Lithuania has never been safer despite sharply rising tensions with neighbouring Belarus and Russia, according to the prime minister.
Ingrida Simonyte told the Financial Times that the forced landing of a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius by Belarus and the seizure of a dissident onboard showed that “you cannot exclude anything,” and “must be prepared for anything,” with the regime of president Alexander Lukashenko.
Nato has bolstered security in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Multinational battalions have been stationed in each country, led by the likes of the US and Germany, and air policing has been increased.
“In a paradoxical way, Lithuania has never been safer than it is now. Unfortunately the region is becoming more unstable than it was 10 years ago.
“Some things one could only have imagined, such as the redrawing of countries’ borders, has actually happened,” Simonyte said.
Lithuania has become one of the most outspoken defenders of liberal democracy, drawing dissidents such as Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Roman Protasevich, the journalist-activist arrested last Sunday.
It has repeatedly warned western countries about the dangers of being soft on Russia and has in recent months stood up to China, calling its repression of the Uyghur minority a genocide and withdrawing from the 17+1 group of central and eastern European countries and Beijing.
Lithuania’s prime minister said it had been essential for the EU to react quickly to the forced landing of the plane by Belarus as Minsk’s strategy was “a full oppression of all the freedoms we in the EU cherish”.
Simonyte added that the EU should consider “all sorts of sanctions” against Lukashenko’s regime including different sectors of its economy, its ability to raise money in financial markets, and participation in the Ostrovets nuclear plant close to Vilnius that Lithuania has long objected to.
Simonyte would not discuss countermeasures being taken to protect Belarusian dissidents and a key ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who is also in Lithuania.
“We all know the story of novichok in the United Kingdom. I’m afraid these are regimes where nothing is excluded. We remain alert, we remain cautious,” she added.
The Baltic states have been reassured by security commitments from Nato and the US in recent years as well as their own record of meeting the military alliance’s target of spending more than 2 per cent on defence.
Simonyte said that still more needed to be done in the Baltics, particularly with regard to beefing up air security. “We are so much safer and better prepared, as never before. But this is not the end of the story. This world, based on treaties, values, and rules, is being a little rearranged. It means we still have the case before our Nato partners that it needs to be strengthened further,” she said.
On the recent US waiving of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas across the Baltic Sea, and which enjoys strong support from Germany, Simonyte warned of economic interests that caused allies to “turn a blind eye to some unpleasant things”.
She said that the US and Germany might think they were strong enough to settle any disputes with Russia in a bilateral manner.
“Maybe this is [justified] but it is important not to step away from basic values. You are increasing your dependence on countries that are not like you,” she said.
Lithuania has also come under financial scrutiny in recent weeks after the FT reported that German prosecutors suspect a Lithuanian fintech was used to steal more than €100m from Wirecard before it collapsed last year.
Simonyte said Lithuania was “not a country that would turn a blind eye over some dubious activities in exchange for having more players in the market”.
She said there was no need for more regulation, but perhaps more resources were necessary, especially for the financial police.
She said Lithuania’s central bank paid close attention to the security risk of countries such as Russia and Belarus trying to exploit the financial system by closely checking owners, the source of money, and “any links with regimes”.