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For nearby countries, Russian invasion comes too close

Lithuanian diplomat provides online briefing on the conflict and world diplomatic efforts in a conversation with Windham World Affairs Council

BRATTLEBORO—Lithuania and Vermont have enjoyed close ties for years, so that when a crisis affect one, the other will feel it also.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of those crises, raising worries from those in Lithuania and the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia bordering the war zone that their region might be next.

However, Lithuania’s deputy ambassador to the United States, Dovydas Špokauskas, told the Windham World Affairs Council on April 5 that his country is actively assisting Ukraine in resisting a Russian invasion that he called “unlawful, unjustified, and unprovoked.”

“Our soldiers are not in Ukraine, but our weapons are,” he said, adding that Lithuania is prepared in case the worst happens.

Speaking from Washington, D.C., in an online talk attended by about 60 people, Špokauskas outlined the course of the war after the first few weeks of the conflict, and what it means for Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world.

The event was moderated by Kerry Secrest of Brattleboro, the state’s honorary consul to Lithuania, who stepped in for Audra Plepytė — the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States and Mexico — who had to bow out at the last minute due to ongoing diplomatic efforts involving the situation in Ukraine.

The war thus far

Thanks to “the incredible response to Russian aggression” by Ukrainians and aided by “serious strategic mistakes” by the Russians, Špokauskas said the Russians were forced to fall back to the east after suffering heavy losses in men and material.

“They are not just continuing to defend themselves,” he said. “They are actually winning this war.”

It has been estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed in action, at least 10 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion began on Feb. 24. Losses on the Russian side may be as high as 20,000 dead and as many as twice that number wounded.

But even more horrific has been the civilian casualties as Russian forces have attacked civilian targets and engaged in mass killings in some of the suburban towns surrounding the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

“The human cost has been shocking,” Špokauskas said.

Russian forces have targeted medical facilities, schools, and shelters, as they have laid waste to more than $120 billion of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, according to a United Nations estimate.

A report from the British news outlet I says reports from international charities and investigative organizations confirmed attacks on 68 hospitals or healthcare facilities, as well as 380 schools, 165 kindergartens and 53 cultural buildings or sites, as well as damage or the destruction of some 60 churches, mosques, and synagogues.

An extreme illustration of this level of destruction can be seen in the southern port city of Mariupol, which has endured more than a month of relentless Russian attack. The U.N. estimates that about 80 percent of residential buildings and civilian infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed in that city as of last week.

This targeting of civilians has led to the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, as the U.N. estimates that more than 4 million people have become refugees.

Those fleeing Ukraine include 2.5 million to Poland, 662,000 to Romania, 404,000 to Hungary, 401,000 to Moldova, 304,000 to Slovakia, and hundreds of thousands to other neighboring countries.

Špokauskas said more than 40,000 refugees have already arrived in Lithuania, and the numbers are increasing every day.

The next phase

With Russian forces retreating to the Donbas and Crimea regions, Špokauskas said the Ukraine war “is by no means over. Ukraine is not giving up, and the Russians are not finished.”

He said he thinks Putin and his inner circle now know “their primary objective [to capture Kyiv and install a pro-Russia regime] will not be realized. So they will do whatever is possible, without any regard to civilian lives or their soldiers” to achieve the appearance of victory.

Špokauskas said he sees “no peaceful way out” for Russia and “the fate of the war will be decided on the battlefield.”

However, Lithuania and the West “cannot stand idle,” Špokauskas said, urging more and tougher sanctions against Russia to cut off its supply of hard currency, along with a global boycott of its oil and natural gas.

Last week, when Lithuania backed that sentiment by announcing that it would cease to buy natural gas from Russia, effective immediately, it became the first European Union country to do so.

“We have decided that there is no moral right for us to buy Russian gas or oil or coal that would finance their war machine,” Špokauskas said. “It’s important for the Europeans to follow us.”

As for military aid to Ukraine, Špokauskas said the U.S. and the EU need to start sending offensive weapons so Ukrainian forces can continue to take the fight to the Russians.

