The Smart Power of Lithuanian Foreign Policy

Photo: NATO eFP Battlegroup congratulates Lithuania on the Restauration of the State Day. Credit: NATO eFP Battlegroup Lithuania via Twitter
Photo: NATO eFP Battlegroup congratulates Lithuania on the Restauration of the State Day. Credit: NATO eFP Battlegroup Lithuania via Twitter

Lithuania has developed foreign policy muscle since 2020 and demonstrated leadership on global geopolitical issues.

Whether by supporting a distant Taiwan and so picking a diplomatic spat with China (relative populations less than 3m versus 1,400m), or swiftly and unquestionably aiding Ukraine and advocating for its acceptance within the Western security architecture, Lithuanian policymakers are seemingly climbing the speed-dial rank in key EU and NATO capitals. The Lithuanian case thus demonstrates how a balance between principles-led and interests-backed foreign policy can ultimately bear fruit after surviving early geopolitical frosts.

1. Anti-totalitarian activism and support for Taiwan

Lithuania’s foreign policy has recently become more visible due to the country’s increasingly loud and principled opposition to totalitarianism: historically, the country has resisted Kremlin pressure, and now it extends the principle to China.

The conservative-led cabinet, which won power in the 2020 elections, raised eyebrows with its fast-tracked, state-level recognition of Taiwan: first pulling out of China's favored forum to corral Central and East European states, the so-called 17+1 group last year, then accepting a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius in November. Without diplomatic scene-setting or preparatory groundwork, these decisions — and the resultant Chinese reprisals, including a diplomatic downgrading and a 90% cut in Lithuanian imports — brought heavy criticism at home and abroad. Lithuania’s European Union (EU) partners were skeptical that the policy was worthwhile and slow to offer support in the face of Chinese rage.

In the end, however, this values-led stance paid dividends in the form of a united, EU-initiated, and US-backed dispute complaint within the World Trade Organization opposing the Chinese sanctions. Taiwan’s appreciation has also resulted in geo-economic contributions: including a $200m commitment to a Lithuania-oriented investment vehicle, and a further $1bn of credit for joint ventures. Just this week, the European Commission has mobilized a €130m ($137m) scheme to support Lithuanian companies affected by Chinese trade restrictions.

In a more abstract form, this pilot Taiwan program — the first for an EU country — now seems strategically aligned with the pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region by the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, rendering Lithuania’s stance less idealistic than it might initially have appeared.

 2. Renewed focus on Kremlin aggression in Ukraine and beyond

Lithuania has also established a track record of leadership on Europe’s eastern flank and in bolstering its defenses. The successful management of weaponized migrant flows from Belarus last year was a key foreign policy win for Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė’s cabinet: both operationally, in terms of border protection, and politically — thanks to effective coordination with Poland, Latvia, and Estonia — in escalating the crisis to the very top of the European policy agenda. This time, the EU was swift to offer support. 

With Russia’s expanded war against Ukraine, Lithuania has also emerged as a key hub of Western activity, and is now alive with multiple civil society initiatives and Eastern security forums, while also hosting Russian and Belarussian opposition figures such as Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader-in-exile.

Most significantly, the 2022 invasion brought the issue of the Kremlin’s containment back to the top of the Western policymaking — vindicating Lithuania for its threat assessment of Russian expansionism, long deemed paranoid by more dovish Western counterparts.

Yevhen Fedchenko, the chief editor of StopFake, an initiative of the leading Eastern European think tank, the Kyiv-based Media Reforms Center, notes Lithuania’s leadership has been timely: “Lithuanians were always the first to do something for us. This is very important also from a symbolic point of view, because it means that Ukraine is not alone in our fight, we have total support. It's all about common European values — our victory will be your victory.”

Having secured the US State Department’s approval for the transfer of its Stinger surface-to-air missiles ahead of the invasion, Lithuania was among the first NATO members to provide military assistance in its aftermath. The country is the third-highest contributor to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s war effort as a percentage of GDP after Poland and Estonia. It has also been among the leading EU advocates for Ukrainian accession to the EU.

Lithuania’s support for Ukraine is helpfully multilayered, Fedchenko says: “From direct military support in the form of hardware and training, to driving sanctions initiatives and organizing political support within the EU, to a very personal level, like accepting refugees and helping Ukrainian kids, all these things are very much appreciated.”

This rapid reaction is grounded in ongoing strategic cooperation, as well as Lithuania’s democratic activism within Europe’s eastern neighborhood. Lithuanian instructors have been training the Ukrainian military since 2014. The question of Ukraine’s future direction has been an issue for previous governments too, including former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius’ proposal for “a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine” back in 2014. It reaches back to the 2006 Vilnius conference, when President Valdas Adamkus convened Baltic and Black Sea leaders to define “a vision for a common neighborhood,” and to strengthen the Eastern flank as an effective security buffer against the Kremlin’s ambitions.

The words of the US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who gave the keynote speech highlighting the convergence of “our values and our strategic interests,” rang as true then as it does today: “The freedom movement is far from over, and far from tired. And we still live in a time of heroes. From Freedom Square in Tbilisi, to Independence Square in Kyiv, and beyond, patriots have stepped forward to claim their just inheritance of liberty and independence. They have taken on tremendous duties. And they have earned the respect of a watching world.”

