Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, Executive Director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s quite clear Donald Trump has a friend in the Kremlin. How else to weigh the comments from Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning: “I see nothing compromising in the conversation between Trump and (Ukrainian leader Volodymyr) Zelensky.”
“President Trump turned to a colleague with a request to investigate possible corruption relating to members of the former administration,” Putin said at an energy forum in Moscow.
“Any head of state would have had to do the same,” he added.
Then the Russian leader joked, when asked if he’d meddle in the 2020 election: “I’ll let you in on a secret – yes! Of course we will. Just don’t tell anybody.”
But all this is no joking matter if you are a tiny nation on Russia’s northwestern frontier, don’t have Vladimir Putin in your corner, and are hoping desperately that Donald Trump and the United States might honor their obligations when it comes to a standoff with Russia that has long been massing weapons along the border you share.
How does just such a small, vibrant nation on the fringe of Europe survive in such an atmosphere? The answer: you do everything in your power to conform to the utterly bizarre world view you see developing in Washington these days.
Lithuania’s new president, Gitanas Nauseda, no politician but an economist by training, offers a primer for just such a reality. Start with a brief utterly unscripted meeting of a few moments outside the General Assembly chamber at the United Nations last week with Donald Trump, in which Nauseda says he reminded the American that his country has just now slid into conformity with the goal of spending 2% of its GDP on defense, a Herculean task. “Mr. Trump said to me, ‘great job,’” President Nauseda confided to me the next morning. Figures show this was nearly triple the ratio of six years ago.
In a broad-ranging conversation on the sidelines of the Bloomberg Global Business Forum at New York’s Plaza Hotel, Nauseda says he talked about his worry over an ongoing Russian military buildup of advanced, nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles on Lithuania’s frontiers, in the enclave of Kaliningrad. There are those who still fear that massed Russian armor could overrun this tiny nation of 25,000 square miles in 36 hours. But, Nauseda told me, “It is too pessimistic an approach. I had that discussion with our generals and they told me it’s not possible to occupy Lithuania in two days because, according to their estimates, it will take about three to four weeks. And if it is true, we can expect that NATO allies will come and help.” Article Five of the NATO charter – an attack on one is an attack on all – is a lifeline that is unavailable to many other Russian targets, most recently Ukraine.
Life on the border of Russia means every day is fraught for a former republic of the Soviet Union that has managed, somehow, to elude Putin’s grasp. Russia’s imperatives and demands for homage represent a constant reality that is top of mind for leaders of these frontline nations, Ukraine being only the latest. To each, the fear remains a constant drumbeat – that Russia will find some way of testing its resolve and determination, but especially the loyalty and steadfastness of its friends, neighbors or partners.
Still, in Nauseda’s primer for navigating the dangerous shoals between the worlds of Trump and Putin, he has adopted a stance that diverges, modestly from that of his predecessor, Dalia Grybauskaite.
During her decade as president, she adopted quite a confrontational tone, branding Russia a “terrorist state” after its invasion and seizure of Crimea. “I have proposed dialogue instead of fighting, looking for compromises,” Nauseda told me, adding that “aggression of Russia against Ukraine is intolerable. And if we will unilaterally try to improve the relations with Russia at the cost of Ukraine, it would be a pretty wrong decision because we know the politicians of Russia very well. If you will make compromises unilaterally, they will treat it as a sign of your weakness.”
So, while maintaining the full spectrum of western sanctions levied on Russia, Lithuania still carries on a healthy two-way trade, since barely “5% of our total exports to Russia were affected by the sanctions,” Nauseda pointed out. Food products, technical equipment, metal production, plastics, textile, furniture “were not included in sanctions.” Still, he affirms, “I am against abolition of sanctions without any preconditions.”
Lithuania also considers itself deeply protective of Ukraine, its people and leaders – a history going back half a millennium when the dukes of Lithuania ruled over a large swath of Ukraine. Today, Nauseda observed “we (still) have a common history, meaning that we were in the same Soviet Union. Maybe we are more lucky. We left the Soviet Union and started economic, social reforms and now we enjoy membership in the European Union and more closely converge with the living standards of the European Union. Our friends in Ukraine are lagging behind. Our moral obligation is to help them to go this way more effectively and talk about European Union, talk about NATO membership.” He said he is establishing a close relationship with its new President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Lithuania itself is surrounded by a host of friends and enemies. As for its enemies, real or potential – 141 miles of its frontier it shares directly with Russia, another 312 miles with Belarus, a Kremlin clone whose autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, makes scarcely a single move without Russian authorization. The rest of Lithuania’s frontiers are utterly friendly – 281 miles with neighboring Baltic state Latvia and a slim 57 miles with fellow NATO member Poland, the only chokepoint through which NATO aid could pour in the event of a Russian invasion.
So Nauseda, not surprisingly, is trying desperately to cultivate good, or indeed any, relations with Belarus. “We must try to help them at least to preserve some independence,” he says grimly, “for example, by creating some alternative channels to import their oil through (our Baltic) port, since now they are fully dependent on the pipeline coming from Russia. They are looking for alternatives. And Lithuania is there.” What would Putin think of that? I asked. “I don’t think he will be happy to hear about it,” Nauseda replied. “But I think it’s our responsibility to help them somehow.”
A close political ally of Nauseda, Linas Kojala, founder of the Vilnius-based think tank Lithuania Eastern Europe Studies Center, whom Nauseda tried to lure to his side as his foreign policy adviser, told me in an email exchange that his country and Nauseda “survive due to their own resilience, built up during the years of struggle and occupation.”
It seems that Nauseda is so confident that Trump would come to his aid at least in part because of their shared belief in patriotism, “about preserving national identity, national culture.” Toward the end of our conversation, the President observed that at the UN General Assembly when “I heard Mr. Trump saying the future belongs to patriots instead of globalists, I understand him. And in this regard, I am on his side, not in other regards, maybe. But in this regard yes.”
He concluded that his goal over the next five or ten years is to leave his country “green, peaceful, and wealthy.” He paused. “And defense policy is a big, powerful element of this strategy.” Which does require America, if not Donald Trump, to be there. Quite a primer for survival.