Lithuanian President Grybauskaite identified the joint Russian-Belorussian military exercise Zapad-2017, which took place on the borders of the three Baltic States and Poland, as one of the most important events of 2017. In and of itself this military drill was nothing new since Russia carried out similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, and the Kremlin had announced that it plans to continue drills every four years. However, a yearlong public relations campaign launched by Grybauskaite against Zapad 2017 and alleged Russian aggression was quite unprecedented, especially if compared to Zapad 2013 and 2009 drills that produced no such presidential reactions.
Starting in February, when she met with US Defense Secretary James Mattis, Grybauskaite declared that Zapad 2017 exercises were a clear demonstration of Russia’s preparations for warfare with the West. Lithuanian President’s first accusation of the Kremlin’s “demonstrative preparation” for war on the West quickly made headlines in the American press. “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe,” proclaimed Grybauskaite to Foreign Policy.
Anti-Zapad/Russia campaign continued through the summer and peaked in September as Grybauskaite used high-level meetings to highlight Lithuania’s “aggressive neighborhood.” For instance, during May and July meetings between the heads of state of Central and Eastern European countries and President Trump, Grybauskaite informed Trump of specific threats and challenges faced by Lithuania and of country’s imperative defense needs. Regional threats from the East, especially Russia, topped Grybauskaite’s agenda following her official visits to Estonia and Ukraine. She also talked about threats posed by Russia’s drills during a U.S. Congressional delegation visit in Lithuania and while meeting with NATO and U.S. European Command generals alleging that “[Russia’s] attempts to redraw states’ borders by force.” It was probably not surprising that her 2017 State of the Nation Address identified Zapad 2017 drills as one of the top threats to Lithuania’s national security.
As the official date of military exercises (September 14-20) approached, major Western news outlets became the primary focus of Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad/Russia pronouncements. In a Wall Street Journal article Lithuanian president observed, “We see a very, very large scale offensive exercise that demonstrates hatred against the West.” Grybauskaite also expressed country’s trepidation to Reuters. “We are worried about the upcoming ‘Zapad 2017’ exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force [on our borders] that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West.” Then, in her interview with CNBC Grybauskaite suggested that there was a “very large” probability that part of Russia’s equipment, including troops, would be kept in Belarus after the military exercise. “Russia is still very, very unpredictable, and it has proved this unpredictability with its activities in occupying Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia. History teaches us that we need to see and watch and prepare for the activities of Russia,” she said.
Her scathing criticism of Russia, however, was reserved for the international audience in a speech she delivered at the UN.
“As we speak [September 19, 2017], around one hundred thousand Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ on the borders with the Baltic States, Poland and even in the Arctic. The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West. […] the Zapad exercise is just one symptom of the Kremlin’s inability to finally end its hatred towards the West.
Despite Russia’s special responsibility to protect international peace as permanent member of the Security Council, it violated the UN Charter by attacking Georgia, illegally annexing Crimea, and directly participating in the war in Eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s arsenal does not stop at conventional weapons. Russia continues to meddle in elections of other states, conducts cyber-attacks and uses its ‘sputniks’ to spread fake news and destabilizing propaganda.”
Not surprisingly, the Russian delegation walked out the General Assembly hall before Lithuanian president’s speech.
Although her UN speech received a positive evaluation in the local media, several Lithuanian MPs criticized Grybauskaite over the chosen timing of her visit to the UN. One MP stated that the Lithuanian President has “[…] trumpeted to the entire world the message about possible military invasion of Lithuania, so it is utterly bizarre to learn that when the threat may be at its highest, the Lithuanian head of state, who is also constitutionally carries the duties of the commander in chief, decides to leave the country and not somewhere nearby, but heads as far as over the Atlantic.” Another MP rushed to introduce a resolution mandating all high-ranking state officials to remain in the country during the drills. In her defense, Grybauskaite claimed that “an opportunity to go the UN and to address two hundred nations from its rostrum to draw attention to the problems of our region today when the whole world thinks only about conflicts with North Korea” could not be missed. Additionally, the president’s press office claimed that Grybauskaite was “the only leader of the states directly exposed to the threats by Zapad who has a possibility to present the situation directly to the Secretary-General during the Assembly.”
