Lithuania has long been exposed to Russia’s aggressive behaviour and has also been a victim of Russian cyber attacks. ESD had the opportunity to talk to Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of Defence of the Republic of Lithuania.
ESD: What is your perception of the Russian threat? Is NATO doing enough?
Karoblis: Regarding the Russian threat, it is clear that the situation we have been facing since 2014 is not changing. It is escalating even further. Specifically, Russia has illegally annexed Crimea and is continuing its aggressive posture in Donbas. The Russian military potential in the region remains about the same, and there is no hope that Russia could change the situation for the better.
A new page in the situation was Russia’s aggression in the Strait of Kerch. That was really a brazen demonstration of force. It was the first time that Russia had shown its true colours when it was directly involved in the heinous attacks against the peaceful naval ships of Ukraine.
Well, are we all doing enough? My personal question is “Where are the red lines?” Do we have to put up with the Russian behaviour and further tolerate their attacks?
I was ambassador to the European Union in 2014, and I was probably the first EU ambassador to inform the EU authorities of the Russian side using tanks, other weapons in Ukraine’s Donbas. It was in July. One EU official wondered what could follow next, what our response could be. He said we had to establish red lines and see what the Russian reaction would be. We did impose sanctions on Russia but stopped short of setting up red lines. It was the issue in 2014. Red lines were not established at all. Therefore, I believe more solidarity is necessary. The perception of threats among the NATO allies is different. Being members of a multinational alliance, we have to settle disputes by mutual concession, that is, we always need to find a compromise.
ESD: What are the lessons learned from the Enhanced Forward Presence and Baltic Air Control?
Karoblis: Enhanced Forward Presence is really working, and working very well. It is really a demonstration of solidarity. Of course, keeping in mind Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, it was obvious that Russia was not going to implement its international obligations; it doesn’t respect independence, sovereignty or territorial integrity of other countries. We are glad that NATO and the EU are well aware of where the real threats come from.
Lithuania was raising the issue of Russian threats. They called us Russophobes but unfortunately, we were right. Enhanced Forward Presence is one of the mechanisms we have. Because of the presence of NATO forces, of the solidarity among the member-states, any aggressor should think twice before attempting to launch an attack against the country in which NATO troops are stationed. NATO allies from the Baltic states are happy as they enjoy solidarity of other countries and have an opportunity to test the level of combat training of their units. Our objective is deterrence.
ESD: What are the key modernisation projects of the Lithuanian Armed Forces?
Karoblis: If you take the issue of modernisation seriously, you need a lot of money. It was the first time last year that we reached 2% of GDP. It was not easy. We have already discussed political issues and lines of development and decided to bring the level of military expenditure to 2.07% of GDP. Then, because of slow economic growth, this target was lowered to 1,98%. In summer, we succeed in allocating another €20M for the defence.
The issue of modernisation: The objective of NATO is to raise the amount of money for modernisation by 20%. We’ve made it 30%. It is not about the figures that look attractive, but it’s because we really need that. Our biggest project now is the BOXER infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). The IFVs are to come into service with two battalions of the Mechanised Infantry Brigade to increase its battle readiness. We stress high manoeuvrability and fighting capability.
Secondly, we will buy the German Panzerhaubitze, which is one of the best in the world. In addition, we are forming an air defence battalion to be armed with the Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS). It will become operational soon. The NASAMS is a middle-range air defence system. Nowadays, we have only short-range anti-aircraft guns. Now we will raise the level. Of course, we will not cover the whole territory of Lithuania but the aggressor will think twice before attacking.
Another direction is buying armoured vehicles for reconnaissance missions, for the special operations forces. Now we focus our attention on the helicopter units. Well, this direction is about 30% complete. Therefore, our main directions include modernisation of our forces, raising the firepower, the manoeuvrability of our forces, and enhancing their reconnaissance capabilities. In addition, we develop programmes related to the motivation of the service personnel. We have made a substantial progress in our efforts to modernise our armed forces, to equip them with modern armament, and so forth. We will continue investing in armament, in new technologies. Of course, it is costly but we have to pursue that policy. I think we will succeed.
ESD: What is Lithuania’s participation in PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation)?
Karoblis: We have challenges in EU in general. Besides, there are disagreements between the EU and NATO member-states in terms of defence expenditures and their capabilities. It is important to emphasise that representatives of the EU exhibited a flexible understanding of EU-NATO complementarity. Representatives of the three main institutions that shaped the Lithuanian position on PESCO discussed three distinct ways in which EU defence policy could supplement the Alliance. First, it could do this directly, through projects that enhance or optimise NATO operations in Europe. Second, EU initiatives that help its member states develop their national defence capabilities would also indirectly strengthen NATO defensive capacity. Third, the EU would assist NATO role in ensuring transatlantic security through projects covering sub-conventional threats, such as disinformation, cyber-attacks, or attacks against critical infrastructure – threats against which NATO today has a relatively limited toolbox. Of course, we should support these initiatives. For example, we are interested in military mobility. It is about the speed issues related to NATO, such as decision-making speed and high mobility. The idea is good. However, the border crossing procedures for military units are a very sensitive issue from the standpoint of security. We need to resolve it.
Another example, which I believe is important, is cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is the domain where we need to be together. We need collective efforts in sharing experience and defending our interests together. This project is one of the latest achievements we have gained on a practical basis.
There are other issues of importance. We must work together in the field of logistics, military medicine, and so on. Of course, it should be about doing good deeds, not the words alone.
The second issue is the openness of PESCO projects to third countries. It is ok with the EU, but what about our partners in the European economic zone, Norway, for example? In addition, of course, we have our partners in the East – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. So, should these projects be open for these countries, too? These challenges must be discussed in the EU. I think, we need to be open when confronted with such issues.
ESD: Does Europe need a strategic autonomy or do we have to rely on NATO as we did in the past?
Karoblis: I hate the theme of strategic autonomy. Maybe there are some cultural aspects but in the Lithuanian language, the term “autonomy” means autonomy from something. However, it is not about the terms, but also about substance. We do not talk about isolation. The challenges in the world are real. NATO cannot be everywhere. We need some distribution of responsibilities. For example, Africa. We have to involve the UN mechanisms. We talk about apportionment of commitments. Our area of responsibility is Europe. We could elaborate quite a lot on these mechanisms. However, we do not need a European Army. Certainly, we have the classical European battle groups. Yes, these mechanisms are quite expensive. I think we have to keep in mind that we are responsible for several parts of Europe. Therefore, it is not a strategic autonomy, not a European army but the European mechanisms of defence.
The interview was conducted by Alex Horobets