Would the U.S. Go to War for Lithuania?

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Portalas ,,The American Conservative” išspausdino Daniel’io Oliver’io straipsnį ,,Ar JAV kariaus už Lietuvą?
Russia’s encroachments past its borders are revealing the limits of NATO’s pledges of mutual defense. By Daniel Oliver March 5, 2015

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You have to feel sorry for Lithuania and its three million inhabitants. Lithuania may be the largest of the three Baltic countries, but it is still only as big as West Virginia. It may be a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Schengen Agreement, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it still has a 422-mile border with Belarus, a Russian lackey state.

Lithuania and the other Baltic states were part of the Russian empire for centuries and suffered under Russian Communist domination for 50 years. Being a part of historic Russia is not an experience the Lithuanians want to repeat.

The Lithuanians, 150,000 of whom are Russian-speakers, have provided moral support to the Ukrainians in their struggle with Russia, but only limited tangible support: “elements of armaments,” according to Linas Linkevicius, the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, and mittens for freezing Ukrainian hands, knitted to mark the occasion of Lithuania’s presidency of the European Union.

Now, as the Lithuanians watch the European Union’s quarter-hearted resistance to Russian war-making in Ukraine—against the backdrop of NATO’s decades-long history of being underfunded, and the Obamic “strategic patience” of the United States—their future looks as cold and bleak as the Ukrainians’ bare hands if Vladimir Putin decides to move to “protect” the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania and reintegrate the country into historic Russia.

Meanwhile, Greece toys with abandoning, or being abandoned by, a failing experiment known as the euro (which Lithuania adopted only this January 1), and Britain contemplates leaving another failing experiment known as the European Union. And coming soon: an adult discussion of what exactly the North Atlantic Treaty requires its signatories to do. Feeling sorry for people may not be seen as an adequate reason to go to war, at least not with a country that has 1,600 deployed nuclear warheads. Sixty-six years after its founding, NATO may be closer to failure than the euro and the EU.

At a small dinner in Washington recently, a knowledgeable Lithuanian made the case for Western support for Ukraine, including lethal but defensive weaponry. Inferentially, he was making a similar, prospective plea for Lithuania. He supported NATO maneuvers and said they should not be regarded as provocative. What was provocative, he said, was inaction—the failure to prepare

Asked about the value of the NATO guarantee to Lithuania, he in turn asked what options Lithuania had.

There’s a major problem with the NATO guarantee—a problem that must keep all the Baltic peoples awake during the long bleak Baltic winter nights. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that the parties agree that “each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

But what kind of action so unequivocally constitutes an attack that the 28 members of NATO will agree that it is an attack and therefore warrants action? We have seen, in Ukraine, a preview of Russian activity that has deniability — at least for those who want to find a reason not to act.

Greece, which joined NATO in 1952, has been cozying up to the Russians and will have no trouble finding such a reason.

But Greece may not be the only recalcitrant country. Other Europeans disagree on what, if anything, to do about Russia. People at the eastern edge of Western Europe tend, as you would expect, to be more nervous about Russia than are café sippers at the Deux Magots in Paris or Madeira drinkers at Boodle’s in London. Many Europeans have more local concerns: unemployment is 10 percent in the EU overall, but higher in France, Italy, and Portugal, and much higher in Spain (24 percent). Some Europeans argue that Ukraine had an elected government that was overthrown in a coup, which makes the claim to legitimacy by the current crop of Ukrainian politicians tenuous. Our knowledgeable Lithuanian friend disputed that interpretation.

A senior European diplomat told me recently that many Europeans thought Putin was just being a “good Russian” and that the Ukrainians were a rum bunch. (Whether those Europeans, or their grandparents, thought Hitler was just being a “good German” we don’t know.) I asked him if he thought the Russians would invade any more countries, e.g., Lithuania or other Baltic countries, expecting him to say no. He said he thought they might.

