VILNA, Lithuania — Many Americans and Europeans flatter themselves by seeing the war in Ukraine through a false prism.
Too often, we think us sacrificed for the Ukrainians. We beat ourselves up for supplying expensive weapons and paying higher heating bills to help Ukrainians win their freedom — and we wish they would keep it up.
In fact, what is clear here in the Baltic countries is that it is the other way around: The Ukrainians are sacrificing for us. They are the ones who are doing us a favor, degrading the Russian military and reducing the risk of a war in Europe that would cost the lives of our troops.
“We defended ourselves with our support for Ukraine,” said Egils Levits, who ended his term as president of Latvia this month. He used his last full interview before leaving office to argue that the West should provide Ukraine with more weapons to ensure it regains all its territory, including Crimea — so that Vladimir Putin’s aggression is thoroughly discredited.
The NATO summit this week moved towards adding Sweden to the fold, kept everyone united and generally went well; the only loser was Russia. But the real test is not whether good words are offered in front of cameras, but whether Western countries step up their arms transfers to Ukraine to increase the prospect that the war may actually end.
“We all need to do more,” Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told me. She’s right, and I’m not sure everyone in the West gets that. President Biden did an outstanding job of managing an alliance – one reason the summit went so well – but I believe he was too cautious and reactive to provide weaponry that Ukraine needs, such as precision long-range missiles and fighter jets.
As one looks back over the last few decades, many in Germany and across Western Europe and America were lulled into the fiction that post-communist Russia was a gentler bear. In contrast, the Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — were ahead of the curve in their warnings about Putin, so before the summit I traveled across the three nations to get their views on Ukraine and Russia.
Honestly, they still think we’re a little naive.
“We should give more support now so that Ukraine can triumph,” Levits insisted, and he warned that it would be a big mistake to end the war with a deal that gives Crimea or other parts of Ukraine to Russia.
“That is an absolutely bad idea because it would provoke the next war,” he said. “The conclusion for Moscow would be clear: the West is weak.”
The Baltic countries are clear about Russia because of their history. The Soviets captured all three countries during World War II and ruled them harshly until they became independent in 1991. Prime Minister Kallas’ own mother was deported by cattle car to Siberia.
However, Russia has never fully faced this history, and perhaps that is why 70 percent of Russians said in a 2019 poll that they approve of Stalin – and why they say in ballots today that they approve of Putin.
To break this cycle, Kallas said, it is important to make Putin fail, and hold him accountable in a war crimes trial.
If Putin ends the war with a piece of Ukraine, she said, dictators would get the message that aggression pays, and “Nobody could really feel safe.”
The Baltic countries are motivated because they fear that if Ukraine falls, they could be next on the chopping block. Estonia contributed more to Ukraine’s military investment as a share of GDP than any other country — from grenades to mobile sauna units (Estonians love their saunas). Kallas wishes other countries had done more to speed up their arms transfers to Ukraine, rather than sending them in dribs and drabs.
“I sometimes think: Would the result have been different if we had given all the military aid we are giving now already in March” last year, Kallas pondered. “Because then maybe Russia would realize sooner that they made a mistake.”
One reason Biden has slowly sent long-range missiles and fighter jets to Ukraine worried about provoking Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons. Both Levites and Callas reject that argument, and it is worth listening to them for their record of being right.
“Russia or Putin is provoked by weakness, and not provoked by strength,” Levits said. He noted that while we still don’t know the full story, it appears that when mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crossed every red line and directly challenged Moscow, Putin’s response was to negotiate, compromise and de-escalate.
Kallas also wants to see the West provide more weaponry — including cluster bombs — to help Ukraine win.
“If we give signals that threatening us with a nuclear bomb will actually get you what you want, all dictators will want to have a nuclear bomb,” she added. “That wakes up to a much more dangerous world.”
We are right to celebrate a successful NATO summit. But especially if Ukraine struggles to regain large swaths of territory in this counteroffensive, there will be unabashed grumbling in Western capitals about the price we are paying and the favors we are doing Ukraine. Anyone tempted to think so should listen to the Baltic leaders, because they learned the hard way how best to manage unruly bears.