Ahead of the NATO Summit in Vilnius: A Conversation with Gabrielius Landsbergis, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania
Kathleen McInnis: Good morning. I’m Dr. Kathleen McInnis, a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
I am honored to welcome and introduce our guest today, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the minister of foreign affairs of Lithuania. Minister Landsbergis has a crucial role in shaping Lithuania’s foreign affairs and security policy agenda, which includes preparing for the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, the transatlantic partnership between the United States and Lithuania, and responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – all topics that my colleague, Daniel Fata, a nonresident senior advisor to the International Security Program and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy, will talk about with the minister today. Thank you, Minister Landsbergis, for joining us. And over to you, Dan, to get us started.
Daniel Fata: Great. Thank you, Kathleen. Mr. Minister, “labas rytas.”
Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis: Good morning.
Mr. Fata: Good morning. Thank you for joining us today. As Kathleen has said, your visit comes at a very important time. There’s no shortage of issues to be discussed. I understand you met with Secretary Blinken yesterday. I’m sure the plate was full. But today, I want to have a conversation with you that involves Ukraine, that involves China, that involves Russia, that involves the Vilnius summit which, by my math, is about four months away.
But maybe what we could start with is, again, you met with Secretary Blinken yesterday. Tell us about the state of U.S.-Lithuanian relations, and how is that looking?
Min. Landsbergis: Well, I know that it sounds – well, first of all, thank you for having me here. It’s a great pleasure. But it sounds, as a phrase that anybody could use, but I think that we have not ever been in more closer and better relations with the United States, throughout our independence – the decades of our independence. We’ve always felt the shoulder of U.S. whenever we’ve engaged in our path for NATO membership or even independence, and nonrecognition policy. So it spans decades.
But now currently we are on the same page when it comes to a lot of issues. Not just Ukraine. Not just what is happening in the vicinity of Lithuania to the east. But more about the defending what is called the global rules-based world order. So we support each other when it comes to China’s coercion, when it comes to China coercing others and not just Lithuania, that we had in last eighteen months. So I think that it’s truly a new page, which sets hopefully a tone for the decades to come.
Mr. Fata: That’s great. Having been involved with U.S.-Lithuanian relations for a long time now, I’ve always been pleased that there’s a continuity. A continuity on our side, continuity on your side. So that’s great to hear, that in your conversations with the secretary it’s been the same.
I also want to talk to you about Ukraine now. And so, as I mentioned to you earlier, when I interned in the Foreign Ministry, 25 years ago now, I had the opportunity to sit down with your grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis, and talk about freedom’s march for Lithuania, the role he played, but also the role that the Lithuanian people played. As we look at Ukraine today, Lithuania is right there at the forefront in terms of supporting the country, its march to be able to maintain freedom. From where you sit in Lithuania, and then from the conversations you had here, explain to the American people and those that are watching, why does Ukraine matter?
Min. Landsbergis: You know, as they say, that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. So I can assure that there’s a lot of rhyming for a Lithuanian ear to what history is offering all of us today. You know, just yesterday during my conversation with Secretary Blinken, I mentioned one historic fact that is – now fades a little bit into the pages of history, but for us is still quite alive. It’s the independence of Lithuania, that we regained in 1990. So Lithuania was the first country from the Soviet Union to declare independence. And basically, with the recognition, it meant that Soviet Union is dissolving.
And for us, you know, it was a fight. It was a struggle for our sovereignty, you know, and bringing us back on the map, because we waited for so long for that to happen. Not everybody was in favor of that. And when you look back, you know, it’s a question of why was it so? Why would you not agree that people have a self-determining right to be free, to be – you know, to democratically elect their government, and all these things that were, you know, ringing the bell since 1918, with spring of nations.
Why would you like us to stop? Because some of the countries actually asked us not to do this. And I explained that to myself, that there was a fear, probably a geopolitical fear, of imagining Soviet Union dissolving, or losing the Cold War, not escalating, you know, because the fall of Berlin Wall was escalation enough. So if you have Lithuania breaking free, then it’s escalatory. So how Soviet Union could react.
And I had a chance to thank United States for not being afraid then, following the history on its course, and allowing the history to happen. And out of that history, out of that victory, you know, you have an independent country, a member of the EU and NATO. You have a, you know, foreign minister that’s able to arrive in D.C., and have all the conversations, represent my country. So the victory, geopolitical victory, you know, brought something very beautiful.
So and this rhymes, as I said, with what we’re seeing in Ukraine. Are we not, some of us in the West, afraid of what will happen if Russia loses? And I think that there is this, you know, can you imagine a nuclear power, a permanent member of Security Council, losing a war against that much smaller neighbor? That it started, but still losing. So maybe could not lose, it should not lose. Maybe we have to put a pillow somewhere so that when it falls, you know, that the fall would not be so painful.
And I’m reminding everybody: Look, you know, we were not afraid then. We should not be afraid now. Russia has to lose. They started this. They have to lose. And Ukraine has to win. And out of that victory, you will have peace that everybody is wishing for and, most of all, Ukrainians themselves.
Mr. Fata: So you’re touching on – you used the pillow analogy. What I have heard when I have traveled back and forth through Europe over the past year, since the war has started, is – and we’ve seen it in some of the press accounting – that there’s a concern not to humiliate Putin, to humiliate Russia. But really, we’re talking about Putin here. And therefore you used the pillow analogy, soft landing. I take, by your comments, that that shouldn’t be a factor. But how do you deal with that factor? And I do believe there’s a Western European view on Putin and an Eastern European view on Putin. So how do you reconcile that?
