Krišjānis Kariņš has been heading the government of Latvia since early 2019. His country has entered the list of states that help Ukraine the most based on their GDP. Besides, Kariņš and other Latvian officials are very active in lobbying for the European and Euro-Atlantic future of Ukraine.
The current Latvian Prime Minister is an extraordinary government official. He was born in a family of Latvians who fled to the USA due to the Soviet occupation and returned to Latvia in the 1990s.
In Ukraine, however, little is known about Kariņš. We hope this interview will allow many Ukrainians to learn about the views of Latvia.
Before coming to Kyiv last week, Krišjānis Kariņš published in the Financial Times an explanation for Western leaders on why NATO should offer membership to Ukraine.
"Victory implies the liberation of Ukraine"
- Mr. Prime Minister, you wrote in the Financial Times that Ukraine would definitely be a NATO member. But do other members of the Alliance support this?
- Right now I'm making the argument that Ukraine not only needs to join the EU and negotiation discussions, but formal procedure should also start this year even with the war. I'm arguing that after the war, it's important for all of European security that Ukraine becomes part of the NATO alliance.
I have colleague countries that agree with me. I was in Poland yesterday. I met with Mateusz Morawiecki.
The Poles, of course, also agree. It's a process that we are now undertaking and looking forward to the NATO summit in Vilnius in just a few months. I'm hoping that this is something that we can discuss. I don't think any decision would be expected, but in politics, it's important to talk about ideas. Some ideas need some time.
I am now making the argument that even with the ongoing war, all of us have to start thinking about what will happen after the war. How will we secure the peace? We are now focused and correctly focused on helping Ukraine with weapons, with munitions, humanitarian and financial aid now to win the war, but then we have to look ahead.
I am urging my fellow colleagues to also look ahead and it's in everyone's interest, not only Ukraine's but all of Europe's, that Ukraine would be in the NATO alliance.
- So what do the other members of the Alliance think about it after your explanations?
- Right now it's a process. So before the war, the Baltics and Poland were delivering weapons to Ukraine. We had the US intelligence, we acted on this intelligence. Many of our other friends and allies were not so clear. They thought maybe there's no war.
We are once again saying that we have to look forward to
when the war ends and the role, the place of Ukraine, which should be in NATO.
No NATO member wants to bring NATO into a war. This is very clear. That's why I'm also stressing that once the war ends.
When the war is over, we have to look at that. Many NATO partners are not yet looking of what happens after the war. They're still looking at today. How can we get more tanks and ammunition? I agree with that. We have to increase weapons manufacturing in Europe.
We have to look at how we can do more, but we also have to start looking to the next step. I see no other choice for NATO and for Europe. All political processes are processes and you always need someone to be in the front.
- In your FT article, you also wrote that Ukraine's accession to NATO is possible only after victory. But what is victory?
- It's up to Ukraine, Zelenskyy, the government of Ukraine to define a victory now.
Well, victory would also imply peace. There is no peace right now because the Russians are continuing their brutal attack. How that looks or how the victory is defined is up to the Ukrainians to define. It's not up to any of us from the outside. Our task is to help you attain your goals by providing you with all the material.
-You probably know that Ukrainians have already defined our victory. Its necessary condition is the return of Crimea and Donbas. Why don't you say the same about winning?
- That's fine. Of course, to me also, that's how I would understand a victory with a liberated Ukraine.
This is a process. The war is still ongoing. I have been concerned in the past that some of my European colleagues have tried to have various versions. I'm arguing that it's not up to any of us from the outside to tell you what a victory is.
What you define seems absolutely right to me as well. Important is that you define this victory, not anyone from the outside.
- Are you sure Ukraine will definitely win?
- I see no possibility of Ukraine losing. I see no possibility of Russia winning it.
It is completely unimaginable. What your people, what your army has shown is a lesson to everyone. You are fighting for your homeland, for your families. Russia is fighting for Moscow's imperialistic dreams. A soldier is not very motivated to fight for someone else's imperialistic dream.
It seems inevitable you will win. It's painful to see that the other side does not yet realise this.
"Russia will not change in the near future"
- Russia sometimes makes decisions that are difficult to call rational, like the invasion of Ukraine. Wouldn't the next such decision be an invasion of one or more NATO states?
- This would be extremely irrational, but irrationality of a different order. So it seems that what Moscow did not at all consider possible was that Ukraine would resist. Moscow was under the illusion that Ukrainians would, in some perverse sense, be happy that they would be occupied and taken over by the Russians.
But Moscow never had the illusion or the understanding that anyone would necessarily come to Ukraine's defence. Because Ukraine was not and still is not a member of the NATO alliance. With NATO it's somewhat different because there is a very clear article 5 of what being in NATO means.
