Lithuania’s president warns of growing ‘Russian chauvinism’

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region unnerved Russia’s neighbors from Kazakhstan in the south to the Baltic states in the north. Lithuania’s newly re-elected President spoke about her neighbor to the east – Russia.

In Lithuania, July is the season of song festivals, like this one in the 15th century church of Saints Johns.

But across a cobblestone street, in the white washed neo-classical presidential palace, Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaite sees little harmony with her massive neighbor to the east – Russia. “Now, we see aggressive rhetoric, aggressive behavior, aggressive propaganda, and informational wars,” she noted.

Great Russian chauvinism

In an interview with VOA President Grybauskaite warns that behind the Kremlin, fueling the pro-Russian separatist rebellion in Ukraine, is the rise of “great Russian chauvinism.”

“The great Russian chauvinism, which is now increasing in Russia, mainly very much depends on the elite, who are trying to revive it. And this is very dangerous,” she said. “So I[‘m] not much sure it will be over in five years, because it will surely be specific to President Putin.”

Lithuania’s president and Russian President Vladimir Putin both have black belts in karate. Some feel that the Russian president may have met his Baltic match – on the verbal level, at least.

On Saturday, Grybauskaite is to be inaugurated president for a second five-year term. As president of Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states, she is expected to take the lead in countering Russia’s regional ambitions. All three Baltic nations are members of the European Union and of NATO.

The Lithuanian president warns that Russia’s interference in Ukraine this year marks a dangerous turn in modern Russia’s relations with its neighbors.

“It is very worrying. And it looks like that it’s not over. The same methods that are now used in Eastern Ukraine — the same threats, at least not directly military yet, but informational, cyber. Propaganda wars already we are feeling ourselves in the Baltic states, Poland for example. The military exercises also we do have on our borders, in the Kaliningrad region,” Grybauskaite said.

The president said she has no doubt that Russia has supplied sophisticated weapons to the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. “Some terrorist groups are supplied with military equipment, clearly of Russian origin, and clearly not from the market,” she noted. “But specially provided, and very expensive also.”

As in Eastern Ukraine, the Baltics are home to a large Russian-speaking population. Russian speakers here number 1 million people, or 15 percent of the total population of the Baltic states.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine Crimea

President Grybauskaite sharply criticized the Kremlin’s moves to act against neighboring countries in the name of defending Russian speakers beyond Russia’s borders. She compared this policy to war justifications made by Germany prior to World War II.

“We are seeing methods that have been used in the ‘30s of the last century starting to be used now in the 21st century,” she stated.

She said Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea woke up NATO. Since then, NATO troops have been rotating through the Baltics, training with local military.

Lithuania’s leader said that her country is raising defense spending, aiming to soon hit NATO’s standard of 2 percent of Gross Domesitc Profit..

Lithuania is also working to cut its dependency on Russia for all its natural gas.

This dependency ends in December when a floating liquefied natural gas ship is to dock in the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda . The ship has the capacity of importing more than enough gas to meet all of Lithuania’s needs.

To further cut dependency on Russian pipeline gas, Lithuania’s President urged Washington to approve exports of gas from the United States. She said that such a move would have political benefits.

“Today, we see America has responsibility, a quite global one, on security, on democracy, on peace. Energy is one of the tools to secure the peace, without military interventions. And instead of sending troops, you can send the gas, and you will do the same, you will secure the peace in the world,” said Grybauskaite.

By cutting gas dependency on Russia and by strengthening defensive alliances with the West, Lithuania’s president seeks to preserve her nation’s independence in the face of Russia’s new muscle in the region.


(Photo: EC Audiovisual Service)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.