Min. Landsbergis: I think it – well, first of all, we have to admit that there is a lot more convergence when it comes to the views from the eastern part of Europe and the Western part of Europe.
Mr. Fata: You’re saying there is more convergence than divergence?
Min. Landsbergis: Yes. There is more convergence than before.
Mr. Fata: I see.
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah. So we are converging. You know, there is more central position when it comes to the situation right now. In 2014, it was way more different. In 2008, it was even more different. In 2000, when Lithuania joined the EU and we were saying, look, you know, if you take – you know, you’ve met my grandfather – if you take his position in 2000s, it would not be very much different from what he’s saying right now, or what I’m saying right now, or, you know, what Lithuania, or Latvia, or Estonia, for that matter, are saying right now.
So in principle, we were always saying that, look, you know, Russia is an imperialistic power, actually an empire resembling 19th century empires of the European continent, who has not fallen, who has not failed yet. And it still has all the DNA of that modus operandi. That means it looks into its neighborhood as spheres of influence, asking others not to choose their security guarantees that would somehow interfere with theirs, and all these things. And that it could – from that mindset, aggression might arise. So we were saying that in 2000.
We were alarmists. We were paranoid, and all these things. You know, we had a troubled history, and so that drives our policy. In 2008 we said, look, is that not – you know, when Russia attacked Georgia for the first time – is that not enough for us to stop and think whether – you know, whether Russia is actually what we, in the West, think that it is? No. 2014, once again, not really. And now – that’s why I’m saying that there is a lot more convergence, that actually we can agree that Russia is an aggressive neighbor that we don’t want to have any business with.
Now, the question is, do we really see how much of a threat Russia is? And I have to say, that we’re not there yet. For me, for my country, and I would probably say that for many countries on the eastern flank, is Russia is an existential threat, a vital threat. When we’re talking about Russia threat, we’re not saying, you know, it’s a political debate between the parties. So there’s a left-wing party who thinks that Russia is not as big of a threat. And I’m coming from the right. I would say it is a big threat. No. It’s a threat to the people of Ukraine.
That actually, when we think about Russia, we think about Bucha, we think about Irpin, we think about Dnipro, and other places in Ukraine which were so vivid to everybody. And we imagine the same thing happening in our countries. And that picture is not relevant so much yet in France, in Germany, because for them it’s still part of a political debate. For us, it’s not that. So – and then, again, going back to the previous question, where we’re saying, OK, so what needs to happen in Ukraine, we would always say: Ukraine has to win. It has to be the final chapter of Russia’s aggression. Because if Ukraine does not win, it will continue. And God knows where next.
Mr. Fata: So that’s – yeah, you sort of answered one of my questions, which was, you know, how do we think the war is going. You certainly can expand on that. But I’m with you. Everything that you just said about Ukraine has to win. And we can debate about what full victory means. Certainly, however this war ends, it has to be on Ukraine’s terms. And then whatever that means territorially. But there is a scenario in which Ukraine is not able to achieve all of its objectives. I’m not going to say lose and I’m not going to say have to quit, but it may not achieve all of its objectives. In that scenario, what – how would Russia perceive that if they’re not, quote/unquote, “defeated”? And what does that then mean for European security?
Min. Landsbergis: Well, I think that the loss of Russia has to be admitted from Russia – from within Russia.
Mr. Fata: The loss has to be admitted within? So within the psyche of the Russian people?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah. They have to admit that they lost, like they lost in Afghanistan. You know, when you retreat from Afghanistan with all your troops, you know, general waving the last person – seeing the last troop leave Afghanistan, you cannot say that that was a victory. Russia retreating from China and, you know, from the Battle of Japan in 1904 – (190)5, sorry. Again, you cannot say that that was a victory. Probably, the worst – I mean, geopolitically, looking a bit to the future – is that – and, again, victory of loss, it’s a political concept as well as it is military. So I’m trying to drive the point forward that they have to admit that they lost politically as well.
That means that the people who give the mandate to Putin – and I’m not saying voters. But those who mandate him for his actions have to admit that this is – that was a devastatingly bad decision, flawed to its core, and it cannot be repeated. And then – and that is a political decision. And then this is where we would start to think that we might be on a safer path for European – for European continent. Yes, there would be change in Russia. You know, I’m quite confident that that will happen sooner or later. But that will start seeing that Russia changes its modus operandi, that the empire is changing from within.
If that doesn’t happen, and Putin is able to present whatever action on the ground as a victory, then it’s a dangerous new page for European continent. That’s one thing. So we definitely have to start preparing, if we haven’t started that yet, for defending not just Ukraine, not just Georgia and Moldova – which will be very much on the front – but also the eastern flank of NATO. And I would probably start with the Baltic states. Additionally, to that, that perceived Russian victory, we have to remind ourselves that no boundaries friendship between China and Russia might work differently when Russia has accepted its loss, and when Russia has, perceivably, won the war.
So that means that creates a partnership, no boundaries, between Russia that has won and ever-aggressive China. So this path, and global path for global security, is quite a dangerous one. It’s probably better for all of us involved – (laughs) – and worried about the future of our global security, is to have Russia admit that it has lost as a partner over to China.
