VILNIUS - The Lithuanian government has pledged that the country will be more active in NATO and European Union (EU). "Not being left in the margins" is one of its key interests in these structures, Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene said.
The issue has been thrust into the spotlight with the fifth anniversary of the Baltics joining the organizations and recent criticism from Russia.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's permanent envoy to the NATO, said that Lithuania was the "black sheep" of the organization in an article in The Guardian news portal.
"There is a black sheep in every family, and some of the countries that have recently joined NATO and the EU are afraid that they cannot thrive on confrontation with Russia anymore. This was obviously the motivation behind Lithuania's attempt to obstruct the decision of the alliance to resume relations with Russia," Rogozin said.
"This is ideological tunnel vision. The Baltic States used to take their cue from the US. But now, when Washington is on its way to good relations with the Kremlin, the Lithuanian demarche looks particularly strange," he said.
Jolanta Balciuniene, Director of Foreign Ministry Eastern Neighborhood Department, told The Baltic Times that she does not see the point of commenting on Rogozin's words, as "he is known for his harsh statements." Dainius Zalimas, advisor to Jukneviciene and international law expert, agreed with Balciuniene, saying "Rogozin can keep his comments for himself."
Cooperation between NATO and Russia was suspended after the Russo-Georgian war last August. The Alliance announced that relations would be only renewed after Russia pulls its troops out of Georgia. But NATO's 26 countries have agreed to resume high-level relations with Russia this month following the 60th NATO anniversary.
The last opposing country was Lithuania, with Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas calling the step "premature," but it finally went along. U.S. and NATO officials assured the country that closer NATO and Russia cooperation does not mean that Georgia and Ukraine will be left aside or fall into alleged Russia's influence zone.
"It is important to guarantee that U.S.-Russia agreements are not made by sacrificing significant provisions of Lithuanian neighborhood. We want Ukraine and Georgia to integrate with Western structures 's NATO and the European Union 's at the earliest possible date. This is a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is vital for us not to be in the margins of NATO and EU," Jukneviciene told Lietuvos Zinios.
Russian officials see this as a threat for good relations between the West and Russia, blaming Eastern European countries for using international organizations for their own interests and a way to put pressure on Russia.
"It's still a pity that the Eastern Europeans continue to use NATO as a personal shrink and try to sort out their inferiority complexes through the medium of international organizations. There is no basis for that complex anymore; times have changed. They too should learn the lessons of both the cold peace and the cold war," Rogozin wrote in his article.
"Constructive, respectful relations with Russia without Russophobe myths and cliches are the only correct lessons of both the Cold War and the recent crisis in our relations. We can see that our key Western partners understand this, as their recent initiatives confirm."
Lithuanian experts, however, think that it is Russia that does not move forward and continues to hold onto its past.
"Many countries think like [Lithuania], and we supported the NATO decisions eventually, only were the last [to be] not convinced entirely that it was the right time. Russia still sees Lithuania and post-Soviet states in general as its sphere of influence and can't live with the thought that they are out from here for good. Treating us as equals would mean that it gives up its historic claims," Zalimas said.
"But dialogue is better than cold, let alone hot, war. We depend on Russia's natural resources and its situation as a transit country, and Europe is vital for Russia's economy. But I can't see the same values ever being shared between the two. Lithuania's relations with Russia are cold. They are pragmatic, not friendly," he said.
Zalimas also said that Russia is a potential threat for Lithuania's security, but U.S. Envoy to NATO Kurt Walker does not believe Russia could attack Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. He said that NATO members of the Eastern European region should feel safe just knowing they are part of the alliance.