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2021.09.06 08:00

Amid rows with China and Belarus, will Lithuania find itself alone?

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2021.09.06 08:00

Members of European and US parliaments have lauded Lithuania for standing up to the world’s authoritarian leaders. However, the country’s foreign policy may put its security at risk.

“Vilnius is a nightmare for dictators,” journalist Patrik Oksanen wrote in the Svenska Dagbladet daily.

At the end of May, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko stated that “we were stopping migrants and drugs – now you will catch them and eat them yourselves”. Shortly after, dozens of irregular migrants, majority of them from the Middle East, began entering Lithuania from Belarus.

Investigations showed that the Belarusian regime facilitated migrant smuggling.

Lukashenko exacted this revenge upon Lithuania not just for imposing sanctions, but also for not recognising Belarus’ presidential election last August.

“What we are facing is [...] not primarily a migration crisis. This is an act of aggression that is aimed to provoke,” European commissioner Ylva Johansson said during her visit in Lithuania on August 2.

The European Union will “stand together with Lithuania to protect our common external border with Belarus”, she added.

During her visit in Moscow on August 20, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of the clampdown of dissent in Belarus with Russian president Vladimir Putin. She had also spoken out against Lukashenko’s actions at a news conference with the Estonian prime minister on August 17.

"President Lukashenko is using refugees, for example from Iraq, in a hybrid way to undermine security, and of course we condemn this in the strongest possible terms," she said. “We are closely coordinating with European partners [...]. We will also try to take a common position because this hybrid kind of confrontation, as used by Belarus, is an attack on all of us in the European Union."

EU officials, Latvian, Estonian, Austrian ministers, as well as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British House of Commons have visited Lithuania and expressed their support.

Foreign news outlets have also taken note of Belarus’ aggression against Lithuania and other neighbouring countries. Lukashenko’s actions are now seen as a threat to the security of the whole of Europe.

“Of course Lithuania has been very active in criticizing Lukashenko’s regime. Lithuania, Poland probably have been the frontrunners in the EU (on this). So it’s not a big surprise, that Lukashenko was trying to do something against those countries,” Inrek Kannik, head of the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Estonia, told LRT.lt.

“It was expected that something like that could happen. But at the same time I don’t see what were the other options for the Lithuanian government,” he added.

An influx of refugees coming from Afghanistan and the pushback from locals may pose new challenges.

“The refugee situation was dealt with through contact with Iraq, though I’ve heard [regime’s] plans for new flights from the Middle East [...],” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR). “Russia-Taliban relations can soon become a problem as well, Russians may try transporting people through Belarus, so that Europeans continue fighting.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has sought for a review of the EU’s migration policy, and called on the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Poland to join the efforts.

“I propose to jointly initiate discussions on a number of issues in Brussels, including the need to review the EU's migration policy and legislation on the protection of external borders, “ he said in a press release during a visit to Kyiv earlier in August.

However, refugees from Afghanistan will be granted asylum in Europe, EU officials say.

Europe hesitates to follow Lithuania

Lithuania’s support for Taiwan and decision to open it’s representative office has caused a diplomatic rift with China.

“If Lithuania dares to take one more step, there will be a cutting-off of official ties,” said Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Affairs and a former Chinese diplomat. “This is also a warning to other EU countries not to follow Lithuania’s suit.”

China has an anger management problem, at least when dealing with small and mid-size Western democracies, wrote the Economist.

“Received US State Secretary Antony Blinken’s call last night expressing US “ironclad solidarity“ as we develop ties with Taiwan. China’s aggressive pressure is unacceptable,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis posted on Twitter on August 22. “Shared our deep concern over [Belarus’] hybrid attack against Lithuania.”

US Senator Ted Cruz has also congratulated Lithuania on establishing the Taiwanese representative in Vilnius.

“I write to congratulate your government [...] on the leadership you are showing in bolstering the diplomatic stature of our mutual ally Taiwan,” Ted Cruz wrote in a letter to Lithuania’s ambassador to the US Audra Plepytė, adding that Lithuania’s actions “align with shared commitment to countering Communist authoritarianism”.

Taiwan has representative offices in 18 EU countries, including Latvia.

Lithuania has urged other European countries to distance themselves from China which is “dividing Europe”, however, they are hesitant to follow suit.

“Personally I like that Lithuania withdrew from the 17+1 format with China as it is useless for the EU member states. [But] I am a bit disappointed that other countries including my own country have not followed the same route,” said Kannik from the ICDS.

Last Wednesday, the Formosa Club of pro-Taiwanese legislators in Europe and Canada wrote letters to the EU and NATO backing Lithuania’s right to develop ties with Taiwan in the face of threats from China.

Moreover, several chairs of Foreign Affairs committees have signed a letter condemning China for exerting pressure on Lithuania, and calling on the EU to “extend full support to Lithuania”.

However, in Estonia, like in many other countries, the government has different opinions on China, according to Kannik.

“Generally I think many of Lithuania’s allies should support Lithuania more in this area than they have done. Not only my country, but other EU and NATO countries as well,” he added.

More troops on both sides?

Russia and Belarus joint exercise Zapad 2021 is set to take place in September. The partners have also invited China to take part in the drills.

The countries plan to involve some 13,000 troops, as well as various military hardware, in the exercise. Russian and Belarusian air defence systems are deeply integrated, and Russia has offered to supply Belarus with its S-400 defense systems.

“Considering the number of soldiers participating, this year’s Zapad will be bigger than the last one. The Belarusian side tried being more transparent last time [in 2017], they allowed observers in, informed about the exercises. This isn’t the case anymore,” said Gressel. “We see camps for Russian troops with recreational zones. It seems that troops may stay for longer than just the drills.”

Russia has also deployed a new motorised infantry division in Kaliningrad. Due to the military build-up, NATO would have even less time to react to a threat.

“Of course, NATO will have its traditional discussions on increasing troops on the frontlines, and whether it would be suitable according to the founding act of Russia–NATO relations. However, the Germans will be absolutely inflexible here,” said Gressel. “Discussion will be difficult as I don’t see any Europeans determined to have [more presence, except] the Americans.”

The US does not have a permanent military base in Lithuania, however, the Belarusian regime sees American troops presence in Lithuania as a security threat.

Lithuania opened a military training camp for US troops in Pabradė on Monday. Camp Herkus will accommodate soldiers during military exercises.

“I don’t think we will see US troops’ permanent presence [in Lithuania], but there may be more exercises with more American soldiers involved,” said Gressel.

Once the infrastructure is ready, the US can deploy its troops to countries by the Baltic and the Black seas if needed, Gressel added.

“Battalions can be seen in the maps but, considering the troops that NATO can deploy to its eastern flank in a short time, it’s especially important,” said Gressel. “The way I see it, the Pentagon is determined to do it and supports it.”

Americans, Gressel believes, are the only ones that understand the current situation and act accordingly.

The upcoming elections in Germany can bring uncertainty to the security situation in the Baltic states. The Social Democratic Party, which currently tops party rankings, looks towards resuming economic ties with Russia.

“A year ago I would have said that, while slowly, the Germans are moving in the right direction,” said Gressel.

Germany vowed to respond immediately to a threat from Russia to the Baltic states, however, the elections may lead to shifting attitudes, according to Gressel.

“We may have a coalition in which the Greens are the smaller partner of SPD. Social Democrats will go on with their tragic foreign policy, and the smaller partner will add to it with its incomprehensible defence policy. It’s the worst of both worlds.”

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