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Lithuania is one of the Baltic States has long been the focus of European security policy. It constantly feels the threat posed by the aggressive behavior of Russia. Lithuania has also been victim of Russian cyber-attacks. ES & T had the opportunity to talk to Raimundas KAROBLIS, the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Lithuania.

ES & T: How do you see the Russian threat?

Photo: MoD Lithuania / Alfredas Pliadis

KAROBLIS: As to the Russian threat, it is clear that the situation with which we are faced since 2014, does not change. They escalated even further. In particular, Russia has annexed the Crimea illegal and continues its aggressive stance in the Donbass. The Russian military potential in the region remains about the same, and there is no hope that Russia will change the situation for the better.

A new page in the situation was Russia's aggression in the Kerch Strait. That was really a shameless demonstration of force. It was the first time that Russia has shown its true face when it was directly involved in the heinous attacks on the peaceful naval vessels Ukraine.

ES & T: Are the actions of the NATO sufficient?

KAROBLIS: Well, we all do enough? My personal question is: Where are the red lines? Do we have to resign ourselves to the Russian behavior and continue to tolerate the attacks?

I was in 2014 Ambassador to the European Union, and I was probably the first EU ambassador, who informed the EU authorities about Russian activities in the Ukrainian Donbass with tanks and other weapons. It was in July. An EU official wondered what might follow next, what could be our answer. He said we would have to put red lines and see how would the Russian reaction look like. We have imposed sanctions against Russia, but set no red lines. It was the topic in 2014. Red lines were not established. Therefore, I believe that more solidarity is necessary. The perception of threats by NATO allies is different. As members of a multinational alliance we need to resolve disputes by mutual concessions, that we always have to find a compromise.

ES & T: What lessons do you draw from the amplified forward presence and the Baltic Air Control?

KAROBLIS: The increased forward presence (Enhanced Forward Presence) works very well. It's really a demonstration of solidarity. Of course, it was obvious in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine that Russia would not fulfill its international obligations; it does not respect the independence, sovereignty or territorial integrity of other countries. We are pleased that NATO and the European Union very comfortable are made fully aware of where the actual threats come.

Lithuania raised the issue of Russian threats. They called us russophob, but unfortunately we were right. Reinforced forward presence is one of the mechanisms that we have. Due to the presence of NATO forces, solidarity between Member States any attacker should think twice before he tries to launch an attack on the country where NATO troops are stationed. The NATO allies from the Baltic states are happy since they enjoy the solidarity of other countries and have the opportunity to test the level of combat training of their units. Our goal is deterrence.

ES & T: What are the major modernization projects of the Lithuanian Armed Forces?

KAROBLIS: If one takes the issue of modernization seriously, you need a lot of money. In the past year we have for the first time reached two percent of gross domestic product to defense spending. It was'nt easy. We have already talked about political issues and development lines and decided to lower the level of military spending to 2.07 percent of gross domestic product. Due to the slow economic growth this goal was then lowered to 1.98 percent. In the summer, we are able to provide another 20 million euros for the defense.

The issue of modernization: The purpose of NATO is to increase the amount of money for the modernization of 20 percent. We have reached 30 percent. It's not about the numbers that look attractive. We really need the 30 percent. Our biggest project is now the armored personnel carrier Boxer. The armored personnel should be provided in two battalions of mechanized infantry brigade in service to increase their combat effectiveness. We value high maneuverability and combat effectiveness.

Second, we will buy the German-propelled howitzer, which is among the best in the world. In addition, we form an air defense battalion, the Norwegian soil-air system (Advanced Surface to Air Missile System, NASAMS) should be armed. It will soon go into operation. The NASAMS is a medium-range air defense system. So far we have only short-range anti-aircraft guns. Now we will increase the level. Of course, we will not cover the whole territory of Lithuania, but the attacker will think twice before attacking.

