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It’s time to be bolder to help Ukraine

Alar Karis is the president of Estonia. 

The pink elephant that a little girl played with in a day care center just a month and a half ago lay covered in dust, in the ruins of a building destroyed by Russian bombs. In Borodyanka, near Kyiv — in the midst of the destruction and devastation — I and the presidents of the other Baltic states and Poland stood and stared at the ghastly face of war. I thought of my own children and grandchildren, and I was overwhelmed by sadness and grief. 

As Europe, we failed. We failed because we were unable to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from starting his war. And every town and village Russia now takes in Ukraine is part of our failure. Every Ukrainian hurt, killed or deported from their home adds to our failure, as do the millions of Ukrainian war refugees in every European country. 

It is important that we start helping Ukraine more effectively, more visibly and more boldly. Russia’s goal is to destroy the existing Ukrainian state; our goal is to prevent that from happening. The time has come for us to shake off our fear and start making courageous decisions. 

Article 51 of the United Nations Charter states that a U.N. member has the inherent right to individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against it. I emphasize the word “collective” because it underscores a very important point: Ukraine has the right to defend itself, and the rest of us, for whom the charter is an essential cornerstone of international relations, have a duty to help. This is what the collective self-defense of Ukraine means. 

We must do everything we can to ensure Ukraine’s strong military resistance and the sanctions isolating Russia make the cost of the war so high for Moscow that it is eventually forced to back down. 

Economic sanctions must be strong and effective, without exception, and for immediate implementation. This means some inconvenience for us, but just look at the footage of Ukrainian towns and villages after the departure of the Russian army. When we look into the face of Putin’s war, we realize that the inconveniences we experience under the umbrella of the European Union and NATO are nothing compared to the suffering of Ukrainians. 

It’s time to embrace debates that involve thinking outside the box. We need an oil embargo, and we need it now. By paying Russia for energy, we continue to finance its war. Let us not forget that 60 percent of Russia’s oil exports are to Europe, and that last year, the Kremlin earned €180 billion from the sale of crude oil and petroleum products. 

As for gas, Estonia has made a proposal to the EU, which is being referred to as “escrow”: Part of the payment for gas will be made directly to Russia, while the other part will be transferred to a separate account, frozen for Ukraine, which will be able to use it in the future to rebuild its destroyed nation. Gas cannot be put back into the ground, so there is no reason to fear that we will receive no gas if we implement this proposal. 

The head of the U.N. World Food Programme, David Beasley, has also warned us that the war in Ukraine will lead to the worst food crisis since World War II — and World Bank President David Malpass acknowledged this. As such, we must discuss whether and how, in accordance with the letter and spirit of the U.N. Charter, we could provide direct support, upon the invitation of the Ukrainian government, to keep the port of Odesa open for Ukrainian grain ships. 

Ukrainians say they have 20 million metric tons of grain in storage silos — probably 50 million with this year’s harvest — and if it remains in storage, there will be no sowing in the coming years. It is not possible to transport this quantity to the world market by rail — there is simply too much of it. 

Western countries should establish a military presence in part of the Black Sea to ensure the safe movement of commercial and humanitarian aid vessels. Surely, some will argue against this and say that no one would take such a risk. But in the end, it is a question of our willingness to meet humanitarian needs. And where there is a will, there is a way.

Ukraine also needs weapons to defend itself, both those that its military knows how to use and more modern, effective weaponry that requires rapid training. We can offer them this training. As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its next phase, we should work more on the planning and coordination of military aid, helping to ensure that Ukraine’s most critical needs are met. This would truly be an effective signal of our unity. 

The war in Europe affects us all; no one can ignore it. To do so would be to betray Europe. And only effective sanctions and Ukraine’s continued courage will eventually bring us to a point where Russia starts discussing a ceasefire in a meaningful and serious way. Only then will peace finally be possible. 

But our goal must be a peace to which Ukrainians agree. We are not pressuring President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to give in, pushing the idea that a bad peace is still better than war. We will not accept a peace that Ukraine is forced to settle for because it has missiles pointed at it. 

“This war will only be won by Ukraine,” wrote Eero Epner, a well-known Estonian director and journalist, who visited Kyiv alongside myself and my fellow Polish and Baltic presidents. “But if it is lost, Ukraine will not be the one that loses it: we will be the ones who lose it.” 

We cannot — we must not — lose.

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