President Joe Biden has routinely defended his decisions to withhold certain economic sanctions against Russia, and to withhold sending categories of weapons to Ukraine, out of his desire to keep NATO together. That typically means deferring to the most hesitant and wealthiest NATO member, Germany, always hoping for a Putin change of heart and the possibility of Russian rapprochement that never comes. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has shown his ambitions include other formerly occupied nations, beginning with the Baltic countries. Rather than continue deferring to Germany’s preferences, the Biden administration should instead fully back the NATO members that have shown the most credible determination to eschew dependency on Russia, empower Ukraine, and deter further Russian aggression.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joining NATO. These Eastern flank nations, Lithuania in particular, have shown the willingness and capability to take on a larger role in the alliance. When former President Donald Trump began to press NATO allies to contribute more to their self-defense, Lithuania responded with a vigorous defense spending increase. Lithuania spent 0.9% of its GDP on defense in 2014. In 2023, it will reach 2.52%.
The small Baltic nation is more than a NATO good-news story. It looks something like the conscience of the U.S.-led West in the early stages of the new cold war with the China-Russia alliance. Possessing the haunting memories of the Soviet yoke it was freed from just 30 years ago, Lithuania continues to see the threats clearly and is set on refocusing its wealthier allies on the fundamentals: to remember the fragility of peace, to commit to the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination, and to summon the courage to defend the West.
The NATO Summit in Vilnius in July is an opportune time to convey that the Eastern flank nations are not the lesser members of a weak and outdated NATO alliance but among the alliance’s most capable members and greatest successes. The U.S. should respond in kind, leading to make the changes that would strengthen the Baltics and therefore all of NATO.
A Russian attack like the one against Ukrainian cities would devastate the Baltic country the size of West Virginia. Lithuania cannot afford to wait on forces rushing to its rescue, and it is wise to push to strengthen the credibility of deterrence to decrease the risk of an invasion happening at all. Germany leads a multinational rotational battalion with 1,500 troops in Lithuania. But Lithuania wants a German brigade, and a permanent one, though no doubt it would not complain about an American one. Shifting some U.S. forces to permanent basing in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic nations to include Lithuania would adapt the force posture to meet the threat Russia continues to pose — a threat Lithuania very much understands.
It really wasn’t that long ago that Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets. Even after the Cold War was technically over, the last Russian military forces didn’t leave Lithuania until 1993, and only after Lithuanians resisted Mikhail Gorbachev’s forces. Some Lithuanians sacrificed their lives for the freedom their families and neighbors enjoy today. And their descendants have not forgotten, as Lithuania stands as a modern, independent, and fiercely pro-American and anti-communist nation.
Lithuanians are in many ways culturally akin to moderate-conservative Americans, enjoying a secular social scene but with dominant traditional family mores. Unlike some European countries that have disarmed their populations, the law protects Lithuanians’ right to self-defense. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lithuanian gun purchases soared. And it’s no wonder.
Putin’s forces nearly surround the Baltic nation. Kaliningrad is a Russian territory hosting nuclear weapons on the western side of Lithuania and is the base for Russia’s Baltic fleet. Lithuania tried to enforce European Union sanctions by prohibiting certain sanctioned goods from traversing its sovereign nation to Kaliningrad, but the EU pressured it to stand down, lest it provoke Putin. Russia has essentially overtaken Belarus and may base nuclear weapons there, too.
While Russia has been focused on the war to subjugate Ukraine, Putin has made clear his aspirations are more ambitious and include formerly occupied nations, such as the Baltic countries. Lithuania has been an early defender of Ukraine and continues to send military assistance in support of Ukraine’s defense. This support has been with the full backing of the Lithuanian people and civil society, which recently crowdsourced $14 million to buy air defense radars for Ukraine.
Lithuanians know their security is tied to Western solidarity against Russia. As a people, they survived the Nazis and then Stalin. The country now enjoys a dynamic democratic system of government and civil society. And it is determined to stay that way.
Lithuania has not only encouraged NATO to strengthen itself against Russia. It has also defiantly stood up against Chinese communism and relentlessly works to encourage others to resist China’s tempting economic initiatives. In May 2021, Lithuania’s parliament passed a resolution recognizing China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims, adding its voice to those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands.
Lithuania’s hard-line, and eminently prudent, stance on Xi Jinping’s growing influence continues, as the China-Russia alliance has come into sharper focus sooner for certain capitals. Lithuania withdrew from the so-called 17+1 group, a forum for Eastern and Central European countries to engage with China. It continues to encourage other nations to leave as well. And while Vilnius gave the massive Chinese communism market the cold shoulder, it warmed to Taiwan. It became the first country in Europe to welcome a Taiwanese de facto embassy under the name “Taiwan.” Why? As one official recently told me, simply, “They wanted us to be approving of Chinese communism. No.”
China responded by punishing Lithuania economically. But Taiwan stepped in to purchase Lithuanian goods destined for China and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to Lithuanian industry. Vilnius has also reached out to others to deepen ties, including Japan, which has committed billions to Ukraine’s support.
The Lithuania of today is something Western strategists could have only dreamed of as it emerged from under Soviet subjugation as a fiercely independent people. In just over 30 years, it stands as a bulwark against the revanchist aims of neighboring Russia, with its senior partner, China. Lithuania responded to NATO accession by becoming one of the alliance’s most clear-eyed, capable, and principled members. In return, the alliance can make the necessary changes that would strengthen deterrence, the defense of Vilnius, and the Eastern flank.