Amid Russia tensions, Lithuania advocates for more robust Western response

Lithuania and fellow Baltic nations Estonia and Latvia have expressed growing concern for their security as Russia deploys tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine and publishes a wish-list of security guarantees it says it wants to negotiate with the West.

Servicemen of the Lithuanian Armed Forces look on during President Gitanas Nauseda's visit in Druskininkai, Lithuania, on November 22, 2021.
Servicemen of the Lithuanian Armed Forces look on during President Gitanas Nauseda's visit in Druskininkai, Lithuania, on November 22, 2021. © Janis Laizan, Reuters (file photo)

The recent build-up of more than 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border has triggered alarm among NATO members – particularly among the alliance’s trio of Baltic states that are most vulnerable to Russian aggression.

Using blunt language at a gathering of European foreign ministers earlier this month, Lithuania’s top diplomat warned that Russia was “gearing up for war” and urged the West to get serious about the threat.

In the context of a renewed crisis between the EU and Russia over Ukraine, Lithuania and its ‘Baltic siblings’, Estonia and Latvia, seek reinforced security and new solutions.

“I believe Russia is really gearing up for war and is doing it seriously," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters in Brussels after the European foreign ministers' meeting on December 13. “I still have the feeling that we are not taking this seriously enough, including what's going on in Lithuania as well."

Having experienced Soviet occupation, and sitting uncomfortably close to NATO's main adversary, the three Baltic states have a heightened level of sensitivity towards the Russian security threat compared with western members of the EU.

“In Lithuania, the general opinion is that Russia is always raising the stakes rather than turning towards negotiations”, said Maksimas Milta, an associate analyst at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Milta pointed to a set of stringent demands that Russia’s foreign ministry published Friday, calling for an end to any prospect of Ukraine or any other former Soviet states joining the transatlantic alliance, as an example of the ‘ultimatums’ and ‘bullying’ Russia typically used to extract concessions.

A disaster scenario

At the heart of the Baltic states' concerns is the so-called Suwalki gap, a patch of land stretching about 90 kilometres along Poland’s border with Lithuania, hemmed in between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

“If Russia gained control of the corridor, they would cut off the connection between the Baltic states and the other NATO allies. It would be a nightmare situation,” Milta said.

To bolster security in the region, NATO's first objective should be to increase the presence of American armed forces along the alliance's eastern borders, Milta said. A second objective should be to "find a path forward for Ukraine and Georgia to begin membership action plans to join NATO”, he added.

According to Aliide Naylor, author of "The Shadow in the East, Vladimir Putin and the new Baltic Front", the Western military alliance should also draw from the Baltic states' considerable experience in dealing with their powerful eastern neighbour.

“The Baltic states are used to waves of danger and relaxation, and they clearly see the importance of staying united in the current climate of insecurity,” she told FRANCE 24. “The Western world is determined to play cautiously but the Baltic states understand Russia better,” she added.

She pointed to the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, spanning the Baltic Sea, which Germany has steadfastly supported despite the Baltic states and Poland warning that Russia could use it to blackmail the EU by threatening to cut off energy supplies in the event of a conflict.

‘The West could never agree to Russia’s demands’

Alexandre Melnik, associated professor of geopolitics at ICN Business School Nancy-Metz, advocated a holistic approach to dealing with Russia, stressing the need for a robust response to the Russian menace in Ukraine.

“The West took the first steps of supporting the [2014] Maidan revolution in Ukraine, we therefore have no choice but to continue supporting Kiev by providing their army with equipment”, he said in an interview to FRANCE 24.

“The West could never agree to Russia’s recent demands,” Melnik added, referring to Moscow's request of a legally binding guarantee that NATO would give up any military activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. “By doing so, we would betray our own values, such as respect for international law and contributing to peace and security.”

“With that being said, the West needs to establish a real strategy with Russia. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Do we want to change the regime in Russia? Nobody knows”, he said.

With their legitimate concerns regarding the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Lithuania and its fellow Baltic nations could lead the way in promoting stronger leadership and responses from EU and NATO leaders, Melnik suggested.

Lithuanian “leaders often speak up for Western values and human rights, reinitialising the core values that ‘old Europe’ has forgotten about,” he explained. “As a ‘newly converted’ state to Europe, Lithuania is part of the ‘new Europe’ and they are showing us  that we don’t have the right to lose the DNA of our values, that we shouldn’t abdicate our rights and that we should be firm.”

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