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The Baltics Eye Crimea Closely, Concerned Over Russian Intentions


Russia's actions in Ukraine are raising alarm in other former Soviet republics, notably the three Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three are members of NATO and the European Union, and they're worried about what Russian aggression could mean for them. To talk about that, I'm joined by Lithuania's ambassador to the U.S., Zygimantas Pavilionis. Thanks for coming in.

ZYGIMANTAS PAVILIONIS: Thank you for inviting me.

BLOCK: What is the Russian threat as you see it, from the Lithuanian perspective?

PAVILIONIS: Well, what is happening with this invasion, some people say the end of the history. It started actually in 2008 with Russian invasion to Georgia. But now, people thought that's kind of a little excursion in Georgia. Today, it became a trend. If you have a powerful state who is rejecting the post-World War II order and is marching in Europe with its armies, defending the ethnic rights, well, I heard it from Hitler in '39. You know, my country was sacrificed between Stalin and Hitler then. So I'm looking to American friends. I really admire the leadership of America in this situation but this is about also American responsibility.

BLOCK: Vladimir Putin has said that he is trying to protect Russian interests, Russian populations in Ukraine. Do you see that as being a similar possibility within Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Baltic countries?

PAVILIONIS: Well, it sounds to me like the ultimatum we got in 1940s, kind of similar ultimatum that Ukrainian military just recently got in Crimea. This is the story of my grandfathers, but I had my own story. I was, together with my wife, standing in front of TV tower in '91 with all my school. Then we'd been singing with flags in the hands and we had Russian tanks going to us. I had my own friends killed then. I escaped. I then joined the parliament.

But then again, Russia was defending the legitimate interest of some kind of Soviet citizens. OK, today, it's Russian, then it was Soviet. But, you know, we reject that. It's just like Hitler did, you know, like Soviets did. We finished with those practices in Europe. Well, I thought in 21st century, it's a historic relic. We have to fight it with everything we have.

BLOCK: When you're talking about 1991, you're talking about the time when Lithuania and many other former Soviet Republics, or then Soviet Republics, were fighting for independence (unintelligible).

PAVILIONIS: Yeah. Well, Lithuania was the first in Soviet Union to revolt against the Soviet rule. But that was done at such a high cost that it should never be repeated. That's why Carl Bildt, current foreign minister, sometime ago was prime minister of Sweden, was calling Baltics like a litmus test of relations with Russia. We are babies of success, but we're also so sensitive to changes, and we feel that volcano erupting right now. It's serious. We have to stop it. And who's next is the question. Moldova? Georgia? Baltic states? Who is next?

BLOCK: Are you really seeing any signs that Vladimir Putin would have designs on the Baltic states, that this is not limited to Crimea and Ukraine?

PAVILIONIS: Well, it's official in Putin's mind. He wants to re-establish the Soviet Union, and he's doing it in very, very strange 19th century methods. I think it will not work, finally.

BLOCK: The U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, was on Capitol Hill today, and he told the Senate that the U.S. is going to increase its participation in NATO's air policing over the Baltic states. Are you satisfied by that?

PAVILIONIS: This is very important because if Russians are moving their armies in the region, this is just the beginning. We feel it. We know it. And that's why we so much appreciate those announcement by American side. You know, we are quite smart in the Baltics. It doesn't mean any kind of additional resources but it means uniting the synergies we have with American detachment of air policing in Poland. We just have to put everything together. And, of course, the bigger your footprint is, you know, I'm not speaking about the boots on the ground. I speak about the air. I speak about the sea. The bigger, the better. We have exercises. We have information sharing. We have a lot to share with you about, you know, the region. And we have to do it. If we want to defend our world, this is the time to do it.

BLOCK: Zygimantas Pavilionis is Lithuania's ambassador to the United States. Thanks so much for coming in.

PAVILIONIS: Thank you so much for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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