Keep calm, stop Putin and fortify the Baltics

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walks in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, on April 4. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walks in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, on April 4. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images)

If war is hell then there are no words to describe the horrific images coming out of Bucha, Ukraine. The video Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky showed after his speech to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday is confirmation of the barbarity we feared Russian President Vladimir Putin would unleash on the democratic nation. And it is a warning of what could happen to other neighbors if he isn’t stopped.

In Zelensky’s blistering critique of the United Nation’s inaction on Russia’s war, he said, “The world watched and did not want to see the occupation of Crimea, or even before — the war against Georgia, or even earlier — the alienation from Moldova of the entire Transnistrian region. It also didn’t want to see how Russia was preparing the ground for other conflicts and wars near its borders”.

From the moment Russia pushed into Ukraine six weeks ago, Putin’s potential to harm his neighbors has been top of mind. I’m specifically thinking about the threat to the Baltic states that are members of NATO and protected by the defense guarantee under Article 5. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are individually and collectively tiny compared with Texas-sized Ukraine. But their experience with Soviet occupation gives them a clear-eyed perspective on the looming threat of Putin’s revanchism and the confidence to tell NATO exactly how to handle Putin.

Jonatan Vseviov, secretary general of the Estonian foreign ministry, told me in a recent interview that Russia’s war is retaliation for Ukraine choosing democracy and the West. Vseviov believes that the West has not only gotten inside Putin’s head, but also on his nerves. He urges NATO not to rest on its laurels even though Ukrainians have frustrated Putin’s plans to quickly take over their country. And Vseviov doesn’t believe the preliminary peace negotiations are real. Most important, he says, the West must not flinch in the face of Putin’s attempts to undermine the alliance.

“We should just chill, keep calm, do what we have been doing for decades and not fall in the trap here”, Vseviov said. The trap is what Vseviov called Putin’s carrot-and-stick approach. With the massacre of Bucha and the bombing of civilian targets throughout Ukraine, the stick is plainly apparent. The carrot is the peace negotiations in Turkey, which he called “a false hope … with the aim of trying to convince us that some kind of a peace deal is around the corner without it necessarily being there”.

Horrifying to contemplate is that the Bucha massacre might not be the only site of Putin’s war crimes. “The world has yet to see what they have done in other occupied cities, in other occupied areas of our country”, Zelensky warned in his U.N. speech. “Geography may be different, but cruelty is the same. Crimes are the same”.

Worries that the crimes unleashed on Ukraine will be visited upon the Baltic states is among the driving forces behind their forceful calls for Russia’s defeat. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told The Post this week: “I support maximum military support and maximum sanctions. Russia must lose and criminals should stand in court”. And Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Axios that if Putin “is not punished for the crimes committed, then he will just go on. There will be a pause of one year, two years and when he gets his act together, it will all repeat in a much harder or harsher way”.

In a sign that the warnings are being heeded, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the European allies should consider establishing permanent bases on NATO’s Eastern flank. Military bases would be a good physical representation of what the Baltic states want. But Vseviov believes the alliance needs an attitude adjustment, especially with the frightening prospect that Putin might resort to using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to subdue Ukraine.

“Let’s not be afraid of our own power”, Vseviov said. “We need to become more comfortable with … using our power for achieving our political goals”, which are “defending freedom, defending the rules-based world order that we’ve sacrificed so much to build”.

“This war requires strategic patience”, he added. “And it’s very possible the worst is yet to come. So let’s focus on the future”.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Washington Post Editorial Board, writes about politics and social issues, and is host of the "Capehart" podcast.

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