What NATO has done since 2014, but especially since February 24, has greatly reinforced the eastern border of NATO, starting in the Baltics, down through Romania and Bulgaria. It is also now in the process of accepting Sweden and Finland into the alliance, which is something that before February 24th was unimaginable.
Maybe 15-20% of the Swedes and the Finns wanted to be in NATO. They had been neutral for more than 200 years. Why would they want to change this? Well, Russia's war in your country has convinced them to join NATO.
So many things are now changing. It was unimaginable one year ago.
Maybe for some it's not understandable how Ukraine will join NATO. But to me, I see it quite clearly.
- Personally, I admire the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Edgars Rinkēvičs, who recently declared: Ruzzia delenda est - playing on the phrase "Carthago delenda est," that is, "Carthage must be destroyed." Is the idea that Russia should be destroyed popular in Europe?
- No, I did not see that.
You can say it, I suppose in many ways Russia has to lose this war. Russia has to lose this war because as a country that still is imperial.
In Europe's history, not long ago we had many imperial powers. As Latvians, we know this. We have been under the empire of the Germans, under the Empire of the Poles, under the Empire of the Swedes, under the Empire of the Russians. The Swedish Empire is no more. They are our friend and ally. The German Empire is no more. They are our friend and ally. The Polish Empire is no more. The Polish-Lithuania is our friends and our allies.
The Russian Empire still wants to be an empire.
This is the only threat we face in Europe to our peace and security.
We have to make sure that Russia does not succeed in its endeavour to change the world order.
Europe went from empires to nation states. But nation states individually are vulnerable, but collectively we are very, very strong. We need to make sure that our strength is strengthened by Ukraine joining us anyway.
- Besides, when Russia loses, what will it be like? How do people see post-war Russia in Europe?
- I don't see anything very positive.
Unfortunately, there's no indication right now that anything inside Russia is about to change. The government doesn't seem to be very vulnerable. Civil society has been completely suppressed, opposition has been either eliminated or put in jail, or they have fled to the West.
There's no indication and because of this we can assume that Russia will not change in the near future. We have to adapt to that by becoming stronger. Russia understands, its current leadership, understands only one thing – strength. They're meeting strength in Ukraine that they never expected.
NATO is very strong. Getting Ukraine after the war into NATO is what will keep us, regardless of what happens inside Russia, sure they don't come into Europe with armies anymore.
- Don't you think that only collapse of Russia can restrain it for a long time?
- This is a completely different topic.
This is something that would be possible only with internal changes.
I don't see easily how this could be done from the outside. I don't know if this is something that right now we should be putting all of our attention onto. We need to put our attention onto helping Ukraine win the war and then working with Ukraine to integrate it into the EU and NATO after the war.
Russia will be a problem for the next coming generation or longer. I'm a practical politician also. There are things that I can influence and things that I cannot directly influence. I can help to influence Ukraine's future in the EU and NATO, but what happens on the other side of the border in Russia is really up to the Russians.
"Moscow escalates depending upon what Moscow thinks, not depending upon what any of us do"
- The Ukrainian military says we need airplanes and long-range weapons to win. Does the West understand this?
- Certainly everyone in the West knows Ukraine's request. Different countries from the beginning of the war, first, the Baltics and Poland, gave weapons.
No one gave weapons then. Now they're starting to give weapons, but they've had no heavy artillery, no long range. First they said no to longer range artillery, then no air defence, no tanks. Now it's tanks.
The first reaction is no but then there's a certain pattern evolving.
The reason why some governments are starting to say no is that there is an inherent fear of so-called escalation. What seems clear is that Moscow can or cannot escalate depending upon what Moscow thinks, not depending upon what any of us on this side of the border do. It's just a question of time.
As much as Ukraine needs these kinds of weapons, it's also very clear Ukraine needs ammunition for the existing weapons, especially artillery, ammunition and. Here in Europe and NATO, we have difficulty that our production capacity is too low. Russia is manufacturing on a war basis as much as they can. In Europe, we are still manufacturing on a peace basis.
The demand is much bigger. We need to make sure the production goes up. We are now in discussion of having a joint European purchase of artillery shells, for example, so that companies make the right investments and get the production up. It will happen.
I wish we could have it happen sooner, but it will happen.
"The Russians did in Latvia what they are doing now in Ukraine"
- A recent survey showed that Ukrainians include Latvia in the top-5 most important allies of Ukraine during the war. Can you tell us what kind of assistance your state provides?
- We've been helping militarily before February 24. We were already providing weapons, including Stinger missiles.
Your ambassador explained these missiles were actually used on February 24 in the airport in Kyiv to help to shoot down the Russian planes coming in. There was other assistance also from my Baltic friends and from the Poles.
