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Is Lithuania the West’s First Line of Defense?

The small Baltic nation is facing down threats from authoritarian regimes in Russia, Belarus, and China.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Flags of Lithuania, the United States, and NATO are hoisted in front of a U.S. Air Force plane carrying U.S. soldiers at the air force base near Siauliai Zuokniai, Lithuania, on April 26, 2014.
Flags of Lithuania, the United States, and NATO are hoisted in front of a U.S. Air Force plane carrying U.S. soldiers at the air force base near Siauliai Zuokniai, Lithuania, on April 26, 2014. PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, is it true that you managed to slip out of the country for a lovely trip to Eastern Europe? Most of us haven’t been able to travel abroad since the pandemic started, so I’m pretty jealous.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. Greetings from Vilnius, Lithuania! I am leading an Atlantic Council fact-finding trip focusing on the regional security environment, including the Russian threat and NATO’s defenses for its eastern flank. It has been fascinating. Although it is very nice here, I am keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t test positive for the coronavirus and need to be quarantined here for an extra 10 days.

EA: What a strange new era it is. But it sounds like some things don’t change: a fact-finding trip to Eastern Europe that finds regional governments are concerned about the threat from Russia. Is there anything new here, or is it just the same old arguments about U.S. presence, NATO member spending, and Russian hybrid war?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, is it true that you managed to slip out of the country for a lovely trip to Eastern Europe? Most of us haven’t been able to travel abroad since the pandemic started, so I’m pretty jealous.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. Greetings from Vilnius, Lithuania! I am leading an Atlantic Council fact-finding trip focusing on the regional security environment, including the Russian threat and NATO’s defenses for its eastern flank. It has been fascinating. Although it is very nice here, I am keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t test positive for the coronavirus and need to be quarantined here for an extra 10 days.

EA: What a strange new era it is. But it sounds like some things don’t change: a fact-finding trip to Eastern Europe that finds regional governments are concerned about the threat from Russia. Is there anything new here, or is it just the same old arguments about U.S. presence, NATO member spending, and Russian hybrid war?

MK: There are new twists on the old classics. I have been impressed by the persistence and sophistication of the Russian hybrid threat—almost daily messaging to different Lithuanian audiences meant to undermine the effectiveness of the Lithuanian government and weaken NATO.

I have also been struck by how Lithuania’s small size makes an independent defense difficult; it spends over 2 percent of its GDP on defense, but that comes to only about $1 billion per year. That is enough for personnel and some basic equipment and facilities, but not much else. So, the new rotational U.S. and NATO presence adds greatly to the combat power of the Lithuanian forces. Of the 39 tanks currently in Lithuania, I’ve learned, 29 are American, 10 are from other NATO countries, and none are Lithuanian.

Vilnius has taken a strong stand against Beijing to defend democratic values and to impress its ally in Washington.

Lithuania is also tangling with a dragon now in addition to the bear. Vilnius has taken a strong stand against Beijing to defend democratic values and to impress its ally in Washington. It even opened a Taiwan representative office in Vilnius.

EA: Maybe lay off the metaphors a little? It’s not a Tom Clancy novel!

Perhaps the Lithuanians should focus a little closer to home? It seems utterly absurd to complain that they can’t defend themselves against Russia without U.S. support while simultaneously picking a fight with China. And on an issue—increased recognition of Taiwan—that the Biden administration isn’t pushing.

However, I agree with you that the ways we talk about allied commitment to NATO are often problematic. Even those few allies who do spend over 2 percent of their GDP—the supposed standard—often don’t have the capabilities they need and are reliant on U.S. support in critical areas.

I was struck a while back by some people in Washington praising how NATO allies really stepped up in 2020, increasing their spending. But it was actually a result of the pandemic economic crash making the same spending look better in comparison to their reduced GDPs! My point is: Spending isn’t the same as concrete capabilities, and European states, including Lithuania, need to do more to improve those.

MK: The Baltic countries are on the front lines, and they are increasing spending in real terms. Unlike some allies that spend on the shiniest, new defense technology, they are investing in capabilities that make sense for their budget and security environment: armored combat vehicles, sniper rifles, artillery, and host nation support.

There are some newer developments as well—such as the Iraqi and Afghan migrants Belarus has deliberately sent to the Lithuanian and Polish borders.

