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Missiles for Lithuania?

valdas061908.jpgAs I have written in this space before, I am not entirely convinced that Washington’s plan to install anti-ballistic missile sites in Eastern Europe, intended for technology that does not yet exist to defend against Iranian missiles which do not yet exist, is the smartest way to spend their foreign policy chutzpah. Of course, neither has the Kremlin’s reaction to these moves always been very constructive in building trust. At worst, if the Washington-Moscow dialogue becomes fully consumed with discussion over only this one issue, Russia will likely come out the winner as they advance in the capture of critical energy arteries to Europe. Despite this vocal opposition from Moscow, serious misgivings in Europe, and even an endorsement from Henry Kissinger to bring Russia into the project, the issue remains on the table. Even after all this time, it still feels like Washington and Moscow aren’t seeing eye to eye. The Russians perceive the missile shield not only as a direct military threat, but also as a powerful symbolic gesture of rejection of their newly acquired geopolitical power. The shield, in their eyes, is an attempt by the Americans sew them in and prevent any role of influence in Eastern Europe. Washington, on its behalf, is rather unconvincing in its attempts to play dumb on the issue, and repeatedly express their bewilderment with Russia’s opposition. After all, the generals point out, the proposed sites aren’t in any position to shoot down a Russian missile – the United Kingdom would be a better position if that were the intent. However with the decline of the Kaczynski twins in Poland, opinion has soured among government officials here, leading to refusals to begin further negotiations on the project for the time being. Lest you think that Washington would give up on the project – into the fold steps Lithuania, who is looking to squeeze some mileage out of scaring Moscow by talking about becoming the alternative site for the shield. Driven by energy concerns, 81-year-old Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus (photograph) is taking a big risk here – but is he just looking for a short-term concession?

So far the reactions in Europe to the possibility of a Lithuania-based missile shield site have been close to hysteria. The New York Times reports: If the United States negotiated to deploy the shield in Lithuania, Russia would almost certainly adopt an even tougher stance toward that country, military experts said. The Russian defense and security establishment still finds it extremely difficult to accept that the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, broke away from the Soviet Union and became independent in 1991 and subsequently joined the European Union and NATO.“There is no doubt that Russia would exploit this to the full if parts of the U.S. missile shield were based here,” said Raimundas Lopata, a professor of political science at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. And that might be exactly what Lithuania is looking for – just a little panic caused by a vague rumor in order to gain some leverage over the increasingly difficult energy security problem faced by the country. The political leadership is Vilnius is under extraordinary pressure as by the end of the year they will be required by the EU to shut down their only nuclear power plant, making them 90% dependent on fossil fuels – most likely supplied by Russia. Along with Poland, Lithuania is one of the Baltic nations which will see its energy security drastically undercut by the completion of the Nord Stream pipeline – an initiative which they have been fighting tooth and nail on environmental grounds – while efforts to build cooperative “energy bridges” with Poland and Sweden have been slow to come to fruition.An interesting article from the Economist today pins a lot of the blame for Lithuania’s upcoming slavery to Gazprom on the failings and incompetence of the country’s ruling parties: The only bright side is that Lithuanian politicians will finally face the consequences of their actions, or lack of them. The sensible thing would have been to start several years ago building a new nuclear plant on the same site, to replace Ignalina. But the countries involved in the plan (Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, with the belated addition of Poland) still cannot agree how big it should be, or on shareholding structure. That exasperates those who urgently want the Baltic “energy islands” hooked up into the rest of Europe. But nobody seems able to bang heads together with sufficient force. Another interesting tidbit from this article: apparently Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez has stopped the export to Lithuania of orimulsion, a bitumen-based fuel which was a core component of the country’s energy supply. Was this a favor toward Moscow?That’s why I think the Lithuanian offer to host the missiles is just a ruse, for Vilnius simply cannot afford to have the Russians shut off their taps, no matter what guarantees they receive from the Americans. We saw a similar move at this type of aggressive Napoleonic small state foreign policy when Lithuania used its EU veto to stall the EU-Russia partnership agreement over energy and the Georgian frozen conflicts, only to later relent. Now the president has expressed that Lithuania has no plans to veto or otherwise obstruct the European discussions with Moscow, and in general, the tone has become more respectful in recent weeks.Once again we see that the Baltics simply can’t count on their new friends in Europe for support in these tough times, and that they shouldn’t overestimate Washington’s willingness to cover energy needs in exchange for missiles. Adamkus is overseeing a very difficult period of this elaborate energy game with the Kremlin, and we’ll have to watch carefully to see if he can politically survive it.