Lithuania’s president talks to Foreign Policy about Vladimir Putin's "little green men" and whether Donald Trump really believes in NATO.
- By Lally WeymouthLally Weymouth is senior associate editor of the Washington Post. She has been conducting interviews with world leaders for over 25 years.
Dalia Grybauskaitė, the president of Lithuania, is on the front line of a “non-conventional war” against an expansionist Moscow. In an interview in Vilnius this week, she spells out the reasons that U.S. troops should be stationed on Lithuanian soil to prevent a Russian attack. Excerpts follow:
Foreign Policy: You have been asking for a permanent deployment of U.S. troops in Lithuania?
Dalia Grybauskaitė: Yes, the American troops in Europe are still located mainly in Germany and Western Europe, while the threat is now mainly in the east — in Poland and the Baltic states. That is why our recommendation is to have U.S. troops here on a permanent basis. We also need air defense.
FP: Which you don’t have now?
DG: No and it’s necessary. You cannot defend your territory or protect troops on the ground if you have no air defense.
FP: How big a threat is Russia today to Lithuania?
DG: Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe. We see how Russia is behaving in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on our border. There they have deployed nuclear-capable missiles that can reach European capitals. It is not just about the Baltic region anymore.
FP: Do you worry about “little green men” — suspected Russian soldiers — coming in here the way they did in Ukraine?
DG: It could be done in different ways — one of which is Zapad 2017, a large Russian military exercise in Belarus, which we expect in the autumn. Putting so-called “green men” on our territory would be very difficult because they do not speak the Lithuanian language, and we do not have many Russian-speaking people.
FP: Do you worry that Russia might seal off the Suwalki Gap [a 60-mile piece of territory on the Lithuania-Polish border] making it hard for NATO to send additional troops into the Baltics in a crisis?
DG: Yes, they could cut access. That is why we are asking for a permanent presence on our territory and we also need air-defense capabilities [as Russia controls the skies].
FP: What does the U.S. say?
DG: We are slowly finding an agreement.
FP: With the U.S. or with NATO?
DG: With both. In 2010, we started to discuss defense plans for the Baltic countries with NATO. We finally got them, but they are not sufficient for such aggressive behavior by our neighbor [Russia].
We need troops on our territory. Last year at the Warsaw Summit, we agreed that Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would each receive one battalion, and we got them. The one here is German-led but seven nations will participate.
FP: Do you believe the West will uphold Article 5 of NATO’s treaty regarding collective defense?
DG: I think that Article 5 is already on our territory — the members of the battalion are obliged to protect our country. At least seven NATO nations are here.
FP: How do you feel about President Donald Trump’s views on NATO?
DG: I think that some of the president’s criticism is grounded, especially on defense spending. All NATO members need to invest more. In Lithuania this year we are spending 1.8 percent of our GDP [on defense] and next year it will be 2.1 percent. This criticism from President Trump is justified.
FP: Hasn’t President Trump also questioned the validity of NATO?
DG: I do not interpret it that way.
FP: What do you think will be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move?
DG: Nobody knows, but it is clear that he will use any space left to him to provoke us. He will go as far as we will allow him to go. He has huge pressure internally, and he needs external enemies. We see how periodically he finds new enemies in one region or another. Europe is one of the regions where he would like to export destabilization.
FP: Are you referring to his intervention in the elections in France?
DG: Everywhere he is supporting the ultra-right and ultra-left political forces. We also see cyber, information, and propaganda attacks everywhere.
FP: Have those kinds of attacks increased since the invasion of Crimea?
DG: Oh yes. After Crimea, the investment into propaganda and information warfare was massively increased by the Kremlin. In our territory, we are already in a non-conventional war situation because of the [constant] cyber attacks, TV propaganda, and information attacks from Russia. We see this all the time. They try to invest in some politicians. They plant fake news stories.
FP: Russia gives money to some politicians?
DG: Yes. That is their standard behavior everywhere.
FP: How do you counter that?
DG: For three months, we blocked the broadcast of some TV channels that were very aggressive. We are trying to deconstruct the propaganda myths on our territory. For example, at the time of the arrival of the German-led battalion, false information was created that a German soldier raped a Lithuanian girl. We immediately reacted, saying that it was false. We checked the name and it appeared that there was no such person.
FP: Do you feel you can rely on the U.S.?
DG: We trust the United States and no matter what administration is in place, our partnership is strong.
FP: What is going on in Ukraine right now?
DG: We are trying to support them as much as we can with humanitarian, military and political assistance.
FP: Do you think Ukraine’s government can survive?
DG: I don’t care about governments. I care about the country’s future and its people. This is the third president of Ukraine I’ve worked with. Our goal is to support Ukraine and get them out of corruption and free from dependence on Russia — to help them be more European. They have a war on their territory, and we have to be patient with them.
FP: Do you think the sanctions are working?
DG: Sanctions were introduced after Crimea, and I don’t think we have any reason to lift sanctions.
FP: Will the Europeans agree with you?
DG: We will see. It is not easy. Different countries have different opinions. But Russia always gives new examples of its behavior.
FP: Are you referring to Syria?
DG: Yes and now they also pose a threat in Libya. There is a [Russian] military concentration in Egypt close to Libya’s border.
FP: Would you say Putin has a strategy?
DG: He is improvising his strategy. If a space is opening, he enters it. He is fast in his decisions.
FP: Does he want to recreate the former Soviet Union?
DG: He has nostalgia [for it] but knows it is not possible. He would like to have more influence and to destabilize more countries.
FP: Including yours?
DG: We are his nearest neighbors. He attacks not only us but also Germany and your country with cyber attacks and thefts of information. You can imagine if Russia can influence your public discourse, how large its influence is on smaller, neighboring countries.
The protection of America lies in the Baltic states. If you stop him here, he will not be a threat to you. With today’s technology, territory is not so important. The deconstruction of his methods and lies is important. Putin is learning how to do [hybrid attacks] on our territory and then exporting this knowledge to other countries.
We need to know what Putin’s Russia is capable of — that they can now reach even the United States. Even to us, that was a surprise. We thought they would know not to go so far with their attempts to influence global politics.
FP: Putin sent his troops into Syria and nothing happened.
DG: We allowed him to do it and Libya could be next. If Russia goes in, there will be an even larger flow of immigrants to Europe. He uses immigration as an instrument to destabilize the unity of the European Union. This is cynical and brutal.
FP: What is most important to you?
DG: Not to have the U.S. withdraw from the global stage. If the U.S. closes itself off on its own continent, there will be too much space left for Russia to take its place.
Photo credit: DAN KITWOOD/Getty Images