He said he thought the real, if longer-term, threat to Europe was China, but that a more immediate threat was immigrants—essentially an unlimited number of immigrants from North Africa. Not black Africans. Muslims. Americans, he said, have only Mexican immigrants to worry about, and they do not present the existential threat to America that North Africans (but not Russians) do to Europe, and to Western civilization.

That view may shock some Americans, especially those who are NATO-centric. They may be reviewing their pocket editions of the North Atlantic Treaty, brushing up on the argument for full-scale opposition to any new Russian “incursions,” if not with boots on the ground, at least with bombs from the air. Or at the very least, with crippling economic sanctions.

But our Lithuanian friend was against the most crippling economic sanction, that of banning Russia from SWIFT (the international payment, clearing, and settlement system). He said that that was too radical a measure, that it would have negative consequences for everyone, and that there were other banking actions that should be tried first.

Given the reluctance of the European countries to invoke Article 5, what are the odds the U.S. would? Slim. What the treaty means to the U.S. is probably, for now, only what a strategically patient President Obama, channeling his inner Humpty Dumpty, chooses for it to mean—neither more nor less. After all, a man who has no qualms about changing the country’s immigration law on his own should have no problem wiggling out of even an obvious NATO treaty obligation.

Wall Street too will be unenthusiastic, especially about economic sanctions. Like hippies who’d rather make love than war, the wolves—and crony capitalists—of Wall Street would rather make money than … anything. Lenin knew that.

But even Main Street Americans are likely to think that Lithuania is, after all, you know, well, kind of, a long…way…away.

In which case, it may turn out that the North Atlantic Treaty is a relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, but not a good guide to their descendants’ behavior.

A serious question, which will be raised again, and again, by disturbances and conflicts, actual and threatened, in the North Atlantic Treaty area and in other areas of the globe, is: Should the U.S. be guided by treaties or only by what is seen to be in its immediate national interest? Treaties are important. But their importance tends to be in inverse proportion to the power of the signatory. Of course, honoring the commitments of a treaty may be in the national interest even if, or perhaps sometimes especially if, the particular action required by the treaty seems not to be.

We are already up to our ankles in Ukraine. The question is, once we begin providing assistance, which means we’ve joined the fight, when do we stop? If we send mittens or Meals Ready to Eat, do we also have to send, eventually, tactical nuclear weapons? And if not, why not?

One answer to that question may be that we should provide some weapons to the Ukrainians in order to raise the cost to the Russians of their aggression, on the theory that if you make something more expensive, you get less of it—though maybe not in this case.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said last week, “We see Mr. Putin is all-in, and they will proceed till their objectives are accomplished.”

If we are prepared to be up to our knees in providing assistance, shouldn’t we be prepared to be up to our keister? But according to Gen. Breedlove, even that may not be enough.

Which raises again the question: Is going part way, but not finishing the job, worse than doing nothing at all? Doesn’t it give false hope, waste resources, and make us look fickle? If the U.S. is not prepared to take the last step, should it take the first step?

The answers to those questions may be numbing, but they should make us be more careful in the future about entering into treaties. If we husband our guarantees, they will be more believable—especially if they are seen as closely related to our national interests.

The United States has several strategic national interests, some more important than others. The three primary interests are protecting this country from the nefarious activities of: China, Russia, and Muslim terrorists.

Securing the territorial integrity of Lithuania, or of Ukraine, against Russia is strategically necessary only if the Russian activity is understood as one more step in a long-term Russian strategy, which is likely to succeed, of destabilizing Europe (whatever that means). That is certainly contrary to U.S. interests. But it is not clear yet that even a Baltic Dinner—a Russian three-course meal consisting of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—would force the conclusion that Russia, an economically failing kleptocracy, presents such a threat to U.S. security that intervention, even if only by the imposition of crippling economic sanctions, is required.

But that leaves open the question: Is U.S. intervention required because of our expressed obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty even if Russia’s actual activity does not (or does not yet) present a threat to our security?