Mr. Fata: I want to come back to Ukraine proper in a moment, but are you seeing any – DOD/Pentagon term – any prudent planning being done across Europe for an alternative outcome other than Ukraine winning? I can tell you, where I sit, I’m not seeing it. But to the scenario where Russia does not accept defeat, somehow is able to claim some victory, and then, you know, this idea that yourselves and others continue at threat. Have you seen much? I know you’re on the foreign ministry side, but you talk with a lot of folks.
Min. Landsbergis: You know, the way I try to – the way I see the situation is that we’re still in the stage, maybe that stage will never end because I figured that it might have ended by now, that we’re driven by the battlefield. That means that – and I’m, you know, guilty in this as well, that we’re so much happy when we see Ukraine winning. You know, last autumn, you know, the counteroffensive, taking back two major cities. You know, everything – you know, everybody in high spirits. You know, we would see a lot of visits, a lot of pictures being taken, everybody wants to be a part of victory.
When Ukraine is stuck then, you know, the debate starts. So how that will end. And I don’t think that is the right approach, honestly. I think that we still need to – we need to have a proper conversation about the end goal and an endgame, and take it from there. And I know that it’s not easy. You know, the points are different. I mean, there are countries on side of Atlantic who see it differently. You know, U.S. might see it differently. But we need to talk about this.
This has to happen, because if we – if we don’t agree on this, and if just the battlefield drives our decision-making process, then it’s – first of all, it’s incredible heavy load on the soldiers fighting in the battlefield. Like now, for example, the conversation about is about the possibility of counteroffensive. And the understanding is if they are successful –
Mr. Fata: A Ukrainian counteroffensive?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah, yeah, Ukrainian counteroffensive. If they’re successful, most likely, you know, the support will continue. If they’re not, at this point, then, you know, we are starting to hear all the conversations that maybe something – a different approach need to happen. But can you imagine, I mean, the generals and, you know, just those guys who are actually doing the fighting, for them, you know, to be told that, look, you know, make it or break it? I don’t think that’s a viable solution.
So my point is that we need to commit, and we need to commit to the end goal, because what we’re – what we, all of us, are fighting for, what Ukraine is fighting for, is not just, you know, a few hundred kilometers of territory. It’s either having aggressive Russia continuously fighting with its neighbors, being partnered with China, and, you know, offering a lot of more disruption to the global security, or actually stopping them here now. So that’s a major question.
Mr. Fata: We’re fighting for this decades-long vision and goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
Min. Landsbergis: We thought that we have accomplished that. You know, we thought that we have accomplished that with rules, and regulations, and agreements, international organizations, treaties, diplomacy. And unfortunately, we still have not admitted that, but the time will come where we will have to really look through what worked and what not. You know, one example, NATO works still, I mean, as a security architecture. OSCE, not necessarily so.
Mr. Fata: You talked about we need to come together on an end goal. I’m pretty sure I understand President Zelensky’s end goal. Is his end goal the same as what the transatlantic community is looking for, or is hoping for?
Min. Landsbergis: I mean, what I would like to hear is a way clear commitment to President Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan. And admitting that we have a capacity in the West, with all the industrial might that we have, to assist Ukraine that it is able to recover the territories that it has lost. We have that. And somehow, but probably by saying that, you know, we feel that it’s committal, and then if we commit it then, you know, kind of we’re in that for long game.
And therefore, it’s kind of going in batches. But that makes way more difficult for Ukraine. That gives hope to Putin that time is on his side, that maybe this is actually the last batch. If it is then, you know, all I need is patience, and some Wagner Groups. So, I mean, our commitment to Ukraine has to be way more vocal. And with that, that might change also Putin’s calculations.
Mr. Fata: I would agree with you 100 percent. I believe that collectively, so not just pining it on any particular leader, that we have not had the hard public discussions about what we really mean by we’re in it to the end and we’re there. I don’t believe we’ve really posed Putin with a strategic dilemma. NATO – sorry, Ukraine and NATO would be a strategic dilemma for him.
You know, multilayering a variety of effects – trainers in Ukraine, U.S. and Western, but in particular U.S., to be able to help either with training, starting reconstruction in particular areas. We haven’t posed that to him. Do you sense that there is not an appetite to be able to take that on, and that’s why some of the big public discussions aren’t happening? Again, to where you started earlier, on escalation?
Min. Landsbergis: I don’t know the actual reason. I mean, there are multiple factors on this. I would say probably it starts with what I said before, like, can we imagine Russia losing? What would it mean? Could somebody worse than Putin come to power if he falls? And always it’s, you know, a fear of Russia, of upheaval – some sort of an upheaval in Russia. So we tried to argue that with the fall of Soviet Union. And, you know, we were told that after Gorbachev somebody way worse would come. And we had Yeltsin. And probably that was one of the most hopeful years that Russia has had in hundreds of years. Short but, still, it happened.
Then there’s a worry that is it possible for Ukraine to win? Are they able? Would they be able? You know, I call these ideas myths that we try to test, and then somehow we end up believing them ourselves. And again to dispel this myth, the myth was that Kyiv will fall in three days, that Ukrainians would not be able to learn how to use HIMARS, and they learned that in a week. Then they will not be able to drive Leopards. Now they’re driving it. So, I mean, they proved us wrong so many times that I really would feel uncomfortable doubting their ability. So I think it boils down to the capacity of whether we’re able to reinforce them.
