Russia’s war in Ukraine is both a threat to democratic values and an opportunity for global leadership, said European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis. Speaking to students and faculty at Harvard Law School on Oct. 15, Dombrovskis outlined a sweeping strategy for response to what he called “Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion.”

Dombrovskis is the European Commission’s highest ranking official responsible for economy and trade. He is also the former prime minister of Latvia. He came to Harvard on Saturday after meeting with World Bank and IMF leaders in Washington, D.C. His appearance was moderated by Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu and presented by the school and by the European Union Seminar, in conjunction with the Harvard International Law Journal.

Dombrovskis told the students that when he was their age, he felt the same optimism they might be feeling now. “The changes happening in the world seemed overwhelmingly positive. My generation of Latvians grew up under the rigid restrictions of the Soviet Union. But as graduates in the early 1990s, we were entering a new reality of freedom and choice. We felt hopeful and confident that our talents and ambitions would achieve their maximum expression in the world.” 

For today’s students to experience the same possibilities, he said, “the leaders of today must fight for our cherished Western values of democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic freedom, and to tackle climate change.”

The leaders of today must fight for our cherished Western values of democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic freedom, and to tackle climate change.

Valdis Dombrovskis

All of this, Dombrovskis said, is threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he characterized as an existential crisis. “Innocent men, women and children are dying because of Putin’s war of choice. In this despot, Europe faces an enemy with nuclear bombs at its fingertips. The war is causing turmoil across many parts of the globe … There are deep financial and monetary implications. Russian, and Russia alone, faces the responsibility for these problems.” While he expressed gratitude to the U.S. and other allies who imposed sanctions on Russia, he emphasized the work that remains to be done.

The first job, he said, is to invest more resources into fighting the information war. “We have seen for many years anti-democratic forces including Russia meddling into the internal politics of the EU, by supporting extremists and anti-European parties — using lobbyists, paid think tanks, online disinformation, and hacking. And we know that this meddling is not limited to Europe.” He urged Europe and the U.S. to be more aggressive with their own messaging — noting that the current crises around food and energy are purported by President Putin’s allies to be caused by Western sanctions but are actually the product of “Russia’s war and readiness to gain on hunger and starvation.”

Dombrovskis further urged allied countries to “get out of their comfort zone” in terms of building new alliances with the developing world. He pointed out that some developing nations see the Ukraine war differently than the U.S. and EU do. “Some are taking geopolitical advantage of it, by increasing trade and cooperation with an aggressive state. Some justify neutrality by recalling historical injustices.” 

He cited the UN vote in March, in which five nondemocratic regimes voted to block a resolution condemning the war but another 35 abstained. “This is the middle ground I’m talking about, the countries we need to persuade. And we are in a race against time, because nondemocratic powers are rushing to form their own alliances.”

He also called for a reexamination of the world’ s financial institutions, in response to the changing geopolitical climate: Fixing the World Trade Organization, he said, is “a crucial piece of the puzzle. It needs to be revitalized, updated, and re-imagined.” Trade with China, he argued, also needs to be evaluated in light of that country’s failure to condemn Russia: “The EU should continue engaging with China with pragmatism and without naiveté; we recognize that our trading relationship needs more balance and reciprocity.” Finally, he called for the EU and U.S. to strengthen their geopolitical roles through trade “by developing rules-based relationships with countries around the world, by incentivizing our countries and investors to make a positive economic impact on those countries, to increase our wider attractiveness and trustworthiness as partners.” This, he said, would stimulate a green economy as well as a democratic one.

We must not allow division or fatigue to bury us. If we stay united and work together, the U.S. and EU can achieve justice for the Ukraine.

Valdis Dombrovskis

“All the changes I describe are achievable, a better world is possible,” Dombrovskis said, while stressing that there was work to do in the meantime. “We must not allow division or fatigue to bury us. If we stay united and work together, the U.S. and EU can achieve justice for the Ukraine. We must not fail them.”

During a discussion afterward, Professor Wu asked Dombrovskis to expand on his claim that the Ukraine situation an existential struggle rather than a mere financial conflict. “We are not talking about economic competition, but open warfare,” he replied, noting that Russia has already threatened to invade other countries if it is successful in Ukraine. “We see that Russia’s action is encouraging autocratic regimes around the world. And we see globally more tension and more potential for conflict. … We think it’s important that the Western Democratic world stays united, shows the necessary resolve, and makes sure that the Ukraine is winning this war, because that stops the larger ramifications.”

Following up on his references to China, Wu asked Dombrovskis if his dealings with democrats and republicans in the U.S. revealed any major differences in their points of view. The former president of Latvia responded that the EU shares many of the same concerns about China with both U.S. parties, with industrial subsidies and intellectual property rights among them. “Talking more broadly, we see relations with China as very complex. They are corporation partner in some areas, economic competitor in others, and strategic rival in yet others.”