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Interview: Latvia's President Says Ukraine Is Not Only Fighting For Us But 'Fighting Instead Of Us'

Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics: "To some extent, the possibility of a better Russia, a more democratic Russia, currently lies not in Russia itself but in Ukraine."
Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics: "To some extent, the possibility of a better Russia, a more democratic Russia, currently lies not in Russia itself but in Ukraine."

MUNICH -- Edgars Rinkevics was elected president of Latvia in July 2023, following an 11-year tenure that made him the longest-serving foreign minister in the history of his Baltic nation of 1.8 million people.

He has been an ardent critic of Russia's aggression against neighboring Ukraine since 2014, when he likened the occupation and annexation of Crimea to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," he said at the time.

Eight years later, he became a leading voice for tough punitive sanctions after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Rinkevics talked to RFE/RL's Georgian Service on the sidelines of last week's Munich Security Conference, where in addition to discussing issues such as the crises in Ukraine and Gaza and new threats to NATO cohesion, attendees also learned about the death of Putin critic Aleksei Navalny in an Arctic prison.

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

RFE/RL: I suppose we have to start with the event that overshadowed pretty much everything at the Munich Security Conference: Aleksei Navalny's death. How big a blow is it to the hopes of a better Russia, a Russia that wants to try its hand at democracy again?

Edgars Rinkevics: I think that the very fact that all the opponents of Mr. Putin are either in jail or dead, and that Mr. Navalny was not the first opponent who died -- or that they are somewhere in exile -- actually [shows] that, at this point, it is very difficult to imagine any kind of opposing forces that could make a difference in Russia. It may happen [sometime] in the future -- things are not somehow frozen in time, they are not constant, they keep moving.

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.

But I think that this has been probably a very symbolic end of an era. Because we do remember how Mr. Navalny was fighting corruption, how he was exposing officials. Well, you could agree or disagree with him as a politician, but definitely he was a very viable alternative to the current regime. And that's why I believe he was imprisoned and he died. And as we remember, there was already one very serious attempt on his life just three years ago.

On the other hand, I do believe that we must also understand that our condemnation -- the Western world saying how bad it is -- does not mean anything [to] the Kremlin at this point. I think Mr. Putin has his own goals. He wants, first of all, to eliminate any dissent back home. And, of course, he wants to advance his foreign policy [and] imperialistic goals.

RFE/RL: What do you expect the Western reaction to be, beyond the usual consternation and condemnation?

Rinkevics: I do believe that the only viable way to respond to this tragic news is to provide more assistance, more weapons to Ukraine. To some extent, the possibility of a better Russia, a more democratic Russia, currently lies not in Russia itself but in Ukraine. I believe we still have this very wrong narrative that "we are going to support Ukraine as long as it takes." We should change it to "we are going to support Ukraine to victory, even with all the issues [and] problems that we now face: funding, a bit of fatigue." But I think that this is a major, important message that the leaders of the free world should send: We will support Ukraine until victory.

And most probably, I would say, the victory of Ukraine means also some possible change in Russia -- not necessarily a positive one. It could also be the other way around. But at least there is a chance for change, also within Russia. But currently, I would say that the only viable way is not to impose sanctions on that or another judge or prosecutor or the warden of the prison where Mr. Navalny died but actually to double down on the support for Ukraine….

We talked [before this interview] about the lesson learned from 2008, from Russia's aggression against Georgia. Now everyone is saying that if we were smart enough then, then probably the war in Europe, as we know it now, would never have started. That's not the case anymore. I think that now -- and I repeat this whenever I meet the press or colleagues if they don't realize -- not providing enough help to Ukraine means [a] kind of cease-fire or the end of hostilities…probably for the time being. But Russia has shown over the last 16-plus years that it's on a war footing, and it will continue.

So, from that point of view, I would not look so much at how to respond to Mr. Navalny's death -- with what kind of sanctions, what kind of scenarios could develop. I would say this has reinforced the message that we have to continue fighting Russia any way we can. And we know that Ukraine is fighting not only for us but, to some extent, I would say Ukraine is fighting instead of us.

