«We Were Realists and Were Saying that „Look, Russia Is Becoming More Aggressive“. Putin Is the Hitler of the 21st Century», — Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania

Interview with Mantas Adomėnas — Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania.

Photos from open sources and Vocal Europe

Ukraine and Lithuania are connected by a common history, values of the free world, and the real closeness of the two nations. When Russia started a war in east of Ukraine in 2014, Lithuanians were among the first to come to help and systematically supported the front-line region, investing efforts and funds in various projects. For example, Lithuania has invested about one million euros in the reconstruction of Avdiivka school, which opened its doors to schoolchildren on September 1, 2021. Now, unfortunately, this educational institution, like many other civilian objects in Ukraine, has been destroyed by the Russian occupiers. But as in the previous eight years, friendly Lithuania is with us. With sincere faith in our soonest victory.

Read about how Lithuania is fighting for a fair punishment of Russia for what it has done in Ukraine, about Russian threats that the country feels, and about further military support for the Ukrainian army.

«Reconstruction projects as a signal of faith in Ukrainian victory»

«Vchasno» news agency: First of all I would like to ask about the specific project. Avdiivka school in Donetsk oblast of Ukraine was Lithuania’s largest development cooperation project. Unfortunately, Russian troops almost destroyed the school with aimed fire. How did Ministry find out about it? And what was it like to see such a crime directed at a civilian infrastructure facility that was so carefully built?

— I would like to say that Avdiivka school had been the biggest Lithuanian development cooperation project to date because during my visit to Kyiv oblast, I visited the school in Borodyanka that we are beginning to reconstruct, and I very much hope that it will open its doors on the 1st of September for the new school year and that will be already a kind of a bigger more extensive project along with other reconstruction projects.

So I mentioned that because our renovation of Avdiivka school was a sort of expression of belief in the victory of Ukraine’s legitimate desire to restore its territorial integrity. It is situated just on the frontline very near Donetsk. So from a military point of view, it’s hardly surprising that it was hit. From a human point of view of course it’s terrible to see that the school in Avdiivka, along with thousands of other Ukrainian schools, kindergartens, and hospitals are targets of bombing and artillery shooting by Russia, which is absolutely disregarding the preservation of civilian life and civilian infrastructure. Russia treats it as a sort of territory to be erased, and not keeping to the conventions of war. But again this is not surprising after the massacres that we saw in Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin, and others. So of course it’s terrible to hear. We heard it from our embassy, we are keeping in touch with the military people, with people in defense, and also with our honorary councils. We have more than 10 throughout the whole of Ukraine who represent Lithuania in the various regions.

School in Avdiivka September 1, 2021, and February 25, 2023 / photo: Vchasno and Donetsk regional administration

But the grief for our loss of what we put in Avdiivka pales before the suffering of the whole of the Ukrainian people. This is only a small fragment of what is happening in Ukraine and as I mentioned we started rebuilding a school in Borodyanka, a kindergarten in Irpin, and an energy net in Mykolaiv even though some of our partners say you know «What are you doing, it’s still a war going on, it might still be bombed» but for us, it’s an expression of belief in Ukrainian victory and we want to start rebuilding immediately, before the cessation of war because we believe that this gives also hope to Ukrainians and sends a positive signal that you will be victorious and we will be there with you to the end.

Mantas Adomenas in de-occupied Kyiv oblast / photo: Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine

— Does Lithuania record, and monitor the consequences of Russian aggression directed toward projects implemented by the country in east of Ukraine or in other areas? So maybe there is any list of other objects that suffered from Russian aggression?

— I'm sure that our embassy through the honorary consuls through whom often these projects were implemented is keeping tabs on what is happening where. But at the moment I think the more urgent task is to collect information on the overall scale of destruction, loss of human life and murders of civilians, and other crimes committed by Russian occupying forces throughout Ukrainian territory. And this is where we direct our resources in the joint investigation team together with Poland and the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine to kind of bring to responsibility those crimes which are much more burning and flagrant. And so the objects, of course, it’s regrettable, but their time will come later when we have dealt with these more egregious crimes.

«There could be no just peace without Russia’s reparations»

— What do you think the international community should do to not let Russia escape fair punishment for its crimes? You mentioned the mutual work with Poland and Ukraine in the direction of recording these crimes, but what else should the international community do? Maybe some practical things like a tribunal or mechanism for compensation and everything?

— Absolutely. There are several things that we can do straight away and we should be doing them as soon as possible. And Lithuania has been at the forefront of advocating for the special tribunal which would be established in The Hague with the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations. So this tribunal would be working together with the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

International Criminal Court can address crimes against humanity and war crimes, the International Court of Justice can adjudicate the destruction of infrastructure and the special tribunal is needed in order to bring to responsibility people who are responsible for starting the war itself, the crime of aggression which is not under the other sort of court jurisdiction. So, on all parameters, we should establish this tribunal and work to bring cases to all the courts. And this is what we are already doing, helping to prepare the materials so that they could be considered by these international courts with whom we have very good relations. So that’s one track.

