„However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.“

Winston Churchill

I am an Estonian diplomat. Diplomats – we are story tellers. We use words to advance our interests. We talk. That´s what we do.

So it might come as a bit of a surprise when I say that in international affairs, it does not matter what we say. It does not even matter what we do. When it comes to shaping history, the only thing that really matters is the result we´re able to achieve. It is the result that defines us.

Russia´s large-scale war in Ukraine has lasted for two years, and its result is not yet clear.

Aggression may succeed. Or it could fail. One thing is certain – this war – as all others before it – will end. One day, peace will break out. The sort of peace we´ll have will depend on the way this war ends. It will depend on the war´s result.

A lot is at stake.

Obviously for Ukraine. But also for Russia. And certainly for us, Europeans.

About the author

Jonatan Vseviov took office as Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 2021. Before his current job, Vseviov was the Estonian ambassador to the United States since August 2018.

From 2008 to 2018, Vseviov worked at the Estonian Ministry of Defence, where he rose to the position of secretary general.

Ukraine is fighting for its survival, not just as a state, but as a nation. You’ve all heard the slogan: if Russia stops fighting, there will be no war; if Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine. And its right – Ukraine´s collapse would be catastrophic. We´ve seen what it would look like. We saw it Bucha and in Irpin, and we´re seeing it right now, all across the occupied territories, where Russia attempts to root out ukrainianness as such.

But Putin, too, has determined that Russia´s existential interests are at stake; that a free and independent Ukraine, as part of a European family of nations, is a threat to Russia and its vision of itself. The final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which´ demise Putin himself has described as „the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century“.

A successful Ukrainian democracy can indeed be dangerous to Putin. Remember, he has always argued that Russia, while in many ways European, is nevertheless fundamentally different. This idea of Russian uniqueness is obviously older than Putin; it goes back to Russia seeing itself as a separate civilization, with global and historic ambitions – a vision of Moscow being the Third Rome, a sort of carrier of a civilizational torch.

And it is this idea of Russia’s uniqueness that Putin has used to justify his system of government that is different from the way we in the West govern ourselves.

At the same time, Putin has always seen Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. In fact, Russia traces its origins to Ukraine, and before there was Moscow – and way before Saint Petersburg – there was Kyiv.

True Ukrainian sovereignty does not fit in this picture. So if all of a sudden it becomes apparent that those Ukrainians decide to turn away from the Russian idea, to build a European-style democracy, and succeed – then the whole concept of Russian uniqueness collapses. And with it, a big part of the rationale for why the Russian people are destined to putinist rule.

And so, Russia has time and again, proven, with words and action alike, that its goals in this war have not changed. They want all of Ukraine. All of it.

Russia has time and again, proven, with words and action alike, that its goals in this war have not changed. They want all of Ukraine. All of it.

But Putin´s goals are not limited to Ukraine. As Moscow made clear in the run-up to the war, they´re seeking a fundamentally reshaped European security order, where NATO would be pushed back to its pre-1997 borders, creating a buffer zone between itself and what they consider to be the „true West“.

This desire for a buffer zone is not informed by military considerations only, or even primarily. If it were just NATO´s tanks that were seen as a threat, then surely Russia would not have left its borders with NATO undefended when they invaded Ukraine.

No, it is not NATO´s military presence on Russia´s borders that they fear in the current European security order. It is the existence of that order as such that they perceive as dangerous.

A successful, democratic and united Europe is an idea, and that idea has considerable drawing power. People beyond Europe´s borders aspire to live like we do. That, after all, is the reason why the European Union´s enlargements have succeeded, and why they´ve even been possible in the first place.

The problem with ideas is that they tend to cross borders. The Soviets found that out the hard way, as the attractiveness of an alternative model motivated millions in Central and Eastern Europe to aspire for something else, and eventually, revolt against Communist rule.

Putin himself has talked about it, although – truth be told – in his interpretation, the spread of ideas is the hand-work of Western special services, with most of the honors usually going to the CIA. That, after all, is how he´s explained Ukraine´s Maidan revolution, and the colored revolutions before it: a result of the West´s shadowy machinations, aimed at undermining the „Russian World“, tearing parts of it away and – eventually – destabilizing Moscow itself.

The life-strength of this European idea stems from the success of it. Europe is richer than ever before, and certainly richer than Russia. Free Europe has enjoyed unprecedented peace – both internally and externally – and certainly more so than Russia has been able to. And under NATO umbrella Europe has been secure.

Rich, at peace, and secure. What´s worse – multinational. Including both the Catholics and the Lutherans, and yes – the Orthodox. Including people as diverse as the French and the Germanics, the Greeks and the Balts, and yes – the Slavs. Where personal rights and liberties are upheld. Democratically governed. Integrated. And stronger together.

