The Biden administration should not wait for further Russian escalation to impose consequences on Moscow and support Ukraine, Lithuania’s top military official said Thursday.
President Joe Biden has sought to usher in “a new era of relentless diplomacy” that replaces saber-rattling with a focus on alliances and direct conversations with world leaders. But Arvydas Anusauskas, the Lithuanian defense minister, argued that it’s time for action—imposing new sanctions on Russia, increasing weapons shipments to Ukraine—as Moscow sends more forces to its southwestern border.
“Diplomatic means are no longer sufficient,” Anusauskas told Defense One through a translator during a visit to Washington. “Our support should be provided not when aggression starts, but prior to that.”
Anusauskas, who met with officials in Kiev before coming to the United States, shared this message this week with administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, and congressional leaders, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
Lithuania has spent the past three decades nervously eyeing Russia after a half-century of captivity in the Soviet Union. Geography adds to their concern: with Belarus to the east and the detached Russian province of Kaliningrad to the southwest, Lithuanians are acutely aware of the risk of being cut off from the rest of NATO.
More than 100,000 Russian troops as well as heavy artillery and tanks have surrounded Ukraine, and officials predict an invasion could begin as soon as next month. Anusauskas said he is also seeing increased Russian military activity just outside Lithuania, including new Russian military aircraft flights over the Polish-Lithuanian border.
President Joe Biden held a video call last week with Putin, in which the American president urged the Russian leader to end the military buildup and promised repercussions if it continues, according to a White House summary of the call.
Biden “told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures” and “provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Dec. 7. “He also told President Putin there’s another option: de-escalation and diplomacy.”
But Anusauskas says the United States should respond now, not wait for further escalation, because Russia has “already stepped over the red lines drawn by the West a number of times,” including the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
In the meeting with Finer, “We discussed that Ukraine should be supported in all possible means including the supply of lethal equipment because only this can deter dictators,” Anusauskas said. “Economic sanctions is a tool which is also very important, however, this tool should be exploited very effectively and it should be used very fast without waiting for further developments.”
Some bipartisan lawmakers who previously served in the American military are also calling for the administration to act more aggressively to deter Putin from invading Ukraine instead of just planning a response after Russian troops are already inside the country.
“I think promising tough action…after an invasion will do very little in terms of Putin’s calculus,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla, told reporters on Tuesday after returning from a trip to Ukraine. “Sanctions need to be going into place now for these destabilizing actions.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., echoed the same sentiment. “I think we need to be more focused on preventing an invasion than just responding to one,” he said.
Biden also spoke last week with leaders from allies on NATO’s eastern flank, including Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, to try to assuage the concerns about Russian aggression. On the call with the Bucharest Nine, Biden emphasized that his administration is committed to Article 5, a NATO agreement that all members will come to the defense of an ally that is attacked.
But Anusauskas said Russia’s demands about who can join NATO and what equipment can be placed in Eastern Europe are still “concerning.” Putin said Dec. 1 that he is seeking binding guarantees from the United States and NATO that the alliance will not expand east to include Ukraine and that weapons won’t be deployed near Russian territory. The latter request “actually means the disarmament of the Baltic states,” Anusauskas said.
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