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VILNIUS — For years, Western Europeans have been dismissive of politicians from Poland and the Baltic countries whenever they sounded the alarm over the expansionist threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
They now realize they should have listened to countries with a far deeper knowledge of the Kremlin and a bitter historical memory of the violence that Moscow is willing to unleash to pursue its goals.
Instead, the Westerners followed a path of commercial and political appeasement of Putin, led by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has now spectacularly backfired with the invasion of Ukraine, the bombardment of its cities and mass emigration.
“The Western Europeans pooh-poohed and patronized us for these last 30 years,” said Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister. “For years [they] were patronizing us about our attitude: ‘Oh, you know, you over-nervous, over-sensitive Central Europeans are prejudiced against Russia.’”
The Easterners say they ran into a brick wall when they made pleas for increased NATO deployments, drew attention to cyberattacks and called on Berlin not to let the EU be held hostage by giant pipelines pumping gas straight into Germany. The outspoken, pugnacious Sikorski, then defense minister, triggered outrage in thin-skinned diplomatic circles in 2006 when he dared compare the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream gas pipeline project, which bypassed Poland, to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 that divided Poland between the Nazis and Soviets.
Polish and Baltic leaders saw Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 as a defining threshold that signaled that Putin needed to be stopped with a genuine show of force from the West, or otherwise he would go on to attack more targets. In fruitless meetings in Brussels, however, Polish and Baltic diplomats found that most of the European Union was reluctant to impose heavy sanctions on Moscow despite its invasion of an EU ally. The furious anti-Putin camp dubbed the Italian-led opposition to sanctions as the “Club Med” grouping.
Their wariness of Moscow has centuries-old roots.
Poland lost its independence in the 18th century to a coalition of attackers led by Russia, fought Russia in two bloody and failed uprisings in the 19th century, and earned a stunning victory against the communist Soviets in 1920. The USSR gots its revenge in 1939, seizing a half of Poland and meting out bloody punishment, executing 20,000 prisoners of war and deporting hundreds of thousands of civilians before subjecting post-war Poland to four decades of Communist dictatorship.
The Baltic countries enjoyed two decades of independence between the wars before being annexed by the Soviet Union. Thousands were murdered and many more were deported deep into the USSR. Their countries were colonized by Russian settlers, and they barely survived to regain their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The most recent cycle of Russian aggression has many of its origins in 2007. That year, Putin made a speech at the Munich Security Conference that provided a bedrock for many of the decisions that followed. In the speech, he lashed out at the U.S. for creating a unipolar world “in which there is one master, one sovereign,” criticized NATO’s eastward expansion and challenged the post-Cold War order in Europe.
Sikorski, who became Poland’s top diplomat the same year, began asking for more NATO forces in his country. After all, Germany had 35,000 American troops stationed there, and a further effort toward rebalancing of power in the face of Russia’s military modernization campaigns seemed to make sense.
Not everyone in NATO thought so at the time.
“When I demanded on numerous occasions that our membership in NATO be fulfilled by physical presence — and I was only asking for two brigades, which is to say 10,000 American troops — this was regarded as outrageous. Germany in particular, but others too, for the first time in history found themselves surrounded by exclusively friendly states. And they didn’t feel our pain of being a flank country, of being on the edge of the world of democracy, rule of law and security,” Sikorski said.
After Sikorski’s time in government, the messaging on Moscow out of Warsaw has been much muddier since the nationalist Law and Justice party took power in 2015. It won thanks to an untrue conspiracy theory that Russia was responsible for a 2010 plane crash that killed Poland’s president and many top officials. The Polish government spent its energy painting Germany as an enemy, engaging in warfare with the EU over rule of law, launching attacks on LGBTQ+ people and palling around with right-wing Putin allies like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen.
‘You know nothing’
Estonians remember another episode in 2007.
In April, the Baltic country’s computer servers were hit by a massive wave of DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks on public and private websites alike, essentially shutting the whole country down digitally for weeks. Nearly a million “zombie” computers were deployed, according to the then-defense minister, shortly after a plan to relocate a Soviet “Monument to the Liberators of Estonia” out of Tallinn’s city center.
