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Angela Merkel faces suspicion in Baltics

Konstantin Eggert Vilnius
September 13, 2018

Will the Bundeswehr defend the Baltics? Will Berlin let Nord Stream 2 proceed? Merkel will encounter a political class and public opinion leery of Germany's Russia policy during her visit to Lithuania on Friday.

Litauen Angela Merkel und Dalia Grybauskaite
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Kulbis

"The Lithuanians have fallen on hard luck again. The Estonians are hosting the British, for Latvians it is the Canadians, Poles have Americans — all great fighting forces. And only we get the Germans!" This was a Vilnius banker's comment as he discussed the continuing deployment of a German-led NATO multinational battalion in Rukla, a small town in central Lithuania.

It started in 2017 as part of the alliance's Enhanced Forward Presence, part of a larger deployment of allied troops in the Baltic states and Poland designed to deter Vladimir Putin's Russia from any attempts to destabilize the region. During her third visit to Vilnius, Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to bear in mind that as far as Lithuanian public opinion is concerned, some German policies are questionable.

Read more: Baltics battle Russia in online disinformation war

To be sure, Merkel is a towering figure in European politics and no doubt a welcome visitor to Lithuania, where she will hold talks with President Dalia Grybauskaite (photo above, with Merkel) and the prime ministers of all three Baltic states, as well as visit the German troops in Rukla. Germany is Lithuania's third-largest foreign investor, with 500 of its companies providing over 17,000 jobs. This summer, Continental, one of the world's leading automotive manufacturers, started building a €95 million ($110 million) plant near Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. It is set to create 1,000 new jobs. Defense cooperation is also strong: Lithuania buys German howitzers, armored vehicles and other military hardware.

Leery public 

However, perceptions that Germany is not a very reliable NATO ally are driven by Berlin's willingness to maintain dialog with Moscow; in the Baltics, that is often seen as a waste of time at best and a dangerous weakness at worst.

A graphic showing results of a Pew Research Center

That impression is born out by public opinion data, such as a 2017 Pew Research Center poll that showed that only 40 percent of German citizens say their country should fight for a NATO ally if it got into a serious military conflict with Russia — one of the lowest figures among the 29 alliance members.

Having seen Bundeswehr ads in Germany that prioritize humanitarian aspects of its overseas operations, one Lithuanian joked: "If Putin comes we won't need the Germans to repair our kindergartens, we'll need them to shoot straight — and fast!"

Read more: NATO in Baltics learns from Ukraine's mistakes

Among Lithuania's decision-makers there is more faith in Germany's — and especially Merkel's — resilience: "We must remember that it was the chancellor who convinced her skeptical generals that they should take the lead and spearhead NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania," a NATO diplomat with knowledge of the 2016-2017 alliance deliberations told DW. "She is also a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine. There is no doubt Merkel is personally committed to these policies."

Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in Rukla, Lithuania
Germany leads a multinational battlegroup of around 1,370 soldiers in LithuaniaImage: Reuters/I. Kalnins

The Lithuanian political class and Foreign Ministry officials are less concerned than the general public about the Bundeswehr's resolve to engage the Russians, should war come. "If they don't, it's the end of NATO, and I do not think they in Berlin want to be the cause of it," one said.

'Putin's pipeline' rattles the Baltics

If there is one issue that puts Vilnius and other Baltic capitals at odds with Germany, it is the Nord Stream project, an offshore Baltic Sea gas pipeline, partnering Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly, with German, Dutch and French companies. Germany is the main driver behind the project. Its second phase, Nord Stream 2, is slowly proceeding against objections by the Baltic states and Poland. They say it will strengthen the EU's dependence on Russian hydrocarbons and denies embattled Ukraine most of its income from current Russian gas transit to Central and Eastern Europe.

Read more: Nord Stream 2 — What is the controversy about? 

But Angela Merkel's cabinet prefers a hands-off approach. It claims it does not want to interfere in decisions by private companies.

"Lithuanians see this attitude as a tacit support for Nord Stream," Vygaudas Usackas, a former foreign minister and EU ambassador to Russia from 2013-2017, who has announced his intention to run for president of Lithuania in 2019, told DW. "The European Commission has already said the project contradicts the stated goal of diversifying the union's energy supply. As a leading European power, Germany should lead by example, not by exception."

A map showing the route of Nord Steeam and Nord Steam 2

"Nord Stream threatens our security. It also imports corruption and shadow dealing in the EU," Dovile Sukyte, of the Eastern Europe Study Center in Vilnius, said. "Lithuania invests heavily in energy projects that reduce reliance on Russia. Here we know that paying more is worth it, if it increases our independence. I am not certain German business and German diplomacy look at dealing with Russia in the same way. After all, their independence is not at stake."

Read more: Lithuania put to the test by fears of separatism at borders

Diplomatic observers in Vilnius are convinced that Nord Stream 2's fate will be high on the agenda of Merkel's talks with the Baltic premiers but especially with President Grybauskaite. Said one former diplomat: "The president won't embarrass the chancellor publicly, but I am certain she will raise the issue in the most direct and frank manner in private."