Eerik-Niils Kross: Putin does not see Baltic states as a part of the Russian world

The Lithuania Tribune would like to present you with an interview with an Estonian Member of Parliament Eerik-Niils Kross, on Russian aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s past and present, the future of the war and the Baltic Region.

Mr Eerik-Niils Kross is an Estonian politician, diplomat, former chief of intelligence and entrepreneur. Mr Eerik-Niils Kross is a member of parliament (Riigikogu). During the 1980s, Eerik-Niils Kross was a prominent figure in the anti-Soviet non-violent resistance movement in Soviet Estonia. After independence in 1991, he joined Estonia’s Foreign Ministry. He served as the head of intelligence from 1995 to 2000; and as national security advisor to former President Lennart Meri in 2000 and 2001. We spoke during the annual Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn in mid-May 2022.

Why did Russia attack Ukraine?

Kross: Well, it was a simple decision, a development of a very long process. Most people think that Putin was coming to power, but if you follow the dynamics of the Russian terms, the visions start to become dominant.

The visions started to become dominant over the second term. At the end of Yeltsin’s era, he was the only democrat left in Russia. Duma was quite conservative and nationalist, and the military wanted revenge to bring back the security services. So Putin was already a product of surrounding Yeltsin.

I think it’s a mistake to look at Putin as a legacy of Yeltsin. Yes, in a way, he is a legacy, but a legacy of Yeltsin’s incapability to reform Russia. Putin is a product of a big demand to be a tough leader. The whole project, Putin was rebuilding Russian power and dominance, so it was an Imperial renovation project that, since it hadn’t been stopped before, Zielinski and the Ukrainians decided to stop it.

The hope is that an Imperial Russia cant has an identity without controlling Ukraine and Belarus.

We are discussing at length who is to blame and who is responsible. Enno Mõts, Brigadier General Chief of Staff of the Estonian Defence Forces, said, “Leaders like Putin, and Hitler, they can not come out of nowhere.”There is a lot of talk about how Russians are not to blame for what is happening in Russia, so we should blame the system and Putin. Can we blame Russians for what is happening now with Russia and outside of Russia? Or can we hold them accountable for what is happening?

Overall, no one can be blamed for such political choices, so the question is, how much free choice have the Russians had here? In a way, one can argue that Russia has been hijacked by a gang of criminals who are now actively violating Russian law while unlawfully fighting in Ukraine.

In the Western tradition, at least, you always have individual responsibility for crimes. Stalin’s tradition is that you go after the families of the enemies, so it isn’t relatively so easy. So I would be hesitant to blame Russians as a people, but a powerful dictator doesn’t pop up overnight. It is always a development. So it’s a combination of culprits, and one extreme would be to blame history’s historical process. The Soviets destroyed a lot of Russian political traditions, so there was no capability to genuinely reform.

It’s also this problem with Russia, a centuries-old being, and unable to decide if they want to belong to the West or Eurasia or be by themselves. Then you have the West, which has this same problem with switching between principles-based mostly on realism, so it’s very easy to pretend that something is not happening when it’s profitable, business versus values. So it’s a question of how far you go with tolerating something, and it was obvious to  Eastern Europe that the declared policies of the European Union valued democracy and the rule of law.

There was nothing of those value systems left in Russia ten years ago. The collective still pretended and played along with the façade of Putin in their elections, and by early 2022, there were no real oppositions in Russia. They were either exiled, dead or in prison. In a way, I would blame, to some extent, the Russians, the West, and the whole of humanity, but at the end of the day, it’s Putin and his criminals who are responsible.

A certain sense of self-blame has been present in the West for the last three to five years since the West lost Russia. We had the chance to embrace it, but we lost it because we were arrogant. Have we ever had Russia? Was there ever a chance to bring Russia to the modern, Western world?

I’m sure it was and maybe is, possible. But, the West cannot do it. The Russians must do it. It’s the same fairytale that everyone seems to have bought – that the Russians were saying that the NATO expansion was a so-called threat. Three nations joined NATO, and it is more difficult for some countries to do so than others. I don’t remember anyone saying that the United Nations expanded to the Baltic states.

The Council of Europe is expanding to Kosovo, and this is provoking Serbia. Self-blame is, of course, another very Protestant, very Western concept. If you have followed the Russian narrative that they are not to blame for anything, it is supposedly the fault of the West that they invaded Ukraine.

Russia can be whatever the Russians decide it to be. They have tried for a thousand years, and it has never worked out so far, so let’s hope that it will this time.

What will work out, exactly? What will be the endgame of this aggression? We talked quite a lot about victory for Ukraine and potential defeat. When is it a victory, in your opinion?

Well, it is up to the Ukrainians to decide what they can live with. I don’t think the collective has a place. We can try to meditate, to give diplomacy a possibility. I’m sure that would be a temptation. There will be people who will try to pull something like that again.

Not only for Ukraine but for everything they’ve been fighting for. You can still obtain territory by force, and the lesson will be that you cannot invade that way because you will lose. What the victory will be is up to the Ukrainians, and the question is, will there be a temporary agreement or ceasefire?

I personally see it is very difficult for Ukraine to have a peace treaty. I can imagine a ceasefire on both sides, or one side is exhausted and stops fighting. To have a treaty with Putin’s government,  which fundamentally does not recognize Ukrainians, does not recognize the Ukrainian government, nor the state acknowledges that the Ukrainians exist as a people. So how can you entertain the idea of a treaty with such a party?

The first possibility would be that the Ukrainians push the Russians back. I can’t see anything that suggests that Ukraine will be liberated, including Crimea. The real question will then be, what next? If the Ukrainians achieve that, that may be a solution for them. Then, the question remains as to what will happen to Russia? I think it is up to the Russians to sort it out.

I don’t think we should go and tell the Russians to do this, or do that. I would go back to 1974 and give freedom to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, concentrate on building  Russia, and invest in Russian infrastructure. Then, if you want to have a dictatorship, parliamentary democracy, or a tsarist state.

The Baltic states could live happily alongside that.

The narrative has been building for a long time that some people feel that after Ukraine, it might be Belarus, but Putin doesn’t see the Baltic states as a part of the Russian world, so he is going to stop there. It is not going any further, so we should not be so afraid because he is not going to come here. As far as I can recall, how Putin sees the world changes according to his current needs. It has nothing to do with what he thinks and only to do with what he thinks he can get away with.

He’ll take as much as he can. It’s like Stalin, who didn’t think World War II was a big victory. He wanted to march on to Berlin.

Lastly, it is most likely that Finland and Sweden will submit their application to NATO next week (editor – and they did). So how does this change this Baltic world, this Swedish and Finnish alliance, joining NATO? Are we underestimating this in the Baltic states? Is it really justified?

Two days ago, there was a story that in Finland that they are so scared that they are panic-buying. There is no panic buying in Vilnius. There is no euphoria in the Baltic states about this, but everyone is relieved about this perspective. It is very significant, particularly for security. Defence planning will become much easier for the whole of Northern Europe, and for the first time, one could say that solid defence of the Baltic states actually may be possible.

It’s also geopolitically speaking and security-wise to have the Scandinavians, the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine very much on the same page. This is the dream of Eastern Europe during the peace conference.

It didn’t really happen in World War I, and even then, only partially in the Baltic states, then World War II messed it all up. It was then only partially achieved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it has been a 100-year journey.

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