Lithuanians talk about freedom, Putin & Russia

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Lithuanians talk about freedom, Putin & Russia

By Nolan Finley – The Detroit News

(VILNIUS) – For Mantas Paskevicius, the symbol of his country’s freedom is a bunch of bananas.

Paskevicius was a young boy when the Soviet Union collapsed and Lithuania gained its independence in 1991 after more than 50 years of communist domination. But he remembers the deprivation of the occupation era.

“We never saw bananas, except maybe at Christmas,” he says. “Now, they’re everywhere.”

Paskevicius, who manages the Lithuanian operations of Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions, is, like most of his countrymen, well-versed in the humiliation Lithuania suffered under the Soviet’s iron fist. Conversations here quickly veer to tales of grandparents forced into work camps, of parents who lost their careers for hints of disloyalty, of the anxiety and mistrust that comes with living under an overseer who is always watching, always listening.

“Every family has a story of someone who was deported, who was taken to Siberia,” says Alvydas Zabolis, chair of the endowment board of Vilnius University, a school that has been in the city center since the 16th century.

“We take Putin very seriously.”

Lithuanians desperately hope the United States will take the measure of the Russian strongman as well.

Vladimir Putin to them is not just an internet mischief maker who hacks into campaign email accounts. He’s an existential threat, an empire builder whose ambition is to restore Russia as a power player in the world and affirm its rightful hold over eastern Europe.

“He wants to bring back the old gang of superpowers, and that takes territory,” says Zygimantas Pavilionis, a member of the Lithuanian parliament. “We believe Ukraine could be under attack in half a year, and after that, he’ll keep going until he’s stopped.”

 That’s what the people here want their friends in the United States to understand. And it’s why they are watching so closely to see which course the Trump administration will take in its relations with Russia.

“When each new president starts a love affair with Putin, I take a deep breath and wait for it to fail,” says Pavilionis. “You can’t have a healthy relationship with Putin.”

What the Lithuanians fear is that President Donald Trump, who had a telephone conversation with Putin on Tuesday, will seek a “big bargain” with the Russian, perhaps in exchange for cooperation in Syria, that leaves them vulnerable to Putin’s expansionist goals.

As one of three Baltic states on which Russia has historic designs, Lithuania lives at high risk. It shares a border with the Russian province of Kaliningrad, which Putin has turned into his munitions dump, its ballistic missiles capable of reaching throughout the Baltic region and deep into other parts of Europe. An estimated 300,000 Russian troops are stationed there.

Lithuanians want to build a fence along the Kaliningrad border, but they recognize the Russians could knock it down with a whisper, cutting them off from the rest of Europe.

For many in this country of just under 4 million people, it’s not a matter of if Putin makes a move, but when.

“Invasion is always part of the calculation,” says Renatas Norkus, director of Lithuania’s Department of Transatlantic Cooperation and Security and a former ambassador to Russia. “The present narrative is that we are surrounded and vulnerable. But we don’t expect dramatic moves in the next year or two. Russia will continue its covert efforts. Instead of an iron curtain, there will be a cyber wall. We’ll see a tech war, and meddling in our economy.”

That provides time, Norkus says, to concentrate on deterrence.

Lithuanians are lobbying for a stronger U.S. military presence in the Baltics. They want American and NATO troops stationed in their country permanently, an air defense system and other military hardware.

But mostly, they want a strong signal from the United States that it has Lithuania’s back.

A stable U.S. friend

Lithuania is among the more politically and economically stable of the former Soviet satellites. It has enthusiastically embraced both capitalism and democracy.

The landscape of Vilnius, its largest city, is a blend of the country’s colorful medieval roots and bleak Soviet industrialism. Its citizens are highly educated, multilingual and ardently pro-western.

“If you ask people on the street who they admire most, they always say America,” says Pavilionis.

Emerging technology and life science sectors have helped make Lithuania financially secure, says Kristina Biraite, economic adviser to President Dalia Grybauskaitė. Unemployment is in the 7-8 percent range, admirable by European standards. Lithuania does $1.5 billion in annual trade with the U.S.

The country is in a constant struggle to hang on to its young people, who are lured to Great Britain and Germany by the promise of better pay, and is focused on creating opportunity for them at home.

Cindy Pasky, chief executive of Strategic Staffing Solutions, has done business in Lithuania for more than 20 years. Her grandparents emigrated from there to Detroit in the early 20th century, and she’s involved in efforts to attract investment to Vilnius, where she has a rapidly growing office.

She says investors are not put off by worries about Russia.

“No one really ever asks about it,” she says. Biraite confirms the uncertainty about Putin has not hurt the economy.

“We sometimes get the question about the Russian threat,” she says. “But we have NATO here. We have the U.S. as our ally.”

Stop Putin here

It’s probably fair to say Americans rarely think about our relationship with Lithuania. But the alliance means everything to that country.

“We know what can happen and how fast it could happen,” says Gabrielus Landsbergis, chair of the conservative party. “We need a U.S. military base, U.S. troops on the ground.”

The theory is Putin would not dare do to Lithuania what he’s doing to Ukraine if American troops are stationed in the country. Even a modest U.S. presence, they believe, would dissuade him from aggression. While much of the rest of Europe is grumbling about Trump’s demand they honor their pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, Lithuanians agreed to do so happily. They also established a draft, with the goal of building a 60,000-troop reserve force.

Even with an expanded army, “Russia could roll over us,” says Landsbergis. “Only U.S. troops could deter them from getting through.”

Despite concerns about Trump’s campaign trail bromance with Putin, Lithuanian leaders are encouraged by early encounters with the Trump team.

“We are getting a very solid message that the U.S. will stay here,” says Martynas Lukosevicius, security adviser to the president. “The U.S. is our No. 1 ally. If anything happens, we can count on you guys.”

Conversations about strengthening the alliance are ongoing.

“The chemistry with the new administration is good,” says Norkus of the security department, who was in Washington earlier this year with other Baltic representatives to meet with Trump cabinet members. “We could never get a meeting with Susan Rice (national security adviser under President Barack Obama.) But we got right in to see (Trump NSA chief H.R.) McMaster. The tougher talk from Trump lately gives us confidence whatever policies that are developed will be based on reality.”

The emissaries urged the U.S. to “escalate to de-escalate” in eastern Europe, discouraging Putin with a show of force. And they warn to expect Russia to test the new president.

“If (Trump) backs down, Putin will push further,” says Pavilionis. “His goal is to humiliate America. Seventeen years the world has been dealing with Putin, and has done nothing to stop him.”

Nolan Finley’s book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.

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