'Now is the time to go the extra mile': Estonian PM calls on NATO to help Ukraine 'in every possible way'

'Now is the time to go the extra mile': Estonian PM calls on NATO to help Ukraine 'in every possible way'
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Shutterstock).

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has entered its second month and the Kremlin is showing no signs of backing down. Putin's delusions about the Ukrainian people welcoming his forces with open arms have led to the slaughter of thousands of civilians, and his wayward troops have themselves suffered catastrophic losses at the hands of determined Ukrainian resistance fighters. Where the conflict will ultimately lead is anybody's guess.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden met with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies at the defense alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium to discuss potential next steps if Putin ups the ante by deploying biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons. Such a drastic decision would undoubtedly raise serious questions about how far the United States and NATO are willing to go to check Putin's aggression – options that include a direct clash between Russia and the West.

How the world got here, however, is extremely complex. But examining Putin's mindset is a good place to start putting the puzzle together.

"Why did Putin get this so wrong?" Greg Sargent posited in Thursday's edition of The Washington Post. To explore this topic, Sargent spoke with author and Eastern European expert Timothy Snyder.

Notably, Snyder explained, the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021 may have been a key component of Putin's expectations.

A partial transcript is below:

Greg Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Timothy Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help [Donald] Trump in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: Number one, they use it to mock us by saying, 'These are just peaceful protesters.' Number two, they use it for one of their favorite arguments, which is that democracy is a joke everywhere.

But the deeper point is that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, 'One more Trump and the Americans are done.' In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; Trump comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.
Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: I think you put it extremely well. Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, 'Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true.'

That is much closer to the way Trump talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying Trump and Putin are exactly the same. But Trump’s way of looking at the world — 'there are no rules, nothing binds me' — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Despite the disastrous setbacks his battlegroups have faced, Putin has maintained a consistent – albeit false – narrative to blind the Russian people to what is happening in their name. Putin's ban on independent news outlets (other than state-run propaganda channels) as well as social media networks has provided him an avenue to spread misinformation – or "tactical truth," as it is known in Russia. This vestige of the 20th century is still used to keep Russia in the dark.

For those who lived under the defunct Soviet Union's totalitarian rule, the memories of what life was like are very vivid today.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas recalled her family's struggles under communism in Thursday's New York Times:

My family knows what that’s like. My mother was only a 6-month-old baby when, in 1949, the Soviets deported her, together with her mother and grandmother, to Siberia. My grandfather was sent to a Siberian prison camp. They were lucky to survive and return to Estonia, but many didn’t. Today the Kremlin is reviving techniques of sheer barbarity. Those who have escaped Mariupol describe it as hell on earth.

To put an end to these horrors, the most optimistic observers have put their hope in a peace deal. But peace is not going to break out tomorrow. We must face up to the fact that the Kremlin’s idea of European and global security is completely at odds with that of the free world. And Vladimir Putin is willing to kill and repress en masse for the sake of it.

Earlier this month, Estonia became the first and only NATO member state to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which the US and its partners have repeatedly declared would be too provocative and risk triggering World War 3. Indeed, it does carry the chance of Russian and American soldiers shooting at each other, which has happened in the past without resulting in worldwide calamity. But Putin has already stated on numerous occasions that his country is already at war with the West, and his actions – combined with his threats to use nuclear weapons – mean that Ukraine needs all the help that it can get.

"Putin cannot win this war. He cannot even think he has won, or his appetite will grow. We need to demonstrate the will and commit resources to defend NATO territory. To check Russia’s aggression, we need to put in place a long-term policy of smart containment," wrote Kallas.

In her essay, Kallas laid out four ways NATO can assist Ukraine and hopefully stop Putin's incursion from exploding into global Armageddon. These steps, she said, must include the willingness to fight Russia face-to-face:

  • First, we must help Ukraine in every possible way. The people of Ukraine have not tired, and neither can we. True, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has galvanized us into action. Allies and partners have made decisions with remarkable determination and unity. But now is the time to go the extra mile.
  • Second, we must show the aggressor that we are ready to defend ourselves and, if need be, to fight. Sometimes the best way to achieve peace is to be willing to use military strength.
  • Third, we must paralyze the Kremlin’s war machine. We must do so not only to end the bloodshed and occupation in Ukraine but also to disarm Russia economically, to prevent Mr. Putin from further expanding the war.
  • Fourth, we must help Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Kallas conceded that "taken together, it’s a tall order" and that "stopping the Kremlin’s aggression will require time and a lot of effort. But as NATO members, Europeans, and human beings, it’s a task from which we cannot flinch."
The overarching problem the West faces in dissuading Putin from continuing his genocidal pursuit is that he genuinely believes that his place in history is to restore the boundaries of a once-great Russian empire. He sees himself as the 21st century Peter the Great or Josef Stalin – figures that are still immensely popular among the population. This, in turn, serves as the foundation for how he reports back to the public. In Putin's head, Russia has a divine right to recapture Ukraine and all of the other ex-Soviet nations. More importantly, Putin will never admit defeat, which could present an opportunity to give him a way out. That, of course, depends upon if he even wants one.
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