How many wake up calls about Putin do we need?

European leaders seems reluctant to learn from the mistakes of the past

History brims with examples of strong leadership. Contemporaries used to call the former Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, a “benevolent dictator”, as Yugoslavia under his rule appeared a quiet and peaceful place. Yet, the Balkans, immersed in unprecedented bloodshed following the collapse of Communist rule, to this day reminds us of the perils of taking the imagined for real.

The Romanian communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, was also sometimes celebrated as “brave” for his decisions to ease press censorship and to condemn the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But in the end, he too turned out to be just a paranoid dictator who sent armed forces against his own people. He was ultimately overthrown and shot dead in a violent revolution.

Dictatorships claim to bring stability. But their stability is often confused with stagnation, which is of no value in itself. On the contrary, dictatorships are extremely fragile and once they fail – and sooner or later they always fail – they risk the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people.

Russian leaders couldn't care less. The price we make them pay for the systemic violations of international law remains negligible

Responsibility for these innocent lives lies not only with the dictators. Passive bystanders who just silently watch the crimes happening and tell others to shut up are no less responsible. Neville Chamberlain once brought home “peace” with Hitler, which resulted in the annexation of the Sudetenland and only made war even more unavoidable. Along with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Chamberlain’s appeasement is now treated as one of the most shameful pacts in modern European history.

The current generation of European leaders seems reluctant to learn from the mistakes of the past. Take acquiescence with Russia’s aggressive behaviour as an example. President Vladimir Putin’s sporting of weapons and his “great power” claims have long ago given way to actual land grabs and other systematic violations of international law. Failure to withdraw Russian troops from Transnistria [a region which split from Moldova after the dissolution of the USSR]; occupation of 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory; occupation and annexation of Crimea; ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine – all these cases only point to Russia’s growing appetite. As a countermeasure, we present a statement, joint or independent, wherein we express our concern, sometimes our deep concern, and in particular moments our very deep concern over these hostile actions.

Systemic violations

Russian leaders couldn’t care less. The price we make them pay for the systemic violations of international law remains negligible. Once the initial outrage fades, western leaders start lining up for an audience in the Kremlin. Oh, the Kremlin not convenient? Right, we will come to Sochi. Not good? Perhaps we could come to Yalta, if only that makes you feel better, Mr Putin. But the message remains the same: we need to talk, we need to trade, we need to write new rules of mutual engagement.

Such behaviour offers the Russian leadership a golden opportunity to demonstrate to its people that Russia cannot be isolated, that nothing within its sphere of influence can happen without Russia’s nod or direct involvement. If someone wants to make a decision, he or she will have to come to the tsar and ask.

And the outcome is further aggression, further land grabs.

Claiming 'global power' ambitions, the EU still lacks the capacity to prove them

Russia’s activities in the Sea of Azov last month are just a case in point. Three Ukrainian ships have been seized and several Ukrainian sailors shot and wounded and illegally detained in waters where the principle of free passage applies. Furthermore, Russia seeks to present this act of open aggression against Ukraine as the “violation of its territorial sovereignty” by Ukraine, since the events took place off the Crimean coast, which Russia wants to be recognized as its territory.

The confrontation in the Sea of Azov comes at a time when the initial outrage at the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea seems to be receding and European leaders have renewed their efforts to rebuild ties with Putin. Some have even called on the EU to lift sanctions against Russia. Indeed, if the leading European minds start accepting the illegal annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli, why not to take a step further and turn the Sea of Azov into Russia’s inland waters?

Next move

What matters now is not Russia’s next move but our own. As usual, we have issued a statement condemning Russia’s unacceptable behaviour. But shall we stop there? Can we do nothing more to make the aggressor pay the full price?

In 1948, the Berlin blockade failed mainly because western allies confronted it with a massive airlift of supplies. Eventually, the Soviets had to lift the blockade.

This time it is hard to expect that the European Union will respond to Russian efforts to obstruct the functioning of the Ukrainian ports such as Mariupol by sending hundreds of European ships to ensure uninterrupted movement in and through the Sea of Azov. Claiming “global power” ambitions, the EU still lacks the capacity to prove them.

But at least we could immediately impose new sanctions on the entire leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet, including the servicemen and vessels that were directly involved in the recent aggression. All scheduled meetings with Putin must be postponed. Such a response would be timely and much more justified than another working group or joint commission to establish the “true” definition of aggression and whether it happened in the Sea of Azov or not. Failing to do that, we may one morning wake up to televised images of Russian military ships docked in Mariupol.

Linas Linkevicius is foreign minister of Lithuania