We are still searching for our strategy with Russia
An interview with Linas Linkevičius, a Lithuanian politician and diplomat and former foreign minister (2012–2020). Interviewers: Adam Reichardt and Maciej Makulski
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Serving as a foreign minister for eight years means that you were directly involved in different international affairs that shaped the European political landscape. From the perspective of the region of Central and Eastern Europe, one such event was undoubtedly the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. Would you say that Russian aggression on Ukraine was something that defined your two terms as Lithuania’s foreign minister?
LINAS LINKEVIČIUS: Unfortunately, during these eight years, we experienced a worsening of relations with Russia. It was not that Europe was at fault, or that the European Union was doing something wrong. This was simply Russia’s choice, to proceed with an aggressive foreign policy, and even use its military in foreign policy. This did not start yesterday. We can recall the war in the South Caucasus in 2008. I believe there was a good reaction by some western countries, there were statements made by the European Union, NATO, and there were clear demands, hopes and expectations as to what Russia must do in order to get back to normal business. But literally, nothing was done. And, yet, we went back to “business as usual” within a couple months. There were voices calling for pragmatism, discussing the importance of economic relations and that a lot of challenges should be solved together. Many arguments were used, and we basically retreated – despite some voices, including my own, which were the minority at that time.
In 2008 we also had the NATO summit in Bucharest, with discussions on whether to give Ukraine and Georgia a membership action plan (to put these countries on a path for NATO membership – editor’s note). There were voices then that said that we cannot do it because it would be provocative and create a huge crisis. We responded that it would be provocative not to give the MAP, as it would open the floodgates for further intervention. And then in August of that year, the war started. At that time, I remember saying that there would be more conflict; I even mentioned Crimea – which was not on the agenda at that time. And then in 2014 Crimea happened and the aggression against Donbas – and there were, again, surprises that it was taking place. We heard that Russia could potentially be quite helpful and rational in solving crises around the globe, by influence and other means, but unfortunately Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, was creating problems. And it is not just in Europe. The policy of Russia is one of testing: testing of resilience; of principled positions; of tolerance; and the testing of patience of its own people, which we have seen recently with the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
I could go on, but let me mention one more point, which is also very important from the last eight years. I remember during our Presidency of the Council of the European Union, in the second half of 2013, we had discussions on the Eastern Partnership, due to the summit which was approaching at that time. We were discussing strategic communications, and I remember there were some difficulties in understanding of each other, among the Europeans. The question came: what type of “strategic communications” are we talking about? Are we going to introduce European censorship? Or European propaganda? I said, no, we are talking about the need to fight fake news – which is becoming a weapon. We tried to convince our colleagues that freedom of speech has nothing to do with the freedom to lie. If you are lying deliberately, it means you are brainwashing people and demotivating them. That was seven years ago! It was a very difficult topic to discuss. But later, we established a special unit in the European External Action Service and we are now doing something about it. It is still not enough. It takes time to understand and realise that something qualitatively different is taking place. We are lagging behind.
And now, to mention this visit by Josep Borell to Moscow – that was another reality check. Recently Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, stated that Russia is ready to cut relations with the EU. I immediately reacted and said that Russia is not ready to have normal relations. To cut is not a big deal, because there really is not much in terms of relations. My point is, we are still searching for our strategy with Russia. We do not have one. We cannot dream of what we would like to have in the future. Do we really believe it is possible to have partnership or co-operation? Or is it just geopolitical competition? This is also not understood among many of us. The Eastern Partnership, in the end, is a geopolitical process, not just a technical one. And with the three associated states – it is not just technical co-operation with the EU. We have to understand this. So, really, in the last eight years, I have only seen decline in these relations. And, unfortunately, I do not see any light, any hope. There has been no change in the thinking or the rhetoric. This means we are doing something wrong or not enough.
I think we will have a chance to talk about some specifics of the Eastern Partnership, especially Ukraine and Belarus, in a moment. But I wanted to ask you about the Baltic States – which we often see as one unit, as a whole. In fact they are three separate countries, with their own languages, culture and history. At the same time, they face similar issues, similar threats, which you already touched upon. And there are shared experiences as well – this year, of course, we will commemorate the 30 years of the fall of the Soviet Union. I am curious as to what your thinking is when we look at the three countries. Is it fair to lump the Baltic states together as countries that have similar interests and similar goals? Or would you prefer we look at them individually – when we are discussing politics and geopolitics?