While the Russian government repeatedly denied involvement in the cyberattacks, Estonia was unconvinced. But what was even more shocking to officials in Tallinn was yet to follow, when they presented their case to fellow NATO nations.
“We were told by some of our NATO allies in Europe that, ‘Oh you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re just being Russophobic’ — and this at a time by people who wouldn’t know a computer from a toaster while we were already then part of the most digitally advanced [country] in Europe,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was the Estonian president at the time of the cyberattacks. He was born in Sweden after his parents fled the Soviet occupation. Eventually, NATO conducted an internal assessment
For linguistic and historical reasons — as well as pure fear of the danger across the border — the Baltic states often have excellent intelligence and analysis of Russian activity, but could find themselves roundly ignored. Rihard Kols, chair of the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said Riga was involved in warning NATO about Russian ambitions before its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But Kols said he regularly found it difficult to convince his counterparts in the West of how dangerous Putin could be.
“In general, the Baltics have been warning our colleagues in the West to be vigilant and not fall into naïveté based on wishful thinking. The constant readiness to restart relations with Russia, regardless of what its breaches have been, is what got us to this day, unfortunately,” he said.
The U.S., under Barack Obama’s administration, also opted for a “reset” with Russia in 2009. The gesture famously got off to a glitchy start when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov with a big red button, but with the wrong Russian word written on it.
Regardless of the bad Russian, it was a decision that Ilves called “disastrous.”
The one European leader who always “surprised” him was Merkel. She had been raised behind the Iron Curtain, but proved enigmatic on whether she really grasped the risk. “Privately,” Ilves said, “she seemed to have few illusions, but I guess she saw that publicly, that’s something that she needed to do. Or she was telling me things she didn’t believe in. I don’t know. I can’t say.”
Now everyone’s eyes are opened to Putin’s true nature.
“As of February 24, there has been this dramatic revolution and all of this. But it really took an invasion, a brutal invasion of Ukraine to make people sit up. Given their previous behavior, with invasion of Crimea and invasion of Georgia … but now this, I guess, was so over the top that even they had to react,” Ilves went on.
Unity at stake
In August 2014, months after Russia annexed Crimea, EU foreign ministers were in heated debates about how far to go to sanction the Kremlin. The Baltics, as usual, sided with the Poles, the British and Swedes to call for tougher sanctions. The opposing camp came from fellow ex-communist states, Hungary and Slovakia — both governed by pro-Kremlin populists.
“The sanctions policy pursued by the West … causes more harm to us than to Russia,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. “In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.”
Then-Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius responded by saying it was better to shoot yourself in the foot than to let yourself be shot in the head. The message was clear: If Putin was allowed to get away with Crimea, he would go on with his wars of expansion.
In an interview in Vilnius, Linkevičius lamented the lack of action from the West over the past 15 years in response to Putin’s expansionism. He recalled the 2008 NATO Russia Council meeting in Romania, where Putin was already describing Ukraine as “an artificial creation.” The term didn’t go unnoticed. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then Danish prime minister before he became NATO secretary-general, replied to Putin by saying this wasn’t the way to talk about partners.
“Putin means what he says,” Linkevičius said. “And now to pretend that we are surprised that something [went] wrong, that’s too much.”
When Putin’s troops were massed around Ukraine a month ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the Western European leaders flying in to Moscow to try to talk Putin out of the inevitable.
Linkevičius wasn’t impressed. “This is like psychotherapy. All these talks were so far an illusion.”
He stressed that the West bears no blame for what’s happening in Ukraine today, as it is entirely Russia’s own doing. Still, he said, if “those who would have had opportunity in time to do something, didn’t [do anything], they must share responsibility.”
The war now raging in Ukraine, says Ilves, should teach Western Europe a lesson: “Don’t do Russia policy without consulting people who know far more about Russia than you do. Don’t rely on people who have been trained as diplomats but have no real understanding of patterns of Russian behavior.”
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting