We must invest more time; resources; and effort in our security, tells Kestutis Budris, Chief National Security Advisor to the President of Lithuania in an interview to Diplomaatia.
Lithuania hosted a NATO Summit in the summer. The Baltic states went to that summit with high expectations which, it’s probably fair to say, were not fully met. Now that the dust has settled, how do you assess the Vilnius Summit? What were you pleased with? What were you disappointed with?
Generally, the Vilnius Summit was a success. Important decisions were made about our collective defence: the approval of the regional defence plans, the new command structure, integrated missile defence for peacetime as well as wartime, including the rotation of ground-based elements. We were joined by four leaders from Indo-Pacific partner countries, which was important in bringing the democracies of Asia and Europe closer together and recognising the linkage between the security situation in the two regions.
These were all big pieces. We should not concentrate only on the issue of Ukraine. But even on Ukraine, we need some perspective. From where we were in January 2023 to where we ended up in July—this was huge progress. In our initial discussions, we were told that the NATO-Ukraine Council was the maximum that we could achieve. Now, not only do we have the Council, but we also have the Membership Action Plan (MAP) excluded from the accession process. We have a clearer understanding of what increased cooperation between NATO and Ukraine will require. These may sound like empty words, but there is substance behind them—for example on intelligence cooperation. So, we did make progress.
It’s also important to recognise the emotion in Vilnius. There were thousands of Ukrainian flags and big expectations that Ukraine would be invited to join NATO—which, of course, were not met. Not all Allies see membership of NATO as the solution for Ukraine’s security. Even now, as we start to prepare for the Washington Summit, we have to make the case that inviting Ukraine is the right thing to do. Many countries argue that the war has to end first—we have to have peace before we can talk about NATO membership. We are saying that we must instead use the invitation as leverage to end the war sooner. Russia has shown that it will prolong the war to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. If we take membership off the table, we will have failed to recognise Russia’s different logic. This is why, at the Washington Summit, we must invite Ukraine. This is the only solution for prolonged peace in Europe.
The Baltic states have been keen for some time to see NATO build a stronger defence and deterrence posture on the eastern flank. Baltic officials and politicians have talked a lot about ‘forward defence’ and Lithuania has been especially vocal about the need for a larger German presence in your country. All this was also discussed at Vilnius. How do you see the Baltic defence and deterrence situation? What has changed what more still needs to be done?
In Vilnius, leaders approved an overall concept for strengthening defence and deterrence. But the general plans must now be turned into tactical ones. As General Darryl A. Williams, Commander of Allied Land Command and US Army Europe and Africa, said here at the ABCD, there will be multiple stages to their implementation: from tabletop to real exercises, amendments to Allies’ posture in the Baltic region, and so on. We, as host nations, have a lot of homework to do ourselves to prepare to support infrastructure, mobility, and prepositioned equipment. For instance, in Lithuania, we have to prepare ammunition storage facilities capable of sustaining defence operations for 7, 14, 21 days. This requires some serious investment and procurement.
But this is not yet forward defence. This is not yet what experts believe we need for the defence of the Baltic states. For deterrence by denial, we need much bigger numbers. More forces than we have here on a rotational basis and for training. Reinforcement and military mobility are still big challenges in the current conditions (e.g., for the Suwałki Gap). This explains our continued push for deterrence by denial and forward defence. We cannot afford to be dependent on early warning systems and intelligence. On the Russian side, there will be a surprise factor: a no-notice or short-notice operation. We must do everything we can to avoid being hostage to those narrow time frames. If we cannot have boots on the ground in larger formations, then we need to have equipment prepositioned in the Baltic countries. We talked about these ideas a lot in 2014 but did too little.
On the national defence level, we still have work to do to enlarge our Armed Forces and augment the units we already have. In Lithuania, partly following the Estonian example, we have decided to create a division-level unit by 2030. This does not only mean setting up a new headquarters with a new general and a plaque on the wall but also personnel, training, and combat support, which comes at a cost. Our training areas are another limiting factor. We already host the eFP and the US battalion; the German brigade will arrive soon; not to mention our own national forces and the various NATO exercises we host. Seven years may seem like plenty of time to implement these projects, but it is not.