Same, for example, that for Putin, that Crimea is a red line. Again, one of the red lines that we created ourselves or we tend to believe ourselves. And, you know, when I listen to some of the experts from Russia, you know, from the Russian opposition who are now living in the West, their argument usually is that actually Crimea is not a red line, but it’s the point that has to happen because this would be the only lesson that would start change within Russia. Because if it's out of the question, if somebody would say, OK, we can talk about everything else except Crimea, that means that it is – that the point has not been driven home to its fullest.
So the main point is that we, again, probably – you know, the concept, political concept, is that we need to – (laughs) – get away with fear. And, you know, instead of fear let’s prepare for the eventualities, different eventualities, and be prepared for them. We have the means for that.
Mr. Fata: So you used the word “red line.” Fifteen years ago, 15 – well, we’re one month away from 15 years ago when the Bucharest summit happened. And Georgia and Ukraine were on the cusp of getting membership action plan. And then I was with the presidential delegation at the time, so I was then – myself and Secretary Gates – we were sent off to another room while the president and the NAC met at the highest levels to figure out what to do about Georgia and Ukraine. Ultimately, the decision was they would not be granted MAP, but the language would be, “will one day become members.” And, you know, a red line for Putin. Fifteen years ago, is when that happened.
You just mentioned Crimea and red lines. What I’m sensing from what you’re saying is that Putin will declare these red lines. We ourselves are now forcing ourselves to say, well, we don’t want to cross that line because we see what happened in Georgia, or the first invasion of Ukraine. Do you believe where the – given how the Russian military has worked thus far – that the red line over Crimea is something that is holding folks back, that is only in our own minds? Or do you believe it’s actually something that could trigger another phase, if Ukraine was able to – and the U.S. was able to support – or, not just the U.S. – but NATO were able to support?
Min. Lansbergis: I think that’s what we’re trying here. The red line – the concept of red line for Putin is an instrument of control of the West. And we’ve heard that so many times, not just from the – you know, from Putin himself, but from, you know, Medvedev, you know, whoever. Everything is red line. If you send a tank, you know, just one tank, you know, that’s a red line. You know, we’ll do this and that. I mean, we need to – again, if we start with the end goal and you prepare for different eventualities, they might escalate, and they escalate it with bombings of civilian buildings, with Iranian drones, with now – you know, there’s still a chance of Iranian ballistic missiles. You know, there are eventualities, and we need to be prepared for those.
But if we give in to the concept of red lines then we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by narratives. So I – you know, we are advocating that let’s not give in. Let’s not give in. We can stop this. We have means. We have the power. We have ability. And Ukrainians have the will. So it’s an excellent conversation that has very rarely happened in history. You know, for, you know, the example of Afghanistan is very often used, where the will was not there. Or at least it was not as self-presenting as in Ukraine. It was different. And, yeah, so the combination was different, and it did not work out too well. Ukraine has it. And so it's now – it’s up to us. And, yeah, so, I mean, those red lines, there were just so many of those.
Mr. Fata: It’s a leadership and courage issue, amongst the allies?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. Fata: Let me ask you one more on this Russia-Ukraine, and then I want to transition to the summit and bring in a couple other issues. And I want to see what the audience has been emailing for questions. But just to close on Russia-Ukraine, accountability. Accountability. It’s something that is talked a lot about here. I think it’s something that absolutely must be done. I think there’s many mechanisms to do this. Your position on this, and what does accountability really look like for what Russia has – it’s not even alleged. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear what has happened.
Min. Landsbergis: So the main debate is whether what we have currently working – meaning the ICC investigation on war crimes – is enough. And Lithuania, together with several other European countries and global partners, are indicating that, unfortunately, this is not enough. Additional crime, you know, it’s called the mother of all crimes, has to be investigated. It’s the crime off aggression. Basically, a political decision to attack your neighbor, to attack another country, and occupy its territories. Because what we’ve seen with – when it comes to war crimes, usually, in most cases, it is the soldier that has committed the crime. If he or she is apprehended, given testimony, you know, you have all the proof, and he or she is convicted.
It very rarely goes –
Mr. Fata: Up the chain of command.
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah, up the chain. You might get your hands on the general who gave the order. But then again, it’s a very rare occasion that a general would give an order to commit war crime, you know, to attack civilians, to, you know, rape civilians, whatever. And all these things, they’re very difficult to prove. It has happened. It has happened before, but it’s difficult. So now the promise to go all the way up the chain of command to the political leadership, I mean, there’s very little hope that that will happen.
So but the decision to attack Ukraine, that has happened. It was televised. I think that the voting was televised. So it’s quite clear that there are people who took it upon themselves to bear this burden and to make this step. So I think that we have all the proof that is necessary to convict leadership on – because of act of aggression. So now the difficult part is.
The difficult part is, so how do you do that? Because there are not so many precedents globally of how do you do this? The ICC cannot cover the act of aggression. So most likely, a special tribunal has to be created. There are people who are saying, and countries who are saying, that maybe –
Mr. Fata: Outside of the U.N., so therefore it’s not vetoed.
Min. Landsbergis: So there are two ways that U.N. can establish a tribunal. One way is Security Council. So that’s a veto. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. But legal expertise says that General Assembly vote, a majority vote, would suffice. And that is doable. That is possible to achieve. The main obstacle going that direction is whether it is possible and expected to have, you know, what we – normally we call 140 votes. It is what we’ve managed to achieve on condemnation on Russia on its attack. And, you know, there have been quite successful votes in the U.N.
