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Lithuania to host NATO Summit as emboldened Ukraine seeks to join

Lithuania to host NATO Summit as emboldened Ukraine seeks to join
Audra Plepyté, Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States. (Photos by The Washington Diplomat)

All eyes will be on Lithuania this week when Vilnius hosts the 2023 NATO Summit, as the 31-nation alliance, in its own words, “faces the most dangerous and unpredictable security environment since the Cold War.”

The July 11-12 event marks the first time Lithuania has ever convened such a gathering, and it also coincides with the 700th anniversary of the founding of Vilnius. President Joe Biden and dozens of other heads of state will attend, marking the biggest gathering of its type here since Lithuania’s entry to NATO in 2004.

But it occurs against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, as well as Sweden’s efforts to join NATO. In a late-breaking development, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed the day before the summit’s opening to drop Ankara’s longstanding objections to Swedish membership—a dramatic about-face announced by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg from Vilnius.

Attending the summit is Audra Plepyté, Lithuania’s ambassador in Washington since May 2021. Before leaving, she said the summit is “very significant” because it takes place on NATO’s eastern flank, in a country bordering Russia.

“The ultimate goal for the security of Europe is that Ukraine should be a member of NATO. When and how this happens is a discussion among all the allies,” Plepyté told The Washington Diplomat. “As history shows, we cannot have gray zones in Europe. This is just a source of instability. We must take into account what the people of Ukraine want.”

That position received a boost on July 7, when Erdoğan—following a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Istanbul—said that “without a doubt, Ukraine deserves to be in NATO.”

Yet that’s not going to happen in Vilnius, or anytime soon, warned a cautious Biden, speaking to reporters as the Ukraine conflict entered its 500th day.

Even after announcing that the Pentagon would send controversial cluster munitions to Kyiv that could inflict massive damage on Russian forces in the battlefield, the president—who plans to visit NATO’s newest member, Finland, after the summit—said Ukrainian membership in the alliance would risk triggering Article 5 and a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “For example, if you did that, then, you know–and I mean what I say–we’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory. It’s a commitment that we’ve all made, no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re at war with Russia.”

Plepyté: Lithuania aims to spend 3% of GDP on defense

While Lithuania’s 2.8 million inhabitants don’t necessarily feel that their country is under an immediate threat, Plepyté said her small Baltic nation harbors no illusions about the Kremlin or its intentions.

“We witnessed already what’s happening in Russia,” she said. “They want to scare us and intimidate us. We shouldn’t be intimidated.”

For one thing, despite the ongoing war and the considerable losses it has caused, Russia has announced that over the next three years it will boost its troop strength to 1.5 million men (a 40% increase), re-establish the Moscow and St. Petersburg Military Districts, create a new army corps and upgrade seven brigades into motorized infantry divisions.

“In Belarus, Russia is permanently stationing its troops and making Belarus complicit in aggression against Ukraine. A recently signed agreement between Russia and Belarus on the deployment of nuclear arms in the territory of Belarus also calls for strengthening of our posture in all domains,” Plepyté said. “In the event of a military conflict with NATO, Russia would use Belarusian territory, air space and infrastructure without any limitations.”

This is one reason Lithuania plans to spend 3% of its GDP on defense, well above the NATO target of 2%.

“We think that 2% should be a floor,” she explained. “We’re already almost at 3%. If the NATO alliance and every member wants to be safe, we have to be very serious about our commitment. We have to spend as much as necessary.”

Plepyté pointed to Germany as an example. Long reluctant to allocate money to weapons or defense, the German government last year took a historic decision to modernize its army and has since pledged to permanently deploy 4,000 troops in Lithuania.

Besides the €950 million in government and private assistance Lithuania has given Ukraine since the start of the war, the Lithuanian people have opened up their homes to Ukrainian refugees. As of June 13, 2023, nearly 78,000 Ukrainian citizens—including 26,000 children—have settled in Lithuania. They now make up 2.78% of the country’s population.

And in one private initiative this January, a crowdfunding effort raised €14 million to buy multifunctional tactical radars for Ukraine, including €2 million in one hour.

“Our people are very determined now to help Ukraine, and of course to defend their own country. I wouldn’t say we’re afraid. But we’re ready to defend,” Plepyté told us. “Deterrence is a very important thing, and we should ensure that the eastern flank is really protected.”

Economy booming despite regional tensions

The ambassador, no stranger to foreign policy intrigue, began her diplomatic career in 1994 in the Multilateral Relations Division of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. Over the next 20 years, she was posted to Copenhagen, New York and Brussels. She served as Lithuania’s ambassador to Spain (2010-14), director of the EU Department at the Foreign Ministry in Vilnius (2014-17) and permanent representative to the UN (2017-21) before taking up her current post in Washington.

A philosophy graduate of Vilnius University, Plepyté recently used her embassy to inaugurate the bipartisan Friends of Belarus Congressional Caucus. Among the invited guests: Belarusian activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, widely regarded winner of her country’s August 2020 presidential elections.

“Even during Soviet times, we always regarded ourselves as occupied,” Plepyté said recently. “This embassy functioned the whole time thanks to the US non-recognition policy. That gave us hope that one day we’d be free.”

Plepyté said the June 23 revolt against the Kremlin by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group reflects the “volatile, aggressive and always unpredictable” state of affairs in Russia today.

“This demonstrates how unstable and difficult it is to predict the situation in our neighborhood is, and how quickly events can unfold,” she said.

“Therefore, we should stay alert and continue to focus on our priorities: first, significantly enhancing our support to Ukraine’s victory and paving a pathway to its transatlantic integration as the most credible way to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security and stability in the region; second, reinforcing allies that are most exposed to the threat from Russia, without delay, by putting deterrence by denial approach in practice in our region as soon as possible.”

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, couldn’t agree more.

“Since the very creation of NATO, strategists, as prominent as George Kennan, have been worried about provoking Moscow with our alliances in Europe,” McFaul wrote in his blog. “Kennan opposed the creation of NATO. But strikingly, from the very beginning of the alliance until today, Kremlin leaders—from Stalin to Putin—have never attacked NATO members. And NATO, of course, has never attacked the Soviet Union and will never attack Russia. War in Europe has only come to where NATO is not.”

Despite the tense geopolitical situation, Lithuania’s economy is clearly booming. Last year, 30 foreign companies decided to invest in the country, and 27 already there announced expansion plans. The United States is already the top source of foreign direct investment, accounting for 20% of FDI over the last decade—led by global brands such as Western Union, Hollister, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Nasdaq.

In 2024, the Lithuanian Embassy will celebrate 100 years of continuous operation, she said.

“I’m grateful for US leadership in supporting Ukraine since the very beginning of the war—even before the war started. Americans have been in Lithuania for awhile, and we see this US presence as the biggest deterrence. History has shown that Europe and the US are both stronger when we work together.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.