Belarus could be used as a Russian ‘weapon’ against NATO, Lithuania president says

Russia is extending its influence into Belarus and could use it as leverage against NATO countries, Gitanas Nausėda, the president of Lithuania told CNBC in an exclusive interview Monday.

“We see the military buildup of Russian forces in Ukraine, in [the] Kaliningrad region and of course we see what’s happening in Belarus right now. We see that this country is losing its last elements of independence, and could be used in the hands of Russians as a weapon … for foreign aggressive activities towards NATO allies,” the Lithuanian leader said.

Lithuania, a nation in the Baltic region, shares a border with Belarus and has been a member of NATO since 2004. The president has previously described the relationship between Belarus and Russia as another Crimea — in reference to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Belarus was under the international spotlight last month when a civilian airplane traveling from Greece to Latvia was forced to land in Minsk, and two passengers — opponents of the Belarussian regime — were detained.

Speaking to CNBC Monday, Nausėda said “to swallow Belarus” was an “old” idea in Russia.

The Russian authorities were not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC. Previously, Moscow has criticized the deployment of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and separately Russia has denied involvement in the landing of the Ryanair flight in Belarus.

Russia-U.S. meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, last month in Sochi in the aftermath of the landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk.

NATO leaders are meeting in Brussels on Monday for their first face-to-face gathering since U.S. President Joe Biden started his tenure at the White House. At the top of their discussions is the relationship with Moscow, which, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is at its lowest point since the Cold War.

This gathering is seen as a stepping stone in the runup to a meeting between Biden and Putin later this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Putin should understand that any malign activities, any military aggression against the neighbors, against the alliance of NATO should be very costly — and costs will be political, economic,” Nausėda also said Monday.

“If we send this message, we can change a bit this aggressive behavior [that] Russia is showing recently,” he added.

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