Russia: how to manage its move from aggressor to European partner

Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin

This relative change of heart is something that Lithuania’s politicians should address, they say, to make sure that Western powers draw a clear line between the issues of fighting terrorism and Russia’s aggression in the post-Soviet Europe.

Even though Russia is also facing serious threats of terrorism, this does not alter Moscow’s policies in Eastern Europe, said Linas Kojala, analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

“The Kremlin is fighting terrorism in the very narrow framework of its national interests. Even though Russia does feel the threat of terrorism, this in no way has affected its policies in the post-Soviet space.

“Over the last few years and particularly over the last few months, Russia’s image in the West has changed dramatically. From an aggressor undermining Europe’s security architecture and even land-grabbing sovereign territories of other European states, it has come to be perceived as a key partner in fighting terrorism and ensuring Europe’s long-term security,” Kojala said.

“The security situation in Eastern Europe is becoming overshadowed by efforts against terrorism and the migrant crisis. These issues are likely to remain among the priorities in EU, NATO and many countries’ agendas in 2016,” said Lithuania’s State Security Department said in its annual national security report.

“This can have negative effects for Lithuania, because these issues will detract attention from security in Eastern Europe and increase willingness to cooperate with Russia.”

“Russia is trying to convince the West that cordial and close cooperation in fighting terrorism and solving other international security issues is only possible on the condition that NATO abandon its commitments and plans to expand forces in Eastern Europe,” the report said.

Terrorists fighting terrorists?

Conservative politician Žygimantas Pavilionis, Lithuania’s former ambassador to the United States, goes even further, saying that in its fight with terrorism, Russia does not shun terrorist methods.

“Much as Russia would like to shift others’ attention away from itself and present itself as a partner in fighting terrorism, it employs terrorist methods itself. Oftentimes, it deploys propaganda to wash brain and hearts in the West so that Western leaders can shake hands with Russia forgetting what is happening in Ukraine,” Pavilionis tells LRT.

“I think Russia’s key goal right now is to make everyone forget what is happening in Ukraine and get them to recognize its land-grabs. But we cannot let the world forget Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and lift sanctions.

“We must do everything we can to makes sure that NATO is present in eastern members are not just in words, but in military bases and weapons, because the Moscow threat has not gone anywhere.”

Making Lithuania’s case in the West

Kojala said that it was in Lithuania’s interest to make sure that its Western partners drew a clear distinction between the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe on the one hand and international efforts of fighting terrorism on the other.

“When these issues get mixed up, the impression it gives is that there’s nothing one can do without Russia and that it is not an aggressor anymore. However, Russia’s methods have not changed – territories in eastern Ukraine are still run by Russia-supported separatists, Minsk agreements are being violated.

“One thing to celebrate is that Germany is sticking to a principled position and is saying that the Ukraine sanctions are a separate issue from Syria and fighting terrorism,” Kojala said.

“When it comes to Lithuania’s Russia strategy, Vilnius have always sought and should continue to seek that any strategic question be discussed and negotiated at EU level. Russia’s interest has always been to talk to individual countries, offering them different deals and eroding Europe’s unity,” Kojala said.

Political scientist Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, director of Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science, said that Lithuanian leaders must first agree among themselves what are the most pressing issues in the region before lobbying their Western partners.

“Lithuanian diplomats and leaders use various international meetings to underscore important issues in our region. We must continue doing that, all the while acknowledging that there are other important challenges, too. We hope that others will listen to our concerns, but we must do the same,” Vilpišauskas said.

“This is not just the job of our diplomats and state leaders. A much bigger challenge is finding agreement in Lithuania, a consensus among principle parties and politicians, so they don’t exploit these issues for short-term political gain,” he added.

Active politicians are best defence

Former ambassador to the US Pavilionis said that Lithuanian politicians do not work enough on fostering ties with colleagues in the West.

“We must invest in our dialogue with Western partners, not just diplomats must do it, politicians as well. They must talk to parties and party leaders in the West,” he said.

Vilpišauskas noted that a lack of communication with foreign parliament members is not just Lithuania’s problem.

“This is characteristic of a majority of countries. The widespread perception is that keeping contacts with foreign countries is the job of diplomats,” Vilpišauskas said.

“If voters do not care much about maintaining links with MPs in other countries, our Seimas members act accordingly. This begs the old question: should politicians merely respond to what their voters care about, or do they act to help them better understand the situation, to see how important it is for our region to maintain the US’ attention.

“If society realized the importance of that Seimas members would too, making more of an effort to stay in touch and network with colleagues abroad,” Vilpišauskas said.

The main targets should be political leaders in the United States, which still plays the key role in Eastern European security, and in Germany. This would help Lithuanians better explain their expectations and understand the decisions that countries like the US and Germany make. according to analysts, which sometimes leave Lithuanians disappointed.

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