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Common Sense Instead of Russophobia

The lessons that Lithuania has learned about Russia the hard way could prove valuable for other countries. 

by Martin Ehl 13 June 2017

When one would like to understand the real nature of the Russian threat, a better place to start than the scandals surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump and his entourage would be the notes of those who are dealing with Russia and its thousand faces on a daily basis. Take Lithuania, for example, a place I recently visited.


After speaking with people from all walks of life – including soldiers, officials at the ministry of defense, political scientists, cyber experts, businessmen working in the field of energy, a car mechanic, and a supermarket cashier – I have arrived at a clear conclusion: common sense and not hysterical Russophobia could prove the best strategy for dealing with Putin's Russian threat.


Let’s look first at energy. Lithuania was dependent on Russian gas in the past, and even now the country is still reliant on the Russian electrical grid and electricity deliveries after shutting down its old Ignalina nuclear power plant as a prerequisite for EU membership. It took Lithuania some time and money to connect to the Western energy grid, but as Minister of Energy Zygimantas Vaiciunas told me, there are clear prospects that by 2025 not only Lithuania but all its Baltic neighbors will be able to switch from the Russian to the European grid.


The government has a lease until 2024 of the floating LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal in the port of Klaipeda, which can easily cover the gas needs not only for the country but for the whole region – provided that Estonia and Latvia would like to join (and built some pipelines).


And as a byproduct of this desire to diversify energy sources, the country has become an EU leader in the use of biomass. The majority of central heating in Lithuanian towns is now powered by sawdust and wood chips that remain after trees are cut down in local forests. The result: the country has already surpassed its 2020 EU target for the share of renewables in the energy mix.


In the field of hard security, Lithuania has been buying heavy weapons for its army, which has been buoyed for the second year by renewed conscription. “We do not have to take everyone – there are a lot of volunteers,” Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis told me. When speaking to some of those volunteers, I heard practical reasons as the most frequent motivation for entering the service: acquiring survival and combat skills as well as the know-how for dealing with unexpected situations.


Lithuanians have earmarked 2 percent of their GDP for defense, a percentage set to increase next year, and they want to up the amount even further. The Ukrainian lesson was clear: you need enough artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft firepower to force a possible enemy to think twice about any attack (beyond the fear of the collective defense that NATO membership offers). Therefore Lithuanians have been quite quick in buying second-hand howitzers and other equipment from Germany, for example.


For now, it is all about increased readiness. “There is no imminent danger of attack,” said Czech Major Michal Zatloukal, who is serving with the NATO Force Integration Unit at the local NATO headquarters in Lithuania, which is preparing the ground in case there is a need for the increased presence of the alliance in the country.


Hard security is one thing, but places exist where the fight has already been going on for many years: the cyber arena and information space. After many years of dealing with Russian propaganda and hoaxes, Lithuanians have built a methodology for the country's leadership on how to use strategic communications, and how to quickly respond to fake news and other possible manipulations.


“You only have 48 hours to respond to fake news, before it starts living its own life,” said Evaldas Gruze, the deputy director of the Lithuanian Cybercrime Center of Excellence at the University of Mykolas Romeris in Vilnius, where a big part of the work in the country on software, methodology, and possible scenarios has been developed.


“What we know now clearly shows that Russia has been waging an infowar for the past 10 years in a very skillful manner,” said Gruze.


In the past, Lithuanians have warned about the Russian danger, but its Western allies dismissed such talk as mere Russophobia. It now seems a realistic assessment, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian war and annexation of Crimea, which opened many people’s eyes.


But blaming the Russians for everything is precisely what Kremlin strategists want – to make Russia look stronger than it really is. “One of their main goals is to spread and increase Russophobia in the West,” warns Captain Aurimas Kleveckas, one of the experts at the strategic communications center of the Lithuanian Army.


So, be calm, analytical, swift, and resolute in your reaction – and instead of emotions use common sense. That is the Lithuanian advice in these uncertain times.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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