In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, relations between Lithuania and Russia signaled an optimistic future. At first, Moscow was tolerant of the Baltic states’ desire to join the EU and NATO. But the “near abroad” and spheres of influence soon returned to the Kremlin's playbook.
From warm to cold
When the Supreme Council of Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union, it was supported by Boris Yeltsin, the then president of the Russian Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin thus hoped to weaken the Soviet leadership he was in competition with.
Initially, relations between Lithuania and Russia were friendly. In July 1990, a delegation of the Russian Supreme Soviet visited Lithuania and spoke of cooperation based on equality.
Soon afterwards, a bilateral treaty signed between Lithuania and Russia declared that the parties recognised each other’s sovereignty and considered each other subject of international law. The USSR State Council accepted Lithuania's independence in August-September 1991, soon after the failed coup that deal the final blow to the Soviet Union.
According to Gediminas Vitkus, a political science professor at Vilnius University, the fact that Lithuania was recognised by Moscow was “a foreign policy success”. It was achieved by efficiently exploiting confrontation between the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Speaking at a conference on the 30th anniversary of the Russian-Lithuanian relations, former chairman of the Lithuanian Supreme Council, Vytautas Landsbergis, recalled Yeltsin’s words after Lithuania declared independence: “The Baltic countries are now free. This is good.”
“This is what Russia could have been. It has not turned out to be this way,” Landsbergis said.
Withdrawing the troops
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia inherited not only its claim to the superpower status, but also its troops still stationed in the Baltic states. Taking them out was the source of the first tensions between Lithuania and Russia.
During his first official visit to Moscow, Landsbergis reached an agreement to prepare a withdrawal plan. But Russia kept delaying the negotiations and claimed that it did not have enough capacity to take the troops out and transport equipment.
According to Vitkus, Lithuania managed to utilise the support of international organisations to pressure Russia into meeting its commitments.
In autumn 1992, the Lithuanian and Russian defence ministers agreed that all Russian troops would leave Lithuanian soil by autumn 1993.
In the Supreme Council, however, Landsbergis was criticised for being too inflexible in his negotiations with Russia. The situation was also worsened by an economic blockade that Russia imposed on Lithuania.
In 1992, the Russian Central bank suspended payments to Lithuania. The country was hit by inflation in excess of 2,000 percent. Russia also exerted energy pressure on Lithuania, disrupting water and gas supply in the winter of 1992-1993.
Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas of the Democratic Labour Party, the successor to Lithuania’s Communist Party, won the 1993 presidential election. He proposed a more pragmatic approach to relations with Russia.
But the Lithuanian-Russian relations remained filled with tensions, including on questions of borders, ownership of an oil field in the Baltic Sea, and unreturned property of Lithuanian diplomatic missions in Russia.
While visiting Poland in 1993, Yeltsin declared that Eastern European countries were free to join any international unions they wanted. A year later, Brazauskas sent a letter to the NATO secretary-general, stating Lithuania’s wish to join the organisation.
Moscow also offered the Baltic states to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but they refused, saying that they did not want to be treated as Russia’s “near abroad”.
“We would like to see a stable and predictable Russian foreign policy that does not use the term ‘near abroad’ with regards to the Baltic states,” Brazauskas said in an interview with the Russian media in 1994.
Meanwhile, Russia’s official position on the Baltic countries’ NATO membership had changed. It threatened to retaliate and maintained that the three small countries would never be full-fledged members of the alliance.
Russia also tried to convince the Baltic states to abandon their intentions to join NATO. During the United Nations sessions in 1997, Russia said that it could help ensure the Baltic states’ security.
Soon, relations between Lithuania and Russia hit a low point. In 1997, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the Soviet Union had never occupied or annexed the Baltic states.
Although anti-NATO sentiments had been growing in Russia, Lithuanian leaders tried to convince the Russians that the country’s NATO membership could benefit Moscow as well.
In 2000, Landsbergis told BNS that Lithuania’s admission to NATO would help normalise relations with Russia, which would remain a “good neighbour”.
“We will love each other very much, and we will be very good friends,” Landsbergis said.
But when Vladimir Putin came to power, any search for a normalisation in the Lithuanian-Russian relations ended.
In 2000, he said that admission of the Baltic States to NATO would have “serious consequences” for European security. Later, Putin publicly declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.