I would say both. It is natural, because at the very beginning of our independence – we were all close together. I was the defence minister at the time. We did not have bilateral relations, we had trilateral relations. We met trilaterally, to define our priorities, to try to understand what we had to do, and to find partners and funders. Then we launched famous projects like the Baltic Battalion, the Baltic Defence College – which is still in Tartu and now a part of NATO education – and air policing coordination, etc. Of course, as you noted, we are three different countries, but I would say we have more in common than there are differences between us. After we joined the EU and NATO, the trilateral approach became less important, as we became members of a bigger family. But despite that fact, we still have different formats of co-operation which enriches our joint activities. Here we can mention Nordic-Baltic co-operation. At the beginning it was very interesting – it was called 5 + 3 (five Nordic, three Baltic states) and now it is called “Nordic-Baltic 8”, which emphasises the integration. And I am very proud and happy that it is not only limited to the strategic level, like economy or health care, but also on the grassroots level and local level.
One more aspect that is important to note is that the Baltics were a part of the Soviet Union – forcibly included, but nevertheless de facto a part of the USSR. I still can better understand Moldovans, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Georgians than others in the West, to be honest. We can speak Russian with them – of course the new generation speaks English very well – but there is some common understanding of mentality, culture, etc. I believe that this gives us a chance and opportunity to be more effective in explaining what we did, how we went through this process – which is still relatively fresh in our memory. The Baltic states can be more instrumental than others, therefore we need to coordinate more amongst ourselves. And we are proud and happy to have on board other likeminded people, like countries who launched the Eastern Partnership – Sweden and Poland to be precise.
And that leads me to my next question which is looking at how the Baltic states play a strong leadership role on Eastern policy within the European Union, especially in the years since Crimea and Ukraine and the war in Donbas, but also now with Belarus. We see Vilnius being a host to many of those fleeing Lukashenka’s repressions. You have mentioned this already, but I am curious why you think countries like Lithuania and the other Baltic states, as well as Poland, are leaders in supporting those who are fighting for freedom in the post-Soviet space? Does it have to do with geography? Shared history? Or is it a feeling that you have gone through it and now it is an opportunity to help those who are fighting for their freedom?
One of the main reasons is shared history. These memories are still fresh. And I would add from my own experience one point which I am always mentioning to Georgians and Ukrainians about ambitions of integration. I remember when I was ambassador to NATO in 2000, I was told by future allies many times: “Your country is small and beautiful, but you will never be a member of NATO”. It really was said many times, and this is in 2000, which is really recent! They would say, “just look at the map, at the interests”. And that was a motivation for us. We remember what it means to be deserted and alone. Maybe that also explains why our people are not indifferent when something happens in the neighbourhood. You remember the “Freedom Way” organised from Vilnius to the border with Belarus? I was standing there – not as a minister, but as a citizen. The action was organised by NGOs and people came with the white and red colours, and flowers and children. And the question was: why wasn’t anything like this organised in other capitals? I think that, emotionally, people here feel a connection. It is not just empathy or support. It is also a sense of duty that we have to take a stand and help. That is also the reason why they are coming here and feeling comfortable as they flee the repressions. Yet, on the other hand, almost all of them believe that they will return – that they are not leaving their country forever. Vilnius is not that far from Minsk. They are not far from home, but far from the danger, which is not diminishing. I am disappointed that our reaction is insufficient. Of course, we cannot be blamed for what is happening because we are not carrying out the repressions, but we really can be more effective in keeping the pressure and being more consistent. Not only on Belarus and the outgoing leader, who hesitates to go, but also to the sponsors in the Kremlin, the only supporters who are also responsible for these developments. All in all, we have a situation where the EU, with a population of almost half a billion people, cannot be a key player in managing conflicts – even on our own continent. We are not talking about places far away – which could also be a question for the EU. This is Europe. This is our continent. Who will talk about it, if not us?
You have said a few times already that not enough is being done in relation with Russia or regarding the situation in Belarus. I would like to ask about that. You were critical of the EU’s response to the situation in Belarus during the protest. What you think more could be done right now? What should the EU do six months after the outbreak of protests in Belarus?
