Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda discussed the challenges for his country caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year with VOA’s Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze on Tuesday in Vilnius.
“Nothing less than democracy and the world order is at stake in that war,” Nauseda told VOA. “There is no limit for the appetite of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know who will be the next target, the Baltic countries, Poland, maybe Romania.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Thank you very much for making time to talk to us. You had been to Ukraine on February 23rd, just before the war. At that moment, did you grasp the risk that Ukrainians are in? And did you expect that war would happen so soon?
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda: You know, this threat was in the air. And [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said that they expect[ed] that the war will, uh, break up in the next 24 to 48 hours. And it happened, let’s say, after eight or 10 hours, we left Ukrainian soil. Yes, the war was terrible, and probably our Ukrainian partners just could not imagine that this war will be organized, if I can express it like this, on such broad scale, broad, broad efforts of Russian troops to try to, first of all, to attack Kyiv, and also the war broke up in other parts of Ukraine, and now we see that this war is much longer than Russia could expect, fortunately. Yes, of course, I understand that it brings a lot of casualties, human lives are [at] stake, and of course, destroyed civil infrastructure. But this is also the fight for not only Ukrainian democracy and Ukrainian territorial integrity, but also the fight for democratic values at all. And this is very important to mention, that Ukraine is fighting very bravely, not only for its freedom but for our freedom, too.
VOA: What do you think Russia is doing? What is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s goal?
Nauseda: I think Putin miscalculated the scenario of this war, the expectations were totally different. Putin expected that they will take over Ukrainian capital Kyiv in a few days, and this war will not bring any huge political and economic consequences on Russia. But we see that it turned out to be totally different. And what is very important to mention that, until the war, the reaction of European politicians, and other countries, too, was, how to say, subdued, if I could express it like this, because nobody expected that this war and the real attempts of Russia are so terrible, and they are ambitions to conquer Ukraine. And afterwards, in the first days of the war, I saw a big commitment and a totally different attitude of my colleagues in [the] European Union to act, to do something, in order first of all to stop the war. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but then we realized that if we had to do more in order to, first of all, to bring war to, yes, to bring on the table very clear consequences on Russia, and Russia must see what will be the consequences. So the first package of sanctions, second, third, fifth. And now we see that European politicians and the countries of European Union understand very well what are the threats posed by Russian authorities. It was not the case, because I remember our discussions in European Council, bilateral meetings. We try to convince our partners. …
VOA: Who is we? When you said we, who is we? Because I understand that your country, Poland, other countries. …
Nauseda: … Poland, Romania, all Eastern European countries, which are exposed to these threats very directly, and we hear very well and really, we listen what Putin is saying, because some. …
VOA: And Western European countries didn’t really realize and underestimated. …
Nauseda: Theoretically, maybe, but the real reactions, they’re not adequate to the rhetoric Putin allowed him to express all this time. And this is the reason why I think it’s very important to understand that Europe is different. Europe understands the threats much better. Of course, Europe is still dependent in many areas, for example, energy dependence. Still, this is a very hot issue. This is not the issue in my country. Lithuania implemented all necessary changes, spent a lot of money in order to change the infrastructure, to create the infrastructure, to be independent in energy field, and we did it. And now we can probably say that Lithuania is not dependent, and Lithuania stopped to buy Russian oil, Russian gas, Russian electricity, so they cannot do anything to us in this regard.
VOA: This dependency on energy resources built up in the last 20 years, specifically with Germany, with France, with other countries. Why do you think that such an underestimation of Russian threats was built and kind of persuaded in the minds of politicians in Western Europe?
Nauseda: I cannot reject the assumption that economic interests, first of all, are there. Money, profit, cheaper energy resources and possibilities to do business with. But another reason was assumptions that we have to deal with totally different kind of policy or politicians in Moscow. Because sometimes I think my colleagues thought that probably Putin is a little bit different, but okay, we can do business with him because we can negotiate. We can talk. We can try to convince, to bring our arguments. And he could not understand that the arguments do not play any role to him, because the main ideology with this regime is to conquer as much as possible, to expand, to find the neighbors we could attack, and this is very clear if you read what they are saying in Moscow, they try to rebuild their empire. They try to restore the Soviet Union in one or another shape. And as you mentioned, as you remember that Putin mentioned that the collapse of Soviet Union was the largest disaster of 20th century. And now they consequently and very logically try to reestablish Soviet Union, and this means not only the risk and threats to Ukraine. This means huge threats to all of us and this time maybe even to those countries which were not a part of former Soviet Union, the countries of Western Europe, too.
VOA: Your country was part of Soviet Union. Does your country feel safe in this environment? And do you think that NATO, your allies in NATO would come to defend you, fully? What is your readiness for the threats?
Nauseda: My response will be very simple. We feel safer as we are [from] 2004, because in 2004, Lithuania became the member of two very important organizations, European Union and NATO. I like to say this sentence and I repeated this sentence many times, European Union was for a better life, NATO was for life. And this is still valid, and this is very important. Yes, we strongly believe in Article 5, we strongly believe in the reassurances of our partners to defend each inch of our soil. But this does not mean that we cannot put additional efforts in order to improve our security, too. We did a lot in this country in order to modernize our army, modernize our military forces, to create better infrastructure to be able to accommodate additional troops from our NATO allies. And we increased our military spending up to 2.5 % of our GDP. And we are ready to provide even more financial resources in order to fulfill all the requirements, which could be adequate to the current situation, the geopolitical situation. And this is very important to mention that Lithuania feels safe, but we have to be aware of these risks because we have to deal with a very dangerous neighbor and the best proof is the situation in Ukraine.
