On March 29 Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with several other counties, marked 19 years since they joined NATO. All three Baltic nations have long warned of the Kremlin’s imperialistic ambitions and the looming threat it poses to countries throughout the region.
Over the last year, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius — Europe’s most staunch supporters of transatlantic integration for both Ukraine and Georgia — have been among the largest direct supporters of Ukraine’s military in terms of GDP.
During a stopover in Washington to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told VOA’s Georgian Service Wednesday that Russia’s decision to place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is an act of desperation on the part of the Kremlin and calls the very sovereignty of Belarus into question. He also explains why he believes providing Kyiv with the ability to strike bases within Russia is a means to de-escalate the war.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: March 29 marked 19 years since Latvia’s accession to NATO. Visiting Washington after 101 years of formal diplomatic ties with the U.S., what are the key issues and challenges that you discussed with this strategic partner?
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics: The main topics we’re discussing with all the people I’m meeting here is about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and how to better help Ukraine. I think that we are in a year that [will prove] very decisive. Our position is that we must provide Ukraine with all the weapons and ammunition they’re asking for. Then, of course, we need sanctions against Russia and Belarus.
We also discussed the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius — how to proceed from [the 2022 NATO summit in] Madrid to [the upcoming 2023 NATO summit in] Vilnius and beyond. Apart from that, definitely there are also some areas that we believe we should pay closer attention: Moldova, the Caucasus, countries in the Central Asia.
VOA: Visiting Riga last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Baltic States have “formed a democratic wall” in Europe. After 13 months Russia’s of the full-scale war in Ukraine, where do things stand right now for Baltic and European security?
Rinkevics: I think that there are three major challenges that we need to tackle. One is the immediate challenge that is war in Europe; to stop Russia, to help Ukraine to liberate its territory. Helping Ukraine win is in the interest of Europe, the United States and the globe. If we fail and Ukraine fails, then it’s an incentive for [aggressors] to do the same things all over the world. It’s also very important that we continue implementing all those decisions that we made [at the 2022 NATO summit] in Madrid. [Europe’s] eastern flank needs more troops, more weapons, hard military security is important. And finally, the most challenging thing is how you actually look at the challenges in our societies, how to fight disinformation and propaganda; how to strengthen the resilience of our societies.
VOA: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. What do you think this means at this point of the war and how should the West respond? Do you think the placement of nuclear weapons in Belarus might increase calls to avoid “unnecessary escalation” or “provocation” of Moscow?
Rinkevics: Frankly, when it comes from a hard security point of view, this is not going to fundamentally change the military security and situation. The Russians had nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad near our borders already before the full-scale invasion in Ukraine. I believe this is the act of desperation, because you see that the war in Ukraine is not going well for Mr. Putin. Not [just for] three days, not three weeks, not three months, Russian troops have not been able to capture any significant city in Ukraine. I believe this is just a continuation of the nuclear blackmail that we’ve seen in the last year. In my opinion, this kind of announcement clearly shows that Belarus is not a sovereign country. It’s actually part of a Russian military district. And we need to impose more sanctions on both Russia and Belarus, simply to make a point that this blackmail, these moves aren’t going to work.
On the other hand, I think that this kind of rhetoric is not as influential as probably one could think. Assuming that if we do not help Ukraine, Russia is going to stop and won’t escalate is completely wrong. Russia is escalating, and it’s not going to de-escalate simply if someone thinks that not providing Ukraine with means of defense would help the political process. The goal of Putin is not to sit at the negotiation table — the goal of Putin is to take over Ukraine, to [ethnically] cleanse it, to perpetrate all those atrocities revealed in territories since liberated by Ukraine.
VOA: Long-range missiles and fighter jets are still a priority for Ukraine, and yet the U.S. seems hesitant to provide weapons that could be used to strike Russian soil. Many believe it’s unfair to limit Ukraine in that regard. Where does Latvia stand on this?
Rinkevics: Let’s not forget that shelling Ukrainian cities and villages with all kinds of ammunition is something that Russians have actually been doing since 2014. I have no reason to argue that Ukraine does not have this right to respond in a proper way to stop the aggression. I don’t believe [providing Ukraine with long-range missile and fighter jets] is escalatory. If Russia and Mr. Putin can comprehend that there is no winning for them, then that would most probably lead to de-escalation. I’m in that camp that firmly believes that providing Ukraine with all kinds of weapons systems and ammunition is the right thing to do and we should not prevent Ukraine from using military equipment or weapons for legitimate defense. And legitimate defense does not mean only the territory of Ukraine, but, yes, striking military bases in Russia. It is completely legitimate. It’s exactly what Russia currently does in Ukraine.
VOA: Visiting Kyiv last month, President Joe Biden said that “Vladimir Putin hoped to outlast us [the West], but he’s been plain wrong.” Many in Western democracies are worried about so-called Ukraine fatigue indicated by some recent opinion polls. Do you think Western resolve may weaken and reach its limits in the near future?
Rinkevics: Russia really counts on this fatigue, counts on the change of course. We are all democratic countries, and we have elections. There are many pressing issues that democratic countries have to discuss. Of course, military operations could become an object of criticism. Russia now is counting that it may use a lot of its own people, to kill them just for the goal of restoring the Russian empire. Right now, the biggest threat for Russia is next year with the series of elections, including in Russia.
But I think that what we really need is what we call strategic endurance. I think that President Biden is right. Russia so far has failed politically, militarily and frankly, even in blackmailing. We need to find a way to overcome this fatigue, how to endure this. But I’m confident that with all those challenges, we will withstand.
Interview conducted by VOA’s Georgian Service.