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Speech by Pål Jonson

Speech by Minister for Defence Pål Jonson at the Baltic Defence College Annual Conference on Russia 2023


Tartu, Estonia 2 March 2023.

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Dear colleagues,

Thank you for inviting me here today to talk about the changing security landscape in Europe. It is indeed an important but also very difficult topic. As the largest armed conflict in Europe since 1945 rages, the continent finds itself in its most serious security situation since the Second World War. As Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman said, “War is the strongest catalyst for change in international affairs”.

The democratic world has undertaken the massive commitment of supporting Ukraine militarily, politically and economically, and has done so in concert. Against this backdrop, NATO will soon expand by adding two new members – Sweden and Finland – which will fundamentally change the geostrategic situation in northern Europe and make us all stronger. 

Russia’s gradually stepped up its great power rhetoric in early 2021, as Russian troops amassed at the Ukrainian border. A few months later, Putin published an article on Ukraine rejecting Ukraine’s state sovereignty. The article outlined a number of reasons why Ukraine is not a real state, but rather a puppet of the western powers, and the Ukrainian people, language and history are in fact merely part of the Russian people, language and history. In late 2021, troops were again deployed to the Ukrainian border, and Russia issued an ultimatum to the West in the form of draft agreements framed as necessary guarantees of Russian security.

And today, Putin’s war rages on with no end in sight. Despite heavy losses of personnel and equipment there are no signs that Russia has changed its strategic objective to dominate Ukraine in blatant contravention of international law.

This will have severe and lasting consequences for the European security landscape. And we must be mindful that we are in the midst of a process of structural change, and have humility as we face an unknown future. Whatever it may hold, the world will not be as we knew it before 24 February 2022. Russia’s war against Ukraine will leave its mark on European security for generations to come. But now is the time for us to act. We are shaping our future today and we must do so in the best possible way.

In my remarks today, I will focus on the developments leading up to the war, the Russia we are facing today and what actions we – the international community – are taking. 

First of all, we are facing a revisionist and increasingly authoritarian Russia that is eager to change the status quo of the post-Cold War era. This has been clear from the beginning. Shortly after his accession to power in 2000, Putin began imposing limits on freedom of speech and increasing state control over civil society. Over the past 15 years, Russia has invested heavily investment in its military capability and the state security apparatus – resulting in greater control over its population and an enhanced military posture and threat to its neighbours. Putin and his entourage have chosen to use military force as a means to restore Russia’s status as a great power – or at least a ‘light’ version of the Russian or Soviet Empire.

Internally, the situation has deteriorated significantly in a shift from domestic deterrence to structural repression that has severely limited political pluralism. Space for independent civil society has been gradually shrinking. Freedom of speech has been curtailed, and many young and skilled people have emigrated to make a better living elsewhere. At the top of the Russian power vertical sits an ageing leadership whose primary goal is to remain in power. It is a leadership that is unable to offer its people hope for the future and can only offer up false memories of a glorious past. 

Russia’s elite dare not risk embarking on either political reform, lest their power be jeopardised, or economic reform, as the wealth of the country is consolidated in the hands of a few. The situation is strikingly similar to that of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was a gerontocracy mired in stagnation. 

Russia’s strategic objectives are two-fold: to be recognised as a great power having a sphere of influence, and international acceptance of the Russian political system as equal to liberal democracies. Therefore, a successful, democratic and prosperous Ukraine is a threat to the Russian regime, as it would set an unacceptable example for the Russian people. If change is possible in Ukraine, it is possible in Russia. Putin already understood this in 2013.

So, what are we facing today?

Today we are facing an unstable, unpredictable and dangerous security situation in Europe. A peaceful democratic country has fallen victim to Russia’s great power ambitions and its attempts to veto other states’ political decision-making. Russia’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state is a shameless violation of international law. 

Russia’s efforts to undermine the international rules-based order extend beyond its war in Ukraine. Russia pursues its global ambitions through its actions in the UN, through interference and influence operations in other countries, by employing private military companies such as the Wagner group, by providing support to the Syrian regime and by delivering arms to states in Africa, Latin America and Asia. And those states are, for the most part, unwilling to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which is the latest example of Russia’s bullying and blatant contempt for international peace and security.

Developments in Ukraine are critical to European security. Regardless of the outcome, however, Russia will be economically and militarily weakened. Its western-facing military units are largely depleted of personnel and equipment. Russia’s military capability will therefore be limited for the foreseeable future, so we can expect Russia to pursue non-linear methods to achieve its political aims. This may include information campaigns to influence public opinion and political decision-making, blackmailing and sabotage. Russia has also repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons. This is unacceptable.

