In connection with BASIC’s Risk Reduction Programme we have asked experts and scholars from the 3 Baltic countries and Poland to provide a brief overview of their countries current risk and threat assessments. The authors of each article appearing in this series are solely responsible for the content, and the publications are not to constitute any representation by BASIC.
This brief research note has been prepared for the BASIC Workshop on NATO-Europe Risk Reduction (22 Sep 2021), and is meant to serve as a background reading, familiarizing the audience with the broad concepts concerning Lithuanian security and threat perceptions.
Historically, Lithuania has considered Russia to be the central threat to its security – and much of the country’s foreign and defense policy revolves around this notion. Lithuania is actively seeking to maintain the attention of the United States, NATO, and the EU focused on the Russian threat, ensure greater security commitments and military cooperation with these partner states, and secure a stricter collective posture vis-à-vis Russia. It is, nevertheless, worth recognizing that few other European countries seem to share Lithuania’s central preoccupation with Russia – and, in turn, historically Lithuania hardly seems to share the European concerns over migration.
In terms of Lithuania’s specific security concerns over Russia, physical incursions remain an unsettling prospect – particularly around the periods of large-scale military exercises (such as Zapad in 2017 or 2021) or in the face of Russian military adventurism elsewhere (e.g., the 2014 crisis in Ukraine). In response to these perceived threats, Lithuania has consistently sought greater security commitments from Western allies. The deployment of four enhanced Forward Presence battalions to the Baltic region in 2017 was one of such welcome developments. In addition, Lithuania has been strategically using large military procurement contracts to strengthen security cooperation with its partners – for instance, by acquiring the Boxer infantry fighting vehicles from Germany for 386 million EUR in 2016, and Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. for 181 million EUR in 2020.
In addition to fears of conventional war breaking out, Russia’s active use of so-called gray, or hybrid, tools of pressure have been a consistent concern, directly experienced by the public on a regular basis. Measures like information campaigns in the traditional and social media, manipulation of migrant flows, instigation of violence in protests, and pressures through energy supply had all been employed by Russian and pro-Russian factions in confrontation with the Baltic states (not just against Lithuania). Notably, confrontations under the threshold of a declared war but increasingly further away from peacetime competition have come to plague much of the international community, with many state and non-state actors employing these tools. In response to Russia’s regular deployment of gray pressure tools, Lithuania has positioned itself as the flagship international watchdog, usually being one of the first to sound the alarm in international forums, alerting Western allies to behaviors that eventually come to be used against them as well. Being a frontier state and bearing the brunt of Russia’s influence operations, Lithuania has subsequently been able to impart certain lessons learned to states that are subsequently faced with similar challenges.
Interestingly, Russia’s nuclear posturing seems to have a somewhat limited impact on Lithuania’s threat perceptions and policy posture. Russia’s nuclear saber rattling seems largely perceived as empty rhetoric aimed at American policy-maker audiences, although naturally, a degree of uncertainty is recognized. For instance, in 2015, the United States sounding of alarm bells over Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty fell on largely unconcerned – if not deaf – ears. Russia’s increasing inclusion of tactical nuclear weapons into its doctrine and exercises also has not roused Lithuanian alarmism (in contrast to, e.g., Russia’s cyber offensives). Similarly to the other Baltic states and former Soviet Republics, Lithuania has historically not been privy to the nuclear decision-making and conceptual doctrine developments between Moscow and Washington – nuclear weapons remain a sort of exotic and remote taboo, perhaps too scary to even contemplate. This tends to present a challenge for international interlocutors looking to elicit the country’s input and position – beyond experts in the field – on disarmament and non-proliferation matters, having to educate the public first about the evolution of nuclear logic in order to be able to show the deterrent value of nuclear arms control and/or disarmament.
Whereas global concerns over the rise of China have been mounting for over a decade, China has made it onto the Lithuanian security agenda over the past couple of years. These started as soft concerns over the security of 5G technology and grew to internationally echoed investigations on content monitoring and search filtering on Chinese phones (still widely available in Lithuania). Moreover, in contrast to Southern Europe and the Balkans, Lithuania has rebuffed Chinese attempts at investing in large infrastructure development projects (such as the Klaipeda sea port enhancements), citing security concerns. Indeed, the Conservative government elected in 2020 has taken an overtly – and unprecedentedly – stern position towards China, expressing support to Taiwan in various domains. Thus far, this seems to have helped Lithuania attract considerable attention and support from the United States, as the Biden administration continues to look for European allies in its escalating confrontation with China. Nevertheless, the full scale of economic and security implications of this policy remains to be seen – especially since Lithuania’s approach to China has brought it closer to the United States but potentially further away from the EU partners (who prefer a more middle-way approach to China).
Domestic Risk Factors
In addition to managing external threats, Lithuania seems to have either under-estimated or under-prepared for security risks posed by the increasingly painful internal social schisms. The broad spectrum of protest movements espousing family values have been increasingly gaining traction, with tempers flaring particularly high in the COVID-19 quarantine-fatigued environment. The emerging umbrella of protest groups seems to fit anti-vaccination and anti-immigration espousers, as well as anti-LGBT, anti-EU, and generally anti-government factions. While international observers and local NGOs have long lamented Lithuania’s social climate as unwelcoming to many sexual and ethnic minority identities, in 2021 there has been an up-tick of mass protests (with risk of violence), and anti-immigration activists have even clashed with local police forces near several border areas. Lithuania has largely responded to these types of risks on a case-by-case basis, relying on local law enforcement to address the immediate security crises, but making little headway so far in terms of shifts in policy.
Egle E. Murauskaite is a senior researcher and simulations designer for the ICONS Project with the University of Maryland. She is responsible for high-level political-military crises simulations in Europe, in addition to her academic research and government consulting projects. Egle has been working with unconventional security threats for the past 12 years. Her analyses have been published in amongst others the FPRI Baltic Bulletin, IQ the Economist, Peace and Conflict Studies Journal, Nonproliferation Review, and Lithuanian Annual Strategic Review.