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Story Publication logo August 7, 2022

Ukrainian Victory, Responsibility of Belarus, and the Future of Kaliningrad: Interview with Lithuanian Foreign Minister

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Explosions in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 24, 2022
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Image by TCH.ua. Lithuania, 2022.

Gabrielius Landsbergis jokingly says: when Ukraine wins, Lithuania will ask Kyiv to give safety guarantees. Because who if not Ukraine truly knows how to fight against Russia.

TSN.ua met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Lithuania at the NATO summit in Madrid, where the topic of all discussions was the bloody war Russia is waging against Ukraine. Everyone understands: Russia must not win this war. But how Russia can be defeated remains an open question.

Some want to avoid provoking Putin too much. And we see this currently in Germany’s case, which, according to the German publication Spiegel, has finally pushed the European Commission to send clarifications, which would allow Russia to send goods under sanctions to Kaliningrad through EU countries unopposed.

TSN.ua has already written: this is due to the fact that a NATO brigade composed of German soldiers is stationed in Lithuania, and Berlin is concerned that they will be pulled into the war if Russia invaded Lithuania. Is this not what the brigade had been created for⁠—to defeat any possible military threats? Are German soldiers in Lithuania for no reason, and is Germany itself not intending to fulfil NATO’s Article 5 about collective defence?

Others, like the USA and Great Britain are promising to help Ukraine as much as will be necessary, until Kyiv defeats Russia in this war. At the same time, they are choosing to hold off on discussing Ukraine’s potential NATO membership or other security guarantees.

In an interview to TSN.ua, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Gabrielius Landsbergis discussed whether his country is prepared for a possible Russian invasion, whether he believes in a Ukrainian victory, and whether Belarus and its citizens ought to be held responsible for the killing of Ukrainians to the same extent as Russia.



- We are having our conversation at the NATO summit in Madrid. And today [on the 28th of June – red.], the Minister of State for Defence of the UK Ben Wallace has stated that Russia may expand its aggression beyond the territory of Ukraine. Is this the Third World War?

- The thought about the fact that we haven’t seen a conflict of such magnitude since the Second World War is in the air. So, obviously, everyone is thinking about whether this could grow into something even greater than it is now. But I do not agree with the assessment that we are effectively standing on the brink of something like the Second World War. I do not see Russia in any way as a possible aggressor against the West. I would describe Russia as a bully, which is capable of causing a lot of trouble. But at the same time, you know, when Western countries talk about a Third World War, they are themselves increasing Russia’s apparent power in their own minds. But that isn’t true. The west has ten times if not a hundred times more power, which we can use to stop Russia. We will succeed if we take this step.

- However, do you believe that everyone in the EU understands that they are already at war with Russia?

- You know, there are many thoughts about this. For example, if we only send Ukraine certain kinds of weapons, perhaps Putin will not be as angry, or will not behave as badly towards the West. But in any case, we must look further, because the problem does not lie here. The problem lies in the question of what world we want to live in after the war. Do we want to live in a world where Putin has “saved face”? Where he sits at some sort of discussion table [at negotiation forums – red.], where we talk to him? Or are we saying that Russia is an exile-country, which ought to be isolated until it changes from inside? So until you have answers to this question, it is possible to say that you are not at war with Russia.

- When we talk about Russia—about Putin—what are their real goals in this war?

- Putin’s real goals exist only in his head. My assumption, a thought I had been considering long before the war […] We do not know whether he [Putin – red.] is ill or not. This is only speculation. But we do know for certain that he isn’t getting younger. Russia is faced with the question of political succession. This is not a public process, but I am absolutely convinced that there are people who are thinking about the successor, who will take Putin’s place. This is normal for any autocracy, beginning even with the Roman empire. All dictators were replaced. They were also replaced through bloodshed [assassination, coup d’état – red.], which were normally planned by someone long before the bloodshed actually occurred. Which is why I believe that Putin thinks he needs to create a greater project, if you could call it that. And people are arguing whether to call it the 2nd Soviet Union, or even the Russian Empire. But in general, we can call it his project.