RFE/RL: You pledged when you visited Kyiv, with [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, that Latvia would stand with Ukraine until its victory. And I want to ask you what this victory looks like today? What would be a victory that would be acceptable for Ukraine and, in a broader sense, the West?

Rinkevics: I think that this is a question that is very easily answerable, but it's not very easily deliverable. The Ukrainian president has presented his peace formula. We are going to meet hopefully next month -- it depends, of course, on the organization [of it], at a first peace summit. I hope that the [approach] is going to be quite broad and…the peace formula is a Ukraine that is gaining control of its own internationally recognized borders.

Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics (left) meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on November 24.
Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics (left) meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on November 24.

RFE/RL: Do you ever see Putin agreeing to that?

Rinkevics: That's where we are going to the second part of my answer, where I say that it's very easy to answer and difficult to deliver. And yes, this year is going to be difficult -- difficult in the way that we are not delivering enough, we know that. And yes, we are ramping up the defense industry; there are [things] that are good. We are also going to see to it that Ukraine receives more sophisticated weapons also throughout this year.

But I think that the only way Russia can start to talk about the end of hostilities and agreeing to the peace formula is if they understand that they can't advance anymore and that they are losing ground and, to some extent, that their own internal stability of the regime is threatened. And that is where, if I am asked the time line, I wouldn't be able to give it, and a lot depends on Ukrainians and on us.

RFE/RL: I won't ask you about the time line, but I will ask you about whether there is willingness in the West to do that.

Rinkevics: All my colleagues with whom I was speaking understand that, at this point, this is a very complex issue. There is an example of 2008 Georgia; there is an example [from] 2014 [with] Crimea and Donbas. And there is an example also of subversive actions when it comes to our own election process [in Latvia] back in 2016-17. We see also the attempts to intimidate, maybe, in countries like Moldova -- you name it.

But there is this difficulty [in] that we as leaders are trying to find the right way to talk with our publics. Why? Because there is a bit of fatigue. If you switch on the TV or you look at news sites, you see "Ukraine war." Some people still continue watching, [others] simply move to something else. We do have this very complex situation in the Middle East, which also has taken a toll on the global community. And then, of course, you understand that if there is a stalemate, 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 am saying that we should not approach the current situation with [a] sense of gloom and doom, but we have to be prepared [for] all kinds of scenarios. And also, back home, it requires some effort to mobilize [the] civil [defenses]. It has to be reconfigured according to the experience from Ukraine, or more defense spending, or the establishment of conscription, or building the Baltic defense line. We have plenty of work to do.

RFE/RL: On that note, recently, some Scandinavian countries told their people that it's not an unrealistic possibility that Russia will try to launch an attack against them in three to five years' time. Suppose you go out in Riga and tell that to the Latvian population, what would the reaction be?

Rinkevics: First of all, the Latvian population is smart enough to read all the news and [hear about] everything that either I or the foreign minister or the defense minister or any high-level officials are saying to them -- or [what] any admirals or high-level officials of any [other] countries are saying. So that eventuality is being counted [on].

But you know, probably for us, some of those discoveries that we hear from other capitals in the West, that discovery is not anything new. We knew that Russia is getting more and more belligerent. We saw what is happening in Georgia, in Ukraine. We saw what is happening in our neighboring Belarus in 2021 when, with the assistance of President Putin, [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka was suppressing unrest. So, this is not anything that I would say is new.

But having said that, I see that there is a need to somehow tell the public that, first of all, we need to spend more on security, including both defense and internal security. Yes, we have to work with our allies. Yes, we don't have anything better than NATO. But at the same time, we also should not approach this as a fact. So probably for us, it's a bit of a different narrative than for some of those countries that even a couple of years ago were saying that it's not imaginable, it's impossible. Now everything is possible.

And we should understand that when we are past this phase, that we acknowledge the problem, that we start to address it. And the solution is more defense industry, more defense spending.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian President Zelenskiy warned of the dangers to Poland and to the Baltics. With that in mind, and with Russia's known tactics of "passportization" and using Russian-speaking populations in other countries for aggression, how concerned are you that that could be a threat in Latvia, with its rather sizable Russian-speaking minority?

