President of Latvia: Ukraine is not only fighting for us, but instead of us

"I believe that the only viable way to respond to this tragic news is to provide more aid, more weapons to Ukraine. To some extent, the possibility for a better Russia, a more democratic Russia, right now lies not in Russia itself, but in Ukraine."

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Rinkevičs, Photo: Screenshot/Youtube
Rinkevičs, Photo: Screenshot/Youtube
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Edgars Rinkevičs was elected president of Letinia in July 2023 after 11 years in the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. This long career made him the longest-serving minister in the same position in the Baltic state with 1,8 million inhabitants.

He has been a vocal critic of Russian aggression against neighboring Ukraine since 2014, when he compared the occupation and annexation of Crimea to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940. "History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce," he said then.

Eight years later, he became a leading voice advocating tough punitive sanctions after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Rinkevichs spoke to the Georgian Service Radio Free Europe (RSE) on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where participants who discussed the crisis in Ukraine and Gaza and new threats to the unity of the NATO alliance, also received news of the death of Putin's critic Alexei Navalny in a Siberian prison.

In an interview with RSE, Rinkevichs spoke about Navalny and how the path to a more democratic Russia could lead through Ukraine.

RFE/RL: I guess we have to start with the event that overshadowed more or less everything at the Munich Security Conference, the death of Alexei Navalny. How big a blow is this to the hopes of a better Russia, a Russia that wants to try its hand at democracy again?

Edgars Rinkevichs: I think that the very fact that all opponents of Putin are either in prison or dead, and that Navalny was not the first opponent to die, or that they are somewhere in exile, actually shows that, at this moment, it is difficult to imagine opposition forces that would could bring some changes to Russia. It could happen sometime in the future, things are not frozen in time, they are not constant, they move.

But I think this is a very symbolic end of an era, because we remember how Navalny fought against corruption, how he exposed officials. You can agree or disagree with him as a politician, but he was definitely a very viable alternative to the current regime.

And I think that's why he was imprisoned and that's why he died. If we remember, three years ago there were already serious attempts to kill him.

On the other hand, I think we also have to understand that condemnations, when the West says how bad it is, mean nothing to the Kremlin at the moment.

I think Putin has his own goals. He, above all, wants to eliminate disobedience at home. And, of course, he wants to advance his foreign policy and imperialist goals.

RSE: What do you expect, what will be the reaction of the West, apart from the usual disgust and condemnation?

Rinkevichs: I believe the only viable way to respond to this tragic news is to provide more aid, more weapons to Ukraine. To some extent, the possibility for a better Russia, a more democratic Russia, currently lies not in Russia itself, but in Ukraine.

I believe we still have this false narrative that "we will support Ukraine as long as necessary". We should change it to "we will support Ukraine to victory, even with all the questions and problems we face now: funding, war weariness".

But I think this is a big, important message that the leaders of the free world should send, which is: We will support Ukraine until victory.

And most likely, I'd say Ukraine's victory also means some possible changes in Russia, not necessarily positive. The reverse could also happen. But at least there is a chance for change, also within Russia.

But right now, I would say that imposing sanctions on this or that judge or prosecutor or the warden of the prison where Navalny died is not a sustainable way, but in fact we should double down on support for Ukraine.

Before the interview, we talked about the lessons learned from 2008, from the Russian aggression against Georgia. Now everyone says, if we were smart enough then, then the war in Europe that we are seeing now, would never have started. That is no longer the case.

I think now, and I repeat this whenever I speak to the media or tell colleagues if they don't see it, not giving Ukraine enough aid means some kind of truce or cessation of hostilities, probably for a while. But Russia has shown over the last 16-plus years that it is on the warpath, and will continue to do so.

So, from that point of view, I would not look so much at how to respond to Navalny's death with some sanctions, what kind of sanctions could be imposed. I would say this reinforced the message that we must fight Russia however we can. And we know that Ukraine is not only fighting for us, but, to some extent, I would say that Ukraine is fighting for us.

RFE/RL: When you visited Kyiv, you pledged with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Latvia would stand by Ukraine until victory. I want to ask you, what does that victory look like today? What would be a victory that would be acceptable for Ukraine, and in a broader sense, for the West?

Rinkevichs: I think that's an easy question to answer, but not easy to deliver. The Ukrainian president presented a peace formula. I hope we will meet next month, that depends, of course, on the organization of the first peace summit. I hope that the approach will be quite broad and the peace formula is Ukraine regaining and gaining control over its internationally recognized borders.

RFE/RL: Do you think Putin will ever agree to that?

Rinkevichs: There we go to the second part of my answer, where I say that it is very easy to answer but difficult to deliver. And yes, this year will be very difficult, difficult in the sense that we are not delivering enough, we know that.

And yes, we are strengthening the defense industry, there are things that are good. We will see that when Ukraine receives sophisticated weapons also during the year.

But I think the only way Russia would start talking about ending hostilities and agreeing to a peace formula is to realize that they can no longer advance and lose territories and that their internal stability of the regime is somewhat threatened. At that moment, if you ask me about the time frame, I could give that answer, and a lot depends on Ukraine and on us.

RSE: I will not ask you about the time frame, but I will ask you if there is a willingness and will for it in the West?

Rinkevičs: All my colleagues with whom I speak understand that, at the moment, it is a very complex issue. We have the example of Georgia in 2008; example from 2014 with Crimea and Donbass. There is also an example of subversive action when it comes to our election process (in Latvia), from 2016-17. We also see attempts to upset countries like Moldova, or some others.

But there is this difficulty that we as leaders try to find the right way to talk to the public. Why? Because there was a little fatigue. If you turn on the TV or watch the news, you see "War in Ukraine", some people continue to watch, others simply move on to something else.

