Little Lithuania Stands Tall Against Russia and China
Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Baltic nation’s foreign minister, explains why his country never bought into ‘the end of history’ and what Ukraine and Taiwan have in common.
By Tunku Varadarajan
May 5, 2023 at 3:53 pm ET
Lithuania is a Baltic country of just under 2.8 million people, a million fewer than live in the city of Los Angeles. It won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and existed for the next three decades on the margins of international attention, patronized in the European Union (which it joined in 2004) by heavyweights like France and Germany.
The war in Ukraine changed all that, redrawing the moral and diplomatic map of Europe in significant ways. With France and Germany leading from behind—the latter chronically indecisive and hostage to Russian energy supplies—the front-line states of the eastern flank have been left to mount a robust European defense of Ukraine. Along with Poland, the Baltic states—Estonia and Latvia as well as Lithuania—have been most vocal in their condemnation of the invasion; and they’ve committed materiel to
the war effort in unstinting ways and hosted large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. In doing so, they’ve earned the wrath of Russia, which they regard as proof of a moral duty well done.“We still have a very clear historic memory of my country being under occupation,” says Gabrielius Landsbergis, 41, Lithuania’s foreign minister, in a Zoom call from his chancery in
Vilnius. “I’m a youngish politician, but I remember it, as does the current young generation in Parliament.” His children “only read about it,” but Lithuanians have national nightmares of Russian attacks, “not just the tanks in Ukraine, and in Georgia, but here in the capital city.”
Mr. Landsbergis was 9 when Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius in an attempt to disperse massed protesters calling for independence. Fourteen Lithuanians died at the hands of Soviet troops on Jan. 13, 1991, now commemorated as Freedom Defenders Day. Eight months later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin recognized Lithuania’s sovereignty. United Nations membership followed days later. The foreign minister’s paternal grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis, now 90, was the first head of state of independent Lithuania.
That experience gives Lithuanians an “additional layer of understanding of what we’re up against, and what Ukraine is up against,” the foreign minister says. It also explains why Lithuania is the world’s only country in a state of open confrontation with both Russia and China. Lithuania sees itself as standing up to bullies who would snuff out the sovereignty of other nations. Its political position was strengthened late last month when China’s ambassador to France said on French television that “previously Soviet states have no effective status in international law.”
China’s animus against Lithuania is easily explained. In November 2021, the government gave its imprimatur to the opening of a Taiwan Representative Office in Vilnius. Such an office is commonly described in the media as a de facto embassy, but Mr. Landsbergis takes care to call it “nondiplomatic.” It is the sole Taiwanese representative office in Europe to use “Taiwan,” as opposed to “Taipei,” the only name China considers permissible. Even in the U.S., Taiwan’s representatives adhere to Beijing-approved nomenclature.
The Chinese reaction was swift, disproportionate and vengeful. China ceased all trade with Lithuania overnight, recalled its ambassador from Vilnius and expelled Lithuania’s from Beijing. “It was a hand-brake situation,” Mr. Landsbergis says, “a full stop.” He believes it was unprecedented: “Going from 100% of trade to zero trade—that’s never happened.” It caused “a lot of stress to businesses” and “a lot of stress to the government, trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.”
As it floundered to deal with the economic shock, Lithuania found that it wasn’t friendless. Australia, Japan and South Korea opened their ports to ships that could no longer dock in China: “Last year, our trade with the Pacific grew by 40%.” Booming trade with Singapore prompted Lithuania to open an embassy there.
“We were decoupled by China,” Mr. Landsbergis says, “but we showed that it was possible to withstand it, and not lower our threshold when it comes to values.” Taiwan still has its office in Lithuania, and trade relations with China have been restored, although the ambassadors haven’t returned.
Why did Lithuania, alone in Europe, poke China in the eye? Mr. Landsbergis doesn’t care for that characterization; he says his country isn’t “poking China in the eye, but allowing people to feel dignified by calling themselves the way they see themselves. And if they see themselves as Taiwanese, be it politically or culturally, it’s not my place to ask, but to give
them that dignity.” He says Vilnius’s position on Taiwan derives from its national values and belief in a “rules-based world order.” He directly compares Taiwan to Ukraine. “The sovereignty of countries is one of our main values,” he says, as is the “dignity of people, which usually comes up when we’re talking about the people in Taiwan” and their desire to
be “recognized as a democratic community.”
China, Mr. Landsbergis says, accused Lithuania of violating “their One China policy. We said that every country has a One China Policy and we did not violate the policy that Lithuania has. So this is a political dispute, but it goes deeper than that, to an attempt to suppress identity.”