Another track is of course we have hundreds of billions of frozen Russian money. And we have to develop the legal instruments as soon as we can, to use these funds to help Ukraine, whether in restoration or reconstruction or in providing the supplies that it needs to fight this war of defense to restore its territory — this is for Ukrainians to decide. And this is again what we’re pushing other EU countries to do. We have to not just freeze those funds but actually bring them to Ukraine as legitimate.

Then of course the reparations. There could be no just peace without Russia’s reparations, without paying for what they destroyed, without their compensation for all the people’s lives that were lost because they were attacked, raped, and murdered. Our line in the communication with our partners is that any end-of-war scenario is not only the restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine in its internationally recognized border with Crimea, with Donetsk, with Luhansk, but also reparations and proper responsibility because otherwise, we will not be sending the right signal. That you cannot engage in a war, and you cannot attack a peaceful state just to satisfy your ideological constructs and so without responsibility and without reparations the signal will not be sent properly.

— Is there unity between all the European countries in these questions? I mean tribunals and compensation or maybe some countries are not so actively involved in this?

— Of course, it’s a big union of 27 members. Hopefully soon to be more with Ukraine. Now many countries are with different perspectives, with different geopolitical environments. And obviously, the urgency of what is happening in Ukraine is not felt in the same measure if you are sitting across the whole continent and observing from very far. So we see our task together with other Baltic countries, together with Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic to bring this urgency into European debate and I must say that we are succeeding, perhaps not as fast as people in Ukraine would wish but it is happening. When I raised the issue of a special tribunal at the meeting of Ministers and vice ministers in The Hague in June-beginning of July last year it was still a minority voice so there were only a couple of countries who sort of supported but they didn’t even propose it. Lithuania was the only one proposing.

Now we have a core group of close to 10 countries that support the idea and the cycle is expanding. It’s the same with all these ideas and you have to be a very active advocate and it needs persuasion, I mean you have to put forward logical arguments and then more countries join in. Because this is the difference in democratic societies that the leaders follow where people go. So we have to also communicate very much with society not just with political leaders and with political elites. And then of course opinions change and people get on your side and this is what is happening in all areas with Ukraine — from providing armaments to demanding responsibility, from devoting funds to reconstruction to EU accession, and this is an ongoing process and we have to be very patient, but also very unrelenting in pursuing this.

«At the 2007 Munich security conference Putin told his program of action»

— Lithuania is one of the biggest friends and supporters of Ukraine in this big war. So why is it important for your country to support us? I mean, maybe there is a feeling that Ukraine right now is like a shield for Baltic countries and the whole of Europe in this war.

— We are realists about Russia. We were realistic before it was cool, before anybody sort of knew that, we were saying that «Look, Russia is becoming more aggressive». Remember Putin’s speeches at the 2007 Munich security conference when he said that the restoration of the Soviet Union is his sort of task and everybody else was saying, «Oh well, you know, this is just kind of attempt to attract attention». Nobody paid attention to what he was saying and that was actually a program of action. We were very serious. We were saying «Look, they are having aggressive intent. And we should prepare our security for that». And nobody was paying attention saying «You are just russophobes because you were under Soviet occupation». The events proved that we were right.

Because we have this realism, we know that attack on Baltic countries is not beyond Putin’s imagination, and if only he gets his hands free, then he might lash out in other directions. Whether it’s Baltic countries and whether it’s Kazakhstan, whether it’s Georgia. It’s an ideological regime with this sort of pernicious imperialist ideology and they will not stop it.

But the pragmatism doesn’t explain the Lithuanian people’s devotion to Ukraine. And the fact that our society is collecting funds to buy arms and millions of euros are collected in a matter of days by non-governmental organizations as well as the political elite. I mean it’s something deeper and well beyond the pragmatic calculations that all we need is Ukraine to defend us but it’s also common history, it’s also sharing the same historical misfortunes of being oppressed by the Russian tsars, by the Soviet regimes, being the targets of genocide. So there is deep solidarity but also going back to our shared histories in the Commonwealth of both nations and the Grand Duchy, so common history is part of present-day solidarity and I think there is no other country or nation that Lithuania would feel closer to these days.

Recently, Lithuania raised 14 million euros for radars for the air defense of Ukraine in four weeks. At the end of November 2022, as part of a campaign to collect funds for maritime drones for Ukraine, Lithuanians raised money for three drones worth $ 250,000 each, named «Peace Dec», «Peace Da» and «Peace Duke».

At the end of May 2022, Lithuanians collected almost six million euros for Bayraktar for the Armed Forces in just three and a half days.

— And if we talk about Russian threats, what threats does Lithuania feels now? Maybe some propaganda growing more or espionage.

