Speech by President Alar Karis at the official dinner of the 16th Lennart Meri Conference
I am honoured to welcome you in Estonia for the Lennart Meri conference, and I am pleased to see many familiar, but also new faces.
When we gathered in Tallinn last year, there was still shock caused by the brutality of the war that Russia had unleashed in Ukraine. Many of us were seeking answers to the question: how could something as horrible as this happen in Europe today?
The sense of durable peace in Europe was abruptly snatched from our hands, no matter how much we wanted to hold on. It turned out that history is not over, history is alive and well. As Timothy Snyder has explained - we mistakenly allowed ourselves to accept that history could move in only one direction. Liberal democracy and peaceful international relations. Now we know better.
Over the past year, Russia has shown that it is ready to re-impose its will on its neighbours, and on Europe. Seemingly at any cost to its own people, and their future. For Ukraine, Estonia, and other nations in our region, Russia remains an existential threat for years to come. So, we cannot afford not to look history in the face.
First, allow me to briefly go back in history, to the year 1992. The parliamentary and presidential elections in Estonia were held that year. The elections were contentious, including regarding the security policy path that Estonia was to take. The outcome, which led to Lennart Meri becoming our first president after the restoration of independence, was far from a given. Yet, this result set the security policy course for Estonia for decades to come.
President Lennart Meri always believed that Estonia’s membership in NATO is the only credible guarantee of our independence and freedom. Under his leadership, Estonian diplomacy, and in fact, the entire Estonian state, became consumed with achieving the membership of NATO. Hand in hand with becoming a part of the European Union.
At the time, there were many at home and abroad who believed that a country on whose territory Soviet soldiers were still based, who was only just embarking on democratic and market reforms, could not belong in NATO.
I dread to imagine where Estonia would be now, if our course had been less obsessive, less single-minded. I doubt that we could have secured Estonia’s future as free European nation if Meri’s vision hadn’t been realised, and if the decision-makers in NATO capitals had been less bold.
Likewise, we must now have similar courage to set out the path for the security of Europe as a whole. This must reflect the understanding that as long as geopolitical no-man’s land exists in Europe, we will not live in peace. I have no doubt in my mind that the most effective way to secure Europe, including the most cost-effective way, is to do so through NATO enlargement.
The post-Cold War security architecture that is built on the NATO alliance is being challenged because it has proven to be an unparalleled means to contain Russian neo-imperialism and military adventurism. Russia and China would like to see it gone exactly because NATO embodies and sustains the trans-Atlantic link, keeps Europe safe, and America relevant. The trans-Atlantic security arrangements through NATO are the most valuable thing we have, and there is no viable alternative. European ‘third way’ of a separate geo-political future from the US is not a viable alternative.
We also have plenty of historical evidence that Russian territorial and imperial ambitions can only be deterred by credible military force.
Allow me to take you back in time once more, this time to the Black Sea region.
After the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union attempted to gain domination over Turkey by demanding joint control of the Black Sea Straits. Turkey refused to renegotiate the existing international agreements that established Turkish control over the Straits. In response, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov tabled demands for territorial concessions by Turkey, and insisted on establishing Soviet military bases in the Straits.
As you recall, in 1939, very similar demands were presented to the Baltic States and Finland.
The US response to the Russian ultimatum crystallized in 1946 into a firm approach - to meet Soviet pressure with US naval presence and provide military support to Turkey. President Truman made it clear that the US was prepared to meet the Soviet challenge with an American military response. As a result, the Soviet Union was successfully contained from realising its aggressive aims towards Turkey. In 1952 Turkey joined NATO, and Moscow backed down for good.
This historical case is one among several, which show that only firmness in the face of Moscow’s demands, that is backed up by demonstrated capability to resist them, works. And it will work as effectively today.
This is why a number of NATO allies, including Estonia, believe that silence at the Vilnius Summit regarding next steps of Ukraine’s NATO membership would be a mistake. It is high time that we make the Bucharest declaration which stated that Ukraine would eventually become a NATO member, count. Historic decisions only become historic if they are followed by actions.
Other ways of ensuring Ukraine’s security have been tried. Among them, the Budapest Memorandum, under which the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia gave Ukraine security assurances regarding its territorial integrity. These assurances were weak, and Ukraine was rightly worried at the signing of this document that Russians would not respect it. Security guarantees must come with a strong political and military commitment, and cannot rely on the word of the aggressor.
Ukraine’s NATO membership has been an issue that has plagued European security and Western Russian relations for the entire post-Cold War period. The ambiguity that NATO has always maintained with regard to the future of Ukraine in the alliance, has not delivered positive outcomes. Quite the contrary.
Let us think: what is in our interest? Is it to continue the “not quite open door policy” towards Ukraine indefinitely? To continue accepting Russia’s claim that its core security interests override the independent foreign and security policy of Ukraine?
Or is it in our interest to say that Ukraine’s security is our business, and the consequences of not providing NATO’s security guarantees, the option “with teeth”, are harmful to us? Make no mistake that missing the opportunity to bring Ukraine into Europe, will have a cost that we all will pay for decades to come. NATO and EU enlargement is the only way to unite Europe into a single strategic space.
Today, we write the history of tomorrow, and as we judge the decisions that our leaders took in the aftermath of the Cold War, we will be judged 30 years from now. I hope that we will be able to show the vision and courage that is needed to make sure that we keep moving towards Europe, whole and free.
I wish you many interesting discussions, challenging questions, and new ideas in the days to come.