Edgars Rinkevičs, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia
I believe the Kremlin realizes that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would mark a point of no return for them
02.10.2022 08:48

As military escalation on the part of Moscow is intensifying amid a whirl of top stories regarding political and front-line developments, time runs astonishingly fast. The picture of the world as we know it keeps changing every day and sometimes, every hour. But even in such a situation, it is important to sit down for a long, unrushed conversation, which would allow to see more than an ever-changing "instant picture" of the events, but also to consider the developments in a longer-range perspective. Today, Ukrinform's interlocutor is Edgars Rinkēvičs, who has been the head of the Latvian Foreign Ministry for about 11 years now.

DEMOCRACIES ARE MORE STABLE THAN AUTHORITARIAN COUNTRIES

- Recently, you made a statement on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which you called on Latvians not to travel to Russia, also urging those who are already there to return immediately. What was the main reason behind this call: is it about the risk of staying in Russia due to threats of repression; risk of being recruited by security agencies, or an increased threat of military escalation?

- You’ve just answered your own question.

- That is, all three factors are in play approximately in equal proportion, right?

- We gave our first such warning back in February-March, after Russia invaded Ukraine. After some time, we repeated it. And then came the third warning – from September 28. It’s inevitable because we’re seeing escalation. There’s also the decision of the Russian authorities on mobilization. There are the so-called referenda, as well as the next steps to the annexation of several regions of Ukraine. Also, we’re seeing the propaganda uproar that is being spun in Russia on this occasion. It is also necessary to pay attention to the explosions on the Nord Stream 1, and Nord Stream 2 pipes. And as a result indeed, now there is an increased risk of recruitment, some provocations, arrests "for espionage", "for drugs", or under other articles, which could lead to fabricated criminal cases, which would be absolutely politically motivated. So here we are again – for the third time (!) we remind our citizens that the situation is getting complicated, especially sharply, since September 21 (Putin's declaration of partial mobilization in Russia, - ed.). Now is the worst time to travel to Russia. That’s except for extraordinary cases – illness or family funeral.

- On Wednesday, the second major pro-Russian rally took place in Prague. How stable do you think the democracies are in Europe with the leaders that are going through election campaigns against the backdrop of Moscow's energy blackmail?

- We’ll see... Let's talk about it late April or May. 

But if we dwell on this topic, I think there is an understanding that Russia is currently facing a range of problems, including around the supply of gas and oil – and not only to Europe. At the same time, Moscow is escalating, including by attempting to annex the territories of another state... I think that all European leaders understand the risks under these conditions. Well, they also understood this before as many countries had already been seriously preparing for the coming winter since late March or early April ... An interesting detail: we recall rather fierce discussions regarding Russia sanctions – the suspension of gas, oil, and coal purchases. After all, then they didn’t dare introduce full-scale sanctions on gas and oil. But now Moscow is helping them do this by its own actions. Accordingly, structural changes are taking place in Europe's energy systems. Indeed, it will not be easy, but, in my opinion, the stability of democracies is in principle greater than that of authoritarian states. This, by the way, is evidenced by the experience of two world wars. Yes, difficult situations are being observed today, and more will come... People are justifiably concerned about their heating and power bills, as well as rising prices in stores. Here in Latvia, we are introducing compensation mechanisms. Of course, they cannot cover everything. But still, people can make sure that states, governments, in principle, are working to address the existing problems, to solve them. At the same time, people understand that the situation arose as a result of Russia's military aggression toward Ukraine, and also, in fact, as a result of Russia's hybrid aggression toward the West.

WHY IS RECOGNIZING RUSSIA AS A SPONSOR OF TERRORISM IMPORTANT

- As far as I remember, as early as in the aftermath of the killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka, you said that the EU should consider recognizing Russia as a sponsor of terrorism. Recently, we learned about the response of the U.S. administration that such a decision in their case would complicate their current policies. What is the current situation in this regard in the European Union, especially after the explosions at the Nord Stream pipes?

- The issue has just been discussed by NATO Allies at the North Atlantic Council (a weekly meeting in the format of ambassadors). A corresponding statement was adopted (it referred to the gas leak on the Nord Stream as a deliberate act of sabotage, while emphasizing that any deliberate attack against the critical infrastructure of the Allies will receive a collective response, - ed.). But this issue is still being discussed. An investigation into the blasts is underway in Denmark and Sweden, and there are no final results just yet.

By the way, our parliament has already recognized Russia as a "sponsor of terrorism," and so has the Lithuanian Seimas. The Parliament of Estonia intends to do so, too. But all this is mainly a political assessment. However, it already provides grounds for working with our partners in the European Union in several directions. The first one is the seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s assets, frozen due to sanctions, and their use to support and restore Ukraine. The second is that it helps us work on the development of a unified policy regarding European visas for Russian citizens. There are different opinions here, so I think the discussion will continue (which is normal for the EU). And thirdly, we agreed that we will introduce the eighth package of sanctions.

