The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baltic nations long warned about Russia. Now, maybe the West is listening.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda inspects soldiers of the German Bundeswehr 41st Mechanized Infantry Brigade at the Gaiziunai training ground Oct. 10. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

RIGA, Latvia — Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv’s strongest allies against President Vladimir Putin have been the nations that know his Soviet playbook best: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, all invaded and brutalized by the Soviet Union and historically wary of Russia.

Their warnings about Russian aggression and calls for stronger Western action to deter Putin were long brushed aside by many in Europe, even after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and the Kremlin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.

“One lesson from this war is we should have listened to those who know Putin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her State of the European Union speech last month. “They have been telling us for years that Putin would not stop.”

Since February, the Baltics and Poland have repeatedly called for the provision of more and faster military assistance, including more powerful offensive weapons, only to be rebuffed by the United States and Western European allies who wanted to make clear that they were not in a direct conflict with Russia.

Slowly, that’s started to change, after Putin proved his wary neighbors right — repeatedly.

At least one person was killed by a Russian strike in Zaporizhzhia on Oct. 11. (Video: Reuters, Photo: AP/Reuters)

The Russian president’s shocking escalation on Monday, firing dozens of missiles at Ukrainian civilian targets including power stations, was strongly condemned around the world. Western leaders are beginning to acknowledge that they may need to take more decisive steps to assure Ukraine’s victory.

Ahead of key NATO meetings in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, the leaders of Baltic states have called on the West to scale up the supply of weapons to Kyiv, in particular air defense systems. The NATO Contact Group on Ukraine meets in Brussels on Wednesday and NATO defense ministers meet on Thursday.

But in a sign the easternmost allies are already making progress, leaders of the Group of Seven on Tuesday issued a forceful statement endorsing Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for a “just peace” that leaves no room for capitulation to Putin’s demands. The G-7 insisted on the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, safeguarding Ukraine’s future security and reconstruction financed by Russia.

Still, leaders in the Baltics are insisting more must be done.

On Tuesday, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and von der Leyen, who is a former German defense minister, stood about 100 yards from Estonia’s border with Russia in the town of Narva, sending a strong signal to the Kremlin that its escalation had not undermined Western support for Ukraine.

Kallas called for more military aid for Ukraine, especially modern antimissile systems and air defenses, as fast as possible.

“Ukraine’s success on the battlefield means that we have been on the right track and that we must make use of this momentum,” Kallas wrote in an email to The Washington Post after the appearance with von der Leyen. “It must be translated into ever increasing and stronger support to Ukrainian soldiers, economy and its people. Especially now when Russia is escalating in the most serious way since 24 February.”

“Estonia knows the face of Russian occupation firsthand,” Kallas added. “We know that peace under occupation doesn’t mean the end of atrocities but more of them.”

Baltic leaders have long argued that Western sanctions adopted in 2014 after Putin illegally annexed Crimea showed the West’s lack of resolve in confronting the Russian president over his land grab. European leaders seemed to think the Baltics were so traumatized by Soviet occupation that they could not be objective.

“Jokingly, you know, we call this ‘West-splaining,’” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. The West’s message, he said, was that “after 50 years of occupation, it’s understandable that you would have trust issues with a country that occupied you.”

“For us in the Baltics, it all boils down to this notion of appeasement: that basically we can appease Russia,” Landsbergis continued. “For us, it was always very clear, black and white. If a country is eager to cross another country’s border, they’re an aggressor and they will do that again, if they’re not stopped. And they have not been stopped.”

“That notion is quite pervasive, this notion of peaceful settlement with an aggressor,” he added. “I’m really hopeful that it’s now waning.”

Amid Putin’s threats of using nuclear weapons, his claimed annexation of four more regions of Ukraine and military escalation, the leaders of Poland and the Baltic states are once again urging Western leaders not to blink.

“This is also a war of nerves,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said. “The Russians are trying to figure out if they are going to be allowed to take over Ukraine and if we will yield to nuclear blackmail, or will we try to negotiate a deal, land for peace.”

Rinkevics said Ukraine clearly needed air defense systems to protect the country from Russian missile attacks on civilian targets and critical infrastructure such as power stations.

“That’s one thing I think that they also have been calling for weeks and months — more of all kinds of weapons,” he said. “Actually, my bottom line is that we should give Ukraine everything they ask for.”

Landsbergis said Ukraine urgently needed tanks and aviation as well as air defense systems.

“We need to stop debating whether we should provide more weapons to Ukraine and provide everything that we have that they would be able to use, and they are able to use a lot,” he said.

Estonia and Latvia have supplied more military aid to Ukraine per capita than any other country. The Baltic countries and Poland have also been the staunchest backers of economic sanctions against Russia, even though, as neighbors, their own economies have been the hardest hit by the measures cutting off business with a large market right next door.

Kristi Raik, director of the International Center for Defense and Security’s Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, said Western policy toward Russia since 2007 ignored clear signs of Russia’s revanchist imperialism and autocratic path.

“The Western failure was that they did not take it seriously or believe that Russia was serious about it,” Raik said. “And then when Russia was getting more aggressive and trying to impose its agenda, the Western response was not to put limits on Russian aggression and to make it clear that if Russia violates the core principles of international security, there will be costs and consequences.”

The West’s soft response, particularly after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, only encouraged Moscow, Raik said: “If the response had been stronger, it might have been possible to avoid the situation we are in now, with a full-scale war in Europe.”

She said Western restrictions on the types of weapons sent to Ukraine did not prevent Russian escalation. “Russia was determined to win and to destroy Ukraine’s independent statehood, and Russia is using all the means it can to achieve that goal,” she said. “The West’s restrictions on assistance to Ukraine doesn’t really help the situation.”

Rinkevics said the West would have to sharply scale up military production in coming years.

“It is absolutely clear that the next five to 10 years are going to be very difficult. We need equipment to replenish our stocks. We need more equipment for NATO members. We need equipment for Ukraine. I think we need to acknowledge that this is going to be a long-lasting war.”

Unless the West stands firm, the easternmost allies argue, Putin would defeat Ukraine, before potentially attacking northern Kazakhstan in future years, expanding his grip on the Caucasus, or trying to push further West into Moldova or beyond.

“If he sees that there is only talk and no action at this point, then of course he will try to challenge NATO itself,” Rinkevics said.

For Landsbergis, only a Ukrainian victory will ensure his own country’s security and that of others. “They have to win for all of our sakes,” he said.

Kallas said only a show of force would stop Russia’s aggression and end the war. “The way to peace,” she said, “is to push Russia out of Ukraine.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, and Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

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