11 September 2014

Insider View–Interview with the Former National Defense Minister of the Republic of Lithuania Rasa Juknevičienė

Central Europe Digest sits down with the former National Defense Minister of the Republic of Lithuania, Rasa Juknevičienė, for an exclusive interview discussing Lithuania’s effort to increase defense spending and its strategic importance to counterbalance Russia’s aggression.
CED: In your previous role as the Minister of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania, you have advocated for increases to the country’s defense budget. In light of events, Lithuania has since passed a law to increase its defense spending by $52 million, with an additional 30 percent increase in total defense funding between 2015 and 2017. Given the kinds of security challenges that Lithuania faces, what do you believe should be the highest priorities for new military capabilities?
Minister Juknevičienė: The highest priorities for Lithuania’s military capabilities were determined during my term as the Minister of National Defense and they have not changed since. Legislation indicates a clear strategy on how to strengthen military forces. Since Lithuania's accession to NATO, Lithuania’s political society has been flooded with euphoria, as the prevailing mindset was that a key priority for Lithuania is participation in international operations. Insufficient attention has been given to the defense of our own territory, however, as it was presumed that this would be taken care of by our NATO partners. Additionally, such an orientation was predetermined by the position of NATO experts, triggered by the general assumption that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant Russia was no longer a threat to nearby countries. Meanwhile, numerous warnings to the contrary by my fellow politicians failed to receive wider approval.
The ongoing priorities for Lithuania’s military capabilities are as follows. First, we need to sufficiently complete the current structure of the Lithuanian Armed Forces: this means providing adequate armament, sufficient funds for military exercises and filling out our battalions. The key area of focus is land forces. Our armament priorities are anti-aircraft systems, anti-tank systems and a modernized transportation base, along with other necessary acquisitions. However, given the changing methods of warfare, it becomes quite clear that a large portion of our defense funds needs to be allotted toward the preparation of the public for the defense of the country, i.e., creating a well-developed army reserve of sufficient size. The new generation needs to be adequately trained and the skills of already-trained people need to be updated.
CED: Much like other U.S. allies, frontier NATO states like Lithuania are watching the fighting in Ukraine very closely. Many see implications for their own security. Certainly, the regional military environment is different today from what it was when Lithuania first joined NATO in 2004. How has the Ukraine crisis changed the way Lithuania looks at its neighbors—east and west?
Minister Juknevičienė: We live next to Russia and are able to observe Putin’s politics up close, so the events in Ukraine were not that unexpected. Moreover, we were sending signals to our partners that Russia during 2007-2008 was putting special emphasis on military development close to our borders. Russian military reform took two directions: to the west (Ukraine and the Baltic countries) and to the south (South Caucasus). Toward South Caucasus, Russia was mostly developing conventional military forces; toward us—including the Kaliningrad region—it was developing the most advanced air and space weapons. So Russia, cleverly using Western aid and its energy policy, invested in armed forces meant for war with the West.
I frequently asked myself at the time, why was Russia doing this? I came to the conclusion that, when the time was right, Russia would utilize its military forces to try to test the West. But back then, that scenario seemed likely to come about only in 2020 or so. The Ukrainian Maidan and the desire to get rid of Moscow’s Soviet-controlled regime sped up the process. Today I see Ukraine as an axis of a complex process—in essence, the incomplete collapse of the Soviet Union, which was prematurely buried, and the attempt by Putin's regime to restore it. The year 2014 has proved to be the year when any illusions about Putin and Russia should have been shattered. We need to help Ukraine. Only in this way can we also help Russia to become a normal state as well as help ourselves—to defend the security of all of Europe.
CED: The dangers emanating from Ukraine’s eastern border have prompted calls within Central European states for a greater U.S. and NATO presence in the region. Still others have pointed to the benefits of closer regional defense cooperation among allies. Where do you see opportunities for Lithuania—to partner with nearby countries like Poland, or to build out stronger Nordic-Baltic security options?
Minister Juknevičienė: The concrete presence of NATO in a specific military capacity is necessary. I support the ongoing debate, but it cannot continue for too long. I closely follow the debate on Sweden’s and Finland's accession to NATO. For us it is a great security priority. I hope they will take this step sooner or later.
CED: When the NATO Summit convenes this month in Newport, questions about allied unity and collective defense are expected to be high on the agenda. In your view, how confident is Lithuania in NATO’s collective defense capabilities, and what can Lithuania do to help bolster them?
Minister Juknevičienė: I responded in part to this question earlier when I spoke about threat assessment. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO sincerely strived for a strategic partnership with Russia. Military intelligence circles have long foreseen threats coming from the Kremlin's authoritarian regime. However, as we see today, a naïve desire to shut their eyes is dominating political circles, with the connivance of the Kremlin; these circles prioritized a strategic partnership with Russia, and not the defense plans of their territory. NATO has now realized that the ultimate goal is to defend its member countries. Lithuania trusts in NATO’s capabilities, the ability to adapt and act in the light of threats to the Alliance.
CED: In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Pentagon sent U.S. military detachments to allies like Lithuania as a “tangible expression” of America’s commitment to European security. How has this move been received in Lithuania, and what else might be needed to fortify the country’s Atlanticist links with the United States?
Minister Juknevičienė: Lithuania greeted America's decision to send additional military support very positively. The public took it very well, and the number of people who doubted that NATO would defend its interests strongly declined. Today, I no longer hear skepticism about the expedience of Lithuania’s NATO membership, even from the less-well-informed residents of Lithuania’s small towns and countryside. There is now a prevailing general understanding of how important Lithuania’s accession to NATO was. I hear various activists in the United States and other countries commenting that NATO enlargement was a mistake, which provoked Russia. On the contrary – it put a stop to Russia’s potential aggression toward us.
It is crucial for the United States to understand that Russia’s actions in the Baltic States are based on its objective to turn positive public thinking against the United States. Russia has done this by utilizing its “soft power” tools. Therefore it is very important for us to focus on energy cooperation. Lithuania is still waiting for the United States to decide on exporting gas supplies to Europe. We should also, as much as possible, strengthen bilateral economic and trade relations and promote U.S. investment in Lithuania. As far as there is more America in Lithuania, there is less Kremlin here. Again, it is important to understand the extent of Russia’s information war in the Baltic countries, which is directed primarily against the United States. It is therefore desirable to develop a common strategy on how we can further deepen the principles of Western media and freedom of expression, because only the truth and the people's ability to think critically can overcome the brutal propaganda and brainwashing. Certainly, strategic military partnership is an essential condition for the survival of the Baltic States.