So he [Putin – red.] wants his great project. And, likely, the thought of the creation of one big geo-political unit fills his head; one which could stretch from the occupied part of Georgia, a fully occupied Ukraine and perhaps even an occupied Moldova […] Some have even said that Armenia may be forced to join, and we can see these signals. Belarus. And such a “modern,” if we can use the term, Russian Empire may enable him to pass his power. Because the next in line [to the Kremlin throne – red.] must convince him that the empire will be unified, and that there will be no internal war, because he will have a great project on his hands. That is my thought. What is really happening I do not know. I mean that there are many possible explanations for what is happening and why. And we will likely only be able to speculate, because we will never find out the truth.

- Is there a risk that Lithuania will be next?

- Recently, throughout the last couple of weeks, several Russian politicians said very openly that they are not afraid of threatening a NATO member-state. Today, it’s Lithuania. Previously, they had been threatening Poland due to its support for Ukraine. Just recently, Estonia received what I would call passive threats [on the 28th of June, due to Estonia following the EU’s decision as to the prohibition of transit of Russian goods through EU-member countries – red.]. So they are checking the West’s response and how we can respond to these threats. Once again, is he [Putin – red.] able to wage war against NATO? I don’t think so. Can he test NATO? I would go even further and say that he would be able not only to test, but also to break NATO.

- But how? Through what mechanisms?

- If NATO is not able to find a sufficiently fast and potent response to show that there are certain lines he will not be allowed to cross. And we need to be very specific in this. This is already happening. This is the stage we are at now. This is the reality.

- Why do you think the Kremlin is so aggressive in the Kaliningrad question?

- Some have said this is because the war in Ukraine is not going so well [for Russia -red.]. Therefore he [Putin – red.] needs to shift the attention elsewhere. The sanctions have already been passed. The Fourth set of sanctions, which had created this issue to begin with, had been passed in April. All the clarifications had been given back then. And we have seen a decrease in the amount of transit, and this showed that we were preparing. So what is happening right now is only games.

- Indeed, as you have already said, this was supposed to be a surprise for the Kremlin. Lithuania is enacting the sanctions which have been passed on the EU level. If we are discussing the question of the transit to Kaliningrad, Lithuania will maintain its position, right?

- I must be very precise and clear. This is not Lithuania’s position. We are part of the EU, and these are European sanctions. We are therefore one country which is enacting these sanctions. And since we are a union and a country based on laws, if this is the law, we must follow it.

Here lies the difference from the attempts of saying that these are Lithuania’s sanctions and that Lithuania is doing something […] Each member-state of the EU must implement the sanctions which have been voted on by the European Parliament and explained by the European Commission. This is the law. So, there is nothing extraordinary in the fact that Lithuania is doing this. The only factor which puts us in this position is geography. That is what sets us apart from the others [in the EU – red.].

- That is understood. But we already see that the European Commission is preparing some clarification under pressure from Germany, which is supposed to allow Russia to transit sanctioned goods to Kaliningrad. Have you already received these documents?

- We have not yet received any official clarification. So, if the European Commission sees that it needs to provide additional clarification on something, it has the right to do so. It is within their power to explain how the sanctions are to be implemented. And if they use the legal way of saying it, meaning as they do it normally […] And once again, there are other countries through which transit is possible. Poland in this case. And the situation is the same. You can easily take a train from Belarus through Poland to Kaliningrad. This means that the laws apply to every country. Or you can transit through Spain—the rules remain the same.

- In your opinion, is there a risk that the European Commission can make concessions to Russia with regards to the Kaliningrad transit?

- They may word the sanctions differently [effectively removing Kaliningrad from the sanctions – red.]. So yes, this may happen. Such a possibility is possible. The spectrum of possibilities is very wide. They may leave the clarification which had been present since the beginning in effect. This is possible. They may also find an explanation which will […] You know, I would avoid looking into this in too much detail. And of course, they can cancel this. But then there will be a question: if they cancel it fully, will there be a legal basis to this, or only a political one. And if there is only a political basis, there will need to be an explanation of why this is happening.

