Lithuanians fear for their future with Trump in office

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BRATTLEBORO — In the central square of Lithuania's capital city of Vilnius, a plaque quoting former U.S. President George W. Bush reads, "Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America."

The alliance between the United States and Lithuania long predates that day in 2002, when President Bush affirmed the U.S. investment in defending the Baltics. Following Russia's annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, the United States refused to recognize what many considered to be an unlawful occupation. The Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which remained open, became one of the only free pieces of Lithuanian soil in the world.

Many Lithuanians now fear that American support is waning.

Considering the geopolitical importance of the Baltics, it is no surprise that the United States has been a strong supporter of the nations that gained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the emboldening of the Putin administration in recent years is a deeply troubling trend for not only native Lithuanians, but also the roughly 600,000 Americans of Lithuanian descent.

"There is concern in Lithuania that if NATO doesn't have permanent troops in the Baltics, which is what Lithuania would like, Lithuania wouldn't make it 36 hours," said Kerry Secrest, a resident of Brattleboro and the Honorary Consul of Lithuania to Vermont, appointed by the Lithuanian Government in 2014. "The Russian annexation of Crimea shows the philosophical and geopolitical approach to what they see as their sphere of influence, dating back to the days of World War II. They are not happy that their neighbors are choosing democracy and orienting themselves with Europe rather than Russia."

Secrest, a third-generation Lithuanian whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, lived in Vilnius for two years following her graduation from Villanova University in 1991. Secrest was among the masses of Lithuanians in the streets of Vilnius in 1993 when the country was liberated from the Soviet Union, and was a member of the first diplomatic tour following the country's independence. For many Lithuanians, this freedom seems to be under attack.

"To have that independence be at risk again, to allow Russia to go into the sovereign country of Ukraine and annex Crimea, that is very troubling," said Secrest.

"I was recently in Lithuania and talked to quite a few friends, and it is not something that is constantly talked about, but there is a constant fear that something will happen," said Jonas Dovydenas, a resident of Lennox, Mass., and an acclaimed photographer. Dovydenas' family immigrated to the United States in 1949 as displaced persons in the aftermath of World War II.

While fears of Russian influence is not new for Lithuanians, similar concerns have recently resurfaced in the United States.

On Monday, March 20, FBI director James Comey confirmed at a House Intelligence Committee Meeting that the FBI is investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has often raised questions in the Senate regarding the Trump administration's ties to Russia, and has frequently called for an independent investigation into the matter.

"President Putin's goal last year was to undermine our democratic institutions — to corrode Americans' trust and faith in government," said Senator Leahy. "If we do not get to the bottom of Russian interference, he will no doubt be successful."

The United States has not been the only target of Russian hackers. Cyberattacks and digital espionage have become favored weapons of the Putin administration, most frequently levied against neighboring states.

"[In Lithuania] they mostly talk about how Putin would try to influence everyone, everywhere in any way that he can," said Dovydenas. "Hacking is part of the new aggression that Putin has pursued. It's less territorial, though he's perfectly willing to take territory wherever he can."

On March 7, Leahy invited the Lithuanian Ambassador, Rolandas Kri i nas, to voice these fears at the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

"Supporting the independence of our friends and allies when they are under threat or attack is obviously in our national interest," said Leahy. "That is why this hearing is important, and why I will continue to work with Senator Graham to ensure that U.S. assistance is made available for our partners in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Not because we seek a confrontation with Russia, but because we recognize the importance of ensuring that our partners can protect their sovereignty and provide for their people."

"The best deterrence ... and the only way to achieve regional stability, is to place U.S. and NATO troops in the Baltic States on a permanent basis," said Ambassador Kri i nas.

In Lithuania, there is concern over the threat that mutual military escalation poses to Lithuanian security and sovereignty. Lithuania has also reintroduced conscription alongside other European nations like Sweden, which resumed compulsory military service at the beginning of March.

"It's eerie and disconcerting that Lithuania once again has mandatory conscription," said Secrest. "On a very personal basis, my friends have contingency plans in the event that Lithuania is occupied. The Lithuanian government has even published documents on how to respond when met by unmarked soldiers."

Lithuania is a relatively small country, with a population around three million, and relies heavily upon military support from NATO. President Trump has referred to the collective defense organization as "obsolete," and his administration has raised questions regarding continued U.S. support of the alliance unless other member states increase their defense spending. President Trump will be attending a NATO conference in Brussels on May 25.

"In Lithuania, they love NATO because it guarantees that Putin can't make a move without catastrophic consequences," said Dovydenas. "They like the U.S. for sending troops and spending money, but some of my friends agree with Trump that the European nations do need to spend more money on defense."

"Lithuania is a part of NATO, and it is doing all that it can in order to be good partners in that relationship," said Secrest. "Lithuania has reintroduced conscription, increased defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, worked to update their weapons systems, and also established a national Rapid Reaction force."

Article 5 of the NATO charter, known as the mutual defense clause, mandates that if any member state is attacked all others will come to its defense. The only time Article 5 has been invoked was following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

Lithuania contributed troops for the ensuing U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002.

"It is imperative that the United States and NATO have their forces there militarily from a deterrence perspective — it keeps the balance of power in check," said Secrest. "There's always going to be a line where Russia sees its sphere of influence, and the line is currently in the Baltics."

In 2014 Lithuania established an honorary consulate in Vermont to promote cultural, education, and economic ties. During his visit to Vermont in 2014, the former Lithuanian Ambassador Zygimantas Pavilionis remarked that Lithuania was "like the Vermont of Europe."

"It is a small, defiant country with not a lot of people but incredible heart, willing to forge its own path," said Secrest. "The Baltics kept their spirit during the Soviet period, and it still has a very strong identity, which Vermont also holds. They have a voice and stand up for what's right rather than what is politically convenient on a multitude of issues."

"I share President Trump's desire to have a constructive relationship with Russia, rather than an adversarial one," said Leahy in his introduction of Kri i nas. "I have always favored diplomacy, and for keeping open lines of constructive communication. But we cannot ignore the significance of the Russian government's malignant activities — toward us and our partners — if we want to protect our national interests."

Cherise Madigan is a regular contributor to the Reformer. She can be contacted at madigancherise@gmail.com.

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