Lithuania Braces for Putin … and Trump

December 9, 2016

 

In the immortal words of Suga Free, and, it would seem, in the halls of power of Vilnius, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.”

Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states, is trying to make sure it can withstand the double-whammy of an aggressive Russia and a new U.S. president whose commitment to America’s European allies has been lukewarm, at best.

 

On Thursday, Lithuanian Defense Chief Lieutenant General Jonas Vytautas Zukas said that the Lithuanian army considers hosting a NATO battalion to be a “priority.” On Friday, the Foreign Ministry tweeted out a quote by Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius meant to shape the battlefield in the looming (dis)information wars: “Most effective way to counter misinformation is to foster independent media environment.”

They are part of a litany of preparations and pushback, large and small, against a big neighbor that has been behaving badly. If such preparations were already underway because of fears of Russia, concern about the incoming administration of Donald Trump has redoubled Vilnius’s desire to stay ready.

 

In late October, the country of nearly 3 million released its third manualon preparedness in case of invasion, this version focused specifically on Russia (Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he could take Lithuanian capital Vilnius in two days). Last month, it suspended a Russian state-owned TV channel for three months over anti-American comments. It has banned Russian constitutional court judges from entering its country for a March 2017 summit of constitutional judges because they support Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, a ban Putin called “idiotic.” In recent years, with a little help from the United States, Lithuania has shed much of its energy dependence on Russia.

 

And, importantly, Lithuania’s leaders vow to spend more on defense, with plans to hit 2 percent of GDP by 2018. Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that Lithuania — as well as Estonia and Latvia — will need to demonstrate “that they can pull their weight … and demonstrate the relevance of [NATO] to the skeptical Trump administration.”

America aside, Russia has been behaving badly from the Lithuanian perspective. Last year, unidentified hackers broke into a government research center’s computers, planting information that Lithuania’s president, the generally pro-American Dalia Grybauskaite, had worked as an escort for the KGB. And Lithuania’s military website was hacked so as to say that a NATO exercise was a plan to annex Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania.

 

Direct military conflict with a NATO member is probably not in the cards for Russia right now, said Grigas. Instead, she said, “indirect threats, destabilization attempts, information warfare, and efforts to divide the Baltic societies are the more immediate and likely Russian threats.”

Still, Lithuania isn’t forgetting the military dimension. Satellite imagery shows Russia moved additional missiles to Kaliningrad, as NPR reported on Thursday.

 

All would be a bit less concerning if the next leader of the United States, NATO’s most powerful country, hadn’t telegraphed his disdain for the alliance’s traditional mission and mutual obligations. In the run up to and following the presidential election, Trump has consistently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said that he wants warmer relations with Russia.

 

He has also suggested that U.S. support for NATO allies should be contingent on them paying their fair share (the U.S. chunk of NATO expenditures, to be fair, has soared in the last fifteen years.) In 2015, Lithuania spent 1.1 percent of its GDP on defense — less than the 2 percent recommended by NATO. The alliance’s critical Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all, does not make mutual defense contingent on hitting that 2 percent target.

Estonia and Latvia are doing many of the same things — especially talking up NATO — and have faced many of the same pressures as Lithuania. But Vilnius can do more with less domestic risk because it has the smallest ethnic Russian population, meaning a hard line on Russia is less domestically divisive than it is in Estonia or Latvia. Nevertheless, some ethnic Russians in Lithuania are indeed wary of what their country’s line might mean for them.

 

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Correction, Dec. 9, 2016: This post originally stated that Lithuania is the smallest of the three Baltic states. It is the smallest by ethnic Russian population; by population and size, however, it is the largest.

 

 

 

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