Daniel Fried, Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the US Department of State, said that the decisions of the Lithuanian government could be justified by the experience of Soviet occupation.
“I understand why the Lithuanian government came out this way. Lithuania’s history is different. I remember what it was like there under the Soviets. Lithuania had to fight for its freedom, this is living memory. So as an American, I can understand that the Lithuanian government has come out in a slightly different place than we will,” Fried said in an interview to BNS.
Lithuania recently barred entry to Russian pop singer Oleg Gazmanov who openly supports the Kremlin policies and glorifies the Soviet Union in his songs.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and started supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Lithuania’s institutions stepped up efforts against Russian propaganda.
Lithuanian institutions imposed a temporary ban on broadcasts of four Russian channels, including the First Baltic Channel and NTV Mir Lithuania. Furthermore, a number of Russian journalists, public and cultural figures were listed as persona non grata in the Baltic state.
Free Speech is Part of DNA
Critics say that Russian propaganda cannot be defeated by bans or censorship, as propaganda is difficult to define and can cross with the Western concept of free speech. In their words, a focus should be placed on improvement of media quality and creation of alternatives to the Kremlin-controlled media.
Nevertheless, Lithuanian intelligence institutions maintain that journalism is often used as disguise for Russian intelligence services.
“I understand Lithuania’s arguments. I understand what they are trying to do. Imagine, if I go to the Lithuanians and say that you should not do this. And they might say to me: ‘Oh yeah? Well, why don’t you watch, what this person says for 20 minutes and then tell me it is a mistake?,” said Fried.
Following the Russian intervention in Ukraine, a number of Russian citizens blacklisted in all of the EU. The Brussels-approved black list includes Russian singer Yosif Kobzon and journalist Dmitriy Kiselev, among others.
The United States blacklisted a group of Russian and Ukrainian politicians and businessmen, however, did not include any media, art or cultural figures into the list. In Fried’s words, Washington does not apply sanctions on such individuals due to the absolute respect to free speech stipulated in the country’s Constitution.
“We have been hawkish in some ways, but the First Amendment tradition in the United States is very strong. That is deep in our culture, in our political DNA, its just hard for us to define a propagandist. What does that mean? Does that mean it’s a journalist we don’t like?,” the diplomat asked rhetorically.
During a visit in Lithuania on Wednesday, Fried discussed EU and US sanctions on Russia with Lithuanian parliamentarians and officials of the President’s Office and government.
He applauded the Lithuanian leadership in consistent support to the sanctions for Russia, saying he had heard good proposals from Lithuanian officials but refused to elaborate on them.
“We need to consult not just with the big powers, like France, Germany, Britain, Poland, Italy, but with all of the European countries,” said the US diplomat.
“I take Lithuanian views seriously. I will not go to the details, but I have already heard some good ideas and wise suggestions from the Lithuanian friends, which I will keep in mind,” he added.
Experts are in disagreement on the impact of the sanctions for Russia, as some say that the economic difficulties Russia has encountered in past years may be a result of declining oil and gas prices rather than the sanctions, as oil and gas had to have a major effect on Russian economy based on sales of natural resources.
Nevertheless, Fried expressed conviction that the effects of sanctions would be stronger in the long run, if they are not dropped.
In his words, sanctions related with the implementation of the Minsk accords must be continued, as the situation in Ukraine is not improving.
“We have not reached the point we want to,” said the US diplomat. “There has been limited stabilization but it is difficult to speak of progress when the separatists are still killing Ukrainian soldiers and the OSCE monitors on the ground confirm that most of the violations are form the Russian separatists side.”