If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, will the Baltic states be his next target?
"Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaitė has called Russia a 'terrorist state' and warns that the current conflict in Ukraine could spread further if not stopped," reported The Baltic Times.
The story sounds as if it was published this morning. But it's actually from 2014. It was a reaction to Russian forces annexing the Crimea peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine. At the time, Grybauskaitė stood alone with her statement.
This week, when Russian forces bombed civilian buildings in the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi repeated what Grybauskaitė had pronounced eight years ago: “Russia is a terrorist state. Obviously.”
For many Lithuanians, Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine has resulted in a grim ‘I told you so’ feeling.
Over their past three decades of independence, Lithuania, alongside the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, have become models of how former Soviet states can turn into democracies. Today, Lithuania ranks higher on the Press Freedom index than the UK, France and the US. Salaries in Vilnius, the capital, have now surpassed the EU average, though income inequality has also increased.
Lithuania’s unique position
But Lithuania’s unique geopolitical situation – with the Russian province of Kaliningrad on one side and Belarus on the other – has forced the country’s citizens to never take their independence for granted. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, the country has doubled its military and defence spending and reintroduced conscription. Some 77% of the population support NATO (which Lithuania joined in 2004), the second-highest approval rating in the EU after Poland.
So when the Russian army began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Lithuanians knew exactly what to do. More than 20,000 people took to the streets in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda and Šiauliai, the four biggest cities, to show support for Ukrainian resistance. In just six days, Lithuanian citizens and businesses raised 10 million euros for military aid to Ukrainian soldiers. The country’s parliament voted unanimously for a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. The biggest supermarket chain in Lithuania stopped selling products made in Russia. The minister of culture announced that performances by artists from Russia would be cancelled. The Lithuanian radio and television commission suspended six Russian state-controlled TV channels.
The Russia boycott has reached international businesses too. Many Lithuanians closed their Revolut bank accounts when the bank's co-founder, whose father has ties with Russian state company Gazprom, failed to condemn Putin's actions. Eight Lithuanian non-profit media organisations (including NARA) left crowdfunding platform Patreon after it suspended a Ukrainian NGO that was raising money for Ukrainian soldiers.
It is hoped that such actions will send a clear message to the Russian people: please do something about your leader, and do it now. The line has been crossed.
Lithuanians have experienced Russian imperialism before, of course. The Soviet Union’s occupation of the three Baltic states began in the 1940s and lasted for 50 years. Almost everyone in Lithuania has a family member who was deported by Stalin’s government. The deep social issues affecting Lithuania today – including a lack of trust in institutions, chronic alcohol abuse and high suicide rates – can be traced back to the Soviet days, though more recent neoliberal policies have also failed to remedy those problems.
Given Lithuania’s history and the declaration of the Russia’s government that it wants to restore the world to 1997, before the Baltic states joined NATO, there is a real fear that Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia could be next on Putin’s hit list.
What about NATO?
The crucial difference between Ukraine and the Baltic states is that the latter are all part of NATO. Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty says that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of them. As US president Joe Biden declared in his State of the Union address on Tuesday: “The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”
But the question that Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University in the US, asked in 2019 is more relevant than ever: “Would the US fight a nuclear war to save Estonia?” At this point, American society has little appetite for any foreign intervention. And many in both the US and Europe were understandably perturbed when, on Monday, Putin ordered Russia’s military to put its nuclear deterrence forces on high alert.
‘If we do not stop Putin in Ukraine, we will still have to fight a war, but in our countries’
Lithuanians certainly don't want nuclear war. But when they hear NATO’s pledge to never send its forces into Ukraine, even as the death count rises, their trust in the alliance may be crumbling. As Grybauskaitė, who is no longer president after two terms in power, but still retains substantial approval in Lithuania, argued on Wednesday: “If we do not stop Putin in Ukraine, we will still have to fight a war, but in our countries.”
For now, the only option for Lithuanians is to continue supporting Ukrainian resistance by spreading trustworthy news, donating money and navigating a thin line between opposing Putin but refusing to turn against fellow Russian-Lithuanians, who, despite being a small minority (5% of the population), are a crucial part of Lithuanian identity.
So far, Ukrainians, with their brave underdog leader Zelenskyi, are fighting like hell. But this war remains in its infancy. Will they prevail on their own? Or is the West making a deadly mistake by not helping them more?
The answer to these questions will decide Lithuania's future for decades to come.
Karolis Vyšniauskas is a co-editor of NARA. Currently he studies media innovation at New York University with Fulbright Scholarship.