We have this very complex situation in the Middle East, which has also taken its toll on the global community.

And then, of course, you realize that if there is a standoff, then Russia can regroup and then you have to honestly tell your public that you have to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios.

I myself say that the current situation should not be approached with a sense of sadness and doom, but we must be prepared for all kinds of scenarios. And also, at home, it takes some effort to mobilize the civil (defense). It must be reconfigured according to the experiences of Ukraine, or more allocations for defense, or the establishment of military service, or the construction of the Baltic defense line. We have a lot of work to do.

RFE/RL: In that light, some Scandinavian countries have recently told their populations that it is not an unrealistic possibility that Russia will try to launch an attack against them in the next three to five years.

Suppose you go out in Riga and say something like that to Latvians, what would be their reaction?

Rinkevichs: First of all, the population of Latvia is smart enough to read all the news and hear everything that either I or the Minister of Foreign Affairs or any other high officials say or what any admirals or high officials of other countries say. So that eventuality is counted on.

But you know, probably for us some of those revelations that we hear from other capitals in the West, that revelation is nothing new. We knew that Russia was increasingly belligerent. We have seen what is happening in Georgia, Ukraine. We saw what was happening in our neighbor Belarus in 2021 when, with the help of President Putin (Belarusian President Alexander), Lukashenko suppressed the unrest.

So this is nothing new. But having said that, I see that there is a need to somehow tell the public that, above all, more should be allocated for security and defense and internal security.

Yes, we must work with our allies. Yes, we have nothing better than the NATO alliance. However, at the same time, we should not take this as a fact either. So it's probably a slightly different narrative for us than for some of those countries that, even a few years ago, said that it was not conceivable, that it was impossible. Everything is possible now.

We should understand that when we pass this stage, we see the problem, we start to relate to it. The solution is more defense industry, more defense spending.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned of dangers for Poland and the Baltic countries. In this regard, and with the known Russian tactic of "pasosification" and using the Russian-speaking population of other countries for aggression, how much do you worry about this as a threat to Latvia, which has a significant Russian-speaking minority?

Rinkevichs: We take some of the security challenges seriously. And that is why a law was passed for stricter verification procedures. And at the same time, I would say that we have been aware of some of those tactics for a long time.

We saw widespread attempts to issue Russian passports ten years ago, when we reformed the social security system, raising the retirement age.

Suddenly, all those people who took Russian passports and refused Latvian documents, non-citizens, realized that actually life is not as nice as it seems. I would say that, to some extent, this situation is a little different than it was, or still is in Georgia or Ukraine.

RSE: For the better?

Rinkevichs: I'd say it's not for the better, it's just different. Indeed, we have also addressed some of those issues and are talking to those people who live in Latvia and Latvian is not their first language.

If you look at public opinion polls, they paint a very interesting picture: there are about a quarter (of non-native Latvian speakers) supporting Ukraine; a quarter support Putin; and the rest either do not give the correct answer or say they are confused. Of course, it would be very wise to try to understand how they are confused and why they are not answering the question.

I would say that we also take this issue seriously. But I would also say that, unlike some other countries, you don't have very compact parts, especially in parts of Latvia where there are only, say, Russian speakers; it's a slightly more complex picture.

But despite that, I also believe that looking at what's going on in Ukraine, many of those who would probably support Putin and how big he is and what he's doing elsewhere, wouldn't be too happy to see missiles or drones flying into their apartments. I think that should be taken care of.

RSE: How do you see coexistence with Russia, in general, in the future? Let's say there is a truce or some kind of agreement, do you ever see yourself going to Russia? What kind of welcome would you expect?

Rinkevichs: It is impossible to imagine that during my mandate I will go to Russia or receive a Russian official. I don't think that will happen.

I do not believe that, even in the best possible scenario that we are talking about in this interview, that we will see Russia radically change and go in the direction of democracy where human rights and the rule of law are expected.

The whole history of Russia shows that there are waves. Waves in which they turn to the West and want to be like the West. They never really get there.

RSE: That's how it is with waves, they come and go.

Rinkevichs: Yes. We are now on a wave where Russia is completely turning away from being a part of Western civilization with all the elements we know.

But that wave will also disappear. My concern, at this point, would be that if Russia feels they have won, then they will try their luck. If Russia feels it has lost and the current regime continues to rule, then there will be some humiliation and probably some attempt to right the wrong.

So, whether you like it or not, next year, maybe even decades, we will live facing an unpredictable, dangerous country...

RFE/RL: I want to ask you about this persistent reluctance of the so-called Old West to see Russia from the perspective of the Baltics or Poland or Eastern Europeans in general. Even when history seems to prove your view of Russia correct.

Rinkevichs: To some extent, I think the last two years have shown that we have become closer, but we haven't met yet. I think we are getting closer, because there is an understanding that in the 21st century, Russia can use very brutal means to start a war; Russia can kill innocent civilians. But I think there are two other elements that I try to understand when I talk to our Western counterparts.

One is that we still have slightly different histories. Most of Western Europe was under Nazi occupation, it was liberated and Germany became one of the leading global and European powers, which is a great success story. We got another 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended relatively recently, only 33 years ago. And that's why we have such memories.

Second, I think everyone was so excited that the Cold War was over, and there was this kind of wishful thinking that was very hard to shake.

And finally, let's not forget that there are many other pressing issues for many larger or smaller European countries. Russia is part of the United Nations Security Council, it has a global reach and, to some extent, I think there is a sense that if Russia was dealt with properly, you could probably get some kind of deal. I don't believe that.

I see that Russia respects all agreements only if it believes that they serve their interests. As soon as it's over, they break them, whether they're about Ukraine, or Georgia, or any other international agreements they've signed in the last 30 years.

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