US analyst: Lithuanian-Russian relations give new meaning to “the dialogue of the deaf”

Bruce Jackson
DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

In an interview to DELFI, Mr. Jackon discusses both the changing relations between Russia and major EU countries and the recent verbal carnage between Moscow and Vilnius. “Dalia [Grybauskaitė, Lithuanian President] and Vladimir [Putin of Russia] give new meaning to ‘the dialogue of the deaf’,” he says.

It’s been a year since the beginning of the Maidan revolution. What are the biggest changes in relations between Russia and the Western powers?

Since the beginning of the Euromaidan we have seen the steepest deterioration of relations between Russia and the West since the depths of the Cold War.

However, it would not be correct to suggest that the revolution in Ukraine caused an outbreak of Russia’s hostility, although it probably did provide the occasion. A confrontation with Russia had been waiting in the wings since NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in 1999 and Europe’s subsequent decision to recognize an independent Kosovo. (I supported both decisions and continue to do so.) Putin’s resentment has its origins in the Balkans, not in the South Caucasus or Ukraine.

Numerous analysts say that the Obama administration is not strict enough. Do you see any progress in this area?

I would say that President Obama has shown neither interest in nor aptitude for foreign affairs, notably European affairs. They say one cannot teach an old dog new tricks. I think that about covers the last two years of this Administration.

Germany has recently taken a tougher stance with Moscow. What could be the reasons for such a turn?

At the risk of appearing flippant, the chancellor of Germany is a preacher’s daughter. By a large margin, she is the most demonstrably moral and personally circumspect of all leaders in the Western world. She expects, in fact insists upon, a level of personal rectitude, public service integrity, and basic honesty which is exceedingly rare or absent in the post-Soviet world. Whether President Saakashvili, President Yankuvych, or at the moment President Putin – each for different reasons – the chancellor has found faults which did not meet her standards and have seriously angered her.

On the one hand, I greatly admire the chancellor’s exemplary moral standards. On the other hand, if we want to stop the killing in the Donbass, peace with Russia may require a muddiness which is certain to trouble the chancellor and Senator John McCain among many others.

France had a reputation as one of the Russia-friendly powers in the EU. However, the deal of the Mistral warships has been suspended, and President Hollande doesn’t seem to be willing to move on. Do you think this stance is going to be a long lasting one?

I have complete confidence in our French allies to do the right thing, which they have done in Libya, Mali, and sub-Saharan Africa generally, which has been far in front of the Obama Administration and at great risk to French blood and treasure.

I think that it is past time to bury the humorless canard of “cheese eating surrender monkeys”.  This year France could handily beat out my country for MVP in defense of freedom and the West. And, good for France. In short, I do not agree with the premise of your question.

Do you observe any increase in Russia’s efforts to influence European politics? Considering the recent news on Russian institutions financing Marine Le Pen’s party and her father’s business, this might mean something.

I know that the story of insidious Kremlin influence is all the rage in the Baltics, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, the Czech Republic, etc. I am not persuaded that Western democracy is so fragile that it can be rigged by a country which has demonstrated cretinous communication skills since the beginning of modern European history.

France would be better advised to attack Le Pen on the invisible merits of her ideas rather than on the source of her funding. If the Baltic states really believe that a lobby firm with $300,000 from Russian sources will cause their leaders to surrender – if their voters are so easily duped and led astray – they should not have joined NATO, which requires a certain consistency and resolve.

“The Russians made me do it” should be in the same intellectual and moral category as “the bartender gave me too many beers before I tried to drive home”. Both are bulls*** and an excuse for avoiding responsibility.

The downing of MH17 was probably the peak of tensions between Moscow and the West. Do you think the tensions are de-escalating now?

The downing of the civilian airliner was not the nadir of tension. It was a shocking instance of criminal negligence and quite possibly a crime against humanity. Yes, it shocked Western Europe into an understanding of the seriousness of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, but it has gotten much worse for the people of Ukraine since then. The great dangers and greater casualties probably still lie before us.

NATO observes a huge increase in Russian military activity in the Baltic region. Russian planes are escorted by NATO’s air policing mission fighters almost on a daily basis, Lithuania recently increased the readiness of some of its troops in response to the increased activity in Kaliningrad. Also, NORAD admits Russia became “a problem security-wise”. What game, in your opinion, is being played with such provocative moves of the Russian military?

In my view, this is mostly a saber-rattling exercise on the part of Russia. In military terms, it is without meaning and only nervous-making. It does, however, raise the important question as to why the NATO powers did not fulfil the commitments which they made during NATO ratification to provide for the defense of new NATO members. This is a far greater concern for me than whether BEAR bombers stop over for the weekend in Havana.

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė has recently made several harsh statements on Russia, like calling Russia a “terrorist state” or stating that the movements of Russian air force in the Baltic region is a sign of “stupidity”. How do you think Moscow will react? The Kremlin has already made several remarks on President Grybauskaitė’s statements, but do you think an attempt to isolate Lithuania within the EU or, at least, to weaken its positions, is possible?

I think that Lithuania and Russia have had all the conversations they will ever need to have many years ago. Dalia and Vladimir give new meaning to “the dialogue of the deaf”. Perhaps, its leaders would like to see Lithuania as a front-line state in the confrontation with Russia, but Germany, Poland, Finland and, dare I say it, Estonia have far more consequential opinions which will shape the EU’s all important policies towards Russia.

The Russian economy, as we now see, is really struggling. Do you think this can affect Moscow’s position towards the not-so-friendly states ant the West in general?

Of course, Russia will get tougher as the price of poker goes up. They are an extremely large country, with important geographical advantages, plentiful resources, hidden financial reserves and the luxury of not having to contend with democratic constituents. I expect that they will be very tough throughout the winter.

The drop of the oil prices is obviously very painful to Russia. How long do you think Russia can struggle with this kind of prices before suffering a really strong blow to its economy?

The precipitous drop in oil prices and the end of the commodity super cycle have hurt all emerging markets, including Russia. Russia, however, is suffering more due somewhat to western sanctions, but mostly due to the failure to reform and to modernize state enterprises over the last twenty years.

That said, I do not think a poorer and economically fragile Russia will be a friendlier or more malleable neighbor for Europe. If the 1930s are any guide, Russia in depression can cause a great deal of trouble, particularly in Ukraine, and the Russian people can bear unimaginable suffering. In short, a departing economic tide will likely lower all European boats, not only Russia.

In spite of all the economical problems, the Russian public seems to be in support of Putin’s regime. What, in your opinion, would it take to change the nation’s attitude?

I do not think it should be the business of the Western democracies to change the Russian public’s attitudes to the leader they have elected three times thus far. I think our immediate and most important objective is to change Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors.

I think that this is a critical distinction. It gravely weakens our case that Russian has illegally infringed on Ukrainian territory and sovereignty, if we also harbor a not-so-secret intent to coerce Russian voters to vote as we would prefer. A stable euro-Atlantic system – from which the Baltic states should  hugely benefit – rests on the assumption that we really don’t care what unfortunate decisions Russia makes for itself, provided that these decisions do not injure bystander states who had no part in the choice of Russian leaders or their policies.

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