Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

The country that sees danger everywhere

Will Lithuania be the next Ukraine?

People walk with a giant many meter-long Ukrainian flag to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a celebration of Lithuania's independence in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images

Just over a year ago, when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, urged Nato to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, he warned: “If we are no more, then God forbid, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will be next.” There was a sense of acute danger in the three Baltic states in the first weeks of the war. One western diplomat in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, recalls that local staff had packed their bags and were asking about the embassy’s evacuation plans. “The assumption was that we’d have to get out really quickly”, he said.

Lithuania is traumatised by its recent history at the hands of Russia. The Soviet occupation at the end of the second world war left deep scars. Tens of thousands were forcibly deported to gulags in Siberia and the far north. Almost 30,000 prisoners died digging coal, building railways or felling trees in freezing conditions in forced labour camps.

“When the invasion started, the universal assumption was that Kyiv would fall in a matter of days,” says the deputy foreign minister, Mantas Adomėnas. “Then we discovered that the Russian army was not as formidable as we feared. To some extent, society is learning to live with this war.”

A former Cambridge classics don, Adomėnas comes across as an urbane politician who is happy to answer journalists’ questions without aides hovering in the background. He likes to tell uninitiated foreigners that Russia is its “western neighbour” and watch the confusion spread across their faces.

Lithuania sees danger all around. To the south-west, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the base for Russia’s Baltic fleet, is bristling with weaponry, including hypersonic Iskander missiles and nuclear warheads. On the eastern side lies Belarus, now a de facto Russian military base. Its border is a mere 30km from Vilnius. Before the invasion, the capital’s hypermarkets were swarming with Belarusian day trippers loading their shopping trolleys. Now that trade has stopped, and many Lithuanians worry their neighbours will march across the border on less friendly missions.

The three Baltic countries are joined by land to Nato only by the Suwałki Gap – a corridor along the Lithuanian-Polish border barely 100km long and stretched out like a washing line between Kaliningrad and Belarus. After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, some called the gap “Nato’s soft underbelly”. Western military planners warned that the area could become one of the Kremlin’s first targets if the war in Ukraine ever escalated into a confrontation with the west. If Russia seized the corridor, it could swiftly cut off the Baltic states from their Nato allies, possibly triggering a global conflict.

Today the talk is of bolstering defences and taking an uncompromising stance. “The Baltic states are small countries lacking in strategic depth,” says Dalia Bankauskaite, a security and disinformation expert. “We can’t afford to let the enemy in – every inch counts.” Adomėnas agrees that the old “tripwire deterrence”, whereby a Russian incursion would alert Nato and much bigger forces would then be sent into the occupied region to retake it, is no longer fit for purpose. “After Bucha and Irpin and all these other horrors in Ukraine, this concept of giving up territory and then trying to reclaim it simply doesn’t work,” he says.

Since 2017, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have each hosted a multinational Nato battalion of around 1,000 troops, the so-called Enhanced Forward Presence. But at the Nato summit Lithuania is hosting in July, Adomėnas and others will argue they need “credible forces” on the border, three or four times the size, to fight back. They will also welcome the inclusion of formerly neutral Finland and Sweden and make a forceful case for Ukrainian membership. By the end of the war, says Adomėnas, Ukraine will have the most capable and battle-hardened army in Europe.

Concerns that Nato expansion and a bigger military presence in the Baltics could ramp up tensions and potentially unleash Armageddon are brushed aside. Adomėnas believes that if Vladimir Putin was going to use nuclear weapons, he would have done so already. He argues that the Russian president’s logic is the reverse of the rational calculations made by democratically elected politicians. “If we try and base our behaviour on his supposed reaction, he will just exploit that to push his advantage further,” says the deputy minister. He is also dismissive of the idea that some kind of compromise, on, say, Crimea, is necessary to avoid pushing Putin into a corner. “What kind of corner are you talking about when Russia already occupies one sixth of the planet? If he emerges from this debacle with a foot more land than he started with he will feel it is a victory that justifies further military adventures.”

The dilemma is straightforward, he explains, quoting ancient Greek from Homer’s Iliad. “When the Trojans are debating whether to fight the Greeks and their scientists or prophets were busy reading the flights of birds trying to work out if it was propitious to go into battle, Hector says defend your homeland – that is the best omen.” In other words, it is wrong to allow Putin to use western fears as leverage against Ukraine. Lithuania and its allies must do what is right and help Ukraine to defend itself.

It may be a small country on the north-eastern fringe of the European Union today. But scattered across the capital, there are reminders that 600 years ago, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe, encompassing present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia.

As he shows me around the old town, my guide, Lukas Misiūnas, is brimming with stories of his country’s resilience. Lithuania was the last pagan nation in Europe, and for centuries fought off the crusaders and savage Teutonic knights determined to convert them, not by the cross but by the sword. Most only adopted Christianity after the creation of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania in 1569.

In the glory days of the Commonwealth, arts and culture flourished, powered by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. I peek into the courtyard of Vilnius University, which was founded by Jesuits. The monks teaching there were renowned for selling hard liquor as well as spreading modern ideas. In the mid-17th century, the Commonwealth was fatally weakened by wars with Sweden and eventually carved up by Russia, Prussia and Habsburg Austria. After the final partition of Poland, Lithuania was taken over by the Russian empire. Faced with revolts, the tsarist authorities went for heavy-handed Russification, banning the Lithuanian press and closing a number of cultural and educational institutions. Lithuania and its two Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Estonia, briefly regained their independence between the two world wars before they were invaded by the Red Army and brought under Soviet rule.

Lithuania now celebrates two independence days – the State Restoration Day on February 16 observes the reestablishment of the country’s freedom from the Russian empire and Germany in 1918. The other celebration, on March 11, marks the Lithuanian parliament’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union following a bloody crackdown that killed 14 people near Vilnius’s TV tower.

