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KIEV — 2014 has proved to be a grim year for Ukraine: civilians were gunned down by rogue police at the beginning of the year; then Russia annexed Crimea; then conflict flared up in the Donbas — the industrial heartland in the east of the country. As 2015 begins , neither the Russian backed separatists or the Ukrainian government appear close to establishing a lasting peace, despite the attempted peace talks in Minsk.
But Ukraine has not been suffering entirely alone. Though the West’s response has been indecisive and disjointed, the Lithuanian government’s support for Ukraine has been remarkably resolute for a small country on Russia’s border.
In financial terms, Lithuanian support reached a figure of 2 million litas in 2014, which is approximately equal to 569 thousand euros. More than half of this amount was spent on strengthening Ukrainian and Lithuanian security, according to data from the Lithuanian Diplomatic Yearbook, and 2014 was called a year of exceptional mobilisation and action in defending interests of state and citizens.
Unlike other leaders, who still opt to use more vague and diplomatic language when describing the situation in Ukraine, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė pulls no punches toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies, recently calling Putin’s Russia a “terrorist state.”
Lithuania has also become a haven for those seeking political asylum from the conflict, and an oasis of stability from which to launch volunteer programmes.
Svitlana Zhavoronkova was a civic activist during the Euromaidan protests at the beginning of 2014. These were a series of protests aiming to expose corruption in the government of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, and to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union.
Zhavoronkova was living in Lugansk at this time, but was forced to leave when pro-Russian separatists started to threaten her. The separatists warned that she and her companions would be burned alive because of their opinions. So in May she and her son fled their native city and their beloved country.
Now Zhavoronkova and her son have sought refuge in Vilnius. But she remains committed to political activism. Each day she still supports victims of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, but now she does it all online.
“When my acquaintance was captured, I realized that these people were not joking about burning me alive. Overall, when they told me that on May 9, on Victory Day, they were going to burn us, I believed them, so we left Ukraine on the 8th of May,” Zhavoronkova told the Baltic Times in a Skype interview.
Before Nov. 21, 2013, when Euromaidan in Kiev started and Zhavoronkova became a pro-Ukrainian activist in Lugansk (now occupied by armed groups of insurgents supported by Russia), she was very active on the internet. Her activity was connected mostly with support for mothers and children all over the world. And when the separatists began to threaten her, she received an offer to move to Lithuania from an acquaintance.
“First we went to the city of Visaginas, in the north-east of Lithuania,” Zhavoronkova says. “It is essentially the Lithuanian version of Donbas – most of the population speaks Russian and has a pro-Russian orientation. You can walk down the streets and the people around you speak Russian and say, ‘how good it could be if Putin had started to bombard Kiev’. Or people would start screaming at me if I wore my blue-and-yellow ribbon as a sign of my support to Ukraine. But very soon I realised that they can do it only through words, and not in their deeds.”
It is widely recognised in Ukraine that Lithuanians have supported Euromaidan and the pro-European mood in Ukraine with a surprising fervour, considering how small their country is in comparison to Russia. Lithuania could easily have sheltered under the umbrella of NATO and done little to help Ukraine. But instead there have been volunteers from Lithuania right from the beginning of EuroMaidan, back in the winter of 2013, as well as a number of Lithuanian volunteers involved in the Ukrainian government’s counter-insurgency operation in Eastern Ukraine.
According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Lithuanian government has allocated 150 thousand litas (43 thousand euros) for the delivery of free care to Ukrainians affected during the Maidan events and counter-insurgency operation in Eastern Ukraine. There were also people who received medical treatment in Lithuania.
Ruta Rudinskaite, attache at the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in Ukraine says that such a substantial amount of interest in Ukrainian events can be explained easily: “Lithuania strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We believe that no other country can dictate policy choices of a sovereign state. The people of Ukraine and its government have chosen the path of European integration. It is our task to help and support Ukraine in this path”.
As per preliminary data of Lithuanian Official Development Assistance in 2014, the humanitarian aid to Ukraine from the Government of Lithuania exceeded 310 thousand euros, and this appears set to rise in 2015 if the conflict continues.
Zhavoronkova is also impressed by the extent of the Lithuanian government’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause: “In Vilnius there was a story that Lithuania received casualties of the government’s counter-insurgency operation in Eastern Ukraine,” informed Zhavoronkova. Though she herself has little money to give, she remains generous with her time whenever she can. “While I can’t provide these people with any financial aid, my four year-old son Ivan and I tried to visit them in hospitals,” she said. “We cooked fried fish or syrniki (small fried cheese cakes) for them. We wanted to entertain them somehow, because when you are in your native country, there are always lots of your relatives and friends who come to visit you – but here, in Lithuania, they were alone.”
It may seem harder for Zhavoronkova to keep supporting people from the eastern regions online. She says despite living abroad, it has turned out to be even easier for her to provide emotional support than it was in Lugansk, even though she now cannot help anyone physically.
Though there are a number of charities and NGOs that have formed throughout Ukraine, Zhavoronkova appears to prefer not to rely on organisations for help. She prefers to go it alone. “There are people from different parts of the world, even Russia, who trust me and send money so that I could help families in Lugansk that are still there or have moved to other cities,” she says. “Mostly I don’t work with any NGOs, I try to help people on my own and, when I’m not able to help, I give them contacts of some people from Vostok-SOS, the NGO which helps people affected by the military operations.”
As well as cash and volunteers, Lithuanians have even provided their own blood to the Ukrainian cause. On Dec. 15 2014, the Lithuanian government also allocated 151 thousand litas (approximately 44 thousand euros) from the State Medical Reserve to be spent on the purchase and delivery of medication, blood packages for transfusion, field tents and electrical generators – all of which are desperately needed by the government’s counter-insurgency operation.
Valentin Badrak, director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament in Ukraine says that not only Ukraine, but also the Western community was not prepared to make immediate decisions about the aggression of the Kremlin. He believes Lithuanian support will help bring an epiphany in the Western world about the danger of Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine.
“In 2014, Lithuania has demonstrated unprecedented courage, becoming the de facto ally of Ukraine in the fight against the aggression of Putin’s Russia,” Badrak claims. “First of all, its psychological support is very valuable. And it has become a symbol highlighting the struggle of the Western world against the spread of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’.”
According Badrak, although the total amount of financial aid from Lithuania to Ukraine seems relatively small on paper, the effect of this aid is enormous. The steps taken by Lithuania and Poland cannot be overstated, he says, and prevents Ukrainians from believing that their plight has been overlooked by the West. Badrak is sure that the firmness of the leaders of these two countries led to a “decompression” of Washington and adoption of a number of laws supporting Ukraine by the US Congress.
“It was very hard to reach an understanding within NATO that the war is launched not only against Ukraine, but against the World Order, against the Western community itself.”
Badrak also thinks that the prospect of supplies of weapons from Lithuania to Ukraine is possible, as was outlined by President Grybauskaite during her recent visit to Ukraine. Moreover, some types of what have been termed “non-lethal equipment” have already been supplied by the United States, including night vision goggles and other vital military equipment. It is not improbable that Lithuania’s actions can set the tone for NATO and the EU. If a small country such as Lithuania can speak up, even though its own economy intricately tied to that of Russia and so it has much to lose, then perhaps the rest of the EU will follow Lithuania’s path.