The Russians, no doubt, are nasty people (by which of course we mean Putin and Co. are nasty people), and the Ukrainians may be a rum bunch too, as some Europeans say, and, for all I know, the Lithuanians are a bad lot, though our knowledgeable Lithuanian was an awfully pleasant fellow. But U.S. policy cannot be based on who’s naughty and who’s nice, but only on what will produce peace and security, for us.

Our Lithuanian dinner companion described himself as an optimist. But I couldn’t think why, given the options, and he didn’t look optimistic as he left us, and we felt sorry for him as he walked out into the cold, dark Washington night.

It’s been cold in Washington for days. But it may be even colder in Lithuania, and in the other small countries on Russia’s border, for many years to come.

Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of Education and Research Institute and Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C.   


15 Responses to Would the U.S. Go to War for Lithuania?

    William Dalton says:
    March 5, 2015 at 1:03 am

    Thomas Pickering, the one time U.S. Ambassador to Russia was down in North Carolina to speak this week, and was asked if Russia posed a threat to the Baltic Republics, all members of NATO, and he replied he did not think it did – that Russia recognizes the difference between states which belong to NATO and those which don’t.

    More to the point, the desire of neo-con establishment in Washington to prove the case of Russian revanchism has yet to be made. Whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a response to public demand in a geographically discrete territory populated by ex-Russian military and others whose affinity towards Moscow was stronger than that towards and EU-alligned Kiev, or was simply a military measure deemed necessary to protect Russia’s major naval installation on the Black Sea, it does not portend a desire for further expansion. Significantly, the fact that Russia has not sought to annex the secessionist provinces in the Donbass (or Trans-Dniester or Abkhazia or South Ossetia) despite the public pleas from that realm that they do so, would seem to indicate that Vladimir Putin does not want to annex old Soviet territories which he knows will not only cause more discord with the West, but will also be an economic burden Moscow had hardly afford.

    Lithuania, which does not even have a land border with the mainland of Russia, would appear to be an even less likely target. The Russian population of the Soviet era has, by a majority, either returned to Russia or chose not to because they themselves preferred to live in a Western nation. And Russia has no naval or other military installation in Lithuania to protect.

    Now, if NATO and the EU were to make a grab for the Russian Kaliningrad exclave, which does border Lithuania, a “green” revolution in the City of Immanuel Kant, and Russia’s strategic military outpost on the Baltic, they would indeed have a fight on their hands. As a son of East Prussia myself, I would certainly like to see the homeland of my ancestors restored to its German roots. But not at the cost of another war. I have been there, and that land has suffered more than its share of death and destruction for the rest of the century.
    HP says:
    March 5, 2015 at 4:24 am

    Why is it so difficult to understand the basic difference between Ukraine and the Balts, i.e. that the Balts are members of NATO whereas Ukraine isn’t? We never committed to the defense of Ukraine, so our not defending Ukraine has precisely zero relevance to the security of Nato members.
    Leo H says:
    March 5, 2015 at 8:14 am

    If the Lithuanians want good relations with Russia they can have them. If they want to participate in this sick Washington’s open campaign to subdue Russia , to hell with their borders. Your call,Vilnius.
    Leo H says:
    March 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

    So the question is acutely phrased “Would Lithuania Go to War for Washington” ? Hopefully not.
    Johann says:
    March 5, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Lithuania and the other Baltics are suitable for the Euro, given their fiscal policies, education, and work ethics. They are much more suitable than Greece, and even Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France. And they are more worth saving than those countries, and more worth saving than Israel, although that’s not saying much, and I’m sure we would not want to get into a war with another industrial country to save them. It think the EU could defend them against Russia if they really wanted to, and its them that should do it. Russia would not use its nuclear weapons unless we or the EU threatened their very existence. France and Britain have nukes too.
    Cliff says:
    March 5, 2015 at 9:43 am

        The United States has several strategic national interests, some more important than others. The three primary interests are protecting this country from the nefarious activities of: China, Russia, and Muslim terrorists.

    These three pose only limited threats to the United States. Such threats cannot be our “primary strategic interests”. I would place climate change, resource depletion and economic recovery well ahead of all three.

