Russia threatens Europe without Ukrainian victory - Lithuanian FM to 'Post'

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is helping sound the alarm of Moscow’s danger to Europe.

 LITHUANIAN FOREIGN Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in Jerusalem: Israel knows how it feels to look at burned cities, destroyed cities, rocket flying all over and this is what we want to avoid.  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)
LITHUANIAN FOREIGN Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in Jerusalem: Israel knows how it feels to look at burned cities, destroyed cities, rocket flying all over and this is what we want to avoid.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has a simple message he is relaying to his country’s allies, including Israel: don’t let Russia’s war in Ukraine spill over into the rest of Europe.

A decisive Russian defeat is the only way to restore peace in Ukraine and to safeguard Europe, particularly formerly Eastern Bloc nations, like Lithuania, Landsbergis told The Jerusalem Post during his visit to Israel last week.

“We tend to believe that Russia is a long-term existential threat to the countries in the region, and without a Ukrainian victory, and a decisive victory, that threat will not be eliminated, and it will be there,” Landsbergis said as he sat in a conference room at the Waldorf Astoria and spoke about what has become the defining issue for his government.

His brief respite under the bright Middle Eastern sun did not prevent him from focusing on the frozen bitter battlefields in Ukraine, which are uncomfortably close to his home country. His small nation of some three million people is sandwiched between the Baltic Sea, Poland, Belarus, Latvia and Russia, with which it shares a 274.9-kilometer border.

The tall Lithuanian politician, who has been in office for over two years, has been a strong, often outspoken voice within the European Union against Russia.

Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed Russia and Ukraine's flags in this illustration taken January 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed Russia and Ukraine's flags in this illustration taken January 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

Lithuanian and Russian relations

Lithuanians still have a bitter memory of the decades they spent under Soviet occupation after World War II. Theirs was one of the first countries to break away from the Soviet Union, doing so in 1990, just before the Communist Bloc fell apart in 1991.

Landsbergis’s grandfather Vytautas Landsbergis was instrumental in the political battle against the Soviet Union and chaired the parliamentary session in which Lithuania declared its independence.

But it’s the modern geopolitical reality, in which Russia appears to have territorial ambitions way beyond Ukraine, that has Lithuania, like many of its neighbors, concerned.

The strong stance against Russia is not about history or revenge for past wrongs, explained Landsbergis. History comes into play only when it’s an issue of a war crimes tribunal for Russia, a move that Lithuania has supported, he said.

Lithuania was “occupied against our will, held in captivity for 50 years without statehood, without independence and democracy that we wished for. We had to break free, and no one compensated us for the 50-year loss. In this case, we would not like to see history repeat itself,” he said.

But “when it comes to war between Ukraine and Russia, the only thing that countries like Lithuania [are driven by] is our own security,” Landsbergis said.

The need to suddenly focus on security in a continent that had believed wars could be a thing of the past has fundamentally changed the European agenda, as countries watch the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield worrying that they could become entangled in that conflict.

Israelis, he explained, know how it “feels to look at burned cities, destroyed cities, rockets flying all over, and this is what we want to avoid,” he said.

No one can tell countries in Eastern Europe that they can “rest assured” that Russia will not attack them, he said.

It would be difficult for Lithuania and its neighbors to trust any partial agreement between Russia and Ukraine that does not involve a full Russian withdrawal based on the parameters set out by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan. This includes a Russian exit from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, a war crimes tribunal and a new security architecture to protect Ukraine.

“In order for Ukraine and others to be safe, that is the only plan,” Landsbergis said.

He believes this, even though, a year into the war, Russia is not doing well militarily in Ukraine. That does not ensure safety. Until its invasion, Russia was believed to have the second strongest army in the world, Landsbergis said. Now the joke is that it has the second strongest army in Ukraine.

Both sides are now stuck in what has become a trench war in the area of Bakhmut, and as long as it is there, Russia does not have much capacity to expand the war or to engage in other parts of the globe, Landsbergis said.

This is, however, a temporary setback. Given time, Russia “will rebuild” its military, he added.

He dismissed the possibility that Russia embarked on the war solely to restore sovereignty over areas of Ukraine or that it wanted to route out Nazi elements in Ukraine.

“It is not the land that they are after. It is not the Russian-speaking community that they are supposedly defending. They are not de-Nazifying the Ukrainian government that is presided over by people of Jewish heritage,” Landsbergis explained.

The foundation of the war is Russia’s “imperialistic ambition, which is driven by a single man”; and, given time, Moscow “will continue on driving that ambition further,” he said.

The reality of living near a country with that kind of ambition has fundamentally changed the geopolitics of Europe so that everything is viewed through the lens of that war, he stated.

Ukrainian flags are everywhere, and the main political debates are about the war, he explained, adding that “it has become a fabric of civil and political conversation.”

Lithuania's growing sensitivity to Israel's fears about a nuclear Iran

THE ALLIANCES and the perception of danger have also shifted, he said. It’s a situation that has made Europe, particularly Lithuania, more sensitive to Israel’s concerns about the danger of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its global aggression, given its military alliance with Russia, through which Tehran provided armed drones to Moscow.

Until the war, he said, Lithuania had spoken up against Iran out of a sense of alliance to its allies, such as Israel, Germany, France and the United States.“Now it is a threat to us,” he said.

“Your neighbor Iran came knocking on our door, and not in a pleasant way, with drones they made and sold and gave to Russia. Now [Iran] is being used to attack civilian infrastructure, civilian homes, schools and hospitals in Ukraine,” he said.

“We are seeing how emboldened and strengthened Russia is by Iran, and how much damage it can [cause] with assistance from Iran,” Landsbergis said.

Russia, in turn, can be expected to strengthen Iran, particularly by sharing its technology, experience and expertise, he explained. “I don’t have intelligence that would prove the point,” he said, adding that the assumption is that this is part of the relationship.

I have a full mandate to ask for sanctions on Iran,” he said, as he explained that his country has supported European Union sanctions against the Islamic Republic and supports Israel’s push for the bloc to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. That move, however, can only occur, he explained, with a European Union agreement. Despite Landsbergis's support for the IRGC terror designation, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has been reluctant to move forward with it, saying last month that, "It has to be [done] when a court of one member state issues a legal statement, a concrete condemnation. And then we work at the European level, but it has to be first a court decision."

Landsbergis said that in the meantime the focus is on sanctions. “Lithuania was one of the first countries to suggest additional sanctions [against] Iran when Russia started using Iranian drones. Now we are joined by many others, and already several sanction packages against Iran have been introduced [in the EU] with the assistance of Lithuanian experts.” 

Already last year, in speaking of Iranian drones, he adopted the metaphoric language of a duck used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 to explain how clear it should be to the international community that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.

“If Iran walks like a duck, talks like a duck and admits to supplying drones to the biggest duck in the world, then I think we have enough evidence to say that Iran is a duck. Let’s sanction the duck out of them,” Landsbergis wrote on Twitter in October.

Iran is now a Lithuanian security issue, he said, adding that the Russian war has strengthened his country’s alliance with Israel on the danger of the Islamic Republic.

The same steps against Iran that now are critical to defending Ukrainian and thus Lithuanian security are also important in protecting Israel, he explained.

“We are in a new phase globally where we do not have a chance to call any conflict a regional one. Everything that happens in Ukraine affects everyone in the global community,” Landsbergis underscored. •