You mentioned the high cost of strengthening defence. But at Vilnius, the Alliance really went no further on spending commitments than it had 10 years earlier in in Wales. Even then, some Allies are saying that they still do not expect to meet 2% commitment. Is defence spending a lost cause? Or can we be optimistic that the new defence plans, and the detailed capability requirements that will flow from those defence plans, will prompt Allies to invest more, or at least to adjust their spending plans to produce more of what is actually required?
First, we need an additional push from the defence community. Second, we need additional arguments to talk to our domestic audiences. And third, we need the support of our Allies. It is easy to make the case for increasing defence budgets among security policy experts. But at the end of the day, this has to be agreed by other departments and ministries, and in national governments and parliaments, where the discussion is very different.
The best time to pledge additional multi-year defence funding (nationally) would have been last year. We could have gone as high as 4% or 5% of GDP, and our societies would have approved it because the threat was so close. Since then, we have been losing momentum as political priorities have shifted and other problems have piled up (such huge inflationary pressure on budgets). It will become much harder to increase defence spending. But as we implement the plans we agreed in Vilnius, we will see the gaps that need to be filled and we will have to talk about money again. At the Alliance level too – otherwise, there will be substantial geographical disbalances, which will create political stresses that are not even related to security.
This loss of momentum is also relevant to Russia’s war in Ukraine. It looks like Ukraine will not make any substantial breakthrough this year and that the war will last for some time into the future. There also seem to be some cracks in the west’s unity. How confident are you that we can maintain western cohesion and western support for Ukraine? Can we continue to provide support at the same level—or even at a greater level than we have so far?
There are, indeed, a few signs of disagreement, and these are celebrated and exploited by Russian propaganda. They have looked for cleavages in our position to suggest that our support will not continue.
But overall, I remain optimistic. One of the sources of my optimism is the commitment of some major Allies (first of all, Germany) to unconditional, multi-year financial and military pledges of support. Norway was, I think, the first country to announce a five-year plan, and others have followed. Lithuania has a three-year plan, including some additional civilian aspects. Many countries have made multi-year financial commitments for recovery and reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. This shows a real political commitment in Europe to continue with what we have been doing.
We have, unfortunately, linked the situation on the battlefields in Ukraine with our political decisions of support. Not because we were sceptical about the results of Kyiv’s counteroffensive but rather because we were sceptical about the decision-making process in our own capitals. And now, the Ukrainians have, to some degree, found themselves hostages to the expectations of western societies, expert communities, and journalists. We can see how damaging this has been —not so much directly affecting developments on the battlefield but delaying some critical decisions on our side. This was a mistake. We should separate these two issues.
Perhaps we can talk a little about China. In recent years, Lithuania has been quite robust in its policies towards China. You have been very supportive of Taiwan and critical of the PRC and you now have a new Indo-Pacific strategy that follows similar lines. What do you want to achieve with this robust approach?
It’s difficult to point to an exact time when our overall economic, political, and diplomatic approach towards Asia shifted. There were many factors. There was a security aspect: our threat assessment concerning China had begun to change before our policies did. And China’s intelligence activities against our citizens and its exploitation of economic dependencies also existed before our policies changed. We were one of the first countries to go public about these threats, especially the intelligence operations and recruitment of our citizens. But we also saw that further dependencies, especially in strategic sectors and trade, would make us more vulnerable. And it would have been politically challenging not to follow our principles: respect for and protection of human rights, democratic values, free trade, and free speech.
The event that changed the perception in our society was the counter-protest in Lithuania following the developments in Hong Kong. There was a very blunt and primitive operation to mobilise and rally people in Lithuania. We realised that we were dealing with a partner who would not respect principles. So we re-assessed the involvement of Chinese capital in our strategic sectors, and decided to limit such investments. And on the technological front, we limited the use of Chinese-produced technologies by some companies and sectors, including the government sector. These factors came together in a new overall political re-assessment.