3. Lithuania’s ‘smart power’: the fusion of principles and interests

Despite its recent visibility, Lithuanian foreign policy activism is actually the confluence of a principles-led foreign policy driven by the new center-right cabinet, and strategic realpolitik exhibited by a collective of civil servants, the politico-military technocrats who ensure policy continuity from one government to the next. This foresight has been exhibited in its energy policy.

Lithuania reaped major reputational benefits after becoming the first European nation to cut Russian gas imports. Yet this kind of decision is built upon consistent, decades-long planning, including the procurement of floating LNG storage and regasification terminal (aptly named “Independence”), which began operations in 2014 and helped ensure the cheapest gas price for household consumers in 2021 within the EU. Likewise, the construction of a Poland-Lithuania gas interconnection (GIPL), which opens on May 1.

Following the closure of the Ignalina nuclear plant in adherence to EU membership obligations in 2010, Lithuania became an electricity-importer overnight. The country is thus still seeking to rebuild its electricity infrastructure and wean itself off dependence on Russian and Belarussian imports. The current target — synchronization with the continental European system by 2025, is well underway, with current electricity links including LitPol Link 1 (Poland), NordBalt (a Lithuanian-Swedish submarine power cable), and EstLinks 1 and 2 (Estonia-Finland interconnection).

The opening of the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence in Vilnius serves as an alliance-wide recognition of Lithuania’s long-term thinking and a leading role in creating a model of sustainable energy security for energy-importing states.

 4. Defense and rapid response capability

The other element guiding Lithuania’s strategic direction post-NATO and EU accession, is defense and security.

The country’s current doctrine is grounded in deterrence, defense, and rapid posture, powered by the most advanced NATO weaponry and specialized capability building (such as special operations forces, cyber-response, and countering influence operations.) In addition, the government is working to modernize the armed forces, develop new warfighting capabilities and improve defense innovation. Last month, Lithuania announced defense spending would rise to 2.52% of GDP, a huge real 47% rise from last year.

Modernization to a rapid mechanized infantry-led national defense is grounded in targeted procurement from key NATO partners. Outlined in the National Security Strategy of 2017, this hardware is now being integrated into the armed forces: this includes Blackhawk helicopters and Oshkosh light vehicles from the US; Boxer infantry fighting vehicles and PzH 2000 artillery systems from Germany; and the Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS).

Capability building is also ongoing on both strategic and operational levels, via local efforts (e.g. Camp “Herkus” for US troops and a specialized urban warfare training center) and international initiatives (like the NATO Force Integration Unit, and participation in 12 international missions.) meanwhile, Lithuania is developing new-generation warfighting capabilities, such as the Lithuanian-led EU Cyber Rapid Response Team, recently activated to support Ukraine.

Lastly, the country is undertaking efforts to spur innovation in military technology (miltech).

“The recipe for a successful defense ecosystem is not rocket science,” argues the former Lithuanian vice-minister of defense, and current NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Executive Management, Giedrimas Jeglinskas. “At the core is the whole-of-government approach to innovation, which enables collaboration among various national stakeholders. Leadership is essential, as it sets the tone and the ambition of what needs to happen and why it needs to happen.”

Despite the launch of a defense-oriented venture capital fund, Lithuania missed out on Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA): “The intent is to foster defense innovation through collaboration. Some countries have been selected to host accelerator sites and testing facilities,” Jeglinskas said. “Once there is a national ‘owner’, things start moving. Some countries appear to have managed to get it right from the start because of the coordinated political leadership.”

 5. The Future

The balance between principles-led and interests-backed foreign policy thinking has started bearing meaningful results.

But there is more on the horizon. One day, the guns will fall silent in Ukraine and the Central and East European members of NATO and the EU can expect to be heavily involved. Under the surface during the past two months, there has been a recognition among some in Western Europe that the CEE states, once seen as overly nervous about Russia, were simply more clear-sighted. They knew what could happen and despite their warnings, it did.

So when the Western security, political and economic institutions come to consider the future, as they must, there should be an understanding of their special knowledge, both in helping to rebuild Ukraine, but also to fashion a new approach where CEE members have a stronger voice and a greater role in deciding how Europe’s democracies can stay safe and prosper, and in how to approach the new threats and opportunities worldwide. Lithuania is already showing the way.

Dalia Bankauskaitė is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis with CEPA's Democratic Resilience Program, Professor at the Vilnius University, and an Expert at the Swedish Defence University. An interdisciplinary expert in security policy, strategic communication, and political advisory, she focuses on advancing the understanding of total defense and strat comms campaigns for high-visibility issues.

Dominykas Milašius is a geopolitical risk expert and an entrepreneur. He is the founder of Unit 370, a boutique consultancy, specializing in strategic and geopolitical risk advisory. He has previously counseled top-tier decision-makers across the EMEA region, facilitating the development of strategic international programs. He is also a co-founder of Delta biosciences, an interdisciplinary deep-tech startup.

 


Photo: NATO eFP Battlegroup congratulates
Lithuania on the Restauration of the State Day. Credit: NATO eFP Battlegroup Lithuania
via Twitter.

April 27, 2022