- Very well, let us return to Putin’s bloody war. Do you at all believe in a Ukrainian victory?

- Yes.

- Please explain. As you know, we talk about this a lot inside Ukraine. We also believe. But we understand that without more support from the West, we will not succeed, because numerically the Russians have advantage. There’s more of them, they have more vehicles, many missiles, and they are sending all of these against us.

- Yes. But there are several facts. Russia is not prepared⁠—and I don’t think they will be prepared⁠—for a full mobilization. It is one thing to use the regular army, sending it to Ukraine in an attempt to occupy the country, to be defeated in a full occupation and to attempt to conduct a war on a regional and sectoral level, and still be losing a lot of soldiers. Their armed forces are formed primarily from the territories occupied from Ukraine in 2014. And this is one thing. Yes, they have a lot of resources. But it is a completely different thing to mobilize all of them and throw them at Ukraine. I do not believe that that is possible. Therefore, I believe that currently, since the Russian strategy is changing, they are basing their victory on the West tiring out faster than they do. Therefore, once again, it is very important for Ukraine to remain at the top of the West’s agenda. This is becoming more difficult⁠—I can see it. Due to the inflation of many other issues, which are happening globally. The world is full of many other problems, and it is difficult to remain a top priority. It is a challenge. But Ukraine is succeeding. This is why we see new weapons being sent to Ukraine⁠—newer, more modern systems. And this is what I would base Ukraine’s victory on—that Russia currently does not have the types of weapons Ukraine does. Russia does not have the same will to fight Ukraine has.

And I believe that when this war finishes, Ukraine will not only be the victor, but also will possess one of the strongest armies on the planet, which will be based on NATO standards, trained by NATO, with NATO weapons. This would be a force not only at a regional level. You know, in Lithuania, we joke that when Ukraine wins, Lithuania will be asking Ukraine to give us security guarantees. Because if Russia attacks us, we will ask Ukraine to defend us. You truly know how to do it. It’s a joke. Anyway, there are factors for Ukraine’s victory. Now we must not lose them.

- Do you think the current extent of the sanctions against Russia is sufficient to, as the head of the Pentagon Lloyd Austin said, weaken Moscow to such an extent that it will never be able to attack anyone again?

- We do not see that yet. Sadly, given the extent of Russia’s influence on oil and gas, it is recovering very quickly. I do not think Russia will be able to maintain this in the long-term perspective. But there needs to be a clear strategy about how we will limit Russia’s export of energy resources. And about how we will work with our allies so that they [the Russians – red.] are not able to bypass the sanctions. These are two very important tracks. Because the money Russia has received over these four months is immense. They are much greater than anyone could have expected. But we continue to help [the Russians – red.] them.

- By supporting the energy export?

- Yes, primarily through this. The sanctions on new technologies are important. I believe it when certain leaders say that the technologies Russia has received from the West or elsewhere have been used to build its army. Now we must ensure no more Western technologies reach Russia.

- Do you believe that Belarus is as guilty in the war against Ukraine as Russia is?

- Personally, I think so. I see that Lukashenko, probably due to his readiness, personal gain, anything for his personal safety, has fully sold out to Putin. He sold his country to become a staging ground from which Putin attacked Ukraine. And he shares the responsibility for this. On the other hand, I believe that there is a difference between the people of Russia and Belarus. Once again, I am basing this on my own opinions and feelings from the diaspora in Vilnius and Lithuania, and we are in close contact with them. The people who protested against the stolen election in 2020 would not be the same people who support Belarus in a war against Ukraine. They want a peaceful, independent Belarus. Lukashenko is doing all of this. So, this is his responsibility. He will not be able to avoid it.

- Has NATO done enough for Ukraine for us to resist Russia in this bloody war?

