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July 29th 2016 print

Christopher Carr

Quietly Anxious on the Baltic

The Soviets are long gone from Lithuania and other former captive nations, but threatening shadows still looms large. The larger, it goes without saying, are Vladimir Putin's territorial ambitions. Only slightly smaller is the spectre of President Trump and an isolationist US

lithuaniaIIThis is my second visit to Lithuania and there are clear signs of progress in the four years since I was last here. The last twenty five years have a remarkable period of transformation. The Soviet times of perpetual shortages and  long lines for essential goods seem light years away, although they are well remembered by my wife and her generation. Meanwhile, a younger generation has reached adulthood with no personal experience of the Soviet period, relying entirely on stories told by their parents. In Vilnius, Kaunas and the resort town of Palanga, the young seems indistinguishable from the young in Western Europe, or indeed, Australia. There are common tastes in popular music and the same constant gazing at their iphones.

The largest supermarket chain, Maxima , started just after independence, is on the same level as Coles and Woolworth. Joined by smaller concerns, such as chains Iki and Rimi, they are evidence of Lithuania in transition to a level of consumer choice and prosperity, once unimaginable to older generations. New houses reflect this new prosperity for many if by no means for all. A son of one of my wife’s old friends has built a new home about twelve kilometres from the Kaunas city centre. You could equate this the ‘quarter acre’ block, so much a feature of Australian life. Around him, other young adults are building similar houses.

Still, the average income is still lower than in Western Europe. Many would be considered poor by Western European standards. Over the past twenty five years, the transition from communism has been inevitably painful. The massive misallocation of resources, typical of the old Soviet economy, meant that many factories, purely dependent on a ‘market’ elsewhere in the old Soviet Union, became instantly redundant, resulting in widespread job losses. In the old Soviet Union, everybody was guaranteed employment, but apart from the Communist Party elite, the average wage was poverty level, measured in terms of average incomes in Western economies. Yes, Lithuania is still a work in progress, but as one old friend of my wife remarked to me, after living in the United States for five years, she notices how Lithuania has progressed during her five year absence.

Enjoyment of the present is very much the preoccupation of the many Lithuanians I have met. Yet there is a sense of unease in the background. Almost everywhere flags are flown, the European Union flag flies alongside the Lithuanian flag. For Lithuanians, the choice between renewed Russian imperial ambitions and the European Union is binary. The European Union offers at least a measure of security. Unlike Germany, Britain and France, Lithuania, along with other Eastern European countries, is a net financial beneficiary of the European Union. Criticism of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the European Union is at best muted. Lithuania feels impelled to accept the dictate of Brussels and accept its quota of so-called “refugees’’. The optimistic expectation is that not too many will want to come to Lithuania or the other Baltic states.

Brexit will not only punch a huge financial hole in the European Union but is likely to be the beginning of the end of the whole European project. Sooner or later, ordinary European voters, still loyal to their respective national states, will revolt against the elitist push for a European superstate, run by an antidemocratic permanent bureaucratic caste. Friends of democracy and freedom may rightly applaud  the popular rejection of the elites. The problem, unfortunately, is that Russia will also applaud the end of the Euro-Federalist project in pursuit of its geopolitical ambitions. The Baltic states are potentially the biggest losers if and when the end of the European project unless farsighted countermeasures are put in place.

Christopher Carr: Bearish on Freedom

Thus the role of the United States was and will remain crucial to the security and freedom of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. In the context of the NATO alliance, the US has always done the heavy lifting. Donald Trump’s demand that the European allies should contribute more to their own defence has some validity, but his implied threat that the America might not automatically come to their aid if attacked reflects a worrying level of blustering ignorance of geopolitical reality. Indeed, many Lithuanians regard Trump as a dangerous fool, even if they have little or no confidence in Hillary Clinton. Does Trump threaten to squander Ronald Reagan’s greatest achievement, the Liberation of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States?

For what it is worth, I offer my blueprint for future policy by the United States and the United Kingdom, led respectively by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which did more than anything to win the Cold War.