VOA: What is at stake in Ukraine today?
Nauseda: Democracy, the world order… international security situation is [at] stake, and of course [it’s] very important to mention that there’s no limit for the appetite of Vladimir Putin. If they will be successful in Ukraine, they will be at our doors, too. And I don’t know who will be their next target, Baltic countries, maybe Poland, maybe Romania, but this is not the most important question. The most important issue is, we have to do or in the NATO format, in European Union format in order to prevent, to stop Putin. Putin has to finalize his operation, as he calls it, in Ukraine. And I hope very much that Ukraine will be successful, and we will stand together with Ukraine until the victory, of course until the victory of Ukraine. And nowadays we see a lot of assurances coming from Western European leaders, and also other leaders in the world that they are ready to provide military assistance to Ukraine. European Union is strongly committed to impose sanctions and to continue sanctions policy in the future. This is very important because so far, we did a lot, but this is not enough to stop Putin. And we have to realize it and to understand it, that we have to do more, especially military assistance, in the short-term military assistance probably this is the most important problem. In the longer run, there will be very important issues related to humanitarian aid, macroeconomic assistance and so on. But now we understand very well that their conflict will be solved, not sitting at the negotiation table. The conflict will be solved in the battlefield.
VOA: I want to ask you about the role of the United States, because they basically pushed this international coalition and they were warning Ukraine about the possible threats from Russia for a couple of months prior to the war. Do you think the United States is doing enough in this fight? And who do you think should be a leader of this push to stop Putin in the region?
Nauseda: I would expect United States should be the leader, but I would say that actually the United States is a leader in providing military assistance, political support, and this is very important. This is very important, but, of course, I would expect that the speed of the decision making, commitment to provide more assistance and … speed is probably the most important issue right now. Yes, we are talking about additional military equipment, lethal weapons and other equipment. But this is very important that Ukrainians need it today not tomorrow or after tomorrow. And each day brings a lot of casualties, as I mentioned, and people are suffering, destroyed cities and so on, and of course we have to stop it as soon as possible, and the United States’ role in this is crucial. The European Union plays also very important role, but I think we have to deal in solidarity, and we have to be solider and they see the solidarity right now, the United States, the European Union, also like-minded countries in Asia. I see this solidarity and they saw their solidarity in NATO summit in Madrid, where we took very important decisions, bold decisions on the NATO strengthening. Defining Russia as a long-term threat, also very important element of our conclusions in the Madrid summit, and for my country and for Eastern European region, there are very important decisions to mention, for example, forward defense status in [the] Eastern European region. Also brigade-size, -level support and military presence in my country. As you’ll know Germany is a leading country of EFP [Enhanced Forward Protection]. And this is very important to our people, especially probably to our people, to hear that our allies are ready to provide additional support to Lithuania, because security right now is even outpacing the importance of economic and social issues.
VOA: We established already that Russia broke international law and they’re trying to push all the boundaries and rules. However, Russia is still a member of the Security Council of the U.N. Russia has a veto position in the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] organization and many other organizations. Do you think something has to be done with it?
Nauseda: Unfortunately, this is the reason why we have to find additional formats or maybe alternative formats to deal with Russia, because, yes, you mentioned that United Nations’ Security Council … Russia can create a lot of obstacles [there]. … And this is the reason why we have to find some other formats. I still believe the importance in the United Nations in other fields, for example, providing the channels or trying to solve the issue of grain export to the third countries and secretary-general [Antonio Guterres] put a lot of effort in order to solve this issue and probably in such formats, United Nations would be quite effective instrument to provide additional support to Ukraine. But we have to find also other formats, bilateral formats are important, too. I mentioned the European Union and I mentioned NATO, but bilateral support: Germany, France, the United States and even smaller-sized countries. This bilateral support is very important and I heard it from President Zelenskyy during my last visit in Kyiv, which was organized on the statehood day, as you know, Ukraine is celebrating the first time the statehood day. And it was very important to me to attend this event in Kyiv. I held the speech in Verkhovna Rada [parliament] and President Zelensky said to me, Lithuania did a lot and probably it is a good example to other countries. They can provide and they can be even more effective by providing needed support to Ukraine. But we are strongly committed, and this is not only the opinion or commitment of our political elite, this is a commitment of all people of Lithuania or almost all.
VOA: You are committed, Poland is committed. Germany is reluctant. How do you try and do you feel you are successful in persuading other countries to do more?
Nauseda: Maybe someone could be skeptical about the attitude or the German position in the last months, but I see huge progress. Because I couldn’t, I can compare the situation with the situation, let’s say, a few months ago as Germany was reluctant, really reluctant to provide any kind of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Now it’s not the case. Now we are talking about the speed of decision making and this is huge progress. And I think in the thinking we see this shift. The shift of thinking is also evident, and I think this is our contribution, too. We try to talk, we try to establish the needed dialogue with our colleagues in Germany and I think they react also to the public opinion, too, because public opinion is very clear, too. I remember my visit in Berlin at the end of February and I had the possibility to attend the meeting against the war in Ukraine on [February 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine]. I returned home and the next day, I heard that there was a meeting on [February 27], 100,000 people [in Germany were protesting], and on Saturday, maybe 500. So you see the dynamic in the public opinion in Germany and this is very important that people understand that they have to do this. Germany is not, how to say, free of threats imposed or posed by Russia. Germany is also the target. Like Lithuania, Romania or other countries of Eastern Europe.
VOA: How do you see this war end?
Nauseda: I do not see any other alternative, and we have to put all efforts in order to achieve the victory of Ukraine in this war, because all other scenarios would be very dark for Ukraine itself, for Lithuania and for the whole democratic world.