- I can say that NATO has done as much as it was able. The Alliance is based on a consensus. This is not an authoritarian model. Even if there are countries which are very notable within NATO, they must still agree to the model we desire. So, I think that NATO within its limits has done as much as it was able to. On the other hand, there is a coalition of countries who have the will to help, they meet, for example at Rammstein, and they do not need the NATO framework to support Ukraine. Although, even if the Alliance is not able to provide the agreed-upon, specific structure for support, this does not prevent the group, which is even larger than the Alliance itself, to help. Thake Australia. A country thousands of kilometres away from Ukraine and NATO is one of the countries which gave and continues to give weapons to Ukraine. This is an example of the fact that sometimes, it is possible to find more effective formats in certain cases. But once again, if we are discussing NATO, there are certain goals for cooperation. And I have already stated them: a restructuring of the army, training of the army and confidence that Ukraine will be able to independently oppose and hold back future wars in its own territory.

- How NATO can change after Putin's war against Ukraine? How NATO will look like?

- Well, the Alliance will no longer suffer from brain death [as the president of France Emmanuel Macron – red.]. Therefore, we will have to retain NATO’s brain. I mean that, of course, for decades there have been countries on NATO’s eastern flank such as, I would say, the Baltic countries, Poland and several other countries, that had been saying “Okay, you know NATO has a purpose – it’s a defensive alliance, not a conversation club.” So, it is primarily a military alliance, which is built to defend countries under attack.

- So, that NATO is not only a political interest club?

I mean that, first and foremost, it is a military structure. But the feeling is like there is not a single threat, and that NATO needs to be reminded all the time. That is why there were all these discussions about what the goal of NATO is, and what NATO will be like in 50 years. But now everything is very clear, what NATO will look like not in 50 years, but now. This is a defensive alliance, which must send very clear signals to any potential aggressor, that every inch of NATO territory will be protected.

- Will Ukraine be able to become a NATO member? What does this depend on? I mean, whether we will return to the 24th of February “borders,” whether we will take back Crimea and Donbas.

- I have already talked about this, and said that I will not give any recommendations to Ukrainians about how to fight in this war. My job is to talk to all the people I can reach and to convince them to give Ukraine everything it needs. This is a goal in which I feel the responsibility of my country. Then, it is for Ukrainians to decide what victory is and what parameters you gauge it by. Betting on diplomacy or a solution through other means is unproductive and, being honest, counterproductive. I mean that this [the determination of conditions for the end of the war – red.] must remain in the hands of Ukraine. This is in answer to the second question. In regards to Ukraine being able to join NATO? Yes.

- Even with temporarily occupied territories?

- First of all, the war must end. That is clear. Although I wouldn’t thing […] I mean that a country has the right to […] If the Alliance claims to be first of all an open-doors alliance, then when a country meets all of the objective requirements for membership, it will have the right to join.

- But if not NATO membership, do you believe in new regional alliances? We already have the Lublin triangle, which includes Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland. There is the alliance of Great Britain, Poland and Ukraine. Is it possible to expand them and to make something new with the Eastern flank of NATO plus Ukraine?

- When we talk about defensive alliances, I believe that NATO is the most effective. And I would strive for this. On the other hands, there were talks about security guarantees, specifically about expanded security guarantees [for Ukraine – red.], given by many countries. To an extent this is also an alliance of sorts around one country, which should be based on the same principle – when one country is invaded, the others help. But when we talk about efficiency, NATO is unprecedented. Because once again, it is not only a political alliance. Thus, we have a great agreement where Article 5 [of the NATO charter about collective defence – red.] – is a political thing. The politicians decided on it. And there needs to be an effective method for its implementation. How would you implement article 5? For example, Lithuania is in Madrid right now, and we are fighting for four months for a specific explanation of how the Baltic states will be protected in the case of an invasion. This makes NATO different from any other agreements, alliances and others. I am not saying that nothing except NATO will work. I am saying only that NATO is the best there is currently. I know that this is not a topic which is discussed much today. Because as you have said yourself, the war continues, and it is uncertain how it will end and what everything will look like then. All of this is understandable. But I don’t think that this [NATO membership – red.] should be removed from the agenda.

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