As concerns the region more widely, we did not decide to damage our relations with China. But we did decide to develop our relations with other nations in the region and to have a network of embassies in Australia, Singapore, and South Korea. We also opened the Representative Office in Taipei, Taiwan; and, reciprocally, the Taiwanese Representative Office was opened in Lithuania.
So, it’s not that we decided to become confrontational. But we did go through a shift in policy that had its origins in security considerations. And we and our partners had to bear consequences such as public threats and propaganda, attempts to influence private capital and the limiting of Lithuanian-produced components in supply chains. This was aimed first at us, then in 2021 our partners, rather than Lithuanian decision-makers, became the main target. But the result was the opposite of what Beijing expected—and what we had expected, to be honest. Our partners were the strongest link—for example, the EU brought a case to the World Trade Organisation international companies that invested in Lithuania were not deterred. Moreover, all this started a discussion about countermeasures against China’s coercive practices.
We, as small states, still have to reduce our dependencies to the point where can safely navigate the politics and not be exposed to the spectrum of whole-of-government pressure tools that states that do not respect international rules and norms can use against us. Our conclusion is that the only way to mitigate these risks is to de-risk: to take them off the table. Decoupling in critical areas is the solution, not a nightmare. And it has worked in Lithuania’s case.
You emphasised the principles behind these moves. Is it disappointing that other allies haven’t followed suit, and have left you perhaps a little isolated?
Before the Taiwanese office opened in Lithuania, we had also left the 17+1 format. Of course, we were looking to see whether our partners would follow suit with similar decisions. And although we were leading in that situation, there was also coordination. Even so, it was a national decision and not an ambition to change the course of a bigger ship like the EU. We have proved that we can be successful in achieving a good result. And that result is securing our interests, securing our economies, and securing our political autonomy. Once again, it was not so much about China but about diversification and expanding our partnerships in the region.
Finally, then, can I ask you about hybrid threats and responses. You now have part of the Wagner group next door in Belarus. You have seen migration weaponised at your borders. And we will probably see more of Russia attacking the west in a hybrid way in the coming years because that’s all they will be able to do. The Vilnius Summit was another demonstration of the value of collectivising our defence, but we still treat hybrid security as national business. Do we need to think more about our collective response to hybrid threats?
There are two important elements. First, the Baltic states are in a different league. Multiple hybrid attacks have been made against us, involving whole-of-government tools and approaches. For instance, when we shut down Russian propaganda channels and some cultural organisations that were only a cover (this was long before the full-scale war), we were heavily criticised by our partners for limiting free speech. The same with protecting our strategic sectors against the weaponisation of legal mechanisms. To say nothing of the interference of various intermediary companies that used to be active in the trade in energy resources in particular. We in the Baltic states have seen it all and developed our own tools and countermeasures. But at the end of the day, this did not make us safe because softer targets elsewhere could be targeted with the same toolkit. From the perspective of the Russian military and intelligence services, why would they go into this operational nightmare in the Baltics if they can just go to Brussels? Our job is to export our experience—for example, our cyber experience—to other countries so that it can be converted into policies and countermeasures against Russia.
The second aspect is more sensitive. If we want to take collective decisions or collective countermeasures, we have to be intimate with each other and show our vulnerabilities. These are the weak points that Russia has been exploiting—private companies, historical links, minorities, organisations, etc. They are different in different countries, and countries tend to want to keep them to themselves. Theoretically, we should be able to find some common ground. In practice, however, it might be very difficult as we have seen at the EU level. Opening up can be a painful process—so I would not push this too hard.
But we should certainly invest even more in countering hybrid activities beyond propaganda and information warfare. We have done well in engaging the EU institutions in debunking propaganda and on cooperating in the cyber domain. But there are other fields where we must invest more time.
This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).