And people would say, OK, so is it possible to have 140 votes on special tribunal? And I don’t think that’s possible because the points of view will diverge. But it is possible to have majority that would establish a legal institution that would, under the umbrella of U.N., would look into the act of aggression from the legal standpoint and then, you know, try to charge the people responsible for it. So this is – this is still ongoing debate.
But, again, going back to, you know, the political conversation, I think it’s incredibly important. Because also, in Zelensky’s plan, but from our perspective, two things that are vital. One thing is winning the war. And then charging those who started it. This is how you make sure, or at least, you know, try to make sure, that the next war does not happen. Because there’s a responsibility if you start it. If there’s no responsibility, if you sit to negotiate with the same person who – you know, who committed the crime, then its, you know, at least from my perspective, it’s an invitation for another round.
Mr. Fata: I said I wasn’t going to continue, but you just gave me one thing. Reparations. So whether it’s paying some kind of compensation to the families of those that were killed or it’s for rebuilding, should it come out of Russian state money? Should – you know, there’s a lot of seized assets and things. And there’s a debate about oligarch money, fair, Russian state money, it’s a different story.
Min. Landsbergis: It’s not either/or situation. I would think that it’s both. Yes, there is a lot of seized assets, money and otherwise. I definitely think that it can be used and should be used to rebuild Ukraine. But we always reminded ourselves that one of the things that we’re defending in Ukraine and globally is the rule of law. And that binds us as well. That means that despite any other fact, we still have to abide by laws and regulations that – you know, that keep our society intact. That goes as well for the seized assets.
So we had some conversations here in Washington, some of the best minds in the legal world putting their heads on how to solve this. I’m sure that they will find a solution, offer it to politicians, and we’ll get a go-ahead. But then again, going back to Zelensky’s plan, three main points. You know, winning the war, taking territories back. Punishing those who started it. And reparations, rebuilding the country, by the country who started it. So for many, it sounds idealistic, but you have to stick to it if you want to rebuild the world that we had.
Mr. Fata: Sounds pretty sound and reasonable in many ways.
All right, let’s transition to the Vilnius summit. So, again, in four months Vilnius will be able to host the latest of the NATO summits. So it finds itself in between last year’s Madrid summit and the 75th anniversary of NATO, which will take place next April here in Washington. Your summit should stand alone, but in many ways it also helps to connect those two and can be a bridge to Washington. And, you know, a lot of our conversation is about Ukraine. What could potentially a 75th look like – 75th summit look like if the war is still going, or the war isn’t ended on Ukraine’s terms? But that’s for another conversation down the road. I want to talk to you about Vilnius.
So it’s a historic opportunity for your country to showcase not only what it is you bring the alliance, but also showcase your beautiful city. There’s a lot, potentially, on the agenda. Ukraine obviously will dominate some, but there are some non-Ukrainian aspects to the agenda. In your mind, what does the Washington – I’m sorry – the Vilnius summit look like, in terms of success? Where does work still need to be done?
Min. Landsbergis: Well, I think that, first of all, having summits in Vilnius, which geographically itself is 40 kilometers away from Belarusian border, is a pretty strong message to anybody who might be interested in thinking of, you know, challenging NATO. Having, you know, all the Western leaders and main partners of NATO visiting Vilnius, that alone is a very strong message that, you know, we’re able to handle whatever threats are there, you know, even 40 kilometers away. So that’s a very strong strategic message.
When it comes to more practical things, I think that main two debates or three debates will be happening. First of all, the defense of eastern flank. There have been promises made and assessments made in Madrid. So I think that we all have to assess the path that we walked in a year to see where does it take us and how do we reach – how do we go further to Washington summit? I think that what eastern flank countries will be looking for is even possibly even stronger wording on Russia. As we began our conversation, Russia being as a vital threat. And –
Mr. Fata: So historic that in Madrid, NATO for the first time since the end of the Cold War actually declared Russia a threat to the territory. So you’d like to see that language built?
Min. Landsbergis: Yes. And even possibly, you know, if we would find an agreement, even expanded. Because there are – I mean, now we’re starting to see strategic implications of Russia winning or losing in the mid-term to long term. You know, the world, not just European continent, not just in transatlantic area, will depend on the outcome in Ukraine and how that will – you know, that will shape all of us. So I think that is one very important point.
And, to add to that also, how practically do we handle that threat? You know, so what changed throughout the year? You know, how much countries of eastern flank have been reinforced? Are they able to handle the threat that we’ve established in Madrid? Or did anything at all – you know, did anything at all change?
Mr. Fata: Meaning, are they able to – meaning you and your other eastern flank allies – able to handle on your own what the declaration means? And have the allies as part of Madrid honored their commitments to reinforce?
Min. Landsbergis: That, I think, you know, from what I’m hearing, that the countries who, again, the eastern flank countries, you know, who looked into the text in Madrid saw – you know, specifically looking there for reassurances, additional reassurances. I’m quite convinced that they will look back on what did we achieve. Did our strategic posture in the eastern flank change or not? Admitting that the threat is unprecedented.
Mr. Fata: So you mean actually change, not on paper.
Min. Landsbergis: Yes, exactly.
Mr. Fata: OK.