And all of this – immediately on Russia´s borders. A threat. Not because of anything that we do, but because of who we are. Because if the European model continues to succeed, then it will certainly inspire those in Russia who hope for a similarly democratic – and European – future. That is indeed a threat to the Putin regime. No matter what the CIA does or does not do.

So, whether we want it or not, we Europeans are already involved in this war. Not kinetically, no. At least not yet. But our existential interest – to live as a united and democratic Europe – is directly at odds with Russia´s interest to reshape the current European security order. And the existential interest of Ukraine to exist is at odds with Russia´s interest to preserve an Empire.

A loss in Ukraine would not immediately lead to the collapse of the European project. But it would be its catalyst.

It might take a while for people to recognize our defeat. After all, we in the West are very good at hiding our defeats. We´re very good at PR. That is how democratically elected governments get into office – they explain, convince, and create narratives. So it’s only natural that when we lose, we tend to do a good job at explaining the loss away, of hiding it.

We celebrate our victories with concrete dates in mind; our defeats have vaguer anniversaries, but they´re defeats nevertheless. There´s no hiding from it.

A loss in Ukraine would not immediately lead to the collapse of the European project. But it would be its catalyst.

NATO´s war in Afghanistan is a good example. We lost that war. Taliban is back in power. But when did we lose it? Certainly not when the last American planes dramatically departed. It happened some time before.

A victorious Russia would not stop in its tracks. It would lick its wounds, and continue. Preferably at a conference table with other „great powers“, where they´d attempt to negotiate, from a position of strength, a new security order in Europe. A Europe with buffer zones. A Europe where some Europeans´ fate would be decided over their heads. And where the Chamberlains of our day would surely again announce that they´ve delivered peace for our times. By again attempting to satisfy the hunger of an aggressor by feeding it the freedom of others.

We, Europeans, know how these stories end. They end with catastrophe. For all of us. And certainly for the European project as we know it.

Wars end when one side is no longer able or willing to sustain its strategic course. They´re not just contests of arms. They´re first and foremost contests of wills. The outcome of this war will obviously be affected by battlefield developments, but it will not be determined by them alone. Even if Ukraine was able to push every Russian soldier from its borders, Russian missiles could still continue to rain down on Ukrainian cities.

Usually, wars follow a pattern, where after initial shocks – and rapid gains for one side – they develop into a sort of a plateau. Things settle. Both sides try to push forward – not just militarily, but on their overall war strategies – but there appears to be a stalemate. And during that plateau, it might seem that the plateau will last forever. Just like it might have seemed on the Eastern Front of the Second World War in early 1943, with the Nazis clearly unable to knock out the Soviets, and the Soviets not yet seemingly able to push the Germans out. Life in the warring capitals had returned to near-normal, by the standards of those days.

But plateaus don´t last forever. They end with the collapse of one or the other, and in big wars the collapse tends to be fundamental. Two years later, the Red Army was in Berlin.

Wars are costly. They are tiring. We feel it – here in Europe – as we house Ukrainian refugees, reorient our economies and provide significant resources to the Ukrainian cause. Ukraine obviously feels it – most of all in the horrific human toll that this war has exerted.

And worry not – the Putin regime feels it, militarily, economically and politically. All are hurting. All are racing towards the end of the plateau. One will reach it first. That side loses.

When wars end, history does not magically reset itself and start again from the day before the war, as if nothing had happened. No. History always goes forward. Just like after the end of the First World War, Europe did not magically restart where we had left off before the Archduke was shot – no, everything changed. History went ahead. And we had a fundamentally different world. And the day after the Second World War ended, history did not go back to August 31st of 1939, it went ahead, to a changed world.

The same will happen when this war ends. We´ll enter a new era, with a fundamentally changed Ukraine, a fundamentally changed Russia, a fundamentally changed Europe, and – perhaps even more importantly, new norms of international life, shaped not by the elegance of our words or the heroic nature of our deeds, but by the result we manage to achieve.

Depending on the result of this war, it will either become the norm, that a larger state can change its smaller neighbor’s borders with force, or not.

It will either become the norm, that a larger state can decide whether its smaller neighbor gets to exist, not just as a state, but as a nation, or not.

Aggression as a tool of statecraft will either be discredited, or it will become the norm that under certain circumstances, a major global power can commit aggression with impunity.

If we allow territorial integrity and sovereignty to be reduced to nothing but empty phrases in outdated treaties, then show me on the map of Europe a border that remains secure.

If we allow the concept of spheres of influence to make a come-back from the dustbin of history, with the great powers dividing up continents between them, then show me a country on this planet big enough to feel safe. You might point to a few great powers, but I doubt you´d point to any European ones.

