Be tough with Putin – POLITICO

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Latvia’s president has a bit of advice for Joe Biden when he meets Vladimir Putin on Wednesday: Act tough. 

President Egils Levits sat down with POLITICO the day after he took part in the NATO summit, just hours before Biden left Brussels for Geneva where he’s expected to spend five hours in talks with the Russian president.

At the NATO summit, Levits and his two Baltic counterparts, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausèda, met Biden to offer insights from countries that lived under decades of Soviet control.

“Russia respects someone who is strong,” Levits, 65, a Soviet-era dissident and former judge at the Court of Justice of the EU, said he told his American counterpart.  

Biden, he said, should demonstrate that America “is strong and has two elements of strengths: first is a real military capability” since “it’s clear that the U.S and NATO together have much more military capabilities, real capabilities than Russia.”

Second is the political will to use them since the Kremlin is continuously “examining the West” to test its limits, and therefore the other message should be that “we have all sorts of political will to stop aggressions against neighbors.”

In the interview, Levits said Biden could succeed — meaning Putin just might listen to him.

“President Biden is very experienced … is the right person to say: President Putin, stop here, not a step further!”

If Putin has the impression that Biden is serious, he can change path, Levits said. Putin “is a rational person. And if he will see that, [if] it’s clear that the costs for him, for Russia, for such behavior will be higher than the benefits, then of course, for rational reasons, he will listen to him.”

The NATO summit was a moment of relief for the Baltic states and many others in Europe after the difficult years of the Trump administration. That’s not just because Biden’s first overseas visit was to Europe (Trump’s was to Saudi Arabia) but also because of the change in tone: Trump berated allies for not spending enough on defense, insisted that NATO’s goal of increasing annual military expenditure to 2 percent of GDP was insufficient, and provocatively declared that some allies “owed” arrears for years of lagging contributions.

During this summit, the 2 percent goal “was not [Biden’s] first statement as [it was] at the last meeting,” Levits, whose country has already reached the 2 percent target, said with a smile. Instead the “the central statement was, I would say, the political statement that America is [back] together with allies.”

Talking of troublesome neighbors, Latvia shares a border with Belarus. The EU is working on a new set of sanctions against the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, after he forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk so that blogger Roman Protasevich could be arrested. EU ambassadors are expected on Wednesday to agree on the names of seven individuals and one entity to be sanctioned over the incident and on a fourth package of sanctions over the ongoing repression in the wake of a disputed election.

The fourth package “is ambitious” in terms of the number of people who will be included, said one diplomat. One EU official said it will be “well above 30” people. Foreign affairs ministers are then expected to sign off on the sanctions at a meeting on Monday.

Some analysts suggest that rather than EU sanctions, Moscow is the only one that can remove Lukashenko. And that’s what Levits expects to happen: “Russia is using the crisis in Belarus in order to strengthen the influence and the domination” of the country, he argued.

But Lukashenko is “very unpopular and it is also not good for Russia to support him without conditions … I think that Lukashenko will be exchanged by Russia with another personality.”

That, however, would not mean a change in the political course of Belarus, Levits predicted. Russia will “change the horse, but the direction is clear,” he said.





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