Min. Landsbergis: So that might be asked as one of the conversation points.
Mr. Fata: So in some ways, that’s a – Vilnius, with this aspect, becomes a report card. It’s sort of a check on.
Min. Landsbergis: I would think that it will. I think it’s actually unavoidable. You know, even though, you know, we’re saying that, look, let’s pave the path forward, and we’re always doing that, but still you have to reflect. Because the environment has changed. And we’ll be in the heart of that changed environment. It’s actually in Vilnius. You know, you could take Warsaw or Vilnius but, you know, we’re one of the closest capitals, NATO capitals, when it comes to the country on the other side, to the red territory, so to say. (Laughs.) So it’s a good place to have this reflection. It’s a good place to have this conversation. So we’ll see about that.
I think that we’ll talk about Ukraine a lot. That goes without question. And not just the commitments, practical commitments, but there will also be a discussion about the political path. You know, their request to join NATO is on the table. Even though it’s a piece of paper, but in my eyes it’s an elephant in the room, that very difficult to avoid talking about. So again, there is a quite wide divergence of views of how to handle this. You know, what can be offered, what can’t be offered.
Again, as a host – you know, representative from a host country, I would very much like to see more talking about what we can do. More about the positives than what we cannot and should not do – should not offer, should not talk about, and all these things. So –
Mr. Fata: I smiled when you said “can and can’t do” because, in theory, anything; it’s all a can. It just requires leadership and courage, right?
Min. Landsbergis: So, yeah. And I think that China will be on the table as well, as a part of the conversation. For the first time we had a discussion in Madrid. China made it to the – you know, to the documents of NATO already. I think that we will continue that, especially if our Asia-Pacific partners join in the conversation.
Mr. Fata: Which they’re invited, if I understand it.
Min. Landsbergis: Yes. Yeah, I’m not sure whether they’ve accepted the invitation, but maybe that’s in due time – that will happen in due time. But anyway, I would assume that this will be a significant part of conversation, and especially since now there is an added layer regarding the possibility of weapon transfers from China to Russia, which is a lot debated. And I don’t think that debate will – you know, will evaporate in the upcoming four months.
Mr. Fata: Mmm hmm. Let’s go to Ukraine – or, back to Ukraine – as it relates to the summit, for a second. If you’re – and I understand that the sec-gen in cooperation with your government has extended an invitation to President Zelensky to attend the summit. But if you’re sitting in Kyiv, and you’re weighing do I go or don’t I go, what does NATO need to offer the president, President Zelensky, to make it enticing for him to go, and so it’s not just another show up, make the thank you, and then make a pitch for things. I mean, in your mind, what should Vilnius have as a – I hate the term – but a deliverable or momentous thing that would justify President Zelensky coming?
Min. Landsbergis: You know, I’m sure that, you know, President Zelensky, you know, he’s excellent in making decisions, you know, where and when –
Mr. Fata: Sure, of course.
Min. Landsbergis: You know, were to show up and where not. So far he has been extremely successful, I have to say. From NATO’s parts, what I would like to see is us being serious. I often feel uncomfortable as a – you know, as member state of EU or NATO, and praising ourselves, patting ourselves on the back. You know, we did so much. Yeah, but they’re fighting the war. They’re dying there every day. And we – you know, we just give out some money, we give out some – yeah, we have a very tough debate in the parliament. You know, the opposition is bashing us as we’re doing this and that wrong. Yeah, but they’re fighting there in Bakhmut, dying in trenches. That’s quite a different ballgame.
And therefore, I would not like us to see – you know, saying, look, we’re so awesome. You know, we did this thing so right. They did it. We just helped out. And, so that’s the only thing that – you know, I’m putting that to myself, as –
Mr. Fata: Well, I can be the provocative one. I’m not in government, right? (Laughter.) I believe that there has to be some kind of actionable commitment that can help Ukraine get to membership by the 75th. I think there needs to be establishment of a NATO training mission in Ukraine. I think there needs – defining what’s in the comprehensive assistance package that was adopted at Madrid for both medium and long term. We need to send the messages – again, I have the freedom to say this, you may not – that we’re not going anywhere. And we believe in Ukraine’s sovereign ability to defend itself for the long term.
Min. Landsbergis: I can tell you as much, that I truly believe that there is a political path for Ukraine to NATO.
Mr. Fata: Let that be the takeaway from this conversation. (Laughter.) Where do Finland and Sweden fit in for the Vilnius agenda?
Min. Landsbergis: That will definitely be a part of the conversation. I’m still hoping that it will be a part, a celebratory part. This is where we will be able to say that we did a lot, if they’re in. And still, I mean, there is a window of opportunity for Turkey and Stockholm and Helsinki to find an agreement. I know that there’s a lot of work being put into this by Washington, by Brussels, many other capitals, trying to figure this out.
It is important to us directly, not as a part of NATO but as a part of the Baltic/Nordic region. It affects our security directly. Not just Swedish, not just Finnish, but the whole region. We’re talking about the Baltic Sea, which also is used for Russian naval operations. So we very much care that Finland and Sweden join NATO as soon as possible. So I’m very much hopeful that it will happen. I will not go into scenarios if that does not happen, but you can imagine the mood that would be there.
