NATO's new "Strategic Concept," unveiled at this week's summit in Spain, has moved Russia from a potential partner to "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."
The shift may reflect a reassessment among Western members of the alliance. But not among Eastern NATO nations.
"In the West, there was a general consensus or a general feeling to allow the desirable to be imagined as the actual," said Krisjanis Karins, Latvia's prime minister.
Karins, in St. Paul this week for the Latvian Song and Dance Festival USA, said in an interview that "in the Baltics, we never shared this view since gaining independence and especially since [Russian President Vladimir] Putin came to power." Latvians and others in the Baltics, Karins said, observed Putin's scorched-earth war in Chechnya, his invasion and partial occupation of Georgia, his earlier annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, and his infamous musing that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, as evidence for their skepticism.
Today there's unity for Ukraine's existential fight against the February full-scale invasion of their country. Back then, Karins said, there was the thought that "if we only find the right words, Putin would finally understand that we're not interested in attacking him." Now, Putin's brutality in Ukraine "finally has opened up all eyes to the fact that we were all collectively going down a garden path. This was not the path to go. From the Baltics we've been counseling this for years."
Latvians and other Eastern Europeans "have a right to feel vindicated," said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for Europe. Fried, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, added that "they have concluded that the threat of a Russian assault cannot be waved away as impossible." Aggressive propaganda from Moscow is "enthusiastically fascist and violent," Fried said, "And if you're a small country with a population of under 2 million, why aren't you going to take this stuff seriously? Especially since what's happening in Ukraine with filtration camps and deportations, that's still family memory, and in some case living memory, because that's what the Soviets did when they occupied the Baltic states."
Karins reflected on the family memory many Latvians have of their then-Soviet soldiers sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Latvian forces returned under their own uniforms and their own accord as an ally responding to the U.S. invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter after 9/11.
"In the Baltics, we invest in our own defense," Karins said, adding that his country contributes over the NATO objective of 2% of GDP for defense: 2.2% and "headed toward 2.5%." Accordingly, he said, "we're not looking for handouts. Since joining NATO in 2004 we've been actively participating in all sorts of NATO missions; Afghanistan, Iraq, we've lost soldiers there as well. And now we are simply — as our allies asked us for assistance — now we're asking for the same kind of assistance. And what's pleasing is that we're getting the full response that we could hope for," Karins continued, referencing summit announcements, including that the U.S. would set up a permanent presence in Poland and bolster troop rotation in the Baltics and Romania. The U.S., he said, "which is very highly appreciated in the Baltics, had done, in my view, an outstanding job of reforging and reinvigorating the alliance and giving it purpose."
So too has Vladimir Putin.
So much so that the opposite of one of Putin's justifications for the war — nixing NATO expansion — will soon happen with the addition of two highly capable nations, Finland and Sweden.
"It will be harder for Russia to operate in the Baltic Sea in times of war, harder for them to close the air and sea space between the West and the Baltics," said Fried. "So, this is good news for NATO, it's good news for the transatlantic community. It's bad news for Vladimir Putin."
And yet it may not deter Putin from objectives beyond Ukraine, Karins said.
His war of choice is driven by something "deeper" than a "land grab," the prime minister said. "There is an ideology and a belief behind that of a 'greater Russia.' Maybe to American ears you take something like 'manifest destiny' of the U.S. expanding from coast to coast as an underlying driver of the expansion of the United States in its time, akin to this 'greater Russia,' which is an almost holy process of reuniting the Russian lands."
It's an "insidious" but "deeply flawed" philosophy, said Karins, who added that within this framework Ukraine and even Belarus "does not exist." This is "a denial of nationality and therefore of course of statehood."
Putin "has compared himself to Peter the Great, and saying once again to reaffirm that what he's doing in Ukraine is simply taking back what is rightfully his," Karins continued. "Of course, Peter the Great's empire extended a little bit beyond the Russian lands and the question is, 'Is there actually a limit to Russia's expansion?' And my reading is that the limit is force of opposition."
Putin, said Karins, "will go as far as he is allowed to go."
NATO, designed to not allow such Soviet/Russian aggression, is stronger. Although even amid its unity there are strategic splits, including one on Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron in particular seems tilted toward earlier negotiations, while other leaders, especially in Eastern Europe, believe defeat of Russia is essential.
"We're actually much more united," Karins said, adding that Macron's public statements "have evolved over time." So "we're not so much on a different page, as different speeds, and different length of understanding."
"As a union we have come a very long way in a very short time," Karins said. "The problem for Ukrainians and for us is it needs to be faster," particularly regarding armaments. "Because the imperative for Ukraine to win and Russia to lose is not an imperative only for Ukraine existentially, but it is for all of us in Europe and the world to regain peace and security." Putin, Karins said, "is no different today than he was six months ago, or probably even six years ago. The difference is he has now dropped the veneer of trying to outwardly show he was like us. … The outward appearance of a European that we falsely assumed the inward structure as well."
Putin seemed to confirm such a duality to President Joe Biden himself when he was vice president. In a Washington Post commentary, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul described being in the room in 2011 when Putin told Biden: "You look at us and see our skin and then assume we think like you. But we don't." To emphasize his point, McFaul wrote, Putin "slid his index finger down his white cheek."
Regarding Russia, China and other repressive regimes, Biden has framed the fight as autocracy vs. democracy. But Karins believes it's even deeper.
"It's actually more profound," Karins said. "I think it's a struggle between imperialism and the notion of the nation-state. And the only way that nation-states can fend off imperialism is, by definition, by banding together."
"Collectively," he concluded, "we are strong enough, we are powerful enough, and we have the economic might to stay not one, but two or three steps ahead of the competition."