The fostering of a special relationship between the English-speaking democracies, the Baltic states and other former captive nations of the Soviet Empire is the one great project which could supercede the failing European Union. Only the English-speaking democracies have truly invested moral capital in the freedom and independence of the former captive nations.

In the context of this special relationship, a number of practical steps should be undertaken:

  1. The agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration with both Poland and the Czech Republic for the installation of anti-missile defence systems should be revived.
  2. There should be a clear and unambiguous declaration that any attack on the Baltic States, or the other former Eastern European captive nations, is an attack on the United States. This declaration should be in addition to the formal provisions of N.A.T.O.
  3. Given that Germany is no longer on the frontline, as during the Cold War years, the United States should close its military bases in Germany and move them to the Baltic States and other Eastern European countries.

In answer to those who might object that such moves might provoke conflict with Russia, the greater risk is that Moscow could be tempted to pursue a more overtly aggressive posture in the belief that a weaker or more isolationist United States will not be willing to respond. Leaving no room for miscalculation by any potential aggressor is the best prospect for peace and stability.

Comments [17]

  1. Solo says:

    Thanks for this article, Chris. It is good to have an insight to other countries. I have spoken to a number of people who have come from ex-Soviet states and they tell some very interesting stories that just cannot be believed coming from the comfortable West we take for granted.

    I feel that regardless of Trump or Clinton in the White House, no one will lift a finger to assist the Baltic states. It is obvious with Ukraine and Crimea that the UN and member states have no interest in getting into another war, no matter how noble it might be. The only reason I feel that the US is bothering with Afghanistan and the Middle East is to try and stop Islamic State from spreading and becoming more organised to redo a 9/11 scale attack.

    No such motivation exists for the West to stop neo-Soviet Russia from swallowing up some nearby countries, by force or otherwise.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    Unease about a prospective Trump presidency is well warranted. On the other hand, the thought of a Clinton presidency is terrifying. Apart from her glaring incompetence, she’d continue the process of diminishing the USA to absolute irrelevance. It is already obvious that neither friend nor foe take the country seriously any more. At least Trump’s heart is in the right place, all his bluster notwithstanding. Reagan was totally inexperienced when he took office but he knew what he wanted and those around him knew how to achieve his goals. It worked out rather well, didn’t it?

    • Lawrie Ayres says:

      I totally agree Bill. The elitists are backing Hillary who will simply continue the abyssmal politics of Obama. Obama is the most useless president in the history of the US and Hillary will just give more of the same. I like Trump’s rough honesty and he will have some serious secretaries in his cabinet unlike Obama who has several who simply lack common sense and knowledge. Holdren for example wanted to cut the world’s population to one billion and their energy policy would do that if followed to its logical conclusion.

      Besides if the elite are against Trump and his policies then sensible people should be for him. They said Brexit would cause all sorts of disasters and it didn’t happen, quite the opposite. Likewise Trump will be a good president.

  3. a propos says:

    The modern history of Lithuania is tragic beyond measure. The Soviet deportations, the Lithuanian collaboration in genocide of their Jewish citizens and active support for the Nazi war effort, its valiant resistance to the USSR occupation is one of the most convoluted and blood spattered narratives this small European nation could offer as an example of the national victimhood and guilt all spliced together indivisibly at the same time. Lithuania, quite unwillingly, is in a position of the poor relative, living off the largesse of the rich overseas uncle. Lithuanian State is in no position to effectively resist an external aggression. Will this small nation be betrayed by its bigger European neighbours once again? Only future will tell.

  4. Warty says:

    Your love for and support for Lithuania is entirely understandable, and lies beyond the capacity for most of us to question. You may think it premature my saying so, but my feeling is that current Lithuanian antipathy towards Donald Trump is largely media driven and misinformed. Trump has not been definitive about his intentions towards Europe, or the Middle East, for that matter, other than to say that he intends to insure that former allies needed to bear some of the weight regarding the cost of their defence. I won’t go into the extraordinary arrogant thinking that underlay Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Peace without Victory’ policy and it would take several pages to explain it. But let me say that it was the prelude, the foretaste of America becoming the self imposed policeman of the world, you know, that sanitised Pax Americana thing.
    Trump is not an idiot, even if he appears that way to Lithuanians and American Democrats. People thought Reagan was going to be an utter disaster, but he surrounded himself with some of the most savvy advisors any US president has ever had access to, before or since, including Henry Kissinger, arguably the best Secretary of State ever.