EA: Let’s start with the migration question, because I think it ties into our last discussion on Afghanistan, as well as your current locale. The Belarusian refugee story is truly bizarre. As I understand it, the regime in Minsk, determined to push back on the European Union for supporting pro-democracy activists and imposing sanctions on his regime, is encouraging migrants from countries like Iraq to come visit the country. Once there, Belarus helps them to cross the border into EU member states such as Lithuania and Poland. Do I have that right?

MK: Exactly. Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko understood that refugee flows, such as those that resulted from the Syrian civil war, destabilized Europe, so what better way to retaliate against the EU than to purposely unleash a flood of migrants into EU countries?

We have seen versions of this before. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi weaponized migration as leverage in negotiations with Italy and, during the NATO war against Libya, he encouraged migrants to cross the Mediterranean as a final revenge against Europe. But Lukashenko is taking it to a new level, recruiting visitors from such faraway countries as Iraq with the promise that this is a legitimate path to immigration to the EU, then seizing their documents and forcing them across the border, leaving them in limbo.

The Lithuanian government is setting up makeshift fencing, making the crossing more difficult here, so Belarus has now directed its efforts against other bordering EU countries, Poland and Latvia, even as it continues to recruit new “tourists” from Iraq.

EA: So, typically when this happens, it’s states that would usually turn back migrants declining to do so as a negotiating tool: Morocco, Libya, and Turkey have all done it in recent years, seeking concessions from Europe. It’s not clear, though, what Lukashenko thinks he will get out of this.

More broadly, though, this is likely the first wave in another round of discussion about migrants in Europe, like those we saw back in 2015. I think you might be overstating it when you say that migrant flows from Syria “destabilized Europe,” but there’s no denying that it had substantive political impacts. And Afghanistan is a likely source of asylum-seekers in coming years given the number of people fleeing and seeking refuge in Europe. So are the Sahel and continued turmoil in parts of the Middle East.

Worryingly, the European Union still hasn’t resolved the underlying problems that fueled the last round of controversy: The bloc’s poorest members control the land borders, meaning they are overburdened with new arrivals. There’s a strong perception that many of the asylum-seekers involved are instead economic migrants, and there is strong resistance to sharing that inflow of migrants more fairly across the EU. Indeed, part of the reason that Lukashenko’s rather strange scheme is having an effect is that the Eastern European states involved have typically been among the least likely to welcome refugees at all.

MK: You are right. It is for all these reasons that this is a clever and diabolical form of retaliation. It is also something of an unusual threat. Belarus can’t threaten to retaliate with its strengths, so it is retaliating by exploiting its own weakness: “Do what we want, or we will overwhelm you with desperate people who badly want to leave our country and live in yours.”

Belarus can’t threaten to retaliate with its strengths, so it is retaliating by exploiting its own weakness.

In fact, there is quite a bit of concern here that, due to his vulnerability, Lukashenko may acquiesce to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to form some kind of new Russian-Belarusian union. Lukashenko would get to survive, and Putin would make progress on reestablishing a greater Russia.

EA: Union between Russia and Belarus has been “coming soon” for as long as I’ve been studying the region. They even signed a treaty back in the 1990s promising to unify! But I’ll believe it when I see it.

To stick on the migration question, though, I think it’s emblematic of the problems that democracies sometimes face: Autocracies can easily exploit our open media environment or political norms. In this case, an autocracy is using the EU’s commitment (albeit an increasingly shaky one) to international rules and norms about the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers.

But while it’s not great, the roughly 4,000 migrants who have entered the EU from Belarus this year are hardly an existential threat. And I fail to see a good solution other than a more equitable sharing of migrants across the bloc.

MK: It’s not existential, but it is not easy for a country of 2.7 million people to absorb thousands of refugees almost overnight. The improved border security seems to be helping, but I also don’t see any other great solutions short of installing a more responsible government in Minsk.

It is not easy for a country of 2.7 million people to absorb thousands of refugees almost overnight.

So, since I have been absorbed with all things Eastern European this week, I assume the world did me the courtesy of putting other developments on hold?

