Speech by Mr. Edvards Smiltens, Speaker of the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia, at the High Level Meeting of Speakers of Parliaments of NATO Member Countries
2 June 2023, Vilnius
Photo by Ilona Šilenkova, Office of the Seimas
Madam Speaker, dear Viktorija,
Speaker Stefanchuk, dear Ruslan,
My fellow colleagues,
Members of Parliaments,
I am delighted to be here in Vilnius just a few weeks before NATO Vilnius summit becomes another significant milestone in strengthening our collective defense.
I am truly grateful to my colleague Viktorija for the initiative to gather parliamentarians ahead of the NATO summit.
I deeply admire and respect the role of parliaments in democratic societies. I do believe parliamentarians can and should lead the way as has been attested so often around the world. As it is in the discussions on pushing back against Russian aggression, on blacklisting Wagner mercenary group, on increasing military assistance to Ukraine, on granting the EU candidate status to Ukraine. Often, our parliaments were the ones taking the first step in kickstarting a wider public discussion, shaping the debate on the best course of action, widening the boundaries of our possibilities, nationally and beyond national borders.
Precisely what a number of our parliaments just did, adopting public declarations supporting Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Starting with the Lithuanian Seimas, followed by the Polish Senate, the Estonian Riigikogu and the Latvian Saeima yesterday. Our parliaments pronounced a view widely held in our societies, that NATO membership is the best guarantee of Ukraine’s security.
And by extension – Ukraine in NATO is the best guarantee of peace and security in Europe.
This conviction is rooted in our history, in our experience and therefore it is not without a share of empathy for an enormous Ukrainian suffering and sacrifice. But more importantly, it is a conviction based on our deep understanding of the Russian imperialism and the strategic European interests. A conviction that is hopefully becoming more and more a matter-of-fact statement in the Alliance.
I do want to put an emphasis on the European strategic interests. Besides our immediate task of helping Ukraine defeat Russia, unquestionably anchoring Ukraine in the Euro-Atlantic space of security, peace and prosperity is as important to Ukraine’s security as it is to Europe’s security and to the European strategic interests right now.
Just now, in the previous session we discussed strengthening NATO’s defense and deterrence posture. Like any other recent discussion on the subject, it clearly illustrates our collective understanding of the existential nature of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
That collective understanding is demonstrated by increased investments in our own defense and military industry, by our efforts to strengthen Allied defense and deterrence posture, by our readiness to bear costs and run risks in helping Ukraine restore its territorial integrity. So, we clearly recognize that Russia will remain a threat to European countries even after suffering a defeat in Ukraine. As a consequence, and rightly so, we are building our collective defense against it.
Now, can we build a lasting peace in Europe if we leave Ukraine hanging there, out in a gray zone?
Russia has made it abundantly clear that it does not tolerate independent, neutral countries on its borders and is determined to erase Ukrainian nation from Earth.
Finland has come to the same conclusion that security of European countries bordering Russia is best attained through collective defense obligations.
Ukrainians have made their choice. Even if it is as costly as the price they are paying.
So, the truth is, efforts to build our collective defense against Russian imperialism cannot be separated from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and from securing the future of Ukraine as an independent and strong Euro-Atlantic nation.
Now, we are not in a situation where Ukraine becomes a NATO member in Vilnius. However, the Vilnius NATO Summit must project a forceful vision of Allies on how we build a lasting peace in Europe, including by setting a clear, credible and irreversible Ukraine’s path to NATO. It is as much about a deterrence strength of the treaty obligations once Ukraine is in NATO, as it is about the powerful impact the decision on Ukraine’s road to NATO would send now to the frontline.
In combination with our decisions that signal long-term and caveats-free military support, a decision on Ukraine’s path to NATO will powerfully reflect our commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as necessary. Powerful enough that might perhaps push/tip the scales towards convincing Putin that his bet on outlasting our support to Ukraine is doomed to fail. Russia has to lose on the battlefield and face full accountability for the crimes committed, but it also has to lose its perceived entitlement to continue determining the future of Ukraine. Today, Putin remains convinced that time is still on his side. We clearly do not want to send an ambiguous message from Vilnius that will just reinforce Putin’s conviction.
I fully recognize that we might have differences among the Allies in approaching this issue. However, we must also recognize that NATO is the only form of deterrence that has proved to work in Europe. Experimenting with reassurance arrangements that are short of Article 5 can prove very costly. In a way, it would be a direct invitation to test them.
Now, let’s step back to our immediate tasks, up until that time when Ukraine can become a full-fledged NATO member.
Undisputedly, our principal task is to provide all the military assistance Ukraine requires to defeat the Russians. Now, 15 months into the war, it is absolutely clear that the capabilities we can provide to Ukraine should only be measured against Ukrainian ability to use them and their effectiveness on the battlefield. Our assistance should help build Ukraine’s long-term conventional self-defense capabilities.
Politically, we must advance Ukraine’s political relationship with the Alliance as much as possible, short of Article 5. Perhaps, use the example of Finland and Sweden’s relations with NATO, prior to their process of accession to NATO. Transforming NATO-Ukraine Commission into a more meaningful political body like the NATO-Ukraine Council, might be a good first step. Though, it is essential that the framework not just sounds nice but also enables us to meaningfully deepen both, the military-to-military relations as well as the relations at the political level.
Beyond NATO, we must develop a reconstruction program that helps quickly rebuild Ukraine as an economically strong nation not dependent on foreign aid. The EU accession negotiation process that hopefully will be initiated at the end of the year would provide a strong contribution to that aim, where political integration is complemented with developing increased connectivity at the infrastructure level.
Dear colleagues and friends,
I am confident and do look forward to implementing our common vision for a strong and independent Ukraine that is fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic space politically, economically and militarily. Such a vision has an enormous potential and boost for the political and economic integration of the European continent that is free, prosperous and at peace.
And finally, Ruslan, Slava Ukraine!
Eglė Saulė Trembo