Would the U.S. Go to War for Lithuania?

Russia’s encroachments past its borders are revealing the limits of NATO’s pledges of mutual defense.

By Daniel Oliver

The American Conservative

March 5th 2015

You have to feel sorry for Lithuania and its three million inhabitants. Lithuania may be the largest of the three Baltic countries, but it is still only as big as West Virginia. It may be a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Schengen Agreement, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it still has a 422-mile border with Belarus, a Russian lackey state.

Lithuania and the other Baltic states were part of the Russian empire for centuries and suffered under Russian Communist domination for 50 years. Being a part of historic Russia is not an experience the Lithuanians want to repeat.

The Lithuanians, 150,000 of whom are Russian-speakers, have provided moral support to the Ukrainians in their struggle with Russia, but only limited tangible support: “elements of armaments,” according to Linas Linkevicius, the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, and mittens for freezing Ukrainian hands, knitted to mark the occasion of Lithuania’s presidency of the European Union.

Now, as the Lithuanians watch the European Union’s quarter-hearted resistance to Russian war-making in Ukraine—against the backdrop of NATO’s decades-long history of being underfunded, and the Obamic “strategic patience” of the United States—their future looks as cold and bleak as the Ukrainians’ bare hands if Vladimir Putin decides to move to “protect” the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania and reintegrate the country into historic Russia.

Meanwhile, Greece toys with abandoning, or being abandoned by, a failing experiment known as the euro (which Lithuania adopted only this January 1), and Britain contemplates leaving another failing experiment known as the European Union. And coming soon: an adult discussion of what exactly the North Atlantic Treaty requires its signatories to do. Feeling sorry for people may not be seen as an adequate reason to go to war, at least not with a country that has 1,600 deployed nuclear warheads. Sixty-six years after its founding, NATO may be closer to failure than the euro and the EU.

At a small dinner in Washington recently, a knowledgeable Lithuanian made the case for Western support for Ukraine, including lethal but defensive weaponry. Inferentially, he was making a similar, prospective plea for Lithuania. He supported NATO maneuvers and said they should not be regarded as provocative. What was provocative, he said, was inaction—the failure to prepare

Asked about the value of the NATO guarantee to Lithuania, he in turn asked what options Lithuania had.

There’s a major problem with the NATO guarantee—a problem that must keep all the Baltic peoples awake during the long bleak Baltic winter nights. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that the parties agree that “each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

But what kind of action so unequivocally constitutes an attack that the 28 members of NATO will agree that it is an attack and therefore warrants action? We have seen, in Ukraine, a preview of Russian activity that has deniability — at least for those who want to find a reason not to act.

Greece, which joined NATO in 1952, has been cozying up to the Russians and will have no trouble finding such a reason.

But Greece may not be the only recalcitrant country. Other Europeans disagree on what, if anything, to do about Russia. People at the eastern edge of Western Europe tend, as you would expect, to be more nervous about Russia than are café sippers at the Deux Magots in Paris or Madeira drinkers at Boodle’s in London. Many Europeans have more local concerns: unemployment is 10 percent in the EU overall, but higher in France, Italy, and Portugal, and much higher in Spain (24 percent). Some Europeans argue that Ukraine had an elected government that was overthrown in a coup, which makes the claim to legitimacy by the current crop of Ukrainian politicians tenuous. Our knowledgeable Lithuanian friend disputed that interpretation.

A senior European diplomat told me recently that many Europeans thought Putin was just being a “good Russian” and that the Ukrainians were a rum bunch. (Whether those Europeans, or their grandparents, thought Hitler was just being a “good German” we don’t know.) I asked him if he thought the Russians would invade any more countries, e.g., Lithuania or other Baltic countries, expecting him to say no. He said he thought they might.

He said he thought the real, if longer-term, threat to Europe was China, but that a more immediate threat was immigrants—essentially an unlimited number of immigrants from North Africa. Not black Africans. Muslims. Americans, he said, have only Mexican immigrants to worry about, and they do not present the existential threat to America that North Africans (but not Russians) do to Europe, and to Western civilization.

