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A nation must think before it acts.
In a time of democratic rollback and continued populist upswings, the European Union and United States increasingly advocate for coordination among members of the self-styled “international rules-based order.” This unity faces serious institutional challenges, especially visible at Europe’s edge in Lithuania. Taking assertive diplomatic stances in regional crises, Lithuania faced backlash for critiquing Belarus, necessitating sanctions as a countermeasure. Lithuania’s sanctions response initially struggled to take off because of miscommunication and differing priorities within the government. Vilnius’ experience provides a useful lesson to the democratic world in the importance of a common voice and way to action.
The standoff between Lithuania and Belarus started in August 2020 when Belarusian citizens began protesting the reelection of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a vote that was widely acknowledged as fraudulent. These protests were fed by overall dissatisfaction with the country’s current state. Facing repression, many protest leaders, including opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya, fled to Lithuania. This led to a diplomatic crisis between the two nations, as incumbent president Lukashenka felt the EU had ignored its earlier economic and security cooperation with Belarus, and that Lithuania was a driving force in effecting this change.
In September 2021, migrants (mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) passed through Belarus on their way West, lured by a sudden increase in flights to Minsk. The EU deemed the resultant crisis on Lithuania, Latvia and Poland’s borders an act of “hybrid warfare” by the Lukashenka regime. The Lithuanian government set up a processing camp and requested EU aid, citing the continued economic pain from the pandemic and possible EU-wide consequences of a new wave of refugees. It also called for an increase to EU and US sanctions already imposed on Belarus, given that the facilitated transit of migrants by Minsk was viewed as retaliation for Vilnius’ support for the Belarusian opposition.
Potash Ties That Bind
Continued economic links between Lithuania and Belarus complicated the EU member state’s planned sanctions in coordination with the US. Belaruskali, a major Belarusian state-owned company, was using Lithuanian ports to ship potash to foreign customers. The relationship is a profitable one for Lithuania: Belaruskali fertilizer shipments comprise approximately a quarter of the state railway company’s cargo traffic and make up around 80 percent of all rail freight in Lithuania. Some 95 percent of Belaruskali fertilizer transits through Lithuania, making Vilnius’ consent for transportation key to the Belarusian government’s economic stability. Lithuania initially decided to bypass Belarusian potash in its sanctions plan. Fertilizer was absent from the list of prohibited Belarusian items, and the Port of Klaipeda’s CEO Algis Latakas (where the fertilizer is shipped) noted that the flow of Belaruskali fertilizer rose 4 percent despite the port’s overall 11 percent shipping decrease due to sanctions against Belarus. In the summer of 2021, as the crisis continued, the Lithuanian president’s office worked to exempt Belarusian potash from sanctions, claiming, “We are not trying to block all sectoral sanctions; we just want fertilizers out, the ANPP (Astravyets nuclear power plant) in.” In these hitherto anonymous advisors’ opinions, potash shipments were important to Lithuanian economic well-being.
However, the United States Office of Foreign Asset Control declared on August 9, 2021, that any business relations with Belaruskali and its affiliates had to be ended by December 9. On August 12, Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis announced that the government would halt transports altogether in December. This meant that the Port of Klaipeda’s relationship with Belaruskali had to be reevaluated to ensure Lithuanian companies could continue trading in the United States and using US-hosted financial platforms. Klaipeda Port CEO Latakas also announced in November 2021 that Belaruskali did not feature in the port’s 2022 plan.
Moment of Decision
As the US sanctions came into force on December 8, it became clear that Belarusian shipments did not stop, irrespective of Lithuanian government intentions. Lithuanian State Railways continued trading with Belaruskali, despite the looming restrictions. Critically, Belaruskali nominally complied with Lithuanian law and had not been included yet in any sanctions registry. Transport Minister Skuodis noted, “It is a fact that a company has to behave in accordance with the law, and I don’t yet have any facts to say that the company has broken the law or anything like that. But we will discuss the issues and the totality of circumstances.”
Continuing contractual obligations between the state railway company and Belaruskali complicated matters further. Igor Udovickij, 70-percent owner of stevedore firm BKT, which handles the potash exports, asserted, “There are no and there cannot be any US sanctions for Belarusian potash transit via Lithuania since transit, as a procedure, cannot be subject to sanctions.” Belaruskali owns the remaining 30 percent of BKT. Lithuanian State Railways head Mantas Bartuška claimed that he informed the foreign affairs and transport ministries about his company’s November advance payment from Belaruskali, but Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis denied receiving any information regarding the transaction. Bartuška claimed that the state railways tried returning the sum but could not due to the newly-imposed sanctions, which meant banks could not handle the transaction and continue doing business with the United States.
