VILNIUS – Washington sees some potential for "a slight thaw" in relations with Belarus, the United States' new Ambassador to Lithuania Robert Gilchrist says.
According to the diplomat, the United States welcomes Lithuania's dialogue with Belarus on the Astravyets nuclear power plants and is also raising this issue in the bilateral format.
In an interview with BNS, the ambassador spoke about the 5G security, the deployment of US troops in the country and imports of liquefied natural gas.
– LAST YEAR, THE UNITED STATES SIGNED A DECLARATION WITH ESTONIA ON 5G SECURITY. HAS THE US GOVERNMENT ASKED LITHUANIA TO SIGN A SIMILAR AGREEMENT?
–We’ve been engaged with countries everywhere on agreements such as this. I am not going to go into details about conversations that we have with other governments, but I will say that across the board this has been a policy of the United States in this regard.
From the perspective of a citizen I would think the question to ask is even more than what the relationship with the United States would be, rather the question would be "do I want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to private information about me?" And 5G obviously it's a new frontier with many questions what it ultimately will mean. But I think with regard to critical infrastructure and information like that, I think it's a good policy for any government, for any citizen to ask questions such as that.
- DO YOU AS AMBASSADOR HAVE A GOAL TO HAVE THIS KIND OF AGREEMENT SIGNED?
- I think that the US objective across the board is for countries with which we work closely to take steps that help protect their security and our security as an ally.
- HAVE YOU DISCUSSED THIS ISSUE YESTERDAY (MONDAY) WITH THE LITHUANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER?
- 5G comes up in conversations all over the place in Lithuania for me.
- THE US HAS TEMPORARILY DEPLOYED A BATTALION OF TROOPS LAST YEAR, LATER THIS YEAR WE WILL SEE US TROOPS TAKING PART IN THE DEFENDER 2020 MILITARY EXERCISE. WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO LITHUANIANS ABOUT THE FUTURE US MILITARY PRESENCE IN THE LONGER PERSPECTIVE?
- Before this, I had a meeting with the German ambassador. During the course of our discussion, we also discussed the German enhanced forward presence here, which from my perspective, from the US perspective, is that it's allied troops, it's a NATO operation, and by extension these are NATO troops, and a focal point for engagement here. I am pleased to be here at this juncture where we have 500 boots on the ground up in Pabrade.
I have seen first-hand that we are engaged militarily with Lithuania on many different levels just beyond Pabrade. So while the 500 troops are leaving in May, I believe, I think there will be other operations. I don't know if they will be of that magnitude but there will certainly be engagement all the time. In addition, you’re going to have an ambassador who's going to be all over Lithuania, so my boots will be on the ground in many places, and a very active and engaged embassy.
The United States relies a lot on Lithuania as a strong ally, and Lithuania relies on the United States, and we are a strong ally to Lithuania as well.
– THE ACQUISITION OF US MILITARY EQUIPMENT IS ALSO HIGH ON THE AGENDA. LITHUANIA IS CONSIDERING BUYING BLACK HAWK HELICOPTERS. IS THE US GOVERNMENT NOW ENGAGED IN FINALIZING THE DEAL? WHAT KIND OF GOOD DEAL CAN YOU OFFER?
– Of course, as US ambassador, I am pleased to see any discussion about procuring American military systems. I've certainly been engaged with the Lithuanian government to discussing the possibility of acquiring Black Hawks. We have certainly looked at different options and I am hopeful that in the coming months that the government will move forward with procuring Black Hawks. (...).
– IS THE REQUEST FROM THE UNITED STATES TO SEND TROOPS TO SYRIA STILL ON THE TABLE?
– There are lots of discussions even in the United States in terms of what our presence in Syria will be. I know that there is a strong recognition in Washington that the Lithuanian troops are reliable partners but I think any sort of further details on this is not something I can really go into extensively because I think the United States' policy remains in flux and certainly our plans for Syria remain in flux and for Iraq remain in flux right now.
