The Blog

Listen to Lithuania

4:31 PM, Mar 16, 2009 • By JAMIE FLY
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As the Obama Administration attempts to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia, it is important to remember that several staunch U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe have much to lose if the United States rushes to engage the Kremlin without taking into account Russia's treatment of its neighbors. This is of course in addition to those inside Russia who are fighting from within (and dying because of) what Garry Kasparov calls "Russia's malignant and contagious virus of authoritarianism."

Last week, one of these allies, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas UÅ¡ackas, delivered a speech at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington that unfortunately received little press coverage. The speech is worth a read because it lays out a sensible approach to engaging Russia, one that realizes that "dialogue must be a tool of strategy and not a substitute for it." UÅ¡ackas noted that any policy of engagement with Russia must be "marked by due vigilance and caution" and that such engagement should be combined with efforts to strengthen Russia's fragile neighbors such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

It was concern about Russia's treatment of one of these neighbors that led UÅ¡ackas to lead the opposition to an effort by Secretary of State Clinton and her German counterpart at a recent NATO meeting to reopen NATO's political dialogue with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council. This dialogue was suspended after Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and it is unclear what Russia has done to warrant reopening this dialogue given its continued buildup of military personnel and establishment of bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the contested territories at the heart of the August 2008 conflict. Secretary Clinton and her delegation in Brussels seemed caught off guard at the strong Lithuanian opposition to their proposal, but with only a few NATO members rallying to their side, the Lithuanians were forced to drop their opposition after several hours of negotiations.

It was, however, a small sign of the disquiet in some Central and Eastern European capitals about the Obama administration's rush to reduce the tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship in an effort to gain Russian cooperation on other issues, such as efforts to halt Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. The Obama administration would be wise to listen to allies like Lithuania and combine any approach to Moscow with a healthy dose of skepticism about its intentions in Central and Eastern Europe and its willingness to cooperate on issues such as Iran. This will also require the administration to ignore Moscow's bluster -- the most recent example being reports that Russia may station bombers at bases in Cuba and Venezuela -- and focus instead on listening to the U.S. allies who will be the victims of Russian aggression, be it via economic or military means, if a hastily constructed U.S.-Russia détente fails.