  5. Bushranger71 says:

    My wife and I just happened to be in Crimea very soon after the Russian annexation. According to our host, Special Forces came ashore in landing craft and moved swiftly to disarm Ukrainian military – just 2 of whom resisted were casualties. The Russian military departed very swiftly and administrative takeover arrangements were progressing smoothly during our visit.

    The whole area was functioning normally and the populace were largely supportive of the Russian action. The elderly and young women could walk about anywhere at night in complete safety and the young staff at our majestic old waterfront hotel were very impressive and well-trained.

    The stunning Sevastopol harbour has been home to the Black Sea fleet for all but about 2 decades in the past 300 or so years. The beautiful non-commercial port is surrounded by military colleges, hospitals, museums and the Crimean Peninsula is a military history treasure. Beyond scope of discussion here, but the history of the region dating back to the 1700s is predominantly Russian influence via language, education and other systems, including within Ukraine.

    Russia is not the dark sombre place imagined by some and is very westernized, with all of the principal fashion houses present in major centres, Irish pubs, McDonalds eateries and so forth. US and British media is available and was not inhibited during our time in country, despite over the top criticism of Russian annexation of Crimea by America in particular. The only noticeable retaliatory action was temporary closure of about 5 McDonalds outlets in Moscow (there are apparently 300 plus overall in Russia).

    A good measure of the quality of any nation is the calibre of their youth. Younger Russians all speak English fluently; are generally very tidily dressed, the boys with neat haircuts and the girls nicely groomed. Offensive brash behaviour that is now fairly common in Australia is not socially acceptable in Russia.

    Having a long family military lineage and a military career myself, I homed in on those aspects throughout our eastern European travels.

    There is a great little museum at Tallinn, Estonia which depicts the migrations of regional European peoples throughout periods of conflict, all brilliantly presented on very informative Interpretive Displays in English and other languages.

    Among other stunning military history related features visited was a site at Krakow in Poland where exhibited on a wall in an aircraft hangar is an official NATO Battle Plan from the Cold War era still marked ‘TOP SECRET’. An array of strategic military movements is depicted, but the most glaring are the targets for nuclear weapons with 10 to have been dropped across Poland to create a nuclear wasteland.

    Just as the Allies were prepared to sacrifice Poland during WW2, so are the NATO intentions during the Cold War deeply embedded in the psyche of the Polish people. Those fears smoulder with the omnipresence of NATO (which is effectively the US) throughout Europe. Many Europeans are more concerned at the potential for conflict that NATO creates than imagined Russian hegemonic ambitions.

    The central plank of US foreign policy is to maintain a broad military presence worldwide to keep its military-industrial complex buoyant; but continuing to act as the self-perceived world policeman is only destabilizing the world, as in the Middle East, South East Asia, Europe or wherever. Australia is being willingly dragged along like a vassal State.

    Donald Trump is quite appropriately in my view, advocating that the US should pull its head in.

    • Warty says:

      A fascinating account, Bushranger. Well done.

    • Colin S says:

      I am finding it difficult to go along with your theme here. Sounds like stuff I used to read during the cold war, put out by Russian sympathisers. I could take several statements to task but I will address the only one that is currently important. I have never heard Trump claim that “the US should pull it’s head in”. He has, most certainly, stated that the NATO members should pay their way instead of letting the US do all the heavy lifting. More importantly, he has directly stated that “I am not an isolationist”. You can take those comments as you will, of course, but let’s keep to the facts.

