Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – In the latest episode of Battlegrounds, Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė asserts that the stakes are extremely high in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Šimonytė tells the Hoover broadcast’s host, Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H. R. McMaster, that it is crucial that the Ukrainians defeat Russia decisively, recapture lost territory, and restore their nation's sovereignty. This outcome is critical not only for the people of Ukraine but for all who desire to preserve freedom and democratic rule in the West.
Šimonytė criticizes observers of the war who seek a negotiated settlement based on conceding the Donbas region to Russian president Vladimir Putin in exchange for peace. She doesn’t believe that Putin would prefer an off-ramp to save face in light of the poor performance of the Russian military and its mounting casualties. Nor would such a diplomatic effort deter future aggression.
Šimonytė argues that a majority of the Russian people supports or is ambivalent to the mode of authoritarianism exhibited by the Kremlin. As a result of the Soviet era, and a brief and unsuccessful experiment with democracy in the decade of the 1990s, today’s Russians never fully experienced the institutions and values that people cherish in free societies, such as representative government, an independent judiciary, and respect for human rights.
In the Putin era, the Kremlin has promulgated a distorted view of Russian history based on a nostalgia for its imperial grandeur and, more recently, on the erroneous belief that it was Russia alone who liberated Europe from Nazi Germany, Šimonytė asserts. Based on the former, the Kremlin rationalizes territorial expansion, and on the latter, it justifies its enmity toward the political leadership in Kyiv, whom they falsely accuse as being sympathetic to the cause of Stepan Bandera, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator during World War II. Meanwhile, Šimonytė explains, the Kremlin whitewashes the crimes committed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, including those against the Lithuanian people.
“[Russia] has no obligation to rethink its past,” Šimonytė says, adding, “This is unfortunately now fueling this war.”
During the conversation, McMaster says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not a “black swan” event that no one could have predicted. Rather, he likened it to a “pink flamingo” with nearly two decades of glaring precedents.
In April 2007, Putin addressed the annual Munich security conference, asserting that through interventions in the Balkans and in the Middle East “NATO had put its frontline forces at [Russia’s] borders.” A month later, the Kremlin launched a cyberattack on Lithuania’s Baltic neighbor the former Soviet republic Estonia, for relocating a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier from the World War II memorial to a less prominent location in its capital city, Talinn.
In summer 2008, Russia launched its own military intervention in the Caucasus, helping to establish a breakaway republic in the Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Six years later, following a disputed election that led to the abdication of the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began supporting separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Along the way, echoing his 2007 Munich remarks, Putin has continued to decry NATO expansion and the deployment of military infrastructure in its neighboring states.
“He is fighting the values of the democratic world, the idea that people are free to choose whatever way they want their country to develop,” Šimonytė says emphatically. “If they want to be part of the European Union, NATO, or other alliances, this is the sovereign right of sovereign people. This is not for Putin to dictate just because [Ukraine] is a neighboring country and he thinks this is his sphere of influence.”
For Šimonytė, Lithuania’s 171-mile border with Russia and its own history of experiencing aggression from Moscow have kept her deeply committed not only to the NATO alliance but also to support of Ukraine’s defense, as that fragile democracy is also on the front line against authoritarianism. Under her leadership, Lithuania has provided the most aid to Ukraine among all countries in terms of proportion to its GDP.
During the broadcast, Šimonytė also stresses that for smaller nations like Lithuania, upholding a rules-based liberal order is imperative. These nations can’t be left alone in defending themselves. Their survival depends on a framework of laws and norms that can deter and punish aggressors and human rights violators.
Šimonytė believes this order has been undermined in the West, in particular by Germany, through the allure of affordable Russian natural gas. Moscow’s ability to leverage energy markets has enabled Putin to manipulate politics in Europe, thus leaving NATO flat-footed during the initial assault on Ukraine.
However, she is optimistic that the political and military alliance is now mustering sufficient strength to deter Russia. Germany has pledged to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian nations of Sweden and Finland have abandoned their positions of neutrality to expand NATO’s membership to thirty-two countries and bolster its forces in the Baltic Sea.
Despite this progress, Šimonytė stresses, the EU’s political leadership should main resolute when confronted by the Kremlin’s scare tactics that assert energy shortages will leave Europeans without heating in the coming winter months and bring their nations to the brink of economic collapse. She maintains that Europe should instead continue to focus on its security and transition to renewable energies that will enable the continent to reduce Russia’s ability to assert coercive economic power.
“If Putin sees that somebody blinks, he will use this weakness to the extent that is possible,” Šimonytė concludes.