What can we do about it and what are the wider implications?

Russia’s war on Ukraine is not just an attack on Ukraine. It is an attack on European security. Ukraine’s freedom is at stake, but so is our own. The Ukrainian people are fighting not only for their survival, but also for Europe’s security, freedoms and values. That’s why we must continue to support Ukraine until Russia suffers a strategic defeat. Let me be clear: there is no alternative. Russia may be fighting its own demons in Ukraine, but as far as the Kremlin is concerned this is an existential fight against the West. The Russian leadership reacted so strongly to Ukraine’s EU aspirations precisely because it set an unwelcome example for the Russian people. Therefore, anything short of a strategic defeat in Ukraine would only embolden Russia to continue to pursue its agenda at the expense of others. Russia’s successes would merely encourage further aggression, leaving countries like Moldova and Georgia in an even a more dangerous situation.

Encouragingly, however, the West has remained firmly united since the start of the war. NATO and the EU are acting in concert. Under US leadership, the Ramstein Process has been instrumental in coordinating support for Ukraine. This includes not only European allies but also global partners like Japan, South Korea and Australia. At the latest meeting, 54 countries were represented. Russia would certainly garner only a fraction of that support.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has accelerated NATO’s renewed focus on its core task of collective defence. Efforts to support Ukraine with military equipment has been undertaken jointly and with unity. Gradually, donations have evolved from protective gear and light weapons to artillery, tanks and advanced air defence systems. We’ve also seen an unprecedented manifestation of transatlantic unity through the close cooperation between the EU and NATO.

The EU has reacted with significant political, economic, humanitarian and military support to Ukraine. Together with partners, the EU has also imposed sanctions of historical proportions against Russia and Belarus. The aim of the sanctions is to force Russia to cease its aggression by targeting Russia’s economy and reducing its capacity to continue to wage war. Through the European Peace Facility and the EU’s civilian and military missions, the Union is also providing tangible support to ensure that Ukraine’s security and defence forces can counter Russia’s aggression.

In northern Europe, the geostrategic landscape is undergoing substantial change as Finland and Sweden make their way into NATO. If Moscow had one strategic goal with respect to Sweden and Finland – I believe it was to keep us out of NATO. But the invasion of Ukraine had the opposite effect. Three months into the war, both countries applied for membership – hand in hand.

After almost 30 years of close partnership with NATO, Sweden’s military cooperation with the Alliance is extensive. With its advanced weapons systems and national defence capabilities Sweden will contribute substantially to NATO’s collective defence. Sweden brings strategic depth to the Alliance and will connect the eastern NATO countries to the Atlantic. In terms of geography, we add the longest coastline in the Baltic Sea – the strategically located island of Gotland – and important ports in the North Sea. Sweden’s naval resources and formidable air force are complemented by a deep understanding of the entire Baltic Sea region. And we view the Baltic Sea Region, together with the High North and the North Atlantic, as one single strategic area.

Finally, proof of brutal violations of international law, attacks on the civilian population and civilian infrastructure, and devastation of Ukrainian cities has emerged in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This includes almost countless reports of mass executions, systematic use of torture, forced deportations and sexual abuse – not to mention Russia’s utter disregard for the loss of its own personnel. Alleged war crimes must be investigated and accountability enforced for the crimes committed during Russia’s aggression, and Putin bears the primary responsibility for Russia’s violations of international law.  

What is the outlook?

We must prepare for a long war. As I mentioned earlier, there is no indication that Russia will abandon its strategic objectives, and this will put our endurance and resolve to the test. Western countries have thus far performed well in providing support to Ukraine, but we must understand that we are in it for the long run. We must continue to donate equipment and sustainably increase defence industry output to provide weapons and munitions to Ukraine. Training of Ukrainian personnel will also remain an important task.

Russia has thus far failed to achieve its strategic objectives. Events have taken a far different turn than Russia intended. Instead of subjugating Ukraine and wiping out Ukrainian national consciousness, Russia’s full-scale invasion has been Ukraine’s defining moment as a sovereign state. 

Russia’s leadership has thus far failed in what it sought to achieve by using military force against Ukraine. It has also gone from being a country with difficult relations with the West to what the West now considers a pariah state. Russia is increasingly turning to North Korea, Iran and China to do business. 

Let’s be frank, at this moment we’re isolating Russia internationally and building opposition against it. And it is difficult to see any alternative. Regardless of future developments, it will remain imperative that we maintain a unified and consistent stance towards Russia. 

Finally – and most importantly – the shape of future European security is being determined right now. It is in our hands. And we must act wisely. If we fail to do so, the future may be very different than we’d hoped.

Thank you for your attention.