leadership” in NATO.

Yet many of these talking points are detached from actual reality on the ground in Ukraine and will only perpetuate the cycle of violence in Eastern Europe.

The three Baltic FMs said that Ukraine’s total victory is imperative for peace in Europe and security for NATO. FM Tsahkna’s eight-point plan for Ukrainian victory advocates for further sanctions on Russia, utilizing frozen Russian assets for Ukraine’s reconstruction, incorporating Ukraine into both the EU and NATO, and relying on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan as the only way to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The ministers also agreed that a peace plan without Russia's total defeat would only delay inevitable future invasions from Russia. “Cutting a deal would be great for the autocrats,” Latvian foreign minister Krišjānis Kariņš said as he noted that the world is actively observing the war in Ukraine. In the eyes of the Baltic FMs, only a hard power “containment” strategy can deter Vladimir Putin's imperial ambitions.

“We will have this Russia problem or challenge for a long time. NATO needs to focus on how to contain them for the next twenty years with strength,” Kariņš continued. Peace in Europe depends solely on the threat of force.

But Ukraine’s prospects of total defeat of Russia are nonexistent. Kyiv has suffered massive losses, as Russia’s capture of Avdiivka last month was Russia’s most considerable territorial advance since its victory in Bakhmut in May 2023. Furthermore, Ukraine is running out of troops. The Ukrainian military has faced an average personnel shortage of 25% across its brigades and is unlikely to mobilize the required number of men to match Russia’s manpower advantage. Draft dodging has become rampant throughout Ukraine as thousands have fled the country.

As a result, Ukraine is on the brink of a demographic catastrophe, which would imperil Ukraine’s future after the war concludes.

Additionally, according to the Baltic FMs, Putin has been the best salesman for NATO expansion, given that both Finland and Sweden ended their many decades of neutrality and joined the alliance. “Russia has erased the idea of a neutral zone. It’s either Europe and NATO or Russia,” said Kariņš. Therefore, neutrality is not an option for a post-war Ukraine since neutrality serves as a “green light” for Putin to invade as he did in Georgia in 2008.

The Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis went as far as to say that “European security architecture will not be whole, secure, or safe without Ukraine.”Without a hard power deterrent, countries that have remained neutral, such as Georgia and Moldova, will fall next to Putin’s aggression.

While the foreign ministers of the Baltic countries made several references to Putin’s imperialistic tendencies, they discounted the possibility that NATO expansion fanned the flames of Russian nationalism and expansion. As Dr. Joshua Shifrinson has highlighted, “Russian nationalism and imperialism did not develop in a vacuum.” Instead, NATO expansion gave Russian nationalists a cause to rally behind as it reinforced their belief that Moscow’s national interests were at stake.

The Baltic FMs also insisted that there is no substitute for U.S. leadership. “Without U.S. leadership, I don’t think we will have a happy ending,” Landsbergis asserted. While the Baltic countries are doing their part by exceeding the 2% spending guideline, the United States must work to defend the “rules-based system” created by the United States following World War II. Russia is actively posing a “direct challenge to U.S. power and authority,” as FM Kariņš puts it. Thus, the war in Ukraine is not only a regional problem but a global problem. Additionally, the way of life enjoyed in NATO countries, including in the Baltics, is also under direct threat.

Despite NATO's technological and military superiority to Russia, the Baltic FMs worry that Putin expects the West to be politically unprepared. Russia’s economy is geared toward war, given that nearly 40% of its budget is spent on defense. Russia’s regular army is also expanding, signaling Russia’s refusal to end the war effort and its potential to challenge the NATO alliance. Therefore, NATO must get up to speed and unite against the Russian threat.

Lastly, the Lithuanian FM proposed that NATO members should restrict themselves when referring to the Russian missile that recently briefly entered Polish airspace. “I’m a proponent of not drawing red lines for ourselves. If we say specifically that we’re not going to do A, B, C and make a whole list of things we are not going to do, it sounds like an invitation for Putin to try,” Landsbergis said.

But adopting an aggressive strategy is not the best path forward for NATO. Expanding the member base will not make its participants safer. Finland and Sweden’s ascension into NATO ended many decades of neutrality, under which both countries have become prosperous democracies. It also elongated NATO’s border with Russia by 820 miles. Adding more countries to the alliance, including Ukraine, will be more of a liability than an asset.

Moreover, an aggressive force posture from NATO spearheaded by the United States is unnecessary to satisfy a “containment” strategy toward Russia. Despite its ability to adapt throughout the war, Russia has still fallen far short of its maximalist aims to subjugate Ukraine as a vassal state. U.S. aims in Europe have historically been counter-hegemonic. The current realities suggest that no European state can establish itself as a regional hegemon. Thus, Russia has little to no hope of defeating NATO through conventional means.

There is an alternative option. Washington and Kyiv should pursue a diplomatic path to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty while avoiding a NATO-Russia conflict. There remain reasons for Russia to come to the negotiating table, given that Moscow wants to establish a “demilitarized zone,” de facto Western acquiescence to Russian control of Crimea and the Donbas, and a legitimate role to play in Europe’s security order. However, Kyiv and its allies should pursue this path urgently, as Ukraine’s leverage will inevitably decrease over time.

Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Estonia, Marcus Tsahkna (L), Latvia, Krisjanis Karins (C), and Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis (R), are speaking about the Russia-Ukraine war during a conversation titled ''The Baltic View of European Security'' at the Hudson Institute/Think Tank in Washington DC, USA, on March 25, 2024. (Photo by Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto)

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