Lithuanian Foreign Minister: Russia Might Not Lose

Gabrielius Landsbergis weighs in on why Russia needs to be defeated, why Eastern European states were and are nervous, and why the West needs to step up.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis during a press conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Feb. 19. Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the small Baltic nation of Lithuania has been one of Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters. In May, Lithuania became the first country to designate Russia as a terrorist state. It has sought a solution to Moscow’s naval blockade of grain exports from the Black Sea, which imperils the lives of millions, especially in the developing world. Lithuanian citizens even crowdfunded over $5 million to purchase a Turkish-made drone for the Ukrainian military. 

At the same time, Lithuania, which was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a coda to the Soviet Union’s pact with Adolf Hitler, then was kept under the Soviet boot for more than 40 years, has sought to bolster NATO’s presence in the country, amid fears that Russia’s revanchist appetite may not stop with Ukraine. 

Foreign Policy spoke with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis about the need for greater clarity about the West’s goals in Ukraine, Russian threats against Lithuania, and what happens if Russia is not defeated. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the small Baltic nation of Lithuania has been one of Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters. In May, Lithuania became the first country to designate Russia as a terrorist state. It has sought a solution to Moscow’s naval blockade of grain exports from the Black Sea, which imperils the lives of millions, especially in the developing world. Lithuanian citizens even crowdfunded over $5 million to purchase a Turkish-made drone for the Ukrainian military. 

At the same time, Lithuania, which was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a coda to the Soviet Union’s pact with Adolf Hitler, then was kept under the Soviet boot for more than 40 years, has sought to bolster NATO’s presence in the country, amid fears that Russia’s revanchist appetite may not stop with Ukraine. 

Foreign Policy spoke with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis about the need for greater clarity about the West’s goals in Ukraine, Russian threats against Lithuania, and what happens if Russia is not defeated. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Foreign Policy: Ukrainian officials say that the country is outgunned in the east and running out of ammunition. Are Europe, the United States doing enough to support Ukraine at this critical stage in the war?

Gabrielius Landsbergis: It should not come as a surprise. Ukrainian factories are not working. They can’t produce the ammunition that is needed for the Ukrainians to have their own armory. So they are truly running out of their weapons, and now they’re fully dependent on the weapons that the West is sending. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, even though countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, even bigger countries like Poland, we’re doing everything that we can, but it basically boils down to what the big industrial powers of the world can and should do. Because this is where the main firepower comes from in terms of delivery. 

Going back to your question, is enough being done? I think that what we don’t currently see, at least what I would like to see, is a very clear commitment by the major powers, the industrial powers, that they will be able to sustain the Ukrainian war effort until Ukraine reaches victory and Russia faces a strategic defeat. There still needs a lot of political and diplomatic effort in order to achieve this commitment. 

FP: In his op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. President Joe Biden said that the United States is supporting Ukraine so that it would be in the strongest position at the negotiating table. But you’re saying you want real ammo, not ammunition for talks. 

GL: Yes. Because it’s not rhetorical, it’s very specific. How many rocket launching systems the Ukrainians have defines how much territory can they take back. How much ammunition is sent every day and sustainably every day means that they are able to at least hold Russian forces in place or, again, push them back. 

FP: The United States and others have given some big guns, but they’ve held off giving the Ukrainians the really long-range ammunition that they’ve been asking for. It seems that there are still lingering fears within the Biden administration about provoking Russia. Do you think it is prudent to be cautious about escalating with Russia, or should we be giving Ukraine everything that we have?

GL: I would look from the strategic standpoint, not from the tactical, because for three and a half months most of the time we’ve been involved in from the tactical point of view. That means that we’re looking at what the Ukrainians are achieving on the battlefield, we give them weapons, and then we decide what kind of weapons systems we should give them. But now, the thing is that if we set a goal that Russia has to be strategically defeated in that it would be forbidden to continue to wage the war in Ukraine, one, but, two, also would be unable to repeat attacking its neighbors in the future. So if that’s the strategic goal, then we have to ask ourselves the question: How do we achieve that goal? And what kind of weapons systems are needed in order to achieve that goal? And I think that this is the question that still is not answered. 

Going back to the tactical, the war is far from won. At least some of the information that we’re seeing is quite discouraging, and Russians are still progressing, or the Ukrainians are unable to keep the contact line intact. So there is quite a high chance still that Russia will not face defeat. Yes, they are wounded obviously with sanctions and enormous losses on the battlefield, but they are able to sustain this, and if they will be able to sustain this long-term, then again, we are then in a very, very dangerous stage of geopolitical reality.

FP: But there still seems to be great disagreement on that issue, whether to strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table or defeat Russia.

GL: Yes, and that actually weakens our hand, the disagreement. Because we’re as strong as we’re able to have a united position. Preferably a strong united position, not being weak and united. So definitely, a time has to come where some sort of a coalition has to set a goal of what needs to be achieved. And I think that you mentioned President Biden’s op-ed, and it lays out several strategic goals quite strongly, and I think that could be followed. 

FP: The Russian parliament this week considered withdrawing Russia’s recognition of Lithuania’s independence. What was your reaction to that?

GL: I would call this a threat, a direct threat to Lithuania, and we are taking all these threats seriously, even if the person [who made the proposal] is not known for political seriousness in Russian political circles. Nonetheless, Russia is a very dangerous neighbor, and that’s why we are taking everything that comes from Moscow very seriously. 

FP: Not long after the war began, I met with a Lithuanian politician here in Washington, who described Central and Eastern Europe as the Cassandras of Europe. What do you make of that? Because for a long time, politicians in the region, officials in the region were warning about Russia, about its capabilities, its intentions, and were brushed off by your counterparts in the West. How does that make you feel now? 

GL: We’re already in the second stage of this Cassandra moment. Because the first month of the war was truly a very interesting experience, I have to tell you. So many journalists and representatives from several NGOs would ask, “So you were right all this time, you were right. And how does that make you feel?” My point was always: Don’t reject the notions that are coming from the Baltics. For a month, it was okay. And now what we’re saying, and many in the Baltics would agree with this, is that if Russia is not defeated, it’s just a delay of the next war. Because the system is built that way. And again, I think it’s an excellent metaphor, saying that again, we are not believed. 

FP: Do you think the current security architecture in Europe is sufficient to protect Lithuania and others on the continent?

GL: Ukraine is a litmus paper. If with Western assistance Ukraine wins the war, if the commitment that we spoke about at the beginning of our conversation is given and allows Ukraine to win, and Russia to lose, then I think that this new system … Ukraine will be part of it, it’s inevitable. It might be part of NATO, it might not be a part of NATO in the short term, but it will be part of the European security system after the war. That would give a lot of confidence to everybody that we have a new system, and it’s working. If Russia fails to lose, then it’s a worrying scenario for everybody. The most interesting thing—I’ve just returned from Japan—and many conversations that I had there were about the security architecture, because it’s universal.

If we allow a country like Ukraine to lose its territories—we built the system around this principle of territorial integrity—then everybody is in danger, and no country will be big enough to be completely safe.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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