Lithuanian ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis: We do not invest in our relations with the United States

Lithuanian Ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis questioning the funding and a strategy to fight Russian propaganda at UABA meeting.  Photo Ludo Segers

Meanwhile Russia, he believes, might use opportunities this December – the last month of Italy‘s EU Council presidency and before the new Republican-dominated US Congress starts work – to get the West to ease sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine.

Ambassador Pavilionis also says Lithuania is not investing enough into its relations with America. “We must realize that the US is still the world’s biggest economy, yet we only have one embassy and two consulates. In the EU, which is only slightly bigger, we have dozens of well-staffed embassies,” he says in an interview with

President Barack Obama began his first term in the White House with a “reset” of US-Russian relations. What’s your take on the idea and the reasoning behind it?

Each new administration has, unfortunately, tried to reset relations with Russia, essentially sweeping away all institutional experience. Countries like Lithuania, that are so close to Russia, have always regarded such attempts as slightly naive.

I remember well how George Bush, Jr., similarly tried to look into Vladimir Putin‘s soul. During his second term, however, he changed his mind.

The same happened now. We were good friends with former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, but I never agreed with the “reset” policy, I said it wouldn’t work. I insisted that Russia would take that position as a sign of weakness and exploit it for its own gain. This is exactly what is happening now, at full extent and horror.

Back then, no one would listen to us, they’d simply laugh. Whereas now, whenever something happens in Eastern Europe, we get a call from CNN who seek our ministers and policy makers because they know that we have at least bean consistent. The Americans’ current policy is exactly what we’ve always encouraged them to do: sanction Russia and support Ukraine.

True, there remain a number of unsettled issues, differences emerge in views on Russia – especially now, when the Republican-dominated Congress is coming in.

How do the US society and analysts regard Obama’s foreign policy?

There’s a lot of criticism. It would often happen in America that, after great wars, leaders came to power who prioritized domestic policy issues. They would advocate for the US to stop solving the entire world’s problems.

Attempts to do the same were made during Obama’s presidency, too. However, both ordinary Americans and the administration have realized that, if you try to retreat and isolate yourself from the world, someone else will step in. And that someone will definitely be a worse option.

Now, as the Americans have retreated from the world stage, these forces are raising heads and testing how far they can go. This is what the KGB regime in Moscow is doing as well as totalitarian experimenters in the Middle East. They all want to get a sense of how far the red line has been pushed.

However, the American society is gradually regaining interest in foreign policy. I am glad that both the left and the right are now saying increasingly often that the US must rebuild its leadership.

You’ve mentioned that “resets” with Russia and turning towards domestic policy are cyclical phenomena in the US. But is this cycle the only factor in Obama’s presidency? Perhaps demographic changes in the US and subjective factors – like Obama’s own worldview – also make a difference?

The problem is that, after the democratic revolution a quarter of a century ago, major Western powers concluded that history was over. They thought that the world was on the doorstep of a rosy-pink era of democracy and freedom. They have all but discarded instruments that used to help fight evil. Programmes like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America have been severely downsized.

Russia’s information machine is financed five or six times more generously than any single American initiative in this area. Old wolves from the time of Ronald Reagan can still recall how thousands of people from our countries used to come to study in the US. Today, these programmes have been severely cut.

In Washington, D.C., few people understand us – only the old-timers who can recall the Cold War. People on both the left and the right, like Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Right now these people, who have helped us build our freedom, are making a come-back. McCain will soon take over the Senate Armed Service Committee. This is important for us. I hope that it won’t be worse than it used to be: the honeymoon with Moscow is over.

Putin has discredited himself irreparably: there is no expert of some stature in Washington who believes in the future of relations with Putin. But this does not apply to relations with Russia: there is a growing realization of the need to invest in Russian people whom the West (and Lithuania) had sold out for contracts and cheaper gas. We’ve forgotten that these are the same people who once held rallies for our freedom and climbed on tanks in Moscow. We have neglected them.

We must also update our Eastern policy strategy, because so far we have only been reacting.

But Putin is not a lone wolf in Russia – he has been and still is, particularly lately, enjoying massive support of the Russian society.

True, but perhaps we haven’t been engaging enough with this society. We have allowed NGOs to leave Russia, the CNN office is closing down. We have neglected our agenda in the East and have fallen victims to Putin’s agenda.

The American Statue of Liberty that stands on the Capitol Hill has a helmet and a shield. The Americans used to be a nation defending freedom. Today, when the Ukrainians are asking for military assistance, they must provide it. If, of course, they still believe that freedom is worth defending.

If they stop believing in the values of their forefathers and their universality, if they stop believing in the truthfulness of the Western ideology, then Putin will come with his “second opinion” and TV channels like Russia Today will successfully wash American brains.

You’ve said that we’ve sold out Russian people for contracts and cheaper gas. What do you mean?

We have reduced our Russian policy to dialogue with Putin. These are different things. Russia’s future is its people, not Putin, therefore we must rebuild instruments to maintain direct contact with the Russian people. Putin does his utmost to destroy these contacts.

What else can Putin do, not that he has lost trust of Western leaders?

What I fear during this last month of Italy’s presidency over the EU Council is that [pro-Russian] forces in the West, seeing that Russia is approaching a moral if not economic abyss, will try to save it. This can happen this December. There will be many summits – of ministers and state leaders – where great effort will be made to dismantle means of resisting evil.

You mean, effort to get sanctions on Russia called off?

Yes. If we manage to fend off this offensive until Latvia takes over the EU presidency, I believe that the new US Congress, which will start work next January, will help us.

After all, we are fighting an undeclared war. Nor will it ever be declared – we will simply realize one day that the fifth column has taken over. Perhaps we’ll also see special forces’ soldiers here and there. In Western TV screens this will probably look like Lithuania’s internal wars. We must therefore be ready, we must review our policies and correct mistakes we’ve made. We have done too little since the Independence to get our people to defend their country unprompted.

