France has asked Lithuania to send troops to Africa to provide some relief for the French forces, in order for them to focus on the attacks on the Islamic State group which has claimed responsibility for the last month's attacks in Paris.
In an interview to BNS Lithuania, French Ambassador in Vilnius, Philippe Jeantaud, said that Paris would welcome a larger Lithuanian contribution to international or national operations in Mali or the Central African Republic.
"That's something we would see very favourably because it would allow us to move French troops out of Africa towards Syria," said the ambassador.
France has dubbed the Paris attacks "armed aggression" and has last month turned to European Union (EU) member-states in accordance to the solidarity provision outlined by the EU treaty.
In Jeantaud's words, the call for assistance specifies two priorities, namely, assistance to the fight against the Islamic State group and help in replacing French troops in Africa.
Speaking about the possible contribution of Lithuania, the ambassador mentioned potential participation in EU-and United Nations-led operations in Mali, the UN operation in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINUCRAT), as well as the French-led operation in African Sahel region.
"We are discussing with Lithuanian interlocutors, the discussions are positive, we are receiving strong political signals (…). Obviously, militaries are asking for technical details, clarification how these forces would operate, under what condition, what air support would be," said Jeantaud.
This would not be the first time Lithuania sends soldiers to Africa. In 2014, Lithuania dispatched a Spartan transport warplane with ten troops to the French mission in the Central African Republic for a month.
Three Lithuanian soldiers currently serve in the EU training mission in Mali, namely, a logistics officer at the Bamako airport and two military instructors at the Koulikoro training center.
Lithuania is also considering allocating up to 20 staff officers and specialists to the UN operation in Mali. Under the proposal submitted to the parliament by the Defense Ministry, "the dispatch of combat units would not be discussed at the moment."
The disturbances in Mali broke out in 2012 when the country's large northern region was seized by Jihadist groups related with al Qaeda.
Launched in 2013, the French-led intervention pushed out many of the Islamists, however, large territories remain sparsely controlled.
The Lithuanian Defence Ministry's officials have so far given no official comment on the possibility to extend the proposed mandate for the Mali mission.
The ministry's spokeswoman Asta Galdikaite told BNS Lithuania on Tuesday that the country was "ready to respond to the French calls for assistance to a certain extent," with "the aspects of the support to France coordinated on bilateral grounds and in relevant NATO and EU formats."
She refused to specify whether sending special operation forces to Africa was an option.
The parliament should decide on participation of Lithuanian troops in international missions later this month.
NO COALITION WITH RUSSIA
France is holding raids against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, however, rules out the possibility of sending land forces to Syria.
Lithuania is officially part of the Western coalition against Islamist militants, however, the contribution is so far limited to information exchange or participation in discussions.
A year ago, the government discussed sending military instructors to Iraq for training of local troops, however, the scheme is not discussed now.
Last month, President Dalia Grybauskaite stated Lithuania would not participate in one coalition with Russia against the Islamic State group as long as Moscow is engaged in aggression in Ukraine and Georgia.
She gave her stance before French President Francois Hollande went to Moscow where he and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to coordinate the air raids and share intelligence information.
The French ambassador in Vilnius underlined that currently "there is no sign that Russia will join this coalition."
"Today there is no coalition which includes Russia, that is very clear. We don't have even cooperation with Russia in Syria. We have coordination of military action. It is extremely technical," Jeantaud told BNS.
He stressed that the France and Russia held different positions over Syrian President Bashar al Assad's future – Moscow supports him, while Paris wants him out.
"Politically, we have a difference but when Russia is hitting the trucks filled with this stolen oil, it is doing something useful and for this purpose we coordinate our strikes and position.
It's normal. We're clear that we do not share common political vision for Syria," the ambassador said.
The French diplomat also dismissed fears that the West could ease the pressure on Russia over Ukraine in exchange for the support in Syria.
"These are two different tracks. For Ukraine, there is a political process (...) and we're working every day for implementation of the Minsk agreement. In Syria, there is no political process. To imagine that there would be trade off between coordination of military operation and a political process in Ukraine is absolutely unrealistic, unconvincing," said Jeantaud.
DEFICIT OF IMAGE
Lithuanian-French relations are officially titled as "strategic partnership" - a definition stipulated in the treaty signed by the two presidents back in 2009. Over the past few years, France has sometimes been criticised by Lithuania for its ties with Russia, with critics seeking a tougher stance.
France has served in the NATO air-policing mission in Lithuania three times, however, unlike the U.S., Great Britain and Germany, it does not send its troops to the Baltic states for joint exercises.
Paris says this is not possible due to the large-scale participation in actual military operations – about 10,000 French troops are deployed abroad, including more than 4,000 in Africa.
Last month, France sent its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier with a crew of a few thousand soldiers to fight the Islamic State group.
Jeantaud, who was appointed as the French ambassador to Lithuania earlier this year, admitted that "maybe we are not the first partner of Lithuania in any field but we are a partner, which has the capacity to be a partner in all fields of cooperation with Lithuania," from defence and economy to culture.
"Maybe there is a deficit of image both ways between France and Lithuania. We could work on that to have more a realistic, more informed perception of one another (…) rather than some cliches or images of the past," said the diplomat.