That need to go on offense is also being felt in Lithuania, Špokauskas said.

Since Belarus has allied itself with Russia and is allowing Russia to use that country as a staging area for the Ukraine invasion, “there is no longer a buffer between the Baltics and Russia,” he added.

Allies in NATO

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — the three Baltic states, which gained their full independence in 1991 after the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union — are current members of NATO and the European Union.

All three countries have British, Canadian, and German forces stationed there, and the U.S. has a large presence in Poland, another former Soviet satellite nation that joined NATO after the end of the Cold War.

These NATO allies are focused on a 40-mile corridor along the Poland/Lithuania border known as the Suwalki Gap. It stands between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and, if Russia seizes control of that corridor, it would cut off the Baltic states from Western Europe.

Kaliningrad — formerly Königsberg — has been Russian territory since the end of World War II. It is now home to a substantial Russian combat force, including the Russian Baltic Fleet. But since Poland and Lithuania are both NATO members, any move by Russia to take the Suwalki Gap by force would likely lead to a war between Russia and NATO that would endanger all of Europe and beyond.

While Špokauskas said there is only a small short-term possibility that this could happen, in the long term, the odds increase if Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his desire to “recreate the Russian Empire,” adding that Putin and his regime “are inherently opportunistic.”

That’s why, he said, the Baltic states “are 100 percent of the time together on security. We’re really close right now.”

And Lithuania is in total solidarity with Ukraine, Špokauskas said, and aiding that country in every conceivable way.

While his is a country of only 2.8 million people, he said Lithuania has given much in money (more than $27 million), supplies, and volunteers to help the Ukrainian cause.

“For all intents and purposes, we are Ukrainian,” he said.

Changing minds, and a helping hand

Špokauskas said that even if Ukraine should win this war, “we still have to deal with all the Russians who believe Putin was right.”

So Lithuanians have come up with the idea of calling citizens in Russia, where factual news about the war is scarce, and foreign media and social networking sites are banned.

Armed with a list of 40 million phone numbers, Russian-speaking users worldwide who are participating in the Call Russia campaign randomly select a number and make a cold call. Volunteers directly speak with Russians, armed with facts about what is going on in Ukraine which are currently banned from Russia media outlets.

According to a CNN report, the campaign made 84,000 calls in just the first week.

Špokauskas said another group of Lithuanians who call themselves “the elves” are taking on the Russian “trolls” — the online operators who have flooded social media with disinformation and deceptive news with the full backing of the Putin government.

After they monitor social media sites such as Facebook to spot fake accounts that are posting disinformation generated by Russia troll farms, the elves generate enough complaints to get the disinformation removed.

Špokauskas said that Lithuania has been bombarded with Russian propaganda since it achieved its independence, so battling disinformation is nothing new for its citizens.

It is the sort of skill he said that he believes Americans should also be employing, because he believes Ukraine’s fight is everyone’s fight.

“The most important message is that Ukrainians are not just fighting for themselves,” said Špokauskas. “They are fighting for our region, they are fighting for Europe, they are fighting for a democratic world. If they lose, then the appetite of Russia will only grow.”

“Everyone can do things, and we must do things to help,” he continued. “If Ukraine doesn’t win, the alternative is unthinkable.”

Ways to help Ukraine

Secrest said there are many ways for Vermonters to help Ukrainians affected by the war. She offered contact information for four Lithuanian non-governmental organizations that are seeking online donations:

• Blue/Yellow (blue-yellow.lt/en), a Lithuanian NGO, provides Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers with non-lethal supplies.

• Aukok.lt (www.aukok.lt/en), the biggest online donations portal in Lithuania, offers a wide range of support to Ukraine initiatives.

• Vilnius University Foundation (vuf.lt/en/projektai/ukrainai), offers a support campaign for the Ukrainian academic community.

• The Lithuanian American Community has created a support campaign for Ukraine (javlb.org/ukraine).

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Originally published in The Commons issue #659 (Wednesday, April 13, 2022). This story appeared on page A3.

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