Only the threat of force will prevent Putin from going beyond Ukraine


In the spring of 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, my son Raimundas was taking a Russian course in Moscow. Although he planned to pursue a master’s program in England, when he completed the course he returned to Vilnius and joined the Lithuanian Armed Forces. He is a grandson of deportees to the USSR’s Siberian Gulag who were injured by Russian special forces while supporting the Lithuanian partisan insurgency, which lasted until the 1970s. I was proud of him for getting involved. At the time, I was the European Union Ambassador to Russia, but I couldn’t imagine that Raimundas would ever have to use his training to defend our country against the Russians. Now the math has changed. Today Russia is invading Ukraine, tomorrow it could be the Baltic.
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As Lithuanians, we are reassured by the support of the United States and NATO. As George W. Bush said when we joined NATO: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America. During the seventy-three years of NATO’s existence, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia dared to cross the red line. But our history and the present moment prove that we cannot be complacent, especially given our understanding of Vladimir Putin. Over the years I have attended several summits and dinners with him and we have occasionally chatted informally. Our exchanges were banal. He was thorough and renowned for his knowledge of political details, especially regarding oil and gas: extraction sites, supply capacity, pipeline sizes, prices, etc. But it’s clear at this point that his attention to detail is hostage to violent illusions, including imagined neo-Nazi oppression in Ukraine and his role as savior in a distorted missionary tradition.

We’ve had plenty of warnings. In 2016, several people with close, long-term personal access to Vladimir Putin told me they were in a “fight for Putin’s spirit.” Their goal was to balance its spy war mentality with attention to Russia’s acute internal challenges; encourage modernization, investment and diversification rather than war. Their opponents in this fight were conservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church and a narrow circle of military and intelligence officials, commonly referred to as the “siloviki,” drawn from the KGB and other elements of the Soviet security apparatus. Whether out of convenience or conviction, these men believed that Putin had to wage war to preserve power in Russia and defend the “Slavic world” against an evil West.. Disillusioned with not getting “equal vote” in Western institutions on his terms and with no prospect of NATO and EU membership for Russia, as he heard about future plans for Ukraine and Georgia to become members of NATO, Putin’s spirit was unleashed.

Read more: How Zelensky defended Ukraine and united the world

The brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that the fight for Putin’s spirit is over. The clearest warnings, in retrospect, came not from a privileged few inside the Kremlin, but from Putin himself. The speech he gave after his recent televised meeting of the Security Council was more belligerent than usual but, in terms of narrative, policy and objectives, contained little that he had not said in 2013. Back then, and in the years that followed, the West just didn’t want to hear what he said. For myself and the European leaders I worked with, it was too hard to imagine the rosy dream of integration, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, shattered. And so we didn’t respond vigorously enough to his escalations. Shortly after the start of the 2014 invasion, I telegraphed senior colleagues in Brussels, recommending severe sanctions to many of Putin’s closest aides and to all members of the Russian Duma who voted for the annexation of Crimea. My colleagues, to my dismay, initially claimed that they had not seen the email. Frustrated, I released it to a wider audience, but to no avail. As Europeans, we have not taken the initiative. We have been reactive rather than proactive.

You should not make the same mistakes again. The EU and NATO are showing determination to defend the rules-based international system through sanctions, but much remains to be done. Russia’s future is ultimately in Russian hands, but the West must do everything in its power to present an attractive geostrategic alternative for a post-Putin future. Inviting Ukraine to participate in accession negotiations with the EU is a necessary step. At the same time, we must protect ourselves and the men like my son who volunteer to guard our eastern flank. NATO must provide more substantial assistance to Ukrainian forces and plan a permanent military presence in the Baltic countries. While we appreciate the assurances of support, we need American boots on the ground and a NATO defense posture in place. That’s what Putin understands, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. For now, he aims to subjugate Ukraine into a vassal state, but make no mistake: his endgame is to push the Russian borders as far west as possible.


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