Another measure is the purchase of armored vehicles for Aufklärungs.missionen for the special forces. In addition, we focus on the helicopter units. Here we have reached about 30 percent. Therefore, our main objectives are the modernization of our armed forces, increasing the firepower, maneuverability of our armed forces and improve its reconnaissance capability. We also develop programs that relate to the motivation of the service personnel. We have made significant progress in our efforts to modernize our armed forces to be equipped with modern weaponry and so on. We will continue to invest in the armor and in new technologies. Of course it is expensive, but we have to continue this policy. I think we will make it.

Members of the US Marine Corps amphibious showed their skills in preparation for the Baltic Operations (baltops) 2019 in Palanga, Lithuania on June 15, 2019. (photo: USMC / Antonio Garcia)

ES & T: What involvement does Lithuania on the structured cooperation in the EU (Permanent Structured Cooperation PESCO)?

KAROBLIS: Wir haben Herausforderungen in der EU im Allgemeinen. Außerdem gibt es Meinungsverschiedenheiten zwischen den EU- und NATO-Mitgliedstaaten in Bezug auf die Verteidigungsausgaben und ihre Fähigkeiten. Es ist wichtig zu betonen, dass Vertreter der EU ein flexibles Verständnis der Komplementarität von EU und NATO gezeigt haben. Vertreter der drei wichtigsten Institutionen, die die litauische Position zu PESCO geprägt haben, diskutierten drei verschiedene Möglichkeiten, wie die Verteidigungspolitik der EU das Bündnis ergänzen könnte. Erstens könnte sie dies direkt tun durch Projekte zur Verbesserung oder Optimierung der NATO-Operationen in Europa. Zweitens würden EU-Initiativen, die den Mitgliedstaaten helfen, ihre nationalen Verteidigungsfähigkeiten zu entwickeln, indirekt auch die Verteidigungsfähigkeit der NATO stärken. Drittens würde die EU die Rolle der NATO bei der Gewährleistung der transatlantischen Sicherheit durch Projekte unterstützen, die subkonventionelle Bedrohungen wie Desinformationen, Cyber-Angriffe oder Angriffe auf Kritische Infrastrukturen umfassen – Bedrohungen, gegen die die NATO heute über einen relativ begrenzten Werkzeugkasten verfügt. Natürlich sollten wir diese Initiativen unterstützen. Beispielsweise sind wir an der militärischen Mobilität interessiert. Es geht um die mit der NATO verbundenen Geschwindigkeitsprobleme, wie Entscheidungsgeschwindigkeit und hohe Mobilität. Die Idee ist gut. Die Grenzübergangsverfahren für militärische Einheiten sind jedoch aus sicherheitstechnischer Sicht ein sehr heikles Thema. Wir müssen das Problem lösen.

Another example, which I think is important is cyber security. Cyber ​​security is the domain in which we have to be together. We need a concerted effort to exchange experiences and to represent our interests together. This project is one of the latest achievements that we have achieved in practice.

There are other important questions. We must work together in the fields of logistics, military medicine, etc.. Of course, it should be to do good deeds, not just words alone.

The second problem is the openness of PESCO projects for third countries. It's fine in the EU. But what about our partners in the European Economic Area, as Norway? In addition, we have our partners in the east - Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. If these cooperation projects therefore be open to these countries? These challenges need to be discussed in the EU. I think we need to be open when we are confronted with such problems.

ES & T: Europe needs a strategic autonomy or we must rely in the past on NATO?

KAROBLIS: I hate the subject of strategic autonomy. Maybe there are some cultural aspects, but in the Lithuanian language, the term "autonomy" means autonomy of something. But it is not about the words, but also the substance. We do not speak of isolation. The challenges in the world are real. NATO can not be everywhere. We need a certain division of responsibilities. For example, Africa. We must involve the UN mechanisms. We are talking about the division of responsibilities. Our responsibility is Europe. We could work out a lot about these mechanisms. However, we do not need a European army. Surely we have the classical European battle groups. Yes, these mechanisms are quite expensive. I think we have to remember that we are responsible for several parts of Europe. It is therefore not a strategic autonomy, not a European army, but the European defense mechanisms.

Interview by Alex Horobets. (Member of the editorial team of our sister magazine "European Security and Defense")