In this interview, Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy, talks to Renatas Norkus, Ambassador of Lithuania to the United Kingdom (UK), about the security situation on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) eastern flank and the bilateral relationship between the UK and Lithuania, as well as the wider Baltic region.
VSS: On 11th March, Lithuania celebrated its Independence Day and this December the world will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. What has changed in the Baltic region since 1991?
RN: Let me first congratulate you and James Rogers on launching a new think tank in London – the Council on Geostrategy. Undoubtedly, a move that is both very timely and important! We at the Lithuanian Embassy look forward to interactive cooperation with the Council.
Last week on 11 March, the Lithuanian people celebrated the Day of our Reestablished Independence. On that day thirty one years ago history changed its course in Lithuania and much beyond it. Our democratically elected parliament, by signing an Act of Reestablished Independence, declared Lithuania to be a sovereign independent state after decades of Soviet occupation. Estonia and Latvia soon followed and the three Baltic states embarked upon their journey of rejoining their rightful place in the family of liberal democracies and their institutions, such as NATO and the European Union (EU). The Soviet empire crumbled leading to its fast and ultimate collapse. The Euro-Atlantic area of democratic values and security enlarged and also offered Russia genuine partnership and cooperation. The latter, however, after some years of initial imitation, apparently was rejected by the Russian state. It chose to be a challenge or a threat rather than a partner to its neighbours and a respected responsible member of the democratic international community.
VSS: Undoubtedly, Russia remains the key security threat to the Baltic states. Currently, how is this threat being addressed?
RN: Two footnotes are important to make when we talk about the challenge from the Russian Federation. First, when we say ‘Russian threat’ we do not mean the Russian people. It is the current policies of the Kremlin that are deeply worrying. Second, Russia as a threat is not only a ‘Baltic thing’. Russia has re-emerged as a key security threat to the entire community of the democratic West, including NATO and the EU.
Russia’s blatant actions in Georgia in 2008 and later in Ukraine in 2014, execution of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, meddling in the United States (US) elections in 2016, Salisbury poisoning in 2018, poisoning of Alexey Navalny in 2020 and his imprisonment in 2021, crackdown on Russia’s civil society and pro-democracy activists and ever-narrowing space of human rights and liberties, and the Kremlin’s support to an undemocratic and illegitimate regime in Belarus – all these and other actions have made any serious and constructive dialogue between the West and Russia extremely complicated, if not impossible. Russia does not seem seriously interested in dialogue either.
Disinformation and cyber attacks these days are not ‘local’; we all are affected by these malicious activities. A number of Russian institutions and organisations are very active in those fields. It is also worth mentioning that the UK’s recently published Integrated Review explicitly states that Russia is a hostile state which poses the ‘most acute direct threat’ to British national security.
How do we counter this threat from the Kremlin? First, we need solidarity and unity among the democratic community. Second, in Lithuania we understand the importance of adequate defence spending. There is a national consensus that 2% of Gross Domestic Product for defence is not a luxury but a necessity. A number of NATO allies have already achieved this benchmark, all others are moving towards it. Third, countering malignant activities like disinformation and cyberattacks. Fourth, imposing sanctions on individuals, companies and other entities responsible for human rights violations, violence against their own citizens or any other illegal activities – be it in the West, Russia or Russia’s neighbouring states. Fifth, we need to support democracy in Russia and give hope to the Russian people. Contacts and dialogue with Russia’s civil society remains very important.
VSS: In the Baltic states, as well as in the Nordic region, Britain’s role in the defence of Europe is widely appreciated. What should Britain do to enhance regional security in the years ahead?
RN: The British contribution to the security of NATO’s northeastern border is exemplary through participation in the Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia and the NATO Air Policing mission in the Baltic.
UK leadership and contribution in the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) is also highly relevant for the security of Northern Europe and the whole Baltic sea region. The recent example of JEF cooperation – last week the Royal Navy led an international task group of warships on a security patrol in the Baltic. Frigates HMS Lancaster and HMS Westminster, tanker RFA Tiderace and vessels from all three Baltic states joined forces for a concerted demonstration of Britain’s commitment to the security and stability of the region. The members of the JEF combine their strengths by planning, training and operating together continuously. This allows the JEF to counter ‘sub-threshold’ hostile activity, which is meant to avoid triggering military escalation, and quickly and effectively to challenge any physical incursion as part of a broader response.
VSS: During his recent visit to Tallinn (Estonia) on 10th March, Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, highlighted that ‘the UK is committed to standing with our close friends in the Nordic and Baltic regions, both militarily as well as in tackling Russia’s disinformation and destabilising regional activity’. What does cooperation in tackling the regional security threat posed by Russia to the Baltic states include?
RN: The UK is among the most active allies in countering cyber threats. We are cooperating closely in the realm of countering disinformation and fake news. Coordinating our actions in sanctions policy and further intensifying collaboration of intelligence services, participation in exercises, missions and operations – these are the most important fields of our cooperation.
VSS: On 10th March, the foreign ministers agreed on the value of increased cooperation between the Baltic states and the United Kingdom. Apart from the security threat posed on the Eastern border of NATO, what are other areas of cooperation and how it can be strengthened and enhanced?
RN: British politicians quite often say that ‘the UK has left the European Union but not Europe’. It is true. You cannot argue with geography – Britain is and will remain in Europe. Britain has a very distinct, one might even say unique identity, but it still is a European country – historically and culturally. There are so many ties that connect us. There are millions of EU citizens who chose the UK as their home. And there are millions of Britons who live in Europe. For these reasons, we very much want to have the closest possible EU-UK cooperation.
We have managed to secure both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which is a very solid basis for the future of EU-UK cooperation. They have to be respected by both sides and implemented in their entirety. Trade, investment, cultural exchanges and humanitarian ties, international development policy, climate change, the fight against Covid-19, joint efforts in vaccinating our populations, and post-pandemic recovery are the most obvious areas for future cooperation.
VSS: Thank you for answering these questions!
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