Anticipating that her leaving the country at the time when Lithuania, according to her, would be facing the gravest threat, Grybauskaite suddenly expressed a marked restraint in her public pronouncements, unexpectedly announcing that she saw “no threats” associated with the drills because the country was well militarily prepared and suggested that Zapad 2017 would be beneficial for Lithuania in the future as such drills would allow to identify potential security gaps. She also urged the public to “[…] not get frightened, because this is what the goal of the Zapad exercise is: to frighten us, to break our will to defend ourselves so that we are paralyzed and can do nothing in our state.”
Arguably, Grybauskaite’s concerns about Zapad’s impact on Lithuania’s national security had some merit. First, the president and defense ministry were deeply concerned about the scope and size of the military involved in the drills. According to the official numbers provided by Russia, only 12,700 soldiers were involved, but Western defense analysts and Lithuanian military intelligence officials claimed that the numbers were closer to 100,000. Moreover, since the exercises were directly on the border with Lithuania, increased risks due to potential provocations could not be ruled out. The second concern was build on fear that a “little green men” scenario in the aftermath of similar smaller drills, resulting in the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, could plausibly unfold in the Baltic. “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been particularly concerned about Russia repeating its strategy in Crimea on our soil,” reasoned Grybauskaite.
Despite some justifiable merits to raise awareness around the world about aggressive Russian actions, Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad campaign cannot be considered as an astounding success. Over the span of a year, her position swung from one extreme: Russia is a threat, it hates the West, and may go to war with NATO and occupy Lithuania, to another extreme: Zapad and Russia are not a threat, Lithuania is militarily ready and will not be frightened or intimidated. The message was clearly inconsistent. Furthermore, this campaign had local and international repercussions.
Domestically, presidential pronouncements of how dangerous Zapad 2017 would be for Lithuania and agitation build up by top policymakers that alleged occupation scenario was nearly imminent led to heightened public anxiety. Local media, building on public presidential pronouncements, also fanned public panic flames with headlines such as “Grybauskaite claims that Russia’s military exercises is a demonstration of its readiness to fight war with the West;” “Nearly half of the Lithuanian population perceives Russia as a threat;” “Discovery of a Zapad drill scenario: Lithuania is given a role of an aggressor with a strange name;” “Russia tops the list of greatest threats to Lithuania’s national security;” and “Save yourself, if you can: Grybauskaite departs to the US during Zapad-2017 military drill.” Even former chief of country’s internal security agency expressed a view that “manipulation of public feelings in the name of security [was] totally unacceptable.”
Local analysts eventually had to admit that worries about the extent of Zapad’s threat were clearly exaggerated by Grybauskaite, government officials, and several other MPs, who, instead of showing restraint when addressing both national and international audiences, chose to advance the “apocalypse is coming” message. Presently, no policymaker issued an apology for causing public anxiety; rather, they “credited” the Kremlin with sowing public panic.
Since the anticipated apocalyptic scenario did not materialize, the bigger concern now for the President is the potential of a negative impact anti-Zapad campaign may have on Lithuania’s credibility internationally and on Grybauskaite’s legacy. The danger is that any future “crying wolf” type campaigns voiced on an international stage by top Lithuanian officials may be ignored at best or completely brushed off as groundless at worst, depriving the next Lithuanian president of valuable future opportunities to communicate to the world about serious threats faced by the country. The anti-Zapad campaign could also tarnish Grybauskaite’s foreign policy legacy. To control potential damage, she is already suggesting a new “military Schengen” project, which would facilitate and free the movement of military equipment among the EU member states and could potentially continue enhancing European security by ensuring air defense and rapid deployment of NATO support into the region. It is unquestionably a tall order for her to succeed in fulfilling this project, given that she merely has a year and a half left in office.