An Unusual Resignation Attempt
Due to the discrepancy between stated intent and government actions, Transport Minister Skuodis and Foreign Minister Landsbergis offered to resign. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė then stepped in, noting that while the initial contract Lithuanian State Railways signed with Belaruskali was “understandable,” the matter of subsequent amendments to the contract “brings up the question of why the contract did not end up on the desk of the National Security Commission, where it should have, according to preliminary estimates.”
On December 14, Šimonytė decided to retain Landbergis and Skuodis in office. Shortly before the prime minister’s announcement, Lithuanian State Railways head Bartuška resigned. Reconfirmed in his position, Landsbergis announced a synchronization of sanctions between the EU and US to prevent such lapses from occurring in the future. This appeared to solve the immediate problem of compliance with allied sanctions decisions, and Lithuania officially announced the potash contract’s termination in January 2022.
The Lithuanian dilemma is a microcosm of Western challenge in formulating common sanctions policy. Lithuania’s sanctions rollout struggled because ministries did not coordinate and cut existing contracts ahead of the deciding break with Minsk. The state railway corporation, Lithuania’s main port authority, and the national government all operated at cross-purposes and did not come to consensus ahead of Prime Minister Šimonytė’s ultimate decision on Belarus policy.
Tactically, uncoordinated efforts by NATO leaves open many vulnerabilities, which combined, seriously hamper its ability to respond to new crises. Economic and political differences between the United States and its partners mean that projects like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline dodge united opposition. In this context, Germany (and some EU members) supports the pipeline due to its economic and energy advantages, while Washington fears the Russia-origin energy would facilitate increased Russian pressure on Europe to lessen support for the United States. Moscow sidestepped the Western alliance by encouraging forces in Europe favorable to Nord Stream 2. It also took advantage of US President Joe Biden’s waiver on US sanctions for the pipeline earlier in 2021. While Germany ultimately suspended approval for Nord Stream 2 and United States policy shifted focus to ensuring the Ukrainian economy survived potential rerouting of natural gas flows to Nord Stream 2, the open disagreements leading up to Nord Stream 2’s completion showed that prior consensus remains essential to pacific transatlantic relations.
The same internal divisions appear in the NATO bloc’s efforts at preventing open hostilities against Ukraine. At the strategic level, there appears to be a fundamental difference in outlook between countries like the US, UK and Poland, who favor increasing supplies to Ukraine; and other continental members like France and Germany, who prefer distancing the bloc from ostensibly a conflict between two non-members, citing European strategic autonomy. The difference in strategy manifests itself in tangled supply lines and mixed messaging from military leaders, most notably when the head of the German navy claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect.” As a result, Ukraine-directed supplies must travel longer due to German transit refusal, while French demands for aEuropean Union-wide military force creates further confusion over member state military commitments.
NATO planning, designed with the expectation that all member states will follow the same policies in an emergency, now faces new challenges given the differences outlined above. The 2010 Strategic Concept, which sets out the Alliance’s principles, stated that “NATO members will always assist each other against attack, in accordance with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.” If the Baltic states or Poland face a spillover, how would Franco-German neutralism affect their treaty commitments? Ceaseless pressure has been a constant in Russian military policy towards the West, extending negotiations and employing hybrid warfare, including isolated clashes and coordinated cyberattacks, to keep its Western rivals off-balance and unprepared. A rapid, effective NATO response becomes harder to mount absent clear communication and unity of purpose within the alliance. Western governments and institutions need to utilize Vilnius’ experience and build effective coordination mechanisms.
This December tumult in Lithuania offers a teachable moment to the West in its diplomatic efforts. The lack of synchronization between national, EU, and US legislation made harmonized Western policymaking much more difficult. Internally, the lack of coordination between Lithuania’s different ministries and public enterprises, notably the port and state railways, exposed a pressing need for reforming the country’s crisis management system. President Gitanas Nausėda acknowledged the country faces “the most dangerous situation in the last 30 years” as tensions with Belarus (and China) rise. To face these, the government branches must function efficiently to address sudden threats to Lithuanian sovereignty and security.
In an era of hybrid threats, any aspect of a country’s public life may be engaged and thus should be agile in dealing with challenges swiftly and effectively. Despite these setbacks, the Šimonytė government’s handling of the crisis shows that the Lithuanian government’s democratic fundamentals remain sound. The ministers offered to resign and take responsibility rather than deny any wrongdoing. The opposition’s efforts to form a parliamentary committee examining what transpired reasserted legislative oversight authority. Likewise, the press played a constructive role in showing the public what happened in the summer of 2021 and publicizing the need for swift action. The Lithuanian government’s fund to support businesses affected by Belarus sanctions continues to function, ensuring support for businesses and eliminating uncertainties that can cause public dissatisfaction and create openings for foreign propaganda to sway the public mood against the incumbent government. The Belaruskali incident exposed serious vulnerabilities in Vilnius’ approach to regional security, but suggests that a sound foundation for further improvements exists.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.