That view may shock some Americans, especially those who are NATO-centric. They may be reviewing their pocket editions of the North Atlantic Treaty, brushing up on the argument for full-scale opposition to any new Russian “incursions,” if not with boots on the ground, at least with bombs from the air. Or at the very least, with crippling economic sanctions.

But our Lithuanian friend was against the most crippling economic sanction, that of banning Russia from SWIFT (the international payment, clearing, and settlement system). He said that that was too radical a measure, that it would have negative consequences for everyone, and that there were other banking actions that should be tried first.

Given the reluctance of the European countries to invoke Article 5, what are the odds the U.S. would? Slim. What the treaty means to the U.S. is probably, for now, only what a strategically patient President Obama, channeling his inner Humpty Dumpty, chooses for it to mean—neither more nor less. After all, a man who has no qualms about changing the country’s immigration law on his own should have no problem wiggling out of even an obvious NATO treaty obligation.

Wall Street too will be unenthusiastic, especially about economic sanctions. Like hippies who’d rather make love than war, the wolves—and crony capitalists—of Wall Street would rather make money than … anything. Lenin knew that.

But even Main Street Americans are likely to think that Lithuania is, after all, you know, well, kind of, a long…way…away.

In which case, it may turn out that the North Atlantic Treaty is a relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, but not a good guide to their descendants’ behavior.

A serious question, which will be raised again, and again, by disturbances and conflicts, actual and threatened, in the North Atlantic Treaty area and in other areas of the globe, is: Should the U.S. be guided by treaties or only by what is seen to be in its immediate national interest? Treaties are important. But their importance tends to be in inverse proportion to the power of the signatory. Of course, honoring the commitments of a treaty may be in the national interest even if, or perhaps sometimes especially if, the particular action required by the treaty seems not to be.

We are already up to our ankles in Ukraine. The question is, once we begin providing assistance, which means we’ve joined the fight, when do we stop? If we send mittens or Meals Ready to Eat, do we also have to send, eventually, tactical nuclear weapons? And if not, why not?

One answer to that question may be that we should provide some weapons to the Ukrainians in order to raise the cost to the Russians of their aggression, on the theory that if you make something more expensive, you get less of it—though maybe not in this case.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said last week, “We see Mr. Putin is all-in, and they will proceed till their objectives are accomplished.”

If we are prepared to be up to our knees in providing assistance, shouldn’t we be prepared to be up to our keister? But according to Gen. Breedlove, even that may not be enough.

Which raises again the question: Is going part way, but not finishing the job, worse than doing nothing at all? Doesn’t it give false hope, waste resources, and make us look fickle? If the U.S. is not prepared to take the last step, should it take the first step?

The answers to those questions may be numbing, but they should make us be more careful in the future about entering into treaties. If we husband our guarantees, they will be more believable—especially if they are seen as closely related to our national interests.

The United States has several strategic national interests, some more important than others. The three primary interests are protecting this country from the nefarious activities of: China, Russia, and Muslim terrorists.

Securing the territorial integrity of Lithuania, or of Ukraine, against Russia is strategically necessary only if the Russian activity is understood as one more step in a long-term Russian strategy, which is likely to succeed, of destabilizing Europe (whatever that means). That is certainly contrary to U.S. interests. But it is not clear yet that even a Baltic Dinner—a Russian three-course meal consisting of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—would force the conclusion that Russia, an economically failing kleptocracy, presents such a threat to U.S. security that intervention, even if only by the imposition of crippling economic sanctions, is required.

But that leaves open the question: Is U.S. intervention required because of our expressed obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty even if Russia’s actual activity does not (or does not yet) present a threat to our security?

The Russians, no doubt, are nasty people (by which of course we mean Putin and Co. are nasty people), and the Ukrainians may be a rum bunch too, as some Europeans say, and, for all I know, the Lithuanians are a bad lot, though our knowledgeable Lithuanian was an awfully pleasant fellow. But U.S. policy cannot be based on who’s naughty and who’s nice, but only on what will produce peace and security, for us.

Our Lithuanian dinner companion described himself as an optimist. But I couldn’t think why, given the options, and he didn’t look optimistic as he left us, and we felt sorry for him as he walked out into the cold, dark Washington night.

It’s been cold in Washington for days. But it may be even colder in Lithuania, and in the other small countries on Russia’s border, for many years to come.