Secretary General of Estonia’s Foreign Ministry: ‘Military battles will not end this war’

In an interview with EL PAÍS, Jonatan Vseviov explains that Ukraine’s allies must ‘make the cost of Russian aggression greater than the cost of its withdrawal’

Jonatan Vseviov
Jonatan Vseviov, secretary general of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at his country’s embassy in Madrid, on Thursday, June 15, 2023.Samuel Sánchez
Carlos Torralba

Jonatan Vseviov, 41, went to bed on February 23, 2022 without setting an alarm. The information handled by the secretary general of Estonia’s Foreign Ministry – the department’s highest-ranking official – left no room for doubt. He would wake up at dawn to a phone call, notifying him that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun.

The 16 months since the start of the full-scale offensive have been hectic for Vseviov. Born in Tallinn – the capital of Estonia – he previously served as his country’s ambassador to the United States. In the Baltics, he’s one of the most respected voices on matters of defense.

“Estonia is one of the EU countries that demands tougher measures against Russia, but [this isn’t because of] geographical proximity. Rather, it’s because we were occupied for 50 years by the Soviets,” the senior official said last Thursday, in an interview with EL PAÍS at Estonia’s embassy in Madrid. The diplomat is confident that military setbacks and growing Western pressure will force the Kremlin to back down. However, he stresses that the option of making any concessions to end the war will solely depend on Ukraine.

Question. Ukraine has launched its long-awaited counteroffensive in recent weeks. What result could be considered a success?

Answer. We’re very hopeful that the Ukrainians will be able to make a lot of progress and that’s why we’ve provided considerable monetary assistance over the past several months.

It’s very important, however, to underline that our support for Ukraine isn’t limited… it’s not determined by the level of success of this particular counteroffensive. We [will] support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Q. And, in the best-case scenario, how many years might it take for the Ukrainian army to liberate all the occupied territory?

A. This war will come to a conclusion once Moscow realizes that it has to change course.

This needs to be communicated not only through our words [and] not only through our long term military and economic assistance to Ukraine, but also through policies like sanctions, international isolation, and a push for full accountability with regards to the war crimes that are being committed. The Ukrainian counteroffensive and future operations like it are critical from a strategic point of view… but military battles will not end this war.

Q. It doesn’t seem that we’re close to seeing the Kremlin withdraw its troops…

A. Russia hasn’t changed any of its strategic goals. It aspires for full control over all of Ukraine and aspires for a fundamentally altered European security architecture, which we will not accept. So we will support Ukraine until Ukraine [achieves] victory, until territorial integrity and sovereignty are restored, until aggression as a tool of statecraft is, once again, fundamentally discredited.

Q. And if Ukraine doesn’t manage to recover Crimea and the Donbas areas – occupied since 2014 – will there be no victory?

A. What is a victory for Ukraine is up for Ukraine to define. The basic elements of the European security architecture are also of vital interest to Europe, the European Union and Estonia. I cannot see us walking an inch back from the centrality of territorial integrity…. or accepting the notion that borders can be changed through military force. No, I simply cannot see this happening.

Q. Estonia is the EU country that has donated the most military aid to Ukraine in relation to the size of its economy, but it’s also one of the countries that suffers the most from inflation. Ukrainian refugees also already represent 4% of Estonia’s population. Can the country endure another three or five more years like this?

A. Oh, yes, absolutely. The question is not whether it’s difficult – it is. The question is whether the alternative would be worse. And we know from our own recent history how bad the alternative can be. We’re dependent upon a world order – a European order – where borders matter. If we allow it to become the norm that a larger state can, through military force, change its neighbors’ borders, then no border in Europe remains safe.

Q. Do you think that if the Ukrainian army doesn’t achieve results on the ground, it could translate into fatigue and doubts for the Estonian citizenry and the rest of the EU?

A. The situation is very complicated for many Europeans, but what’s at stake in this war is much more than the future of two countries. And although it’s a long and difficult [process] for us, it is much worse for the Ukrainians, especially those close to the front lines.

Q. Does Estonia support attacks on Russian territory?

A. As long as international law is respected, we believe that there are no limits, there are no red lines. Ukraine is the victim and has the legitimate right to defend itself. This war will only end when Russia ends its aggression. Until then, the Ukrainian army has every right to defend itself… and not just on its own territory.

Q. Western sanctions have had less of an impact on the Russian economy than some analysts projected a year ago. What else could be included in future sanctions packages?

A. A lot of things haven’t been done. The only benchmark that we use to assess success is whether we’ve been able to end the aggression or not. So, for as long as people are dying, for as long as missiles are being fired at civilians in Europe, we haven’t completed the job. We’re on the right path. We need to ensure that the cost of aggression is higher [to Russia] than the cost of retreat.

We need to continually add to the sanctions package… [and] the second thing we need to do is ensure that it’s not possible to circumvent our sanctions. We’ve had ten sanctions packages so far [from the EU], not because we’ve had ten rounds of new ideas, but because consensus-building takes time. Unfortunately, there’s a human cost to this. Even so, the direction of the sanctions policy has conveyed to Russia that it has no choice but to withdraw. And the sooner, the better.

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