Mr. Fata: Mmm hmm. I always like to look at dates, and anniversaries, and timelines. And so next year it will be 20 years that you formally acceded the NATO membership. It’s also 30 years since the Partnership for Peace was initially kicked off, which started the opportunity for you, and for Ukraine, and for Russia, and others to actually have this opportunity. Belarus also was extended that opportunity as well. We haven’t really talked about Belarus, other than you can see it from your – from your kitchen window. (Laughter.) Where does Belarus fit into this picture of a future European security architecture postwar? What does that look like?
Min. Landsbergis: Well, geopolitically and strategically, for us it’s a major worry, having 700 kilometers of border and Belarus now being more of a training ground for Russian troops, or operation ground for their attacks on Ukrainian territory. So definitely it is a worrisome neighbor, to say the very least. Politically, I think that they are in a situation where their sovereignty is heavily limited by Russians. I’m not sure how much freedom is there still. You know, it’s very difficult to talk about this because we – difficult to assess. But what gives me hope, and what we cannot forget, is that their – you know, I would like to call it two sovereignties. You know, one is political, geopolitical. Another one is spiritual, that lives within us, when people actually want freedom and they’ve shown it.
In 2020 after the stolen election, when we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people – up to 600,000 people went out on the streets in the authoritarian country, heavily oppressive country. They went out yet being afraid for their lives. And many of them are still in jails. You know, a country that has more than 1,300 political prisoners still. But that spiritual sovereignty is still there. I’m absolutely confident about that. And we cannot forget this. We cannot let that die, because out of this sovereignty, out of this feeling, the actual political sovereignty can come back.
Mr. Fata: So you use that – you used the term, I may not have the exact wording right, but they’re not in complete control of their sovereignty. But if that –
Min. Landsbergis: Limited sovereignty.
Mr. Fata: Limited sovereignty. But if that spark is able to turn into peaceful uprising, possible change in leadership – in democratic leadership, do you – I believe that Europe would welcome Belarus. But do you believe Belarus could break free of a Russian orbit?
Min. Landsbergis: I think yes. I think yes. And this is one of the possible outcomes of Ukrainian victory.
Mr. Fata: That it will rechange the landscape?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah, it can totally rechange the landscape. And we’re already feeling this. We’re already feeling that in Amenia-Azerbaijan, for example, in Central Asia, where Russian pull was very strong, strategically important. And not so much anymore. We’ve seen European Union becoming a major actor in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and our Charles Michel offering, you know, a peace environment for peace consultations between the two countries in Brussels. And that’s happening.
So that is one of the outcomes of war in Ukraine. Russia is less of a geopolitical actor than it was before. I’m not saying that it cannot rebuild. I’m not saying that it’s permanent. But at least at this point, it’s changing. And we have to be mindful about it. So I’m very, extremely happy of what the outcomes – I mean, the situation that Europe is getting itself involved in south Caucasus. I’m glad that Moldova is also becoming a candidate country to EU. These are very good developments.
But when it comes to Belarus, you know, we tend to – in many cases, we tend to align in our minds the people and the dictator. Kind of it’s all the same thing. And, for example, in Russia, I think it’s more of the same thing because people actually support the actions of Mr. Putin. But I think that in Belarus there is a different case. Therefore, you know, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is – you know, from our perspective, in our mind, is an elected president who found a refuge in Lithuania. So we’re very much supporting him. And I think that everybody, you know – (laughs) – should see her as that representation of this sovereignty of Belarusian people.
Mr. Fata: Will she be at the summit?
Min. Landsbergis: Well, she will – I think that she will definitely be in Vilnius. (Laughter.)
Mr. Fata: OK. All right. Fair enough. All right, we have about 10 minutes left. China is not a small topic, so let’s see what we can do with it in the time remaining. And I desperately would like to see what the audience has asked for questions, but I don’t want to be rude, given we’re eyeball to eyeball. China. Let’s start with NATO summit first, and then I want to get into the bigger sort of what’s happening with Lithuania, Europe, and China. But China, as you’ve mentioned, came up at Madrid. And there was this idea that there should be at least a recognition of the threat that China poses in the Indo-Pacific, and that the alliance should be spending more time thinking about this.
There have been some that have written post-Madrid – and I just wonder if it’s picking up any traction for Vilnius – the establishment of a NATO China commission, sort of like a NATO Russia commission. The idea being that, look, we need to have a mechanism for dialogue, so that there’s no miscommunication and understanding. I can tell by your facial expression this may be new to you. But give me your thoughts on whether there should be a NATO China commission. It doesn’t have to be for Vilnius, but let’s just say, should there be one?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah, yeah. You know, I can tell you where the discussion is. And I think that the discussion now is mostly revolving around whether is it OK for NATO go outside of North Atlantic region? And I, myself, I’m personally an advocate of a more global approach, because I don’t –
Mr. Fata: NATO with global partners, not a global NATO?
Min. Landsbergis: Yeah, exactly. NATO with global, and global perceptions, so to say, so that we see the world is an interconnected place. I mean, it’s not a new thing in the 21st century to say this. So that, you know, limitless or without boundaries partnership between Russia and China brings China from Indo-Pacific region into North Atlantic. You know, if China would become a contributor – not just for war. Let’s keep the war, at least for this question, outside. But as a contributor for Russia’s defense. If Russia’s starting to rebuild and, you know, it’s heavily sanctioned, it’s unable to rebuild the most sophisticated technology, and China’s helping with that, and rebuilding – you know, building factories near St. Petersburg.
