Ingrida Šimonytė says threats from Moscow and Beijing mean west cannot be mired by self-doubt and division
Ingrida Šimonytė: ‘I know Putin was probably feeling very happy because he feels an important guy.’ Photograph: Toms Kalniņš/EPA
The Guardian-Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
The security landscape of the Baltic states and eastern Europe may be changed permanently if Russian troops amassed on the Ukraine border start to integrate with Belarusian troops, Lithuania’s prime minister has said.
“This is a 1938 moment for our generation,” Ingrida Šimonytė said in an interview. “Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim.”
Šimonytė, who is due to meet Boris Johnson on Tuesday, is one of the European politicians most willing to make a case for democracy and expose the methods of autocracies.
Her stance has led her country of only 2.8 million people on to the frontline of ideological conflict not only with Russia but also China.
Belarus is threatening to block potash exports to her country, and China punished Lithuania for the opening of a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius by cutting trade and pressing companies to pull out of Lithuania. The UK has joined Lithuania to take China to the WTO over its behaviour.
Šimonytė said the twin threats from the superpowers showed it was necessary for the west not to be mired by self-doubt, internal divisions and self-satisfaction. “The first response is not to be afraid but to speak up,” she said. “We never see the masses on the streets demanding more autocracy.”
The 47-year-old argued that the massing of Russian troops in Belarus may be changing the security landscape in her region and was being driven by the political weakness of Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko.
“After the elections and demonstrations in August 2020 in Belarus, Lukashenko is now out of options about what he can do,” she said. “Before he was flirting with the EU, releasing some prisoners for money. He played this dual strategy, but he cannot do that any more. No one regards him as legitimate in Belarus. He needs money and Russia’s help to survive. He is dependent on them.
“This current buildup of Russian forces in Belarus is unscheduled. There was a Russian military exercise in 2021. If these military exercises mean weaponry and troops will remain on Belarus soil indefinitely, that changes the calculations substantially.
“It will mean an increase in Nato presence, and that would not be a provocation, as Moscow claims, but a reaction to what has changed on Nato borders. This is now an area full of weaponry. Russian troops that are in the south of his country can be moved very quickly. There are sorts of hybrid attacks under way. Pipelines falling apart. This is how unfortunately these regimes operate. There are no red lines they will not cross.”
Already a further 300 German troops are being flown to Lithuania. On Monday, French diplomats claimed Vladimir Putin had reassured Emmanuel Macron that the Russian troops massed in Belarus would leave, but Šimonytė said Putin pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity. “What he will definitely not do is to declare his true intentions in advance,” she said.
She showed some wariness about Macron’s diplomatic mission to Moscow, saying: “I know Putin was probably feeling very happy because he feels an important guy. Everyone is coming to talk to him, and maybe that is one of his motives. This debate should not be constructed around the question of ‘what can we do to make you happy?’ but rather ‘we are serious now and when we are saying every country has the right to choose the security net for itself, we mean it’. When you are saying ‘Nato is increasing at your expense’, that is completely fake. The truth is the opposite.”
She sidestepped the question of whether she felt Germany was acting as a drag anchor on sanctions, saying what would be scary was if there was a disagreement about what the west was seeing. “Sometimes decisions in democracies take longer,” she said.
But she did not disguise her opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, saying it increased European dependency on Russian gas and was a “very significant tool” for the Kremlin.
“Even though we are close partners with Germany, we have been saying for a very long time do not increase your dependency on Russian gas,” she said. “With Putin there are no purely commercial projects. Everything can be turned into a geopolitical project.”
Šimonytė questioned whether Germany’s past faith in changing autocratic regimes through trade remained valid. “For a very long time there was a consensus that if you increase trade, cultural and people’s exchanges, then somehow there will be a change in standards of living, and perceptions will become more similar. In many cases that has happened – it happened in Lithuania – but it is not universal. Perhaps empires do not change.”
She called on the west to call out the hypocrisy of Russia’s oligarchs. “We have overlooked how these people are using our way of living. They like our universities, our hospitals, banks, because they know rules exist in this part of the world and no one will come and strip them of your possessions. You can go to court to protect yourself, yet at the same time they are trying to undermine our way of living in any way they can. It is very dangerous schism.”