[Interview] Outcome in Ukraine will decide whether war spills further into Europe, says senior Lithuanian defense official

Posted on : 2023-03-03 17:16 KST Modified on : 2023-03-03 17:16 KST
The Hankyoreh spoke with Vaidotas Urbelis, defense policy director for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, about the ongoing war in Ukraine and its implications for security in Europe
Vaidotas Urbelis, the defense policy director for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, speaks to the Hankyoreh over Zoom on Feb. 9.
Vaidotas Urbelis, the defense policy director for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, speaks to the Hankyoreh over Zoom on Feb. 9.

As the war launched by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marks its anniversary, one country in particular is being singled out as the “most dangerous place on Earth”: Lithuania.

In June 2022, former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov predicted, “If Ukraine is a failure, the Baltic states will be next.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian businessperson who is currently in exile, similarly predicted that the Kremlin’s next step would be to “shut down Lithuania’s airspace.”

Lithuania shares a 679km border with Belarus to the east and a 297km border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the west. How do its leaders view the current war?

On Feb. 9, the Hankyoreh asked Vaidotas Urbelis, defense policy director for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence.

Hankyoreh: How has Lithuania’s perception of security changed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

Vaidotas Urbelis: Of course, the Russian threat has always been the main security challenge. This has not changed. This is aggression against Ukraine and war in Europe, which has accelerated the need to strengthen our deterrence posture to strengthen our defense and all of NATO’s eastern flank. And of course [we need to] help Ukraine to win. Third, [we must] watch what Russians and Belarusians are doing.

Hankyoreh: What has Russia meant to Lithuania’s security, and how has that changed now?

Urbelis: Russian security policy is based on the perception that its neighbors belong to a sphere of influence. It’s a neo-imperialist country, which seeks to get back its territory. They are ready to use any means to grab territories, which are adjacent to Russia, close to Russia, or had some historical connections to Russia. It could be military, it could be economic, it could be energy, intelligence, hybrid warfare — anything that is available. So there’s no ethical or moral limits to what they’re doing. We first of all understand the challenge, and second fight against that.

Hankyoreh: Last June, the Russian parliament introduced a bill to abolish the recognition of Lithuanian independence, and I understand that Lithuania’s state-owned energy company was subjected to massive cyberattacks. I understand there was also a cyberattack against institutions related to the Lithuanian government after the government banned transportation from Lithuania to Kaliningrad. Is Russia responsible for that? What was Lithuania's response to this?

Urbelis: That bill didn’t pass, by the way. I guess that was because Putin decided it’s not time to do anything. It was just a signal: “Look, we define borders as we wish. Lithuania is part of Russia. We will make the decisions, not the people who live in those countries.” What we can do is be resilient and not pay attention to such nonsense.

In regard to cyberattacks, we are the target of frequent Russian cyberattacks. And you know, of course, that there are no independent actors when it comes to cyberattacks. In Russia, everything is coordinated via intelligence services. But almost everything is being tested daily — transportation, energy, communication, banks, national defense system and foreign affairs. The answer is to have adequate defense in place to strengthen cyber resilience, to look for attacks, and to learn [countermeasures] from other countries. Russian hackers were able to intrude into several systems, but the damage was not huge. It wasn’t anything we couldn’t manage, but we must be prepared for bigger attacks, no questions about it.

Hankyoreh: Lithuania and the other Baltic states have been warning about the Russian threat for a long time before the invasion of Ukraine last year, and now that threat has become a reality. Did NATO and your Western allies not heed those warnings?

Urbelis: We were talking pretty openly about our perception of the Russian threat for many years. Of course, countries have differing perceptions of Russia, and we saw some naive thinking that working with Russia could change its behavior. Of course, we can’t deny that we might work with Russia on some issues in the future, but we always have to keep in mind that whenever you talk to them and disclose your information, it could be used against you in the future. So you have to always be prepared.

Hankyoreh: What specific measures have been introduced to eliminate these security threats?

