• Letter From Vilnius

    Posted by: Vykintas Pugačiauskas March 27, 2015

    Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Lithuania.


    From brittle one-issue member state to exemplary European, Lithuania has been trying hard to shed its image of a Russia-obsessed, veto-threatening EU newcomer. That is not least because the country’s presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2013 drove home the idea that compromise lies at the heart of European policymaking.

    Lithuania puts more emphasis on upholding European values than some countries at the heart of the EU. This is not just idealism, it is a matter of hardheaded interests. Now, however, the EU’s perceived weakness in the face of escalating Russian aggression in Ukraine—and constant hints at the appeasement of Russia by the West based on false assumptions about Moscow’s intentions—might bring back Lithuania’s hawkish, if less productive, stance.

    In contrast to much of Europe, war is dinner-table talk in Lithuania. And the country’s no-nonsense president and the entire diplomatic service inevitably take their cues from the worried electorate.

    Lithuania’s level of foreign policy ambition deserves a robust 4 out of 5. Vilnius sees that foreign policy as constantly evoking the fundamental ideas on which the EU rests.

    Three such ideas stand out, and on each of them, Lithuania puts its own distinctive twist. First, Vilnius regards upholding European values as a vital principle rather than a nice talking point. Second, maintaining EU solidarity is measured by results rather than a search for the lowest common denominator. And third, Lithuania approaches engagement with external partners with a clear-eyed view of the opposite number rather than with an abstract wish to maintain dialogue.

    Lithuania puts more emphasis on upholding European values than some countries at the heart of the EU. This is not just idealism, it is a matter of hardheaded interests. Russia is paramount in all of this. There is little “we told you so” glee about Moscow’s actions. Instead, Lithuania pushes the EU to acknowledge that Russia is a long-term problem. Realistically, it is also the union’s main foreign policy problem.

    Certainly, the threat posed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the EU’s neighborhood and the group’s returning fighters challenge the EU’s security and social fabric. And fears are piling up over the EU’s failure to tackle immigration properly.

    But there is only one nuclear-armed revisionist power—Russia—that chose to break all the international treaties that formed the bedrock of European security and to start two bloody wars in Georgia and Ukraine. As it did so, Moscow deluded itself that it was pushing back against an aggressive and decadent West.

    Indeed, the view in Lithuania is that any positive agenda with Moscow will be impossible for years. The EU can do very little about that. In the meantime, Europe should rise to the challenge of Russia and the other great threats confronting Europe.

    To achieve that aim, much of the EU’s external policy, as seen from Vilnius, will be about putting the union’s own house in order. For Lithuania, this means reinforcing the EU’s lost resilience, be it against propaganda, terrorism, or the threat of foreign fighters. These are seen as challenges to the Western way of life—not just as security threats.

    For #Lithuania, any positive agenda with Moscow is impossible.
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    This inevitably brings up the question of transatlantic relations and the EU’s own security and defense policies.

    Nothing irritates Vilnius more than hopeless fantasies of “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Lithuania makes clear its preference for the truly achievable “West from Los Angeles to Vilnius,” which can be realized through the talks on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and, more generally, a revival of the bond with the United States. As for opening any talks between the EU and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, Vilnius will probably not veto this move, but will attach conditions to it.

    On the subject of an EU defense policy, Lithuania is slowly dropping its hesitations over an EU role in defense. Vilnius will never agree to make the union a counterbalance to NATO but acknowledges that the EU should become a strong defense actor within the framework of the new European Security Strategy that is being drawn up.

    As it is, as a frontier state, Lithuania has been pushing the EU not only to strengthen its external borders and stem illegal immigration but also to understand the hybrid threats of little green men and espionage. Yet at the same time, the EU must be friendlier to legitimate travelers. Under no circumstances should it use external pressures to review the rules governing the Schengen passport-free area.

    Deepening the internal market also has an external dimension. This includes demolishing barriers, facilitating business, and enforcing standards—as well as concluding international trade treaties. Vilnius sees and pursues these goals as part of both a hard-security and a soft-power strategy. And don’t forget energy security. Not long ago, Lithuania was isolated in seeking a coherent EU energy policy, but times are clearly changing. Vilnius now wants even more.

    Lithuania has always been a strong proponent of EU enlargement, too. Indeed, Lithuania has been battling to eventually extend the offer of membership to all willing European states. But expect Vilnius to act if it sees enlargement as watering down EU values and solidarity. Lithuania continues to fight to ensure that the union consistently upholds its membership conditions.

    In fact, Lithuania is upset over the way in which the European Neighborhood Policy has become hostage to diverging interests. Vilnius is pressing the EU to make the policy more efficient, not less ambitious. Lithuania seized on the idea that “more for more” conditionality—in which more progress on reforms is rewarded with more EU assistance—has to be boldly supplemented by less for less.

    Realistic Lithuanians are among the first to note that throwing money at problems abroad has proved not to be terribly good for buying loyalties. It must be remembered that the countries of the EU’s Eastern Partnership consist of dictatorships and democracies. All of them, Vilnius argues, should be treated at least no worse than Russia.

    #Lithuania is quietly doing more than its size would suggest.
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    Lithuania’s list of external policy priorities does sound like a plea for more Europe. The good news is that the priorities are achievable and that Lithuania is quietly doing more to achieve them than its size would suggest. The bad news is that any push for more Europe—let alone from a country the size of Lithuania—only goes as far as particular national pursuits allow.

    Lithuania’s foreign policy outlook has always been shaped by the hard realities of being at the edge of Europe. Yet observers can expect Vilnius to put more emphasis on values than countries at the very heart of the EU. Upholding values is not merely idealistic for Lithuania; it is also a question of hard interests.


    Vykintas Pugačiauskas is the international news editor at Lithuanian National Radio and Television.


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