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Latvian President Joe Biden had a little piece of advice at his meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday: be tough.
President Egils Levits sat down with POLITICO the day after attending the NATO summit, just hours before Biden left Brussels for Geneva, where he is expected to speak to the Russian president for five hours.
At the NATO summit, Levits and his two Baltic counterparts, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausèda, met with Biden to provide insights into countries that have lived under decades of Soviet control.
“Russia respects someone who is strong,” Levits, 65, a Soviet-era dissident and former judge on the EU Court of Justice, told his American counterpart.
Biden, he said, should demonstrate that America “is strong and has two elements of strengths: First, a real military capability,” as “it is clear that the US and NATO combined have much more military capability and real capability than that Russia”.
Second, the political will to use them is as the Kremlin is constantly “studying the West” to test its borders, and so the other message should be that “we have all possible political will to stop aggression against neighbors”.
In the interview, Levits said Biden could be successful – which means Putin could just listen to him.
“President Biden is very experienced … is the right person to say: President Putin, stop, not one step further!”
If Putin gets the impression that Biden is serious, he can change the way, Levits said. Putin “is a rational person. And when he sees that [if] It is clear that the costs for him, for Russia, for such behavior will be higher than the benefits, then of course he will listen to him for rational reasons. “
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 only because Biden’s first overseas visit was to Europe (Trumps was to Saudi Arabia), but also because of the change in tone: Trump berated allies for not spending enough on defense and insisted that the target NATO, the annual military spending at 2 percent of GDP was insufficient and provoked provocatively that some allies “owe” due to years of arrears in contributions.
During this summit, the 2 percent target was “not” [Biden’s] first statement as [it was] at the last meeting, ”said Levits, whose country has already reached the 2 percent target, with a smile. Instead, “the central statement, I would say, was the political statement that America is” [back] together with allies. “
Speaking of annoying neighbors: Latvia borders Belarus. The EU is working on new sanctions against the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, after he had to land a Ryanair flight in Minsk to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich. EU ambassadors are expected to agree on Wednesday on the names of seven people and one entity to be sanctioned for the incident, as well as a fourth package of sanctions for the ongoing repression following controversial elections.
The fourth package is “ambitious” in terms of the number of people to be admitted, said a diplomat. An EU official said there will be “well over 30” people. The foreign ministers are then expected to sign the sanctions at a meeting on Monday.
Some analysts suggest that instead of EU sanctions, Moscow is the only thing that Lukashenko can remove. And that is exactly what Levits expects: “Russia is using the crisis in Belarus to strengthen the country’s influence and hegemony,” he argued.
But Lukashenko is “very unpopular and it is also not good for Russia to support him unconditionally … I think that Lukashenko will be exchanged by Russia for another personality.”
However, this would not change the political course of Belarus, Levits predicted. Russia will “change horses, but the direction is clear,” he said.