Rinkevics: We do take some of the security challenges…seriously. And that's why there has been legislation passed [for] a more rigorous vetting process. And at the same time, I would say that we were also well aware of some of those tactics long in advance. We have seen [widespread] attempts to issue Russian passports 10 years ago, when we were introducing our social-security system reform, raising the pension age. Suddenly all those people who took Russian passports and refused the Latvian [passports], the noncitizens, understood that actually life is not as nice as it seems. I would say that, to some extent, this situation is a bit different than it used to be, or than it still is in Georgia or Ukraine.

Rinkevics inspects the Latvia-Russia border near Lidumnieki in August.
Rinkevics inspects the Latvia-Russia border near Lidumnieki in August.

RFE/RL: For the better?

Rinkevics: I would say it's not for the better, it's just different. Indeed, we also addressed some of those concerns, and we are talking with those people who live in Latvia and are not speaking Latvian as their native language. If you look at opinion polls, they present a very interesting picture: There is about a quarter [of those not using Latvian as their native language] supporting Ukraine; a quarter are supporting Mr. Putin; and the rest is either not giving an exact answer or saying 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 take this issue seriously, too. But I would also say that, unlike in some other countries, you don't have very compact parts, especially in parts of Latvia where there are only, let's say, Russian speakers; it's a bit more [of a] complex picture. But nevertheless, I do believe also that seeing what's happening in Ukraine, many of those who would probably support Putin and how great he is and what he does somewhere else, they wouldn't be very happy to see missiles flying into their own apartment, or drones flying into their own apartment. I think that this needs to be taken into account.

RFE/RL: How do you see coexistence with Russia, in general, in the future? Let's say there's a cease-fire or some kind of settlement. Do you ever see yourself going to Russia? What kind of welcome or reception would you expect?

Rinkevics: It's impossible to imagine that during my mandate I would be going to Russia or receiving any Russian official. I don't think it's going to happen…. I don't believe that, even with the best possible scenario that we're talking about in this interview, that we are going to see Russia changing in a radical way for democracy, where human rights and rule of law would be expected. The whole history of Russia shows that, yes, there are waves. There are waves when they turn to the West and they want to be like the West. They never quite get there.

RFE/RL: That's the thing about the waves, they come and go.

Rinkevics: Yes. Now we are in the wave where Russia is completely turning away from being part of Western civilization with all the elements we know. But that wave is also going to disappear. My concern [at] this point would be that if Russia feels that it has won, it will try its luck; if Russia feels that it has lost but the current regime continues to be in power, then there will be a kind of humiliation and probably there will be an attempt to somehow correct the mistake. So, like it or not, we are going to face in the next years, or maybe decades, living next to a very unpredictable, dangerous country….

RFE/RL: I want to ask you about this enduring reluctance of the so-called Old West to see Russia from the perspective that the Baltics or Poland or Eastern Europeans in general see it. Even when history seemingly proves that your way of seeing Russia is right.

Rinkevics: To some extent, I think that the last two years showed that we are getting closer, but we have not met each other yet. I think that we are getting closer, because there is an understanding that in the 21st century, Russia can use very brutal means to launch a war; Russia can kill innocent civilians. But I think that there are also two other elements that I'm trying to understand when I'm talking with [our] Western counterparts.

One is that we still have a bit [of a] different history. Most of Western Europe was under Nazi occupation, it got liberated, [and] Germany became one of the leading global and European powers -- a completely 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 those kinds of memories.

Second, I think that everyone was so excited that the Cold War was over, and there was this kind of very wishful thinking that is very difficult to get rid of. And then finally, let's not forget that there are also many other pressing issues for many bigger or smaller European countries. Russia is part of the UN Security Council; it has global reach, and, to some extent, I think that there is this kind of feeling that, if [Russia were] properly [addressed], you could probably get some kind of deal. I don't believe that.

I see that all the deals are honored by Russia only if they believe they serve their interests. As soon as it's over, they break them -- be it Ukraine, be it Georgia, be it any other international treaty they have signed throughout the last 30 years.

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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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