At the same time, I would like to remind you that in the USA, the wording "state sponsor of terrorism" has legal and financial implications. In the European Union, it doesn’t have such a rank as no similar frameworks have been worked out. But the political declaration in this case would also be important. Well, and as it happens on various other issues, the Baltic states find themselves in the avant-garde, offering their proposals. At first, they don't support us, they hold long discussions. But in the end, in many cases, we gain certain success. So we will continue our work to this end.

NOW THEY DON’T ARGUE WITH US, THEY HEED TO US

- Until 2014, until February 24, in response to their statements about Russia’s aggressive nature, politicians from the Baltic countries were often told that it was just their post-imperial psychological complexes. Now, with each subsequent stage of escalation on the part of Moscow, to what extent does your expert, diplomatic status change? After all, what you say comes true.

- That’s a good one. I think that the voices of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are listened to more than ever. And even if they don't agree with us, they don't criticize us. They try to understand why we think this way, say this way, why we put forward this or that proposal. By the way, there were two good examples over the recent months.

First, the "visa ban" for Russian tourists. At first, we heard the argument: “No, it's impossible. There is no need to do this because Russians will come to us on tourist visas. They will see how beautiful democracy is, how well we all live here. They will go back and change their country." We then recalled that this argument is already 30 years old. And nothing has changed in Russia. More precisely, it has, but only for the worse. In addition, we have legitimate security concerns. And, of course, there are strong moral and political arguments. Since it is impossible to fathom that Russians will be able just like that to travel to Spain or Latvia to drink coffee there, while their fellow citizens will at the same time be killing Ukrainians in the east and south of your country, launch rockets at other regions. And so, in the end, we came to some sort of compromise. That is, we don’t let them in, while other countries are reducing the number of visas they issue. And we will continue to work on this.

Secondly, the situation with refugees from Russia in connection with mobilization... In the democratic world, there are politicians and states that say: "Political asylum should be provided. They are running away from the war." We think somewhat different. These people spent six months at home, on their couch. And some would also post abominations about Ukraine on VKontakte, supporting their army and their president. But now these people have realized that such patriotism should be shown not only on social networks, but also at the front, that they are supposed to be deployed to Ukraine, where they could be killed... We don’t think that such people should be welcome and given political asylum. I think we should welcome only those who had been persecuted even before mobilization – for political reasons. That is, those who were against the war, against Putin, and who can prove it. And this can be grounds for receiving the right to asylum... By the way, I would like to note that Finland is also now making a decision to limit the flow from Russia.

If we sum this up... You know, 10 years ago, for similar discussions, we would have been, as you rightly noted, sent to a shrink, a psychiatrist. Today, we ourselves are considered the main psychiatrists in Europe.

RESPONSE TO THE USE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS IS BEING DISCUSSED

- This is a good metaphor. And now to the most painful question, the case where a good psychiatrist is especially needed. This is the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail. The issue is often discussed on Russian "talk shows", where a number of experts already warn that it is better not to resort to this. How is it being discussed at your level? How cam Moscow be warned against this and what might NATO's response be?

- We do not rule out the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons. (There is also another option: the use of chemical weapons). However, people in the Kremlin understand that such a precedent would mark a point of no return for them. Therefore, I don’t think that the Kremlin is currently looking into this as a base option for their further operations.

But what is the current situation? As you can see, the Ukrainian Armed Forces sometimes simply work miracles, advancing and liberating the territory of their country. And what about the Russian side? A large army that invaded Ukraine cannot defeat a state that is smaller, but with more professional armed forces. Russia is losing trained people, soldiers, and at the same time it is losing face – both in front of the international community and its own population. Under such conditions, there is a temptation to resort to nuclear blackmail. Especially after the formal decision to annex new territories with the argument: "This is now Russian land, and we have the right to defend it by all means." That’s what Putin has already said. Rattling chemical or nuclear sabers is a very real scenario, and here's why. That’s because of the propaganda that pours through all Russian channels, because this topic is being seriously discussed there. There is a fear that they are preparing their population for something. Well, the fact that their experts and speakers talk about the danger of such use during the discussion is not an indicator. We remember that when the Kremlin denies something, it happens.

They denied the possibility of mobilization – they started it; denied the possibility of starting a war against Ukraine – they launched aggression...

So what it all boils down to is that for now, we believe that this is all just blackmail, relatively speaking, just brandishing a knife. But at the same time, we should all be ready for various turns of events. And so the issue of a possible response to the realized threat is being discussed. But at this stage, I cannot dwell into any details because this issue is still being discussed at a level that’s not yet public.

WHAT UKRAINE NEEDED IS ALREADY INVOLVED IN COMBAT

- Foreign Policy wrote that Russia had deployed in the Ukrainian fronts about 80% of its northwestern flank group, including the S-300s. At the same time, experts believe that Russia still has opportunities to replenish reserves. Under these conditions, what is the security situation in the Baltic region at the moment?

