Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius explains why the Baltic states want a permanent NATO presence in their countries. He also tells DW how Europe should proceed after elections in Ukraine.
DW: Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was withdrawing his troops from the Ukrainian border. Are you relieved?
Linas Linkevicius: No, I am not relieved because there have been similar statements before and they were never implemented. But I hope that this time they will be true. Troops must be withdrawn because their presence creates additional tension, which is already high. I am not relieved until it actually happens.
Especially in the Baltic states people are worried and sometimes even fearful of Russia. Were you hoping for a more determined stance by your European partners, like Germany or the UK?
I do not have any reason to doubt the security guarantees which were provided by NATO and the European Union. The right decisions were taken 10 years ago to join NATO and EU, but that does not mean that we should relax. Freedom and peace are not a given. They are something that should be defended when the time comes.
People feel uncertain because they see these violations of international obligations and commitments in our neighborhood. It is indeed very difficult to know what we can expect. We need more psychological reassurance measures. The recent reinforcement of the policing mission and the ground exercises which were done by our allies was very useful. There should be more to come. A permanent presence would create more confidence. We definitely believe that it will be done in the foreseeable future.
Why is such a permanent presence so important to you and your colleagues from the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia?
It is important because we currently do not have it. One of the reasons is the NATO-Russia agreement of 1997 in which NATO made a commitment not to have a "substantial military presence in the territories of the new member states." This was a unilateral commitment.
But since then Russia has violated all possible commitments, all possible treaties. Therefore, I think this aspect should not be respected anymore because it was done in a completely different environment. The idea was to build a partnership and relations based on certain values, principles and national commitments. Now that is ruined. Frankly speaking, if it is important for the security of the member states, if it is important for the security of the alliance, it should be reviewed and changed.
But showing this strength and bringing more NATO forces into the Baltic states, couldn't that bring the whole situation to the brink of a new Cold War?
No! We are not talking about militarization, about big divisions of NATO troops. I am talking about a sensible level of presence which does not exist at all right now. This minimum level could create a situation in which maybe some thinkers from the other side will get rid of these strange ideas to redraw European borders. To redraw European borders in the 21st century is a very, very dangerous game. Sometimes we should realize that calls and diplomatic statements of concern or deep concern do not always work. Sometimes it should be a language which should be clear for the opponent. Now this is exactly the case: Giving reassurances, strengthening existing mechanisms and additional deployments. That would be an adequate reaction.
Do the Western European countries understand the fear that Lithuania has?
We are discussing these issues in all formats - be it NATO or EU - and I believe my colleagues understand more and more that the threat is real. It is not artificial. It is indeed something we should be worried about. What has happened is really something that could be repeated elsewhere.
There were lessons which were not learnt after the war in South Caucasus in 2008. There were already precedents of the occupation of sovereign states and it was not adequately perceived - and now we see the consequences. If we do not react this time we will have another precedent in another place.
Russia broke commitments, you said. Russia claims that military exercises by NATO just provoked counter-reactions. Are we getting into a vicious circle?
To train is not a provocation. To be ready to implement Article 5 of the NATO treaty is not a provocation. I believe it was a provocation not to have Article 5 exercises for 10 years because somebody said, "Ah, that's too provocative!" But the other side does it every week, even now, as we speak, and it's not a big deal. We are again trying to be advocates for our opponents even more than they are themselves. That is embarrassing to me sometimes.
Is NATO being too cautious?
Too relaxed, I would say. I don't mean we should be aggressive - I am talking about consistency: If we decide something, we should implement it. Because if we do not respect our own decisions it is a signal to others not to respect this decision as well. It is a signal for others to act, to be offensive. The behavior is not perceived as a politeness but as a weakness. This should be realized because it has not been so far.
Will Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine solve - at least - some of the problems?
Yes, some very important ones because we need permanent branches of power in government: If this is achieved, it will be very important for the stability of the country. I wish that these elections will take place and not be spoilt by these intruders from the outside - by intervention from a neighboring country. That is the reason why they have these difficulties now.
The round-table discussions have not brought much improvement, yet. What could be the next steps?
The discussion has just started. It is good that the Ukrainian government is open for these discussions. After the election, after having set all permanent structures in place, they will be able to take full control of the country and realize these obligations: decentralization of the country, constitutional reforms including an inclusive dialogue with all Ukrainians. That's the way to go. It is important to note that everything they are doing should be done by themselves - not by outsiders.
So European countries should not be involved in the process?
We are discussing it. But we shouldn't decide it for them. The time has passed when big countries decide on the fate of small countries.
Linas Linkevicius has served as Lithuania's minister of foreign affairs since December 2012. Previously, he served as the Lithuanian permanent representative at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). From 1993-1996 and 2000-2004, Linkevicius was Lithuania's minister of national defense.