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'Why Bother Talking To Liars?': Estonia's Former President Says No Point Negotiating With Russia

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (file photo)
Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (file photo)

Serving as president of Estonia between 2006 and 2016, and foreign minister before that, Toomas Hendrik Ilves has always been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Speaking by Zoom from Estonia, Ilves pours water on the idea of negotiating with Russia and says that Georgia's position on the war in Ukraine is "absolutely despicable."

RFE/RL: There are many people who think that the roots of what is going on now in Ukraine, and what happened in Georgia in 2008, go back to the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest and the refusal to grant Kyiv and Tbilisi Membership Action Plans, which would be a big step in the process of joining the military alliance. What do you think? As far as I remember, you were there, back then. What are your recollections?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: I was there and I was very angry at that decision and thought already then that the refusal by [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel to allow, even to discuss, Membership Action Plans would be interpreted as a green light to the Russians to invade. And that's exactly what happened.

RFE/RL: You claim that, since then, the West has misread Putin. Let me ask you a semantics question: Did the West misread or was it unwilling to read the writing on the wall?

Ilves: Well, I would go further and say it was greed. I mean, why would you sign [the] Nord Stream 2 [gas pipeline from Russia to Germany] in 2015, after the occupation and annexation of Crimea? I wouldn't say the West, but I would say that Germany is complicit. Many of the large EU countries are complicit.

RFE/RL: Much like your colleagues from Baltic countries, you don't really rate the value of dialogue with Russia. But the farther you go West, there is a difference in outlook. What's the reason? Greed again?

Ilves: They lie. So I mean, why bother talking to liars? I mean, what is the point of dialogue with a country that you cannot believe in the slightest? So, I mean, I guess dialogue is nice, but we're long past the time for that kind of dialogue, because they simply lie. Look at the response to Bucha (where hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were found dead after the withdrawal of Russian forces). They lie through their teeth. What do we do with a country that lies? What is a dialogue with a country that lies like that?

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RFE/RL: Let's look also at the Western response to Bucha. Are you happy with it?

Ilves: I haven't seen much. I hear noises that we will have more sanctions, but I don't see much. I don't see what the West has done in response to Bucha so far. Not much. And so I think that much of this "never again/niemals wieder" rhetoric is being exposed simply as rhetoric.

RFE/RL: Regarding the sanctions, are you happy with what the West has come up with so far?

Ilves: Well, it's more than I would have [expected] from the West, which is good. I still think that the inability to provide weapons to Ukraine is a scandal. I mean, let's put it in perspective. Up to now, the U.K., with a population of 67.7 million, has given $400 million worth of military assistance. Germany, I mean, who knows, very, very little.... Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, has given $220 million worth of military assistance to Ukraine. So I think, by that standard, if you look at what Estonia is doing, and then you look at what Germany is doing…. We're stretched, but we do it. I don't see the Western countries doing much.

RFE/RL: On the issue of war crimes, when you look at the Western world now, who do you think is capable of bringing Putin to the international court?

Ilves: Well, the Western world should. It is capable of doing it as a whole, not a single country. But basically, I would say that we have two tasks right now before us, before we go into science fiction and bringing Putin to justice. The first has to do with sanctions. Already, the Russians are saying, well, we need sanctions relief if we're going to discuss peace.

The position of the West -- of the European Union, of NATO -- should be: One, no sanctions relief until we have taken the frozen assets of Russia that are in the hands of the West, which are $300 billion worth, and then get additional reparations from Russia to rebuild Ukraine and to pay for the horrible crimes that Russia has committed to people in Ukraine. So that's No. 1. No discussion of easing sanctions. No. 2, no relief from sanctions until Russia delivers the suspected war criminals to a war crimes trial, from the lowest [ranking] private who did the disgusting killings to Putin at the top. Until they do that, no sanctions relief should be the position of the West.

Unfortunately, Georgia is in no position to do anything on this, given Georgia's completely complicit position, not showing any kind of solidarity with Ukraine. And I should say here, the position of Georgia is absolutely despicable. How can Georgia, the country that I flew to in the middle of a war, not support Ukraine right now?.... Does Georgia expect any solidarity now? Do you really expect to be taken seriously for EU and NATO membership?

Georgia has shown itself for the kind of country it will be if it is in the European Union and in NATO. Who will support Georgia at this point when it doesn't even support the current weak position of the West? I mean, I find the EU flags flown in Georgia absurd. Why bother? No one is going to support Georgia to join the EU or NATO, given the current Georgian government's response to what has happened in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: What do you think their motivation is?

Ilves: I have no idea. I have no idea what the motivation of the Georgian government is. We don't decide on motivation. We decide on behavior. And if you behave like that, well, that's your decision, you have decided to, but you should understand that there is no way countries will support Georgia at this point.

Certainly, none of the countries that have supported Georgia up till now will even lift a finger. Because Georgia has shown what it's like…. Who would trust Georgia to act on [NATO] Article 5 when it isn't you? What happens when you take in Georgia and then some other country is invaded and then Georgia will say, "No, we don't support Article 5, sorry. That's the way it is." How you behave determines how you will be viewed.

NOTE: Toomas Hendrik Ilves worked for Radio Free Europe between 1984 to 1993, during which he was the head of the Estonian Service. His brother, Andres Ilves, is currently RFE/RL's regional director for the Near East.
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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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