    As for NATO, we should have dropped out in 1990. It has become an alliance in search of a mission. It exists only to exist, and it proves that it exists by growing. Russia interprets NATO’s continued expansion to the east as aggression directed against itself, and who can be surprised?
    SSS says:
    March 5, 2015 at 10:17 am

    “The answers to those questions may be numbing, but they should make us be more careful in the future about entering into treaties.”

    ..Which a wise man advised us to do a long time ago….Pity we didn’t keep listening….
    Mightypeon says:
    March 5, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    For what it is worth, Lithuania is the least “threatened” Baltic Nato member.

    Latvia is different (also because Russians in Latvia have a fair bit more to complain about), and Estonia is between the two.
    karlub says:
    March 5, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Conflating the Baltics with Ukraine is preposterous.

    The latter is historically one of the “little Russias,” not a member of NATO, and full of 100% native Ukrainians (not evenly geographically dispersed) that would prefer to align with Russia. So much so that their elected government– prior to Western meddling– was elected to do just that.

    The Baltics, on the other hand, are in NATO, are not historically Russian, and the only Russians that live there are (as noted) living there because they don’t want to be in Russia. None of them has ever had an elected government that wanted to align closely with Russia. Their governments, instead, have yoked themselves to the EU and Euro. In fact, even during the years they were part of the Russian Empire the Baltics always had independent parliaments and comparative freedom, although this was obviously not the case under the Soviets.

    Russia always had its eye on Riga as it was a reliable ice-free winter port. But they don’t even need that, anymore, because they have (as also noted) Kaliningrad.
    JJM says:
    March 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Why would NATO get involved in Ukraine? Ukraine is not a member of NATO any more than Egypt, Georgia or Sweden are. That is to say, not at all. It doesn’t matter that they are recipients of large amounts of US aid, have received a “Membership Action Plan” or act in concert with the US on particular issues, respectively. They are not members of NATO and have no way to invoke article 5 on a group of countries that have not agreed to do so. Ukraine is even less than those other countries, so why does NATO keep entering into these discussions?
    VikingLS says:
    March 5, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    So long as Lithuania is in NATO and we are too they can invoke article 5. If we aren’t going to defend treaty allies then we need to withdraw from the treaties. Ukraine isn’t an ally with any treaty with us, let alone a NATO member. They’re just not the same thing.
    Mike says:
    March 5, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    Forget the simplicity of invoking “Article 5″… rather, take into account Article Six – of the US Constitution.
    An international treaty becomes as “the law of the land”. Failure to act and defend Lithuania, or any other NATO member, be it Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, whoever, would mean that the law of the Constitution will have been broken – plain and simple. That US forces located anywhere in european NATO countries would be compelled to act is without doubt, as these soldiers are sworn to the Constitution… failure to act would be tantamount to desertion – and the consequences.

    If the US were to “throw Lithuania under the bus”, the consequences would be an end to NATO, an immediate forfeiture to any US materiels in NATO countries, and perhaps most disturbing, a deep resentment in the MILLIONS of ethnic Lithuanians in the US, who still remember the reluctance of the US to help in the partisan war against the USSR that lasted from the second world war until Stalin’s death in 1956.

    Do we really need to produce another disaffected segment of the population which could turn to means other than legally political to demonstrate their anger?

    By the way, Lithuania was hardly “part of the Russian empire for centuries…” but rather part of the Russian empire from 1795 until the end of world war one… less than 125 years.
    Lucas says:
    March 5, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    “So the question is acutely phrased “Would Lithuania Go to War for Washington” ? Hopefully not.”

    For the sake of historical accuracy, it is worth mentioning that Lithuania went to war for Washington. When the US invoked Article 5 in 2001, Lithuanian troops actually went to the desolated place called Afghanistan, fought, and died alongside American troops.
    Stragglers says:
    March 5, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    A fascinating and informative piece. Thanks.
    Miles Pilkington says:
    March 5, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    It was for our security that we signed the Budapest Memorandum. Isn’t it in our interest to live up to our agreement?