- It is true that Russia threw all its war-capable parts and systems in the direction of Ukraine. There are, of course, those who flee, surrender to Ukraine as prisoners. But there are those who will try to resist. And so, in general, taking into account the size, it is also true that Russia’s mobilization potential is quite high. Therefore, we welcome the decisions taken by the NATO heads of state and government at the summit in Madrid. We now have a little more than a battalion of allies. Plus our armed forces. However, the number of our allies will increase to the level of a brigade (in each of the Baltic countries - ed.). We are creating a new training ground, new foundations. This is massive work so it takes some time. We are also working on improving our air and coastal defense systems.

And most importantly, we learn a lot from you, from Ukraine. Of course, I would very much wish that none of this happened, that there was no war. But it’s ongoing. And our military takes over the experience of their Ukrainian colleagues. Not only the military sphere is considered, but also civil defense, and various elements of life support, which are currently being created and developed in Ukraine. As a result, not only do we see Russia's weaknesses, we also understand what needs to be corrected, improved, and done differently. I repeat, the absolute priority now is air and coastal defense. It is also important that our colleagues understand us. Therefore, the number of allied forces will increase here.

In general, we can say that the security of the Baltic region is ensured – we are, after all, a member of NATO and the EU. But at the same time, we understand that, by and large, a lot is currently being resolved in Ukraine. I don't want to make loud statements like "Baltic countries and Poland will be next". But I would say this: we understand that our line of defense is now in Ukraine. And we help it with everything we can. In recent months, at the end of July and most recently, in September, I spoke twice over the phone with my counterpart, Mr. Kuleba. He had specific requests. And I am very glad that our Ministry of Defense was able to quickly satisfy these requests – what Ukraine needed is already involved in combat.

THE SHUTDOWN OF RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA CHANNELS HAS ALREADY YIELDED RESULTS

- In continuation of the topic that Ukraine now protects everyone… Thanks to the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, we see great changes in the media space in Latvia, the EU, and the rest of the world. Only a year ago, it was discussed how good it would be to shut down Russian propaganda channels, but now the information agenda is fundamentally different – whether the Dozhd TV channel is good or not. In your opinion, what is the current situation with information security?

- It's easy to be speaking with you. (Laughs) You asked a question and answered it yourself. In principle, I agree with this, so what more can be said?

- That is, part of my question can be reworked into an answer?

- In all seriousness... The topic you raised is another good example of how views evolve in the European Union, both here in Latvia and in other countries... Changes happened, one might say, with cosmic speed – by many light years. Back in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea, we already said a lot that it is necessary not only to be tougher on sanctions, but at the same time it is necessary to stop broadcasting Russian propaganda channels. Then they told us: "What’s wrong with you?! This is freedom of speech, freedom of the press. We will never limit another opinion." Then we began to show that this "another opinion" borders on the propaganda of war, racism, that is, directly conflicts with the articles of the criminal law of a normal democratic European state. Even then, in some segments, albeit very slowly, the realization that it was necessary to change began to come. But the real turning point came only now – when, after the direct invasion of Ukraine, Russian propagandists en masse said that Ukraine must be destroyed, that Ukrainians are not a nation, etc.

When the (full-scale - ed.) war started, we shut down all Russian propaganda channels. And we see that the attitude towards the situation of our Russian-speaking population is gradually changing. But there is an understanding that it is necessary to create some alternative – both for the Russian audience and for the Russians living not only in Latvia, but also in Europe. Now we have the Dozhd TV channel. It sets its own, as you said, information agenda. Here, in Latvia, there are different opinions about this: some say it’s necessary and some believe it isn’t. But the main thing is that it is not propaganda. This does not go into any comparison with the Russian channels we shut down. These are truly independent Russian journalists, even if our opinion differs from theirs on some issues – both regarding visas and those fleeing from mobilization. But this is an outlet that tries to give a multifaceted opinion for the Russian population – both in Russia and Europe, including Latvia. At the same time, we don’t plan to create any state TV channels for Russian speakers. This has been debated for a long time in Latvia at the level of parliament and government. But I think that a fairly wide spectrum of opinions is offered by such outlets working here as "Current Time," "Dozhd," as well as the Russian services of Deutsche Welle and BBC.

There are different groups of consumers in our media space. Many still fail to believe in what was once considered unfathomable: a war between Russia and Ukraine. Accordingly, they dwell in their own space, trying not to think about these questions. We have a lot of people in Latvia who support Ukraine, in particular among Russians, Russian speakers. These are not just words, this is also evidenced by public opinion polls. But there is, of course, a fairly large group of those who support Putin. We understand that we will not be able to fix this in a week or in a month. This is a major and long process. But, I repeat, the positive effect of us shutting down all these propaganda channels is already visible. Although surely someone uses satellite dishes, VPN, etc. But there is already a strong alternative in the Russian-language information field. It is still too early to draw more specific conclusions though, since many outlets started operating in June and July. So only two to three months have passed. This year we will be able to look at the results and discuss them.

- Thank you, minister! Seems we already have several other topics for our next conversation.

Oleg Kudrin, Riga

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