The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have called for additional Nato forces to bolster their security as Russia encircles Ukraine and tightens its grip on neighbouring Belarus.
The small European Union states, whose combined population is similar to that of the island of Ireland, have called for years for a harder line to be taken to deter the Kremlin.
Ruled by Moscow until they won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic states consider themselves the long-suffering front line of Kremlin disinformation, cyber attacks, and political interference, and believe that insufficient punishment for the invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 emboldened President Vladimir Putin to push for more.
"Lithuania could have a possibility to say: 'we told you so'," Lithuania's foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in an interview with a group of journalists on the sidelines of a gathering of EU ministers this week.
“Putin showed that he can build up a credible offensive situation where we are credibly convinced that he has means to attack a territory, like Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million people,” he said. “We need to make sure that the Baltic countries can be credibly defended, in numbers and capabilities.”
Of particular concern is recent events, not just in Ukraine, but also in Belarus.This week the regime of autocrat and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko announced that an estimated 45,000 Russian soldiers stationed there would not leave after completing drills, as had been said previously, but would remain indefinitely.
Lithuania quickly raised the alarm that this constituted a direct security threat to the Baltics and to Poland, all in easy reach of the country. The Lithuanian capital Vilnius is only 35km from the Belarusian border, and it lies in the path between Belarus and Russia's Baltic port enclave Kaliningrad.
Landsbergis described what was happening in Belarus as a “slow occupation” of the country. Decisions were made “more and more from the Russian political decision-makers and less from Belarusians. That means that there’s a very low level of independence left. There is a clear perception who is actually calling the shots in this situation, and it’s no longer the Belarusian politicians.”
On Sunday Belarus is due to have a referendum, viewed with scepticism from abroad, given Lukashenko’s record of claiming overwhelming victories in highly-disputed elections. The proposed constitutional reforms would strengthen Lukashenko’s power and allow him to reign until 2035, while ending the country’s neutrality and ban on nuclear weapons.
The EU, United States, and Britain have warned they will unleash profound economic sanctions on Russia if it proceeds with an invasion of Ukraine. But the threshold for what would constitute an invasion has been ambiguous. The problem this posed quickly became clear in the wake of Putin's recognition of the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and dispatch of tanks to the regions, which are split between Russian and Ukrainian control.
EU ambassadors gathered in Brussels to hash out whether this constitutes an invasion, and whether it should merit the full force of the sanctions prepared.
In the Lithuanian view sanctions should already have been deployed to respond to the crushing economic pressure on Ukraine from Russian military encirclement, intimidation and disinformation campaigns.
“There are certain things that have begun. They already carry a price, and they should warrant an answer,” Landsbergis said
“We can sanction the people who are responsible for the false flag information campaigns that are currently happening. We’re witnessing tens of them every day, and some of them are supported by very high level officials from the Russian side... to provide a pretext for an attack.”
Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million, is estimated to be among the EU’s most vulnerable to impediments to trade with Russia due to its high level of exports to the country and use of its gas.
But Landsbergis insisted that “nothing should be off the table” when it comes to sanctions, going so far as to suggest there should be a full embargo on Russian gas supplies to the EU. That is something that would hurt Russia, but also cause the EU shortages, a potential economic shock, and the rationing of electricity, as Russia provides about 40 per cent of the bloc’s gas consumption.
Above all, he argued that the EU and Nato should take the opposite action that Putin has asked for, and should not grant concessions in response to a show of force.
“I think that it’s a very good moment to really offer additional integration steps for Ukraine, especially now, to show that Putin is not frightening Ukraine and hasn’t frightened the European Union,” he said.
“You do not rewrite the European security rules by power. If you’re given this opportunity to rewrite them then the question is very clear: so who’s next then? Where will the next build-up happen?” Landsbergis continued.
“Because then you can expect that somebody would put up troops on [the] Lithuanian border, and ask [for] concessions again. So if you go that path, it’s a very, very dangerous path.”
One thing Landsbergis can’t stand is the description of the situation as “a conflict”.
“It’s not a conflict, it’s actually a blatant attack. A conflict requires two sides, and it’s very clear that one side is a victim in this. When you’re mugged in the street,there is no ‘conflict’ between you: you were mugged. So now this is happening to Ukraine.”
Like those of all EU member states his government’s position is that a solution must be found through diplomacy. But diplomacy with an edge. The old belief that Russian territorial ambitions could be bought off with economic ties – typified by Germany’s development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline of gas allowing supplies from Russia to bypass Ukraine – has been shown to be false, he insists.
“We in the West believed that through trade we can bring Russia, and retain Russia and other countries, to what we see as as basic principles for maintaining the global order,” he said.
“The last events showed those 30 years were used not in our advantage. Russia built dependency. On its oil, on its gas. I think that it’s an incredibly good time to wake up and see what has happened throughout those 30 years, and to not repeat the same mistakes again.”