Exclusive: Lithuania PM Rejects Russia's 'Nonsense' Threat

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė has told Newsweek she will not overreact to discussions in the Russian parliament about revoking Moscow's recognition of Lithuania's independence, dismissing the apparent threat as "nonsense."

Speaking with Newsweek on the sidelines of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in the Danish capital on Friday, Šimonytė said she was more concerned by President Vladimir Putin's apparent imperial ambitions than with the actions of fringe members of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

"I think we should not over react to this, because it's a particular member of the Duma, very particular even for United Russia," Šimonytė said of Yevgeny Fyodorov, the member of the ruling United Russia party who submitted the proposed legislation.

"Even legally, this is nonsense," Šimonytė explained. "We have different sets of agreements that established the relations between the Lithuanian state and Russian Federation."

"What he's trying, it's the same as if I asked my parliament to revoke some treaty of the 17th century that was made between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and what was Moscow at that time," the prime minister explained.

"I think it's an overreaction to speak a lot about it. I think it's not the most interesting sign of this week," she added. "It was much more [interesting] listening to what Putin was saying about Peter the Great."

Lithuania PM Rejects Russia's 'Nonsense' Threat
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė has told Newsweek she will not overreact to discussions in the Russian parliament about revoking Moscow's recognition of Lithuania's independence. In this combination image, Vladimir Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace, June,10,2022, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte speaks during a conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 3, 2021 and a portrait of Peter the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1717. getty/https://hermitagemuseum.org

Šimonytė was referring to the president's remarks on Thursday, when he compared himself to the 18th-century tsar whose reign was marked by imperial expansion in the east and in the west. Among his conquests were parts of the modern-day Baltic and Nordic nations.

"Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia's]," Putin said after visiting an exhibition about the tsar.

"Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russia's] and strengthen [the country]," the president added, referring to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine; a rare admission that the aggression is driven by imperialism rather than the stated plan to "de-Nazify" Ukraine or liberate Russian-speaking areas of the neighboring country.

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.

Ukraine's EU Ambitions

Šimonytė addressed the fifth annual installment of the Copenhagen summit shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared by video link in the main hall, urging Western leaders to pull Kyiv from the "grey zone" between the European Union and Russia.

A decision to grant Ukraine EU-candidate status—a key step on the road to full membership—would be "historic," the president said.

The European Commission is currently preparing an analysis of Ukraine's suitability, and is expected to deliver its evaluation some time in June. It will then be down to member states to decide how to proceed.

In May, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said that all major EU states apart from Italy were opposed to awarding Ukraine candidate status. This week, Bloomberg reported that the Netherlands and Denmark were among the holdouts.

Šimonytė—firmly behind Ukraine's EU ambitions along with her Baltic counterparts—told Newsweek on Friday that there was not yet a consensus within the 27-nation bloc.

"I very much hope so," the prime minister said when asked if Ukraine would have enough support to join the five other nations—most in the Western Balkans—who have been on the candidate list for many years.

Indeed, several EU leaders have cited these existing candidate nations as a reason not to accelerate Ukraine's membership bid.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in March he was wary of upsetting the delicate balance in the Western Balkans, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it would be unfair to give Ukraine priority over current candidates.

"There are opinions that maybe this is too early, this is not according to the rules, this also conflicts with the approach towards the West Balkans, which I find pathetic," Šimonytė said.

"The situation there is not a good situation for us. Both the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership are equally important in this process," the prime minister explained, referring to the EU initiative overseeing ties with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Šimonytė said EU support for Ukrainian membership is both a strategic decision and a "moral obligation." She explained: "We see people actually dying for those values that are enshrined in European legislation.

"I know that for many countries, it seems quite weird because the country is at war. And you start a process that the country maybe cannot cope with because it has the more imminent things to do. "

But candidate status, the prime minister said, is not the same as full membership, which might still take many years. "The start of negotiations is quite a long process," Šimonytė explained. "If they are not delivering, then the answer is clear. So I see very limited risks as a matter of fact."

