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Latvian President: 'The Dream Of A Democratic Russia' Was A Western 'Illusion'

"The political will has become stronger to defend ourselves and also to hold Russia accountable," says Latvian President Egils Levits. (file photo)
"The political will has become stronger to defend ourselves and also to hold Russia accountable," says Latvian President Egils Levits. (file photo)

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago, the three Baltic nations -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- have been among the loudest nations worldwide to condemn Moscow’s unprovoked aggression and among the first to provide Kyiv with support.

Egils Levits, the president of Latvia, was the first world leader to remain in Kyiv overnight in April last year, when others were wary of traveling to Ukraine during the initial phase of the Russian aggression.

Levits, 67, spoke with RFE/RL’S Georgian Service on the sidelines of the recent Munich Security Conference, at which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated discussions.

Levits argued for a war crimes tribunal to be established as quickly as possible and said that Ukraine’s path to the EU is inevitable, although it will probably be rocky. He also said the West was caught off guard, in part, due to “illusions” it had of post-Cold War Russia.

RFE/RL: My research tells me you were the first Western leader who spent a night in Kyiv after the war. And I suspect it was not because you were late for the train. Was that a symbolic gesture?

Egils Levits: Yes. I accepted it immediately, this proposal from the Ukrainian side. Because it was obviously important for the Ukrainians.

RFE/RL: As a former judge [at the European Court of Human Rights], you are calling for establishing a special tribunal to punish Russia for its alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Would any such tribunal be complete if President Vladimir Putin is not in the dock, looking defeated?

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Levits: Such a tribunal can be established. We should not wait [for] when Russia is defeated or when Putin is [out of power].

It is possible to establish, and I would like to say [it would be] rather timely, because not all criminals are present in person at tribunals.

For example, in Yugoslavia, some criminals were tried in absentia; the same can be done with this. The most important thing is not that the person is sitting at the trial as such; it is [more important] that we [expose] and [examine] this machinery of war, of aggression, in order to [make it clear] how such a war was possible, to [show] to the public, by judicial means.

In other cases, too -- in Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Liberia -- not all the criminals were really sitting there.

It is much more important to [make it clear to] society that such kind of behavior is not acceptable. And I think this principle is more important than to have everyone on the bench.

RFE/RL: This war has given you, your Baltic neighbors -- Poland and the like -- ample reason to tell the rest of the West, “We told you so,” for what you describe was the “enormous mistake and naivety of moving purposefully towards dependence on Russia, despite our warnings.” How did this naivety, in your opinion, come about? What gave rise to it?

Levits: This naivety was born because, after the Cold War, the West has not paid enough attention to the internal processes in Russia. Had they looked more closely at what happened to Russia and better analyzed [it], then, of course, they would have discovered that it was an illusion that they had, the dream of a democratic Russia. And I think this is the reason. It was negligence, I would say.

RFE/RL: And why did they not listen to you? Because you’ve been warning them.

Levits: We’ve been warning them, yes. But, of course, it is not a comfortable [topic]. This dream was more comfortable than to see the bitter reality.

RFE/RL: One such warning could perhaps have been the war in Georgia in 2008?

Levits: Of course, the aggression started in 2008 in Georgia, and the Baltic states reacted immediately. Our presidents went to Tbilisi at that time because we know what that means, when Russia attacks a country. But the reaction from the rest of Europe was relatively weak, and this led Russians to conclude, “Oh, the West, Western countries, the West is weak. So, we can go further.”

The next step was Crimea in 2014. Also, there was a weak reaction. And then of course, consequently, from the Russian point of view, 2022, the full-scale attack. Therefore, we, the West should draw the right conclusions, and now I am glad that it seems that the West has really concluded what is Russia’s character, what is Russia, and have developed a strategy how to deal with it.

Egils Levits with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in September.
Egils Levits with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in September.

RFE/RL: Another cause you are championing is to freeze Russian assets and give them to Ukraine, to rebuild Ukraine. You say it’s difficult but doable. If the West has really woken up, as you say, why hasn’t it happened yet?

Levits: The building, or developing, of political will on [opposing] Russia is a continuing process. If we see how the West now is [viewing] Russia today, [compared to] one year ago or maybe half a year ago, then there is some progress. And this progress is in one direction. The political will has become stronger to defend ourselves and also to hold Russia accountable.

RFE/RL: Do you think we'll get to that point?

Levits: I think there is a growing will to do it. So, we have not reached the point yet. But before that point is reached, there are discussions about the dynamics taking place now.

RFE/RL: We’ve both heard President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announce, in no uncertain terms, that Ukraine “must -- not even should -- must be in NATO, must be in the EU.” And I know you share that sentiment. My question to you is: When do you see that happening?

I see, really, Ukraine as a member state of NATO, will [have] one of the best armies in the world and it will be a real contribution to the strength of NATO."

Levits: For this, there are certain reforms [that Kyiv must make]. And these reforms take time. For example, for Latvia, we were involved in this process for seven years from the beginning of [the EU membership process of] accession. It could be accelerated. However, that might be more difficult during a period of war.

So, I cannot say when, but I can say that there is serious will from all member states that it should be as soon as possible.

Of course, Ukraine is now concentrating on the war, but at the same time they are already doing now the reforms…. So, I would say it would not be very long, but not in the next year.

RFE/RL: What about NATO? I think we can conclude that Ukraine now has one of the best armies in the world.

Levits: I think this discussion will be renewed after the war. I see, really, Ukraine as a member state of NATO, because, as you rightly said, it will [have] one of the best armies in the world, and it will be a real contribution to the strength of NATO.

RFE/RL: Let me ask also about Moldova and Georgia. They both have aspirations to join the European Union, and one of them at least has aspirations for NATO, and Moldova is growing a bit skeptical about its own neutrality. How do you see their European futures?

Levits: Moldova is now under pressure from Russia, and also I'd say that the current government is willing to do all the necessary steps, but they need help. Moldova has a big supporter, it’s Romania, and Romania is really helping Moldova a lot.

So, I would say that more or less in the same [time frame for possible EU accession] as Ukraine, Moldova could also be ready. Georgia has not yet received candidate country status. My advice would be to start the reforms now because it’s clear what should be done, and to harmonize all legislation to European legislation…

RFE/RL: Do you see the government in Georgia, similarly to Moldova, willing to make [necessary] steps and dedicate itself to reforms?

Levits: I would only say that, according to the statements of the government, the government is willing [to do so].

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban (file photo)
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban (file photo)

RFE/RL: You were an ambassador to Hungary, so I would like to quiz you on Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his government, and way of rule. When asked whose side he was on in this war, he replied: “On the side of Hungary.” Later on, this was echoed back in my own country, where our leadership also said they were on Georgia’s side. Let me ask you to decipher what that means. What is the Hungarian way -- being on the side of Hungary, or of Georgia, for that matter, in the war between Russia and Ukraine? Don’t you think it’s a worthwhile question?

Levits: Yes. No, I'm looking for a diplomatic answer. So, it is up to Hungary to define its interests, but it is a member state of NATO, a member state of the European Union, and national interests should be aligned with its common interests.

RFE/RL: What do you think is Orban’s motivation? For example, you don’t say: “I am on the side of Latvia in this war,” because it’s obvious that being on Ukraine’s side means being on Latvia’s side as well. Why is this different?

Levits: The motivation is to be somehow neutral, but neutrality is impossible in this case, because we have a case where there is a clear aggressor and a clear victim. Neutrality in such a case means to be on the side of the aggressor.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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