He also bristles at the thought of taking dictation on policy from Beijing. “Will we be able to talk about Hong Kong? About Xinjiang? Will we be able to look into human-rights abuse?
Maybe that will become an out-of-the-question question that will merit sanctions from China.” That “might start affecting our sovereignty. And this is where we are.”
The European debate over Taiwan has turned in Lithuania’s direction. In late March, the EU agreed to institute a process to allow for trade retaliation against countries that use punitive measures against its member states. “We’ve seen in the last two years that Taiwan has become more and more a topic that is being debated in Europe,” Mr. Landsbergis says.
Latvia and Estonia followed Lithuania in leaving a forum called 17+1, set up by China to build its relations with Eastern European countries. This week the Czech foreign minister said “the 14+1 has neither substance nor future.” In March, a 150-member delegation of Czech parliamentarians visited Taiwan. The Czechs have also negotiated a major arms deal
with the Taiwanese.
When the Soviet Union fell, a triumphalism prevailed in much of the West, exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay and 1992 book about “the end of history.” Mr. Landsbergis says that Lithuania, “being a reborn country after years of occupation,” never bought into that: “Maybe I’m flattering my country, but I tend to believe that we feel the wind of geopolitical upheaval maybe better than others. Maybe that’s because we were born out of it. And it’s still alive, very much alive.”
As Mr. Landsbergis observed President Emmanuel Macron of France travel to China and perform what many in the free world regard as a kowtow—including an exhortation to Europe to be more than “just America’s followers”—he thought of earlier attempts to wean Russia off its old habits and transform it into a market democracy. “There is a lot of naiveté, a lot of wishful thinking that we will—with trade, with diplomacy, and interaction in the multilateral arena—drag and lock them closer to the West.” These methods “failed tremendously” with Russia, and “we should not be making exactly the same mistake with
The foreign minister tweeted recently that China, which has offered to mediate in the Ukraine war, “is not trying to help Russia or anybody else: China only helps China.” Xi Jinping aims “to create an alternative to Pax Americana,” a Pax Sinica,” which Mr. Landsbergis later rendered “Pax Cynica.” In our conversation, he explains that China seeks to set up a new global order based on “the might-is-right principle. It is presented as an ‘order,’ but in that order, only the strong win. And this is definitely not the world which would be safe for my country.”
What keeps Lithuania safe above all is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s “based on trust, trust that your back is covered,” Mr. Landsbergis says. “And that is so valuable when you are a front-line country like us.”
Asked if he thinks U.S. leadership is in decline internationally, Mr. Landsbergis says, “Oh no! I think it’s back. It’s very much back, at least where I stand. When it comes to Europe, the United States has shown, as in the past, that they’re here for us.” American participation was “decisive” in the two world wars, and we’re “seeing history repeat itself, in a different form.” Although U.S. troops aren’t fighting there, “Ukraine is immensely supported by the United States, not just militarily but politically, diplomatically and financially as well.”
Mr. Landsbergis isn’t fazed by the apparent domestic discord in the U.S.—especially in the Republican Party—over the extent of American support for Ukraine. He has met U.S. lawmakers from both parties and has found that dissension over Ukraine is overstated. “In some cases, headlines do not tell the truth,” he says. “At least from where I stand, I feel that
there is more consensus than we get to read sometimes.” What about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s reference to the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute”? “Well, I would probably give it time,” Mr. Landsbergis says. “For some politicians, the mindset is forming.” And Mr. DeSantis did walk the comment back.
Mr. Landsbergis believes the “spirit of Reagan is still alive” in Ronald Reagan’s party. It’s alive in Lithuania too. Reagan said his theory of the Cold War was “We win, they lose.” Mr. Landsbergis says Ukrainian victory means “winning the whole territory back, including Crimea. It’s rebuilding what was destroyed and punishing those who are guilty for the act
itself, for the aggression.”
If Ukraine turns back the Russians, “we will not then be forced to defend a country like Lithuania, or a country like Poland, the next time around.” We mustn’t “give in to an idea that Russia is unbeatable,” he says, noting that in the 20th century “Russia was beaten in Afghanistan; it was beaten in Japan in 1905.”
Mr. Landsbergis has a message for Americans: “We’re all connected” by “an unseen geopolitical thread” that binds the world. “A Ukrainian victory or loss will affect my country, will affect South Korea, will affect Taiwan, will affect Japan, will affect Israel, will Appeared in the May 6, 2023, print edition as ‘Lithuania Stands Tall Against Russia and China’.
affect the United States, will affect . . .” His voice trails off, then starts again: “We cannot get
tired. We cannot stop supporting Ukraine. We have to continue that until they win.”
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and
at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.