The European: Mr. Prime Minister, Lithuania shares no direct border with mainland Russia, but your country is in the neighborhood. What are your feelings when you look eastward?
Kubilius: We Lithuanians are in a very special situation. When we are looking east, we see Belarus, but when we look west we see Kaliningrad Oblast, which is a part of Russia. So on both sides, we have some challenges. Of course we are concerned about Mr. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and we are concerned that if the Western community is not able to stop this aggression, it will spread into other regions. We cannot avoid thinking that those other regions might include the Baltic states.
The European: What is your assessment of the Minsk talks held last week?
Kubilius: It’s good that there has been an attempt to bring peace, but it has not yet materialized. In Ukraine, there are still battles being waged for towns in the East. I do not think that we can trust Mr. Putin’s words. His promises are not leading to any kind of action that is stopping the military aggression in Ukraine. The positive side of the Minsk talks is that there will be no more illusions: We can no longer trust the words of Mr. Putin and hopefully that will convince the Western community to look for possible actions forcing him to act. Brandishing words is having no impact.
The European: You have stated that “crisis“ is the wrong term to describe what’s happening in Ukraine and that it would be more accurate to label it “war”. Is the West’s response too weak?
Kubilius: Well, we cannot blame the Western community in any absolute terms. There are attempts to stop Mr. Putin’s aggression, but, up until now, there has been no positive outcome. Mr. Putin is not convinced by the attempts of the Western community to stop his military activities. Because of that, new action is needed: such as supplying defensive weaponry to the Ukrainian army or looking to impose more effective economic sanctions in order to convince Mr. Putin to make proper decisions and stop his military aggression.
“Chancellor Merkel did everything she could”
The European: U.S. officials have proposed transferring lethal weapons to Ukraine. Would you support such an action?
Kubilius: I would definitely support it. In December, our current president and government already made a call to send weapons to the Ukrainian army. We would like to see other countries taking similar initiative. But aside from that, I do support the implementation of much more effective economical sanctions. The existing ones are having an impact on the Russian economy: We can see that it is suffering. But that strategy will only work in the long term. We need some kind of action from the Western community to immediately convince Russian authorities that the Western community won’t wait any longer.
The European: Do you understand the German reluctance to military escalation?
Kubilius: I understand it very well, but we also need to understand that Mr. Putin has a very clear and simple strategy: to buy himself time to cause as much military and political chaos as possible. That way, he prevents the Ukrainian government from implementing the much-needed reforms in Ukraine – reforms that would make it more of a European country. Mr. Putin would be happy to see no further action from the Western community, he can simply wait another year until the next parliamentary elections in Ukraine. That is when be believes the people will be so upset about the upheaval that they will vote against President Poroshenko’s government. That is the vision of Mr. Putin and we need to have an effective strategy to prevent him from reaching his goals.
The European: Chancellor Merkel was one of the most prominent figures opposing a weapon delivery from the U.S. to Ukraine. Would you say her approach was too soft?
Kubilius: I would say that Chancellor Merkel did everything she could to achieve a clear result. What we need is Mr. Putin’s side to stop their military activities in Ukraine. Even when agreements are reached, there are no proper results. Even Chancellor Merkel will need to think about new options in order to convince Mr. Putin to take action.
The European: You proposed a kind of ”Marshall Plan“ for the Ukrainian economy, which would consist of roughly 30 billion euros transferred over the next six years. Why do you think that a political problem could be solved by financial means?
Kubilius: Well, first of all, as I said before, I see that Mr. Putin has a very clear goal: not to allow the Ukrainian government to reform the country. He will simply wait until the next elections and hope that people will vote against Poroshenko. The same thing happened back in 1992 in my country, in Poland, and in several central European countries. Mr. Putin dreams of political domination of the entire Ukraine – not just Donetsk and Luhansk. We need to understand how to avoid that outcome.
The European: That is where the plan comes it?
Kubilius: The Ukrainian economy is in a very bad shape, and that is the outcome of both the war and the previous Yanukovych regime. Now we need to assist Ukraine both economically and financially, as the country is almost on the verge of bankruptcy. I can only evaluate what the IMF is doing now, and I hope their program will be sufficient to alleviate Ukraine’s long standing financial problems. But of course Ukraine needs to implement a lot of important economic and legal reforms, starting with fiscal consolidation, the rehabilitation of energy prices and the fight against corruption. In recent months, I have had the opportunity to visit Kiev five times. I met with the different ministers and the President’s office, and I saw a lot of positive action undertaken by the new government. They are very professional, very well-educated and they are pushing forward with reforms.