– THE THEN US ENERGY SECRETARY RICK PERRY WAS IN VILNIUS LAST YEAR TO PROMOTE LNG. DO YOU EXPECT THE NUMBER OF US LNG CARGOES IN KLAIPEDA TO GROW?
– I certainly hope so. I would love nothing more than to see American-sourced LNG go through Klaipeda and come to the Lithuanian market, or perhaps to Belarus as well. I know that when I was in Washington, there was a strong interest in this, and I had meetings with the Department of Energy on this very issue. (...).
– YOU MENTIONED BELARUS. SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO HAS VISITED MINSK RECENTLY, AND THE LITHUANIAN MINISTER WENT THERE SOON AFTERWARDS. PLEASE EXPLAIN WHY DO WE SEE A DEEPER AMERICAN ENGAGEMENT WITH BELARUS?
– "Deeper" is a subjective term. I think in terms of Belarus, as Lithuania has seen, there is a potential opening for increased dialogue and some movement, and perhaps a slight thaw in relations. Secretary Pompeo was on the ground only for four hours, I understand. But it was an incredibly important and symbolic visit. I know there is hope for us soon to have an ambassador there – we have chargé d'affaires, we haven't had relations at the highest level for I think about 12 years.
So I think there is a potential for some opportunities. I think from the US perspective it's "wait and see", look at how it can evolve but I think there is certainly room for some hope.
– DID THE SECRETARY RAISE THE ISSUE OF THE ASTRAVYETS NUCLEAR POWER PLANT IN MINSK?
– I know that this was included in the points that he was set to raise and that this remains a point in our dialogue with the Belarusians.
– YOU MENTIONED THE POSSIBILITY OF SUPPLYING BELARUS WITH US LNG VIA LITHUANIA. ARE THERE ANY ONGOING TALKS?
– I think there is certainly hope for that. The secretary just travelled there a week-and-a-half ago. So I think it's all still fairly fresh but this has already been something that I know the US is interested in and that will be a part of conversations that I have as I go around the government in coming days.
– THE ASTRAVYETS ISSUE IS VERY HIGH ON THE POLITICAL AGENDA HERE IN LITHUANIA. WHAT SUPPORT THE US CAN AND WHAT IT CANNOT OFFER IN THIS AREA?
–I was happy to see that the foreign minister discussed Astravyets during his trip to Minsk and that he saw the potential for openings and certainly greater dialogue. Certainly we see that as positive and our hope is that that train of discussion will continue to progress.
I think with regard to Astravyets, in fact, I know, the US, as a matter of course, we advocate for transparency with regard to nuclear power facilities, we strongly advocate for consultations with neighbors impacted by the energy, we certainly look for rigorous inspections in the IAEA and elsewhere, and I think with regard to Astravyets, that will remain a priority for us.
– WHAT ARE OTHER AREAS THAT YOU WILL FOCUS ON AS AMBASSADOR?
– I am honored to be back in the region. I come with 30 years of experience as a diplomat, and nine years focused specifically on Nordic and Baltic affairs. For me, it's been amazing to see this region develop. When I first worked on the region, it was around the time at the financial crisis from 2007-2009. It was an incredibly difficult period but what I've seen happen in Lithuania is that difficult decisions have paid off and now the Lithuanian economy is strong and moving forward, new jobs are being created. I also see a vibrant start-up culture as a component of the economy here – that was there before but I think it's much more vibrant now and I look forward to seeing what those firms are up to but also seeing what possibilities there may be for investment in both directions.
I haven't gotten out of Vilnius yet. I had a few meetings at a senior level within the government and a lot of those are largely the sort of ceremonial functions that we have to do when I'm initially given credentials here. But I think that there is a lot going on in the Lithuanian society. It's quite interesting and exciting and I think it presents opportunities for exchanges in both directions.
Security will always be a key component of what I do. It's a core component of our relationship with Lithuania. Fundamentally, our relationship is based on values, common democratic values. That's what girds everything and then with that comes a commitment to our common defense. Lithuania is a valuable ally and the United States will remain a valuable and strong ally to Lithuania.
– THANK YOU, MR. AMBASSADOR.