It is said often enough that Lithuania has no right to reproach Western powers for indulging Russia, since it itself kept cutting defence budget which is now among smallest in Europe. But why does no one rephrase the question thus: how should we convince the society to spend more on defence, if NATO’s major allies keep insisting that Russia is a partner that poses no threat?

I think we were never convinced that Russia was not a threat. However, in terms of defence funding, we have been and still are lagging behind among NATO states – even with the impressive boost we’re giving it this year. I am sincerely ashamed of that.

Meanwhile Russia is waging a hybrid war against us, using psychological, information, cyber and other methods. They’re even using ecology – and now we’re no longer building a nuclear power plant or looking for shale gas.

Russia is coaching our society for a military invasion which will be the final step and will happen once it is clear that we will not resists, that we are divided, that our elites have lost sight of real problems and are just as deluded as in 1940. That’s when Russians will come and do to us what they’ve done in Crimea.

Would raising defence funding to 2 percent of the GDP do the trick?

I think that our political, military and intellectual elites should give a serious thought to whether 2 percent is enough. Why not 3 or 4? We are at war, after all.

Perhaps changes are also in order in our foreign policy, better funding for the State Security Department? Perhaps we should avoid making mistakes in energy and get back to projects that could secure our independence?

Is insufficient funding the only problem at the State Security Department or does bad management also play a part?

I think all these things work together and are related. I can see how the society reacts to the president’s [Dalia Grybauskaitė’s] statements that Russia is a state that supports terrorism. We demand of the Western countries that, in their dealings with Russia, they get rid of the business-as-usual attitude. But we are the ones with the business-as-usual mentality.

We also believe in the end of history. We think that the economy will develop on its own, that no one will invade Lithuania or take anything away. We believe that we’re the ones making all the decisions, without any interference from the third countries. But that’s not the case, we must wake up to the reality. Invasion into Lithuania is being plotted not far from Vilnius.

Can we expect to see Germany taking up not just economic but also political leadership in the European Union? Not the Germany of Gerhard Schröder, who wanted rapprochement with Russia, but one resistant to Moscow’s influence and an ally of the US?

I have been a diplomat for 22 years and I have spent all of them working with Berlin, because I believed in it. I kept reminding Germans – like I now do in the US – that we must remember not just the worst pages of our history. I’d tell them how much good they had created and how much we needed them in the Baltic region.

Looking back at the transformations over the 22 years, I remain optimistic. I remember how, 15 years ago, I’d make trips to Berlin to convince them to build a common energy policy. Conversations would end on very bitter notes. I’d get doors slammed in my face. But Germans and their former EU commissioner have done a lot to help us. The energy policy has been created.

The current changes – Putin’s invasion and aggression that many justifiably compare to Adolf Hitler’s policies – have been a shock therapy for the German elite. Politics in Germany is undergoing tectonic shifts right now.

In your view, who is the most likely successor to Barack Obama?

It is very hard to tell. Even the favourites named by many observers – Hillary Clinton and others – have yet to officially confirm they are running for presidency. Everyone expects that to happen in the second half of next year.

The historic Congress victory of the Republican Party – they won such strong majorities in both houses for the first time since World War Two – has fuelled their political ambitions. They believe they can take presidency, too.

Who is the leader that could do it?

There are many leaders. I’m afraid there are still strong isolationist voices who reinforce one another. There are quite many political leaders who’d just like to shut out the world. They are tired. They feel good within the US borders.

But there are also others who are waking up. When several weeks ago Russia Today put up posters all across Washington, D.C., accusing America of various things, attacking its values and offering a “second opinion” – I think this got politicians’ attention.

I care that people are elected who understand us, who have institutional memory about what has happened in our region. Interestingly – and a little ironically – those who know and understand us are also on good terms among themselves. It is a public secret, for instance, that Senator McCain and Hillary Clinton are good political friends, even though they represent opposing camps.

We must work with such leaders, so I’d like our parties and party leaders to visit the US more often. I am not happy with the statistics of our political dialogue. While over 18 congresspeople visited Lithuania this year, I can count on my one hand’s fingers how many Seimas members came to America.

The trips of our MPs to the US are hardly ever publicly funded. They come at their own expense, when we talk them into it. That’s absurd. This country defends us, we will not survive without it – so I’d like to see both the left and the right invest into this relationship.

Would Hillary Clinton‘s foreign policies be essentially different from Obama’s?

I wouldn’t put it thus. I can give you several examples that give me faith in her attitudes and policies. Under her chairmanship, the US and the EU set up the energy council that has been used consistently to coordinate all energy security steps.

Official communiqués of the State Department under Clinton and her own statements never used the word “reset”.

My own term in the US is nearing its end and I hope that 2015 will be the year of active Lithuanian lobbying. Political leaders who will be announcing their presidential campaigns must be aware of us. We must invest into making them aware.

I applaud the Government’s decision to set up a consulate in Los Angeles, which is a huge political, economic and cultural hub. We need more investment like this. We must realize that the US is still the world’s biggest economy, yet we only have one embassy and two consulates. In the EU, which is only slightly bigger, we have dozens of well-staffed embassies.

We need five or ten times more ambassadors and diplomats. This country is vitally important to us. it might soon open up economically, provided that we successfully conclude free trade negotiations. We must work to open up the new doors to our businesses.

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington employs 3,000 people. [Lithuanian MP] Emanuelis Zingeris often says that we sometimes feel like Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae: hordes are trying to beat us every day. We keep fighting, we can rely on the great US Lithuanian community, that helps us a great deal, on our friends in Washington, but we must invest more.

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