And so is it part of North Atlantic security – you know, is it an issue? I think definitely it is. So you kind of – it’s so much interconnected now that it’s impossible to avoid it. So therefore, theoretically, I would agree the direction that you said that the conversation might take, because I think that it is unavoidable that we would be touched, as NATO, if certain actions happen in Russia, even in Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Fata: Mmm hmm. What do you make of those that make the claim that, look, Europe needs to be focused on the Russia threat, because the U.S. needs to flex with its Asian allies towards China? Do you believe it’s zero-sum? And do you believe Europe feels the same way about China right now, strategic threat, as America does?
Min. Landsbergis: No, not yet. I wouldn’t say that. But again, there are different voices in Europe. I think that what we’re seeing now is we’re seeing way more voices in the eastern flank. You know, it started in Lithuania, but now you hear, you know, Czech Republic, other Baltic countries joining in, into the more similar approach to what China, you know, as we see in U.S. You know, you might call it alignment, but you might all it also the lessons from the past. You know, we tend to recognize a similar threats, so to say, that we’ve seen, we’ve been warning about, you know, coming from Russia. And we’re seeing similar things coming from – coming from China. Therefore, I think that there is this approach.
Not necessarily everybody sees that in Europe. There is this divergence that we talked about. There is a lot of dependence built on China when it comes to supply chains, investments, whatnot. I mean, I would say that’s quite unfortunate, that it’s still being reinforced even though I would think that it’s a high time to look at that more seriously. Exactly the same way that, you know, people are learning about our dependencies on Russia’s natural resources. You know, we’re saying that, look, when Ukraine was attacked for the first time, and Nord Stream 1 was inaugurated, we though that it’s not the best thing to do. Then Nord Stream 2. And then at the end of the day we have huge problems with gas deliveries to Europe.
Thankfully, they were solved during the winter, during the last year, but still it showed how much dependency on nondemocratic country with aggressive tendencies can be – can be harmful to us. So we tend to feel that and warn again, let’s at least not build it stronger. Let’s diversify, look for the ways – you know, how to mitigate the risks that might come out of it.
Mr. Fata: You talked about the economic dependence of Europe. Your country has taken a rather brave approach, that has led to a decoupling, I guess, if we could use that term, over Taiwan, and allowing a Taiwanese office, using that word, Taiwanese, to open in Lithuania, and vice versa. And so, for the audience and for others, it’s led to a decoupling from the Chinese side, and a ban that’s even gone not just from primary items, but anything that has Lithuanian content. Bring us up to speed on where that stands, and where do you think it’s going to end, and why you took such a brave stance.
Min. Landsbergis: Well, I think that it’s – in many cases, it comes from, you know, values-based foreign policy, that we tend to call it that way. That means that we are supporting, and we feel that it has to happen in a more broader scale. That means that democracies have to support each other, especially those who depend very strongly not just on – or, not on military might, but on rules and regulations that hold our world together. So that came – the decision came from that. The reaction – Chinese reaction was extremely harsh. I don’t think that any other country globally has seen that.
But what happened afterwards? At least that actually we came out more resilient and, I would say, even stronger. Yes, we were forced to decouple. We were forced to diversify our supply chains, find ways to bring things that are needed in Lithuania from other sources. And finally, partners globally. So we strengthened our partnerships in Indo-Pacific with opening new embassies and, you know, pushing out trade to – you know, to Japan, and Australia, and other countries. And it has gone tremendously. Throughout just the last year, 40 percent of growth in Indo-Pacific region.
Also, I think that why specifically, you know, Indo-Pacific? Because there was a lot more understanding what we’re going through, what Lithuania is going through. And I would say that there was even some sympathy, that there is a country that is facing such aggressive measures by PRC. So that worked out quite well. To add to that, we’ve started – by European Union – we started a panel in WTO that was joined by the major partners in G-7 and other global friends. My belief is that led to a reduce in restrictions from China.
Mr. Fata: It caused them to back down a little?
Min. Landsbergis: A little bit, yeah, because, you know, they have to answer the questions for the panel, you know, why Lithuania was removed from the customs system completely. So we’re back in the customs systems. And so there is – there is trade. I mean, we already can bring stuff from China, we can sell some things to China. But the message was very clear to the businesses not just in Lithuania, but globally. Look, if you make a foreign policy decision that China does not like, there will be – there will be repercussions. And, as in any other democratic country, you know, there will be decisions because people feel strongly about this. You know, some of us feel strongly about Taiwan. Some of us feel strongly about Uyghurs in labor camps. And I’m sure that we are definitely not the last country to take a stand.
Mr. Fata: Doing the right thing – doing the right thing takes courage sometimes. And your country is a symbol of that.
Mr. Minister, we’ve reached the end of our time. So let me say, “ačiū.”
Min. Landsbergis: Thank you.
Mr. Fata: It’s been great having you here. Good luck with the summit, and everything that you’re trying for. Look forward to keep the conversation going with you and your countrymen and women. And thanks for all that you’re doing on Ukraine. I completely can sympathize that, yes, we can supply things but it’s the Ukrainians that are doing the fighting and the dying, and they deserve all of our support and our love.
And so, with that, let me just say thank you to everyone who tuned in today or this morning for this wonderful conversation. I hope you found it enjoyable. And stay tuned for future conversations by CSIS and my colleagues. As they would say in Lithuanian, “viso gero.”