— You know this old Soviet joke: «What would you like? Beer or wine and vodka too». So all that you mentioned and much besides. So, yes, espionage, of course. We know we have to be very vigilant about Russian and Belarussian espionage because Lithuania is home not only to 74,000 Ukrainians who escaped the war and who might be targets but also to sizable communities of Belarusian and Russian democratic activists or freedom fighters who have to be protected.

Propaganda and disinformation are one of the Russian weapons that they’re trying to use and have been trying to use before so you know the Western world became aware of how powerful propaganda can be, so we have developed methods of combating it before anyone else did. I’m not saying that this is 100% - we don’t shoot down all the missiles, whether ideological or physical. But nevertheless, we are developing and now we’re teaching other countries how to combat it.

Energy pressure, which was very much a feature which Lithuania luckily got itself independent from because we are totally independent of Russian energy since last May. We import our gas through an LNG terminal, all our oil is imported by sea and we produce electricity and buy it from other democratic countries. So this is what we advise others to do.

Obviously economic pressure, I mean quite a lot of the Lithuanian economy was tied up with Russia. Now it has to reorient itself and it’s a process that doesn’t happen for the first time — we did that after the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. We did this after different sanctions.

And obviously military threat. I mean we have to realize that Lithuania is squeezed between the heavily militarized Kaliningrad region and Belarus which is becoming a kind of launch pad for Russian attacks against Ukraine, it may become against Lithuania. And there’s only 90 something kilometer long stretch of land, the so-called Suwalki gap, which connects Lithuania and other Baltic countries to the rest of NATO and the EU. So again between Kaliningrad and Belarus, it’s easier to capture it and it must be defended. So that’s why we are sort of advocating the bolstering of NATO defenses along the eastern border. So deployment of more troops in the Baltic countries, in Poland, in Romania, and eventually in Ukraine when Ukraine becomes a NATO country, which I believe is going to happen sooner than we think.

Suwalki gap / photo: Geopolitical Futures

— Lithuania will increase its military assistance to Ukraine in 2023. So what are the plans?

— Lithuania is now preparing a package of 125 million worth of military goods, which involves artillery systems, helicopters, ammunition, and other weapons. But this is obviously not the end and not being a kind of major armory sort of arsenal in NATO. We are looking for ammunition to buy which may be supplied and we are looking for what we can sort of acquire and then supply Ukraine with. And we will always obviously be flexible so currently, there is a need for artillery and artillery shells and small arms ammunition and maybe in a couple of months, some of the needs will be different. We will be always in a very close dialogue and trying to respond as well as we can to the needs of Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield.

And obviously, we’re also very hard in advocating and pushing forward the need to help among other countries that have bigger arsenals and still haven’t sent any armored vehicles and tanks and artillery pieces and there are such NATO countries. So we are sort of working with them as well so that they changed their minds and I hope that together we can make this breakthrough in Ukraine’s equipment and change the strategic balance decisively in its favor. So we will stand together to help as much as we can with all the needs that Ukraine might have in the future.

«If we yield to the threats, Russia will take it as a sign of weakness»

— «The thing that holds us back is fear. We are afraid of what will happen if Russia actually loses this war» — your Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis once wrote on his Twitter. Who and why still has such a fear? And what makes Lithuania not afraid of such things, and continue to help Ukraine?

— I think the fear Minister speaks about, the fear of Russia’s defeat is taking at the face value the statements by Russia that if it loses then it will engage escalate to the next level like nuclear arms or some other sort of military escalation of similar proportions like attacking NATO countries. And I think this is totally wrong-headed in the sense that we know Russia, we have been dealing with it not the last few decades, not our last century, but several centuries before that. Together with Ukraine. We know how it works and it’s always been the same. So if we yield to their threats and say «OK, well, this is our red line, we cannot go further» or «We have to leave Crimea to Russia, for example, because it will enrage Russia» or «We cannot provide sort of tanks, jets or things like that». Then Russia will take it as a sign of weakness. It actually encourages, but it’s not the case that they hold to their side of the bargain. The only way to have Russia yield is to show it the hard way, to make it defeated. And this is something that we have realized through this very long history of dealing with Russia and the current regime of these cowardly tyrants in the Kremlin does not disprove it. When they get sort of smashed then they will make concessions. And Putin is the Hitler of the 21st century and the West was not prepared to kind of negotiate with Hitler and make concessions of territory to him, but sort of seek the ultimate defeat, and that’s the perspective we should also take.

Only when in Russia there will be a change of fundamental political setup and governing ideology, change in society, and when Russia embraces democratic values, only then we can be sure that it is no longer an aggressive imperialist power seeking to inflict damage on the free world. And this is in the interest of peace, and security in the whole world. And unless we realize that, unless we take this long, admittedly hard, but also sort of uncompromising stance, then we’re bound for another sort of surprise when Russia attacks another country and there is further innocent blood spilled. We cannot afford that because life is what matters. It doesn’t matter to Russia, but it matters to the free democratic countries of the world, and to in order to avoid further bloodshed, we have to be extremely tough on Russia.

The interview with Mantas Adomenas was recorded on February 23, 2023

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