EA: Well, over in Brazil, we have an embattled right-wing leader—whose terrible response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused his poll numbers to tank—leading mass rallies and railing against the Brazilian judiciary for investigating corruption among his family and associates. Comparisons to Donald Trump are typically only skin-deep, but Jair Bolsonaro is an exception. Recent events in Brazil have raised a lot of fears that the Brazilian president might try to overturn the upcoming election, just as Trump tried to do in the United States.

MK: These developments are concerning. Brazil has enjoyed a democratic government for several decades, and it would be a big blow to the country and global democracy if it were to become the latest data point in the 15-year trend of worldwide democratic backsliding. Ultimately, of course, America’s democratic institutions held up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and other threats, and I hope that Brazil’s democracy will survive as well. But things certainly look precarious now.

EA: What worries me is that America’s democratic institutions have a more solid history than Brazil’s, which only really transitioned from autocracy to democracy in the 1980s. It’s all part of the same theme this week, though. The internal schisms and political tensions within democracies over things like migration, corruption, and populism are perhaps the biggest threat to their own continued survival.

MK: I agree that democracies need to address their internal problems. Do you think an international network of populists is also a driver of these developments? It was reported that one of Trump’s former advisors was detained in Brazil this week while he was in the country for meetings with Bolsonaro.

EA: That was certainly strange! Former Trump aide Jason Miller, perhaps best known for hiding his income to avoid paying child support, was detained at the airport in Brasília, presumably by elements of the judiciary investigating potential corruption and anti-democratic activities.

The biggest threats to democracy globally are internal.

But my point is not that there is no international element to this. It’s that this international element is primarily originating from within democracies themselves. Just look at former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s rather dubious attempts to interact with the European far-right, or the TV host Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Hungary to praise the Viktor Orban government. The biggest threats to democracy globally are internal.

MK: Another threat to global democracy and good governance this week comes from the Taliban. They announced a new government. Despite promises to be more inclusive and responsible, the appointees are all male and all Taliban (with no representation from Afghanistan’s other political factions). To top it off, they named a terrorist wanted by the FBI (Sirajuddin Haqqani) as minister of the interior. After the fall of Kabul, I am among those who held out some hope that maybe the Taliban would learn their lesson and be different this time around, but they are not inspiring confidence with this first major political act after winning control of the country.

EA: So, they are who we thought they were? This is unpleasant, but it’s unsurprising. The winners of a civil war rarely share power with those who lost.

But the question of threat—to democracy or to U.S. security—is still fairly open. The evacuation of U.S. forces from the country was marred by bloodshed, but less than we might have feared. And by all accounts, that is due to the Taliban enabling the evacuation and the security of the airport. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the Taliban government, but there are also reasons to think that Washington might be able to engage with them in a transactional way, in particular by using aid and trade flows as leverage.

MK: You are asking the right questions. Many are still pointing fingers about what went wrong, and I do think there should be a bipartisan investigation to glean lessons learned for the future. But I think Western governments and outside analysts should begin moving beyond the blame game and try to find a constructive way forward. They need to make the best out of a bad situation. The Taliban does need international financial aid and diplomatic recognition, and the West should use that leverage to its advantage.

This will be difficult given Beijing’s bid to cozy up to the Taliban and seek economic opportunities in Afghanistan, but China’s approach might backfire, just as in neighboring Pakistan, where it has become the target of a terrorist attack.

EA: I’m all in favor of bipartisan investigation—as long as it also considers the question of accountability for why the United States stayed in a losing war for 20 years.

MK: It is almost two decades to the day. Saturday marks the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was three weeks into a Ph.D. program in political science on that date and, like many of my generation, that event greatly shaped my subsequent career. I didn’t plan to focus my studies on U.S. national security policy, but, after 9/11, everything else seemed unimportant by comparison.

For all its shortcomings, I would rate the global war on terror as a success. Most countries, including the United States, have better homeland security practices in place and are more resilient against successful attacks. Terrorists can only operate under extreme pressures, including the constant threat of death by drone strike. And, despite predictions that 9/11 was only the beginning of a new age of mass-casualty terrorism, there have been zero large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States since that date.

EA: Correlation isn’t causation. But perhaps that’s a question for next time. I’m sure you have other things you could be doing: eating cepelinai, perhaps? Or defending the border against Russian little green men?

MK: Indeed, it is hard to defend the free world on an empty stomach.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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