We have contributed more than 1% of our GDP on military aid as of today. On top of that, our civil society, ordinary people through all kinds of organisations have been donating and helping in every imaginable way, sending buses, sending automobiles, sending medications, sending humanitarian aid, sending cash, helping Ukrainian society in every way that they can think of.
I can say with a little bit of humor, I find it ironic, but in a good way. We have a law in our country recently passed that if you are drinking far, far too much alcohol, the government takes your car.
We start to have a problem with what we do with these cars.
My finance minister said: "Why don't we donate them to the Ukrainian army?"
And we got in touch. It turns out there is an interest. We're sending not just any car, the best cars, the ones that you really want to need. We're sending them to Ukraine. I can say that our society is 100% supporting Ukraine even the people who drink and drive are supporting Ukraine.
- The support of Latvian society is also interesting because your society is heterogeneous. There are many people of Russian origin in Latvia. How did you achieve that they also support Ukraine?
- We don't convince them. They are intelligent. They follow the news.
If before the war, we had a seemingly large amount of people generally sympathetic to Moscow, the latest survey shows that only 4% of our entire population, regardless of what language is spoken at home, is still supporting Moscow. It means basically no one.
During World War Two, and especially at the end of World War Two, the Russians did to Latvia what they're doing to Ukraine in Bucha, for example. Summary executions, deportations, fake trials, rape of women, pillage and stealing – it had happened to us. It is in our living memory, our family memory.
We see it happening to you today and Latvians responded not because of thinking, but complete conviction and emotion. This is why our government's decision to help Ukraine is not dependent upon me or my government, or the coalition, or politicians. All politicians think this way because all of society thinks this way.
Moscow has done so many things that I'm certain it did not intend. It has strengthened Europe by pushing Europe together. It has strengthened and expanded NATO. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO. It has helped to solidify the Latvian nation. This is a very peculiar side effect. I mean war and what's happening in your country is almost unimaginable to explain.
We see that Russia is unfortunately not changed at all. But Latvians have experiences. We read of the deportation of the children and people, we look at the mass graves and we remember. We look at the people just being shot and we remember. It's the same, it's repeating and repeating and repeating. That's why the support is coming not only from politicians and the government, but very meaningfully from civil society itself.
"Europe needs you. Europe needs a new impetus of dynamism"
- In conclusion, let's talk about the European future of Ukraine, in which, as I understand, you also believe.
- Yes, but it's not only the two of us who believe this. Ukraine has been granted candidacy status, which means we want you in the club. But what I'm arguing is that Europe needs to start formal procedures with your country this year, even with the war ongoing. When I was speaking with representatives of your Parliament and also with the Prime Minister, Shmyhal and his minister, it's quite clear that your government and your Parliament is already doing many of the changes, the reforms that any country that wants to join the EU has to do.
We need from Europe side to acknowledge this and to help you get ready to join the European Union. It's a difficult process. My country went through it 20 years ago. It means lots of reforms. It means the more reform you do, the more resistance.
Because there's always someone interested in not having change. It helped our country tremendously. Business is doing much better. The standard of living has gone up, investments have been going up. It's all for the better. We're convinced as much as you need Europe, Europe needs you. Europe needs a new impetus of dynamism.
Your country right now is the definition of dynamism.
- You feel the mood among EU member states. Are they ready to start membership negotiations with Ukraine this year?
-They are not yet ready, but they will be. It's a process, and as with the weapons. We in the Baltics, were in the avant-garde. In the beginning many said no, no, no. Now they say yes, yes, yes. As the Prime Minister of Latvia, I am fully convinced that we are right. It is in our interest, the European Union and NATO, that your country becomes a member of both. In order for Ukraine's path to be looked at in NATO, you have to plan now before the war is over. You have to start planning now. This is my argument to my colleagues.
- Let's try to assume how quickly we can join the EU.
- Your country, if any country can set all records, I'm positive it will be your country. In other cases, as the government was proposing reforms, society in general wanted this. But there were lots of interest groups opposing it. Right now Ukraine has a rare opportunity because of the war, because of what Russia is doing, it seems to be also solidifying your nation into setting its goal.
You seem to be much more united in this wish than maybe many other candidate countries in the early stages were. This gives you the possibility, I would say of maybe even being able to do everything quicker than others. It's a lengthy process, at any rate. It's not something that you do from Monday to Wednesday or you even do it within one year.
But what's very clear is that the process must begin because once the process formal.
Then everyone sees how quickly it goes or doesn't go, but then it's up to a lot. Also not for Europe saying no, but then it's up to the Ukrainians and your government and your Parliament to enact the various reforms. Still, I'm positive that if anyone can do this in a record time, it will be Ukraine.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Editor, "European Pravda";
Filmed by Volodymyr Oliynyk