Ukraine tank firing along Donbas front line
Ukrainian tankers fire at frontline positions near the city of Soledar, Donetsk region on June 10, 2022. Intense fighting continues in the east of the country as Kyiv calls for more international aid. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Further EU enlargement is a politically divisive concept, hence the long delays to the bids of current candidate countries. Some nations feel that past expansions happened too fast, opening the bloc to mass migration, corruption, and political conflicts—citing for example Brussels' standoffs with Hungary and Poland.

But Russia's invasion has prompted a surge in pan-European support for Ukraine. An April poll found that 66 percent of EU citizens believe Ukraine should be able to join the bloc when ready. This could mean many years in the future, but awarding Kyiv candidate status would also not tie Brussels to any imminent accession.

"There are some of the countries who are still skeptical about the last enlargements," Šimonytė said. "I find this puzzling, because for a politician it is not typical not to follow what your people are saying. And I think the support for this in the societies—even in the Netherlands, even in France—is enormous."

"Of course, it is for a politician to sort of be more farsighted," the prime minister added. "And sometimes explain to your public something that is not obvious."

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told Newsweek in May she believes the Commission's evaluation of Ukraine's suitability might win over skeptical nations. Šimonytė agreed that the analysis could be pivotal.

Putin's Crisis Tactics

The war in the east of Ukraine has descended into a high-casualty attritional contest, with massed Russian forces making marginal gains with the help of overwhelming artillery fire. But the Russian advance in the Donbas is a far cry from the "thunder run" war plan that the Kremlin seemed to hope would capture Kyiv in a matter of days in late February.

Isolated by sanctions, facing economic crisis, and grappling with a costly and complex war, the Kremlin appears to be trying to leverage the looming global food crisis—caused by the collapse of grain and fertilizer exports from Russia and Ukraine, both of which are world leaders in such exports—to force the West to relax its economic measures.

"There are a couple of points of risk that would be exploited heavily by Putin, if we are not vigilant enough," Šimonytė warned.

"If there is a risk that millions of people will not be able to buy a loaf of bread in Africa or the Middle East, then of course there will be very high pressure on the Western countries, and very high speculation from Putin that this is the fault of Western nations and Ukraine, although this is all the fault of Putin."

Smoke rising over Odessa after April attack
Journalists and residents stand as smoke rises after a Russian attack in Odessa, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. Unblocking the Black Sea port has become a key goal for those seeking to avoid a global food crisis. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Talks are underway to establish safe passage for Ukrainian ships exporting grain via the Black Sea, which is currently not possible due to Russian and Ukrainian mines, as well as the risk of Russian missile, naval, and aerial attacks.

Kyiv is resisting calls to demine the waters around the key port of Odessa, which remains under Ukrainian control but is a top strategic target for Moscow. Sergiy Bratchuk, a spokesperson for the regional administration, explained: "The moment we clear access to the port of Odessa, the Russian fleet will be there."

Ukrainian partners in the West have proposed armed naval escorts or expanded anti-ship weapon support as a means to prevent such a situation.

Šimonytė said Friday that a solution is a top priority. "This need for a solution of unblocking Odessa and delivering the grain to people who need it is, I think, the key thing in this moment, aside from the military support to Ukraine," she explained.

"If there are significant safety instruments on the coast that diminish the risks, I think yes, there can be a plan," the prime minister added in an apparent reference to anti-ship missiles and other equipment.

Meanwhile, Šimonytė said EU and NATO nations must be wary of Russian disinformation at a time of rising inflation and economic uncertainty.

"Those other risks are the prices rising in Western countries, because [Putin] will go around using all those propaganda channels, Facebook groups, and crazy people on YouTube, and say: 'This is because of your stupid government that you pay these high prices, not because I invaded a country, not because I manipulated the gas prices in the fall 2021. It's because your government is stupid, why don't you get rid of them?'

"If somebody is optimistic enough to think that this is not going to happen, then he or she should rethink that immediately," the prime minister said.

"This is the thing we should be prepared for. We should be preparing now. We are preparing, and we are saying to our colleagues around the table that this is the main focus, apart from the weapon deliveries."