Imperial echoes: the view from the Baltic

Edward Lucas

[Originally published by CEPA]

The Ukraine war has vindicated east Europeans’ worries. Can they now convince the Global South of Russian imperialism?

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 phoney-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 defence; why President Macron’s tergiversations made such assurances so necessary was not explored. Swedes and Finns, who in past decades treated their Baltic neighbours 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 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. In Cold War days we used to call them the “Third World”, or the “Non-Aligned Movement”. The trendier term now is the “Global South”. Nomenclature aside, 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. Their experiences of colonialism, and then being patronised, neglected and exploited by rich, arrogant countries, strikes chords with many in the region we once called “eastern Europe”. That conversation was just starting at this year’s conference. Expect it to continue.

Photo courtesy of Lennart Meri Conference on Flickr.