Iron Lady

03.18.16 5:00 AM ET

The President Who Dared to Call Putin’s Russia What It Is: A Terrorist State

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was blunt about her neighbor’s aggression after it took over Crimea—and in an interview, she sounds the alarm about her nation’s vulnerability.

Not many world leaders call Vladimir Putin a terrorist and get away with it.

But Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite refused to resort to diplomatic euphemism in describing Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. “If a terrorist state that is engaged in open aggression against its neighbor is not stopped,” she declared in November 2014, about eight months after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, “then that aggression might spread further into Europe.”

Sometimes referred to as the Baltic Iron Lady, Grybauskaite is outspoken about NATO’s responsibility to fortify its eastern periphery and forestall any future acts of Russian military adventurism into Europe. Lithuania, she has said, is “already under attack” from Kremlin propaganda and disinformation, a targeted campaign she considers the possible curtain-raiser to an invasion of her country.

The Daily Beast got in touch with Grybauskaite via email to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Article V’s relevance in the 21st century, the Mideast refugee crisis, and Lithuania’s vulnerability as the smallish neighbor of re-militarized and revanchist Russia.

You were one of the few European heads of state to boycott the Sochi Olympics over the Kremlin’s crackdown on human rights, particularly LGBT rights. This was, of course, before the invasion of Ukraine and what many consider to be the West’s “waking up” to Putin’s Russia. What has Lithuania experienced during your presidency that made you an outspoken critic of Putin and his policies?

We are not critics, we simply call Russia’s actions by their real names. The Kremlin conducts confrontational policy, violates international law, destroys the global and regional security architecture, and seeks to divide Europe and weaken trans-Atlantic structures.

For the Kremlin, silence signifies consent. We cannot be complicit or create a climate of impunity that encourages dangerous behavior. That is why speaking the truth is our obligation.

Along with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, you used the word “terrorism” to describe the actions taken by Russian-backed separatists (and Russian soldiers) in Donbas. Obviously this is the word used by Kiev to describe its military response to these activities, but doesn’t accusing a major power of terrorism suggest that something more than sanctions is in order to confront it? What should NATO and the EU and United States be doing that they aren’t?

It’s evident that having a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that occupies and annexes territories of its neighbors poses a serious threat to the international security system. This is the goal pursued by the Kremlin. Divide and rule is the name of the game.

We cannot accept any “new normal” in our relationship with Russia. With the war continuing in eastern Ukraine, Crimea occupied, and the Kremlin directly helping the murderous Assad regime to stay in power in Syria, cooperation cannot be built on blackmail and menace. The EU and NATO should see beyond Kremlin propaganda. The EU and NATO must have their own agenda with Russia, not be part of the Kremlin’s puppet show. That means expanding our influence in the neighborhood, strengthening our defenses, breaking barriers for trade, and protecting the rule-based international order.

Kremlin information warfare is particularly acute in the Baltic states. What is the Russian government trying to achieve in Lithuania? Is it seeking regime change by appealing to the Russian diaspora or fringe political movements here?

Propaganda and information attacks are part of hybrid warfare. They seek to provoke social and ethnic tensions, promote mistrust in government, discredit our history, independence, and statehood, and demonstrate that Western democracy is functioning on dual standards.

But the most dangerous goal of information warfare is to break the people’s will to resist and defend their state, and to create a favorable environment for possible military intervention. And the example of Ukraine is proof that conventional war in Europe is no longer theoretical.

Many Americans don’t count the trans-Atlantic relationship among their top foreign policy priorities. What does the fate of Europe, much less the fate of the postwar liberal democratic order, mean for the United States? Do we have to fear another world war? Do you see that as a proximate or remote possibility?

Perhaps there is less debate about the trans-Atlantic relationship because everyone agrees that it remains strong and must only be getting stronger. We all have the same perceptions of existing threats. What we should do now is take the necessary defense measures against those threats through NATO’s defense planning, updated defense scenarios, sufficient and credible deterrence, rapid reaction, and smooth decision-making process. We shouldn’t just fear war but do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen.

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Lithuania has not been too directly affected by the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. There are only six Syrians living here, although members of your government have said they would welcome more. What policies should European countries be adopting with respect to this crisis? Do you agree with Gen. Breedlove that Putin is “weaponizing” refugees to try to undermine democratic societies and governments, namely Germany?

Migration routes can change very quickly, and all of us have to be prepared. We already see migrants coming through Russia to Norway and Finland.

Helping refugees is our duty. But it is also important to try to solve the problem at its source, use all diplomatic tools to find a peaceful solution, provide humanitarian support, engage more with Turkey and other countries in the region to fight smuggling networks, and give people support closer to home so they are not forced to choose a dangerous trip by sea.

Regarding Russia’s involvement, no one can deny that Russia’s support of Assad as well as airstrikes only contributed to the destabilization of the situation in Syria and made many more people flee their homes.

EU sanctions have not deterred Russia from continuing to arm and escalate in Ukraine. Just this last week we saw an uptick in violence in Donbas. Also, both the separatists and Kiev seem to be underreporting the violations of the ceasefire; the OSCE Monitoring Mission typically carries many more violations (by orders of magnitude) in its weekly reports. Are new sanctions a possibility? There seems to be more of a willingness by other countries in Europe to roll back the existing sanctions regime and return to business as usual with Russia.

The European Council agreed that the duration of sanctions against Russia is linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements. We are nowhere near that. Russia continues to send its troops and military equipment to Donbas in direct violation of the Minsk agreements. Therefore I do not see a reason to discuss lifting sanctions or rolling them back. On the contrary, sanctions are the only thing that could force Russia to take its Minsk commitments seriously. And if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, all options should be on the table for the EU to consider how to increase the cost of Russian involvement.

Russian corruption has been described as one of the country’s chief exports, alongside oil and gas. All of the Baltic states have suffered, since their independence, from gangsterism, issues with money-laundering, and so on. How bad is it the situation in Lithuania?

While the culture of corruption has its roots in the Soviet system, it is something that we have to fight ourselves. Lithuania is ranked 32nd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. That’s 15 places up from five years ago. But there’s another 31 to go…We are focusing on fighting impunity, ensuring that responsibility is both unavoidable and sufficiently severe.

Ensuring competition and transparency in the energy sector is another area where there has been substantial progress, including by limiting Russia’s influence. Lithuania has successfully built the LNG terminal, which ensured the security of supply and fair competition in the gas market. We also unbundled energy supply from ownership, which helped us to create more transparent relations in our energy sector.

Similarly, Russian espionage in the Baltic states continues to be a major national security issue. One recalls the Hermann Simm case in Estonia and annual arrests of Chekists in the state security services. And the problem is just as bad, if not worse, in other former occupied states. Just today, it was announced that a military adviser to your Czech counterpart had his security clearance taken away because of his perceived closeness to Russia. Are you concerned about the infiltration of Lithuania’s security and intelligence establishment? Is counterintelligence in general something that NATO and the EU should place a greater emphasis on?

No one can be 100 percent sure that there won’t be such attempts. But we take all the national security threats very seriously. Our and NATO security services are vigilant and on high alert.

Are we in another Cold War, as Dmitry Medvedev said at the Munich Security Conference? If so, what does that mean for Western defense policy? Do we need a strategy of containment with respect to Russia?

With over 9,000 dead in Ukraine since the conflict started two years ago, the war is far from being cold. And Russia’s aggressive actions did not start with Ukraine. We should not forget its role in frozen conflicts throughout Eastern Europe or the 2008 war in Georgia.

The only containment strategy is not to underestimate the nature of the threat and be prepared to act in our own defense.