One of the reasons I have come to Vilnius is to commemorate a different and much older event – the birth of the capital 700 years ago. It goes back to a famous letter written by the Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania on January 25, 1323. Gediminas himself was most likely illiterate, but he instructed a monk to pen the missive in Latin. His letter contained the first mention of the name of Vilnius, so it is taken as the founding date for the city. It was also a canny piece of 14th-century marketing.

Addressed to people in the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen, Magdeburg, Cologne and other cities in the Holy Roman empire, Gediminas was on a recruitment spree. He invited “knights, squires, peasants, blacksmiths, wheelers, shoe-makers, furriers, millers, tavern keepers, and every craftsman” to his young city. He offered enticing tax breaks to merchants and land to farmers. He wrote that pagan Lithuania was not hostile to Christians and promised they could practise their trade and faith without any restrictions. He even hinted that he might agree to be baptised himself, although he later got cold feet.

I board a little funicular railway to see the letter, which is kept in a display case in Gediminas’s Tower on a hill overlooking the city centre. Several groups of primary school children have also come to have a look, waving tricolour national flags – yellow for the rye fields, green for the forests and red for the blood spilt to secure Lithuania’s sovereignty, our guide explains. We peer at the letter, neatly written on a small piece of parchment in brown ink made from iron salts and tannic acid.

The letter may be seven centuries old, but Vilnius’s mayor, Remigijus Šimašius, says he finds it inspiring and very much relevant to his city today. “We are still open to the world and respectful of others,” he says, ripping off his tie after the official opening of the Vilnius Light festival that kicked off the birthday celebrations. As singers perform on a big round stage in Cathedral Square, washed by flashing red and purple lasers, he tells us one of his main goals is “to attract talented people to come and live in Vilnius”.

The burgeoning IT and biotech sectors are hungry for specialists. Taiwan, the world’s biggest supplier of semiconductors, recently announced it would invest in microchip production in Lithuania. The mayor claims that GDP per capita has outstripped Italy and is almost equal to that of Japan. Although the population dropped from 3.7 million citizens in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2021, now, partly on account of Brexit, it is on the increase again.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, 30,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Vilnius, and they now make up 5% of the population. On my last trip in 2013, I visited the city’s “university in exile” teaching hundreds of Belarusian students who had escaped from Alexander Lukashenko’s oppressive regime across the border. On top of that, some of the 260,000-strong Lithuanian community in the UK have started to return home, lured by improved job prospects and a lower cost of living – and put off by the more hostile environment caused by Brexit. Covid-19, which led to an explosion in digital nomads, has also had an impact.

Vilnius exploited the fact that few foreigners can find it on the map, with a tourism campaign cooked up by advertising students. Aimed at millennials in Germany and the UK, the poster described the Lithuanian capital as “the G-spot of Europe”. A woman is lying on her back, in ecstasy, one hand scrunching up the sheet, which is decorated with an outline of Lithuania. “Nobody knows where it is but when you find it – it’s amazing,” it says underneath. Soon tourist offices were also doing a brisk trade in black and white bags with the words: “I only date people who know where Vilnius is.”

The X-rated campaign got plenty of attention, but it ruffled some feathers, especially since Pope Francis was about to visit the city. The Archbishop of Vilnius worried that the advert was disrespectful to women and might attract the wrong kind of tourist. But after Lithuania joined the eurozone nearly a decade ago, Vilnius became progressively less attractive as a destination for stag nights fuelled by cheap booze.

Whatever the case, boldness mixed with creativity and a liberal dash of bolshiness seem to be part of the Lithuanian psyche. These qualities have been used many times to highlight the horrors of events in Ukraine.

On arrival, I spot a 22-storey block wreathed in fog – the city’s municipal offices. When the mist clears, the slogan is clearly visible: “Putin, the Hague is waiting for you”. The same message was initially painted on the road leading to the Russian embassy which the mayor provocatively renamed “Ukrainian Heroes Street”. In another stunt last April, a pond in front of the embassy was dyed red. Lithuania’s Olympic gold medallist, Rūta Meilutytė, swam an elegant crawl through the “lake of blood” in protest at the war. A cultural and business centre built to develop “good neighbourly relations” between Moscow and Vilnius has never opened, after warnings from Lithuania’s State Security Department. The mayor says it violates building regulations, is “functionally incomplete and irrational” and will be torn down. In the meantime, artists have decorated the façade with a giant mural of a Ukrainian woman in a folk costume.

Before the invasion, many European Union policymakers had grown tired of listening to Lithuania’s concerns about Russian influence in the region. They ignored warnings that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, doubling Russia’s capacity to export gas to Germany, was “a mad idea” that threatened Europe’s energy security.

“Now we have suddenly gone from being troublemakers to Russia experts,” says Šimašius, with a wry smile. “Still, it is a better situation than a year ago – Russia is weaker, Europe is more united and China is not helping Russia as much as we thought it would.”

Talking of China, Lithuania has played a high-stakes game by deepening ties with Taiwan and opening a trade office in Taipei at the end of last year. In recent years, it has emerged as one of Taiwan’s most outspoken allies in Europe despite suffering trade embargoes on dairy products and a drop in investments.

But Adomėnas has few regrets. Supporting Taiwan makes sense economically as part of a longer-term diversification strategy, but it is also part of an ethical foreign policy. He laments the plight of Hong Kong, where pro-democracy candidates triumphed in 2019 but are now in exile or in prison. “We fought against Soviet dominance for years and being pro-freedom is in our DNA,” he says. “We are focused on building up immunity to authoritarian regimes.”

Lucy Ash is an award-winning presenter of radio and TV documentaries

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.