And finally, if we allow the most basic of international rules to be trampled on, to be torn up on our watch, in our back yard, then tell me – who are we? Yes, we – the people of Europe, who we´ve claimed to stand for a rules-based international order? We´re defined not by the words we use or the actions we undertake, but by the results we manage to achieve. If no longer defined by this idea, then what will continue to unite us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then, we´ll face the turbulence of the 21st Century not as a united Europe, but as a collection of quarrelling mid-sized powers, blaming each other for what certainly will seem as an avoidable defeat.

If we allow the concept of spheres of influence to make a come-back, then show me a country big enough to feel safe.

The looming challenges of the 21st Century are not the reason to turn away from Ukraine, but the very reason we need to achieve Ukraine´s victory.

The choice of hiding from history is unavailable. We can´t do it. We can either win or we can lose. That´s the choice. And my suggestion would be to win. And to push Russia to change its course, and pull itself back into Russia.

Having Russia pull itself back into Russia is – after all – the ultimate goal of our policy. Nothing more.

But nothing less.

For that to happen we need to convince the people in power in Moscow that the strategy they pursue is unsustainable, and that it is in their own best interest to change course.

It can be done. And it’s been done before, only recently, when Moscow was forced to change course and withdraw from Eastern Europe, without having had a single shot fired at them. The fact that we´re here, in free Estonia, as part of a united Europe, is proof of it.

There´s over 400 Million of us Europeans. Together with our NATO Allies, we´re one billion people. The richest people on this planet, with the greatest military alliance that the world has ever seen. And we´re in a struggle for our future with a country that Senator John McCain once famously described as nothing but a gas station with nukes.

It shouldn´t even be a contest. But it is. Because Putin believes that in a war of attrition, time is on his side.

That belief is the remaining cornerstone of his theory of victory: that sooner rather than later, democracies prove to be weaker, that we will elect to change course, and that eventually our will gives up.

That is the argument we need to prove wrong: that time is not on his side, but on ours, and that it is precisely in the long run that democracies have an advantage over autocracies. No matter who wins our next elections, or how turbulent our political campaigns seem.

One way of doing this is by taking this issue to the independent courts of justice, and pursue accountability there. For the war crimes – as the ICC is doing – and for the crime of aggression – where we need to establish a special tribunal. Another way is by confiscating Russia´s frozen assets for the reconstruction of Ukraine. Both would make the same point – that our policies have staying power, and leave lasting effects that no future government of ours could easily overturn.

And we need to move ahead, as fast as possible, on Ukraine´s future membership in the European Union and NATO – a goal that would ensure both Ukraine´s security and Europe´s stability.

It’s no longer time to worry about the rat´s attack. Now´s the time to deal with it.

So that not just we, but Putin and the people who keep him and his policies around, would believe that we have, indeed, reached a point of no return. That time is on the side of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace. Without spheres of influence or grey zones.

Now, some will say, that pushing a nuclear power to change course might be dangerous. Reckless even. That it could lead to uncontrolled escalation. Some might even tell that famous story of a rat that´s being pushed into a kitchen corner, after which the rat has no other option but to attack.

There are two major flaws with this logic.

First, the Russians have not suddenly lost their minds. They continue to be rational. And they know that NATO is a nuclear alliance too. Deterrence works both ways. The reason why Russia uses nuclear rhetoric is not to warn us – kind-heartedly – of our imminent doom, but in

order to paralyze us with fear. To make us hesitate. Pause, if not stop, in our tracks. Deliberate a little longer, when trying to decide whether to provide Ukraine with Western armaments – as was the taboo only recently.

We´ve broken those taboos, and Russia has continued to behave rationally, but mind you, time is of the essence: we´re not in a static environment, we´re in a race, with a competitor that tries to out-last us, and out-last Ukraine. That is the rationale of Russia´s nuclear rhetoric – to buy time, not to destroy the planet.

And on the rat… Well, ladies and gentlemen, have you not been paying attention? The rat is already on the attack. And it’s no longer in the kitchen. It’s attacking us in the middle of our living room, having already declared the kitchen to be his property. So now, instead of just attempting to corrupt us with the promise of cheap gas, while covertly undermining our democracies and killing people with Pollonium on our streets, the rat is finally on the attack, trying to push us from our homes.

It’s no longer time to worry about the rat´s attack. Now´s the time to deal with it. Or live with the consequences of a Europe torn apart, partially run by a rat.

If you think our victory would be scary – with a defeated and potentially destabilized Russia on our borders – then imagine our defeat. That would be much scarier still.

And if you think that the situation must surely not be that black-and-white, that perhaps a compromise of sorts could be worked out, with some of Ukraine handed over for promises of peace, then think again. Consider whether Russia has indeed changed its goals, or whether they´re using the lure of an easy way out as a trap, meant to unravel our unity, only for them to continue their onslaught.

And then think long and hard about our own, European, history.

And you´ll realize that sometimes, some things are just as black and white as they seem.

Results matter.