Urbelis: First, we must help Ukraine win the war. It’s a moral responsibility, but it’s also a very pragmatic interest that Ukraine recovers its borders and becomes part of the Western world. Second, of course, we must build our own defenses. In small countries, every person must be prepared to fight, whether in a military or non-military capacity. Third, we need to conscript more people into the armed forces, modernize the military, and establish a rigorous intelligence and [emergency] warning system.

Hankyoreh: Lithuania is a member of the European Union and NATO. What do you think those two bodies are doing to eliminate security threats, and what else should they be doing?

Urbelis: As a military alliance, NATO is talking about how we can strengthen our defense system to defend against any further Russian provocations or aggression. That concerns how to deploy, relocate and reinforce forces on NATO’s eastern flank [in the event of a crisis]. Of course, the EU is much broader in scope. The EU is not a military alliance, but it has a defense dimension. When we talk about the defense industry — about producing more and buying more — that’s where the EU comes into play.

Hankyoreh: You said you will be expanding your armed forces. What specific changes will that entail?

Urbelis: Well, we already have mandatory conscription now; the issue is the lack of trained personnel and infrastructure. We’re not able to train each and every young Lithuanian when they reach the age of 18. We’re currently having a debate about how to expand training, perhaps by providing options for how people can be trained during their education. The objective is to have more trained people in the reserves who could be called up if necessary.

Hankyoreh: Have you detected any change in public opinion since the invasion of Ukraine?

Urbelis: We had a pretty wide agreement and understanding across all political parties on the Russian threat even before the war. There might have been some small portion of the population that can be naive in terms of thinking that trade or good relations or cultural exchanges will change Russian policies. I think that naivety is gone. People have gained a much more realistic threat perception about Russia, that you can’t change Russia by trading phones or inviting the Moscow ballet troupe to attend some event.

Hankyoreh: Do you see the possibility of large-scale war in Europe?

Urbelis: We already have a large-scale war.

Hankyoreh: What about the possibility of escalation?

Urbelis: Let me say that what happens in Ukraine will define if there will be another war in Europe. If Ukraine wins, the prospect of any other war in Europe will decrease dramatically.

Hankyoreh: If Ukraine is unable to win this war, do you think the next target would be the Baltic countries?

Urbelis: Our assumption when planning has always been that we could be the next target any day. You hope it never happens, but you must be prepared every second.

Hankyoreh: What is the Lithuanian government’s position on Ukraine's accession to NATO?

Urbelis: During the Bucharest summit some years ago [in April 2008], Ukraine was promised that one day it would become a member of NATO. So I think that open-door policy remains the same. Our position that one day Ukraine will become a NATO member is very strong. We wholeheartedly support Ukraine’s integration into NATO, no questions about it. But for now, there’s a war that we must help Ukraine to win.

Hankyoreh: Lithuania is giving Ukraine its full support, but some have pointed out that the level of military aid has reached its limit.

Urbelis: It’s a challenge, because defense production is not keeping up with what we want to buy [in aid for Ukraine]. That’s a huge issue not just for us, but for all European countries. There needs to be more production. But we’re finally getting some equipment we contracted some years ago, which allows us to speed up delivery of some items [to Ukraine].

Hankyoreh: How long will the West’s military aid for Ukraine last? Do you think that Ukraine will get the fighter jets it wants?

Urbelis: Well, I think we should do everything that is possible. I don’t think there should be any restrictions on what we can provide. While our military, unfortunately, doesn’t have any tanks or fighter jets, we encourage countries that do to do everything possible to strengthen the Ukrainians’ fighting power.

Hankyoreh: The US and Germany have been dragging their feet about providing fighter jets, claiming that they would be too hard for the Ukrainian forces to operate.

Urbelis: I think that when you’re at war and you’re defending your country, you learn [how to use weapons] much faster than you would otherwise.

Hankyoreh: How do you anticipate this war will end?

Urbelis: Wars always end. I just hope it will end on terms that are acceptable to Ukraine.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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