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Whether or not Moscow launches an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, the West must gear up for years of heightened Russian pressure on the country and on Europe as a whole, Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said Friday.
In an interview with POLITICO, Kariņš said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to suppress Ukraine’s independence and bring it back into “the Russian fold.” Putin could pursue his strategy of “neo-imperialism” not just through a direct military attack but also by ramping up efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian economy and society, Kariņš warned.
“In the best-case scenario — best-case meaning no war — we will be facing long-term pressure from Putin on Ukraine and on Europe as a whole,” said Kariņš, whose Baltic nation borders Russia and Belarus, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops as part of a huge buildup of forces around Ukraine.
Kariņš was speaking in Brussels, where he was attending a summit of EU and African leaders, the day after US President Joe Biden issued the latest in a series of stark Western warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has denied that it intends to attack Ukraine, where it already backs separatist forces in the east of the country. But in a letter to Washington on Thursday, Moscow warned of a “military-technical” response if its long-standing security demands were not met.
Kariņš said he had told his European Council counterparts to steel themselves for the long term, whatever the coming days may bring.
“What I argue with my colleagues in the Council is that we have to be prepared for probably a long haul — not two weeks or two months or even two years … probably it will be much longer. And we have to start thinking in terms of the long game,” the center-right prime minister said.
“In this long game, we are interested in supporting the Ukrainian state, supporting its independence, its democracy, helping it with reforms, helping it financially, helping it withstand the outward pressures of Moscow.”
The EU, US, Britain and others in the West have all warned Putin that Russia will face massive economic sanctions if he launches a new attack on Ukraine.
‘Stop being afraid of strength’
Kariņš said the EU and NATO had been strong and united in their response to the crisis so far but he warned: “The key will be to keep this resolve for the longer term, because it’s one thing to be resolved in the face of an imminent attack. It’s another thing, and it will be challenging, to remain resolved for a long-term — maybe at some point not so imminent — military threat.”
Kariņš, a US-born former businessman and ex-member of the European Parliament who has been Latvia’s prime minister since 2019, also said “freedom-loving democracies have to stop being afraid of strength.”
“Being strong does not entail being aggressive. Being strong simply means being strong. And that means continuing to bolster and enhance our own defensive capabilities, throughout all of what is now referred to as the eastern flank … from the Baltic Sea down through the Black Sea,” he said.
“What history has shown and what we see as a direct neighbor of Russia [is that] Putin does not respect weaknesses. Putin only respects strength,” Kariņš said. “If you want to speak with him, we unfortunately have to enter a different set of norms and the norms are strength, including military strength.”
Kariņš said it was also important for the West to keep Ukraine’s path to membership open for both the EU and NATO.
Moscow is fiercely opposed to Ukraine joining NATO. As part of diplomatic efforts to defuse the current crisis, some Western leaders, such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have played down this prospect for the foreseeable future.
Asked about Scholz’s remarks, Kariņš said: “I think there’s not so much difference [between us].”
“It’s maybe a question of how we phrase things,” he added. “And this is important, of course — how things are phrased publicly is important. But I think — and from my country’s point of view — we need to leave both of these paths open.”
Cristina Gonzalez contributed to this article.