    • You have a very rosy [almost unrealistic] view of Russia. My wife’s parents were Latvian and escaped from Russian communism at the end of WW2 and told a horrific story, they hated communism but merely disliked Russians as a people. I have been to Russia a few times while on the way to Latvia, and the only things that worked even remotely efficiently in Russia are/were MacDonalds and the trains. The majority of the Russian people I met were friendly but very fatalistic. Many were alcoholics.

      • Bushranger71 says:

        My first girlfriend was Latvian and her parents emigrated to Australia as ‘new Australians’ in the 1950s. She was then only young, but very embittered regarding Russian occupation of the Baltic States, which is very well illuminated in the great little museum at Tallinn, Estonia.

        The Russians are very stoic people. They suffered 28 million plus casualties in WW2 and are still counting at their memorials. While present in their country in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, it was quite impressive how calmly they tolerated the vehement and unjustified abuse from the West via all forms of media. We felt embarrassed at the Western political behaviour; which was so biased without adequate comprehension of historical background (as for US efforts in the Middle East).

        Russia has advanced enormously since the demise of the USSR. Airline and other transportation systems have been/are being substantially upgraded and all services and food in their major centres are not noticeably different from elsewhere in the world. Culturally of course, the country leaves much of the younger western world in the shade.

        They quite openly exhibit their technology capabilities in their cosmos centre and elsewhere including emphasis on their joint activities with other nations. I crawled all over a lot of their gear (including a submarine) which is quite brilliantly engineered.

        Russia is a Christian bastion resisting Islamization. Some 150 or more cathedrals/churches which had been closed under Communism were reopened and others since built to counter the odd mosque permitted.

        Re animosities between nationalities. Much of that has emanated from tribal origins centuries ago, all around the world.

        Alcoholism? We frequented ‘watering holes’ with fine food throughout the country and they seemed to be very strict on drunken behaviour. Alcohol abuse is arguably a greater problem in Australia than in some other parts of the world.

        To Colin S. Over the past year or so, Donald Trump has made reference to the proliferation of US military basings around the world and how costly this is for America. For example, the US still has 50,000 military deployed in Japan and has occupied a large slice of Okinawa since WW2.

        I re-emphasize my earlier contention; it is not the imagined hegemonic ambitions of Russia that are a potential threat to European stability, it is the continued broad presence of the US military via NATO.

        • Warty says:

          I must apologise for keeping this debate going longer than it may need to. I agree with much that you say, Bushranger and particularly with your statement about Russia being a (potential) bastion of Christianity. I do make one substantive qualification though. Peter Hitchen’s The Rage Against God, makes some particularly interesting points about the untold, and long term damage done to Christianity in Russia, which began to make its slow come-back late in the Soviet era.
          Over all those decades with Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, in particular, Christianity was driven out of the schools and eventually out of people’s hearts entirely, with the most carefully planned, systematic religious ‘cleansing’ ever seen, bar China and N. Korea. The result being that the rebuilding needs to go beyond the outward rituals of devotion, you see in present day Russia. Hitchens (who lived many years there as a foreign correspondent) argues that it will take many more years of widespread study (and contemplation) for Christianity to take deep root in the Russian soul.
          Certainly we are currently experiencing similar process of religious ‘cleansing’ in the West (particularly Europe) by dark forces not too unlike those in the USSR, opening us up to the vacuum so necessary for allowing Islam to take hold. We need Russia and the Eastern block countries, with their insignificant Muslim populations, to take up the cudgel for Christianity.

    • PT says:

      They had the NATO war plan did they? A mere 10 nuclear weapons in the event of all out war? Given that Poland was the route of Red Army reinforcements and contained various staging posts, air bases etc, that’s unbelievably low. Then again, you think Howard’s Defence Budget was “recklessly high” and “unaffordable” when it was less than 2% of GDP. You are aware that Poland is a member of NATO aren’t you? And why do you think that is? To keep the Americans out?

  6. Colin S says:

    I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

  7. Bushranger71 says:

    This optimization of nuclear weaponry by the US will only exacerbate unease among the European fraternity: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-08-02/us-begins-upgrading-its-nuclear-bomb-arsenal