The European: Let’s re-focus on the “Marshal Plan” for a moment. Do you have the feeling that there is support for it among other European countries?
Kubilius: I don’t have a clear idea. I see mostly that the EU, the IMF, and the United States of America are working on a plan to financially assist Ukraine. They are using all the different resources at their disposal, particularly those of the IMF. So I am not pushing my idea as the only one to be implemented. What is really needed is a sufficient amount of financial support for the country. It makes no difference where the money comes from.
“It is strongly in our interest to have good relations with Russia”
The European: We recently interviewed Vladimir Grinin, the Russian ambassador to Germany, who told us that he fears a “red line” could be crossed. Do you share his fear?
Kubilius: Of course Mr. Putin and Mr. Grinin are happy to threaten the Western community with their talk of “red lines” . But I think that at this point, red lines have already been crossed – by Mr. Putin. Again, we need to use very clear political language: What we see in Ukraine is not a “Ukrainian crisis”, nor is it a “conflict in Ukraine”. This is Putin’s war, which was initiated by him, which has been supported by him, which is being implemented by him, and which can only be stopped by him. Ukraine has shown clear signs that it no longer wants to support this post-imperial Russian entity, and Mr. Putin, along with the mainstream political class in Russia, is still living with a lot of nostalgia for the imperial past. Dismantling the Russian Empire has been a very painful and very difficult process. And the only way in which we can assist Russia in overcoming their psychologically painful situation is by helping Ukraine. The biggest mistake would be to allow ourselves to be threatened by statements about red lines.
The European: You just said it is “Putin’s war”. There are observers and commentators, many of them German, who claim that it was wrong to expand NATO and the EU towards the East, since Moscow had made its opposition to that very clear. What is your response to such critics?
Kubilius: My response is very simple: The Baltic region is very close to Russia and it is strongly in our interest to have good relations with Russia. But we also know that we can only have good relations when Russia finally becomes a normal European country, no longer a country suffering from a post-imperialistic syndrome. To assist Russia in becoming a normal European country, we need to help it let go of the dream that it can control its neighboring countries. As long as Russia holds on to that delusion and as long as Western governments allow it to do so, Russia can’t overcome its sickness. In order to assist Russia, we need to assist Ukraine – despite Russian resistance. If we want to have a normal Russia – more or less a European-type country – then we need a very clearly outlined political agenda to spread European values and European stability to Ukraine and other Eastern partnership countries.
The European: People of Russian origin are the second biggest minority in Lithuania. Do you fear that the Kremlin might meddle with your country’s internal affairs as it has done in Ukraine when Crimea was annexed?
Kubilius: We are not afraid. But we know that the political elite in Russia has a so-called “soft power” strategy, part of which is to work with cells of Russian compatriots in order to destabilize other countries. Mr. Kosachev, who was leading the special agency in Moscow until the end of last year, was responsible for the implementation of this soft power strategy. And he declared openly , that he was hopeful that such a strategy would overcome the influence of Western political elites in Central and Eastern European countries. They would like to achieve this goal through direct appeals to, what they call, “ordinary” people, especially Russian-speaking ones. Right now, we have no problems with the Russian-speaking minority in Lithuania. But we understand that Moscow could try to use such an instrument in order to create political problems here.
The European: How does the Russian community in Lithuania feel about what is going on in Ukraine?
Kubilius: It depends. Different people have different opinions, but there have been no clear political statements from either side. Last year, many people celebrated holidays like VE day, which marks the end of the Second World War, with Georgian tags on their coats.
The European: In the late 1980s, You were an early member of the Sajudis, a Lithuanian movement that fought for independence from the Soviet Union. Did you learn any lessons then that can be applied to the present?
Kubilius: We were successful at that time because the Western community assisted our movement, taught us how to organize, and gave us political support at the state level. Also, at the start of the 1990s, there were first promises that we would be invited to join the EU – first informal, then formal ones. Communication and support enabled us to form our own state. That should be kept in mind, when we think about how to help Ukraine in the 21st century.
Mr. Kubilius spoke at the 8th Europe-Ukraine Forum in Łódź, organized by the Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies in Warsaw
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Carl Bildt: “Merkel is best to solve the crisis”