From the outset, I have to say that we all understand that we cannot intervene, that is not our job. Only the Belarusians can define the future for themselves. Our task is to take sides sometimes – and not be an impartial observer. We need to meaningfully support civil society. What we are doing in Lithuania and Poland, others should do as well: supporting civil society, giving refuge to those who need protection, and finding ways to support the victims of repressions. I believe we really should take a lead in international judicial process, which was advised by the European Parliament. In the EP, there were good resolutions recently passed, but we should also start an international investigation on the crimes being committed in Belarus. Somebody should take the lead here. Sanctions are the least we can do and sometimes even sanctions are not sufficient. After 2010, there was a list of sanctions – 133 people on the list, including Lukashenka, from the very beginning. But now, the list is much shorter. Yet, the brutality is worse. It took time to put Lukashenka’s name on the list. If current sanctions are not working, we should add more sanctions. In Russia, the list is also 150 people, not a significant number.
Do you think it is a matter of time for Lukashenka? That he will eventually go?
Lukashenka has already been in power for 26 years. And we should remember that for the last 20 years, there has been the implementation of the agreement of the so-called Union State with Russia. An interesting question to pose here is: why so long? When I was in Minsk last year, I also asked: “why is it taking so long?” The response was, “there was a beginning point of integration, but there is not an end”. So it is like a never-ending process. Nevertheless, there is a process where Russia wants to digest Belarus, by all means. I am afraid that after what Lukashenka has done to his country – namely, to stay in power – he has created such damage to the remaining sovereignty and independence that Russia will do whatever it takes to accomplish as much as possible. I would predict that de jure, Belarus will remain independent. It will have a foreign ministry, a seat at the UN General Assembly – like during Soviet times. But de facto, Belarus will be totally dependent on Russia, even more than it was before. The main sponsor is the Kremlin. The main supporters are in Moscow. For them it probably means that Lukashenka will not be needed for much longer. He is becoming too toxic. I do not that believe he will stay too long. To remove him today would show a weakness; but they will do it later.
Again, what will we do? What measures will we take? If we just sit passively, I am afraid we will lose another geopolitical game, and lose influence in the parts of Europe which could really be developed differently. This is the question, and this question remains unanswered.
We have been talking a lot about Russia, which is understandable of course. But I would like to ask about another big challenge which is now becoming more visible in Europe. This is China and its growing ambition to play a greater role in different parts of the world, including Central and Eastern Europe. Recently, the 17+1 Summit took place with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia not represented by their highest representatives, while China was represented by President Xi Jinping. This might suggest that the Baltic states are keeping a distance in their relations with Beijing. How does Lithuania build its relations with China? And what approach should the EU take to be effective?
We are always looking for ways to get dialogue with huge players, like China, but for a small country it is difficult. This explains why this format 17+1 emerged. On the other hand, our policies and experiences are national and specific. In short, I would say that when we talk about China, we understand that China is a challenge not only for the European Union but also for the United States and Russia. China is a really big player with growing ambitions and is focused on economic security. This is becoming an issue. In regards to the economy, we can do a lot based on certain rules. We have a law in Lithuania regarding the supervising and controlling of investments in strategic sectors – and there are “red lines” which limit outside investments in such sectors as transport and infrastructure. So the short answer is: set rules and stick to them. This country is ambitious, but also sensitive regarding relations.
And the Three Seas Initiative? Is this something that could be seen as an alternative to Chinese projects?
At first, we were observing the process. But now we are on board. We believe it is very valuable and the United States and Germany are a part of the initiative. It will have a very practical application for our infrastructure. If these projects are supplementary and an addition to what we have in the framework of the European Union, then this is a very good approach.
What is your take on the new Biden administration in Washington? We all know that this administration will be emphasising a rebuilding of alliances, especially the transatlantic alliance. What does this mean from the regional perspective?
First, it would be nice to preserve what was previously achieved in a positive way. It is difficult to deny that the engagement of the US in the Baltic region, including Poland, was really substantial and visible, and we would like to preserve that. This shouldn’t be done at the expense of European engagement. I believe the Biden administration will improve these relations, and getting them back on track is important. The European Union is not an enemy to the US and we have to come back. This includes working together on climate issues, which will not be easy, but also improving our trade co-operation. We will not come back to TTIP, but nevertheless there will be greater transatlantic co-operation – not only on security but in other sectors as well. Coming back to China, there will be better opportunities to coordinate our strategies and also on Russia. This will be our strength.
Linas Linkevičius is a Lithuanian politician and diplomat. He served as defence minister in 1993–1996 and again in 2000–2004. He was Lithuanian’s ambassador to NATO and Belarus (1997-2000), and most recently the minister of foreign affairs between 2012 and 2020.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.
Maciej Makulski is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and the other co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.
This interview is also available to listen via the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.Listen to “Episode 68: Linas Linkevičius and the role of the Baltics” on Spreaker.