Foreign policy and defense
Lithuania is a nation in Northern Europe. Its capital city is Vilnius. The former Soviet Republic of Lithuania is now firmly entrenched among Western countries, with membership in both the EU and NATO. However, relations with Russia have been problematic ever since the liberation in 1991. The contradictions with the Kremlin government have deteriorated markedly since 2014, when the Russians annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.
Following the liberation from the Soviet Union, Lithuania’s most important foreign and security policy goal was to become a member of the NATO and EU defense alliance. The country applied for EU membership in 1995 and entered into a so-called association agreement with the Union that year. In 2000, Lithuania was allowed to start membership negotiations, and the country was EU-adapted in a shorter period of time than most other candidate countries. The biggest obstacles on the road were the Ignalina nuclear power plant (see also Natural Resources and Energy) and the relationship with the Russian area Kaliningrad (see below). Following the EU accession in 2004, Lithuania in 2007 also became a member of the Schengen cooperation, which meant that passport controls were abolished at the borders. In 2015, Lithuania became a member of EU currency cooperation EMU.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Lithuania for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
As the first former Soviet Republic, Lithuania applied for membership in NATO in 1994, which Russia initially initially opposed. The response from NATO became, among other things, a Lithuanian membership in the NATO Partnership for Peace (PFF), which also includes Russia. Moscow’s opposition to NATO membership for the Baltic States diminished as Russia’s relations with the United States and NATO strengthened after the turn of the millennium. When the three Baltic countries became NATO members in 2004, the defense alliance stationed four battle planes at the former Soviet air base Zokniai in Lithuania to monitor the Baltic airspace.
Russian gas a matter of dispute
The last Russian soldiers left Lithuania in 1993, a year before the withdrawal from Estonia and Latvia. In 1997, as the first Baltic state, Lithuania signed a border agreement with Russia. It happened when Algirdas Brazauskas made the first state visit by a Baltic president in Russia. The border agreement was first ratified in 2003 by the Russian parliament.
One difficult issue was for a long time Russia’s demand for military transfer to and from Kaliningrad, located west of Lithuania on the Baltic Sea coast. Before the EU’s entry into Lithuania, the EU and Russia agreed on a solution. The EU accepted simplified documents for Russian troops moving through Lithuania, but only in 2012 did the Union accept Russia’s visa-free regime.
At times, Lithuania’s relationship with Russia has been better than Latvia and Estonia, but in recent years it has been the opposite. A positive factor was that the small Russian minority in Lithuania was allowed to become Lithuanian citizens without any special requirements from independence. By contrast, Moscow was disturbed by the Lithuanian Parliament’s 2000 decision on claims for damages from Russia for the Soviet occupation. Lithuania’s support for the Chechen uprising also angered Moscow, as did Chechen separatists in Vilnius.
The energy has been a subject of dispute, with, among other things, a conflict of ownership around the Mažeikių Nafta oil refinery and stripped supplies of Russian oil (see Natural Resources and Energy). Sharply rising Russian gas prices led the Lithuanian government to sue the Russian gas company Gazprom in 2012 for EUR 1.45 billion before the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce Arbitration Institute.
Deepening conflict with Russia
The Social Democratic government that took office in Lithuania in 2012 initially said it wanted to resolve the conflicts with Moscow and improve relations with Russia. In reality, it soon became the opposite. A major reason for this was Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, which was strongly condemned by Lithuania and the rest of the EU. The Russian involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine subsequently worsened the situation. Already in 2013 Russia imposed some sanctions on Lithuania (see below) and in 2014 the EU imposed sanctions on Russia, which responded with a trade boycott that hit Lithuania’s agricultural exports hard.
Lithuania soon developed into one of the EU’s strongest critics of Russian foreign policy. This was especially true of President Dalia Grybauskaité, who on several occasions called Russia a “terrorist state” and demanded that the EU impose tougher sanctions on Moscow and provide military support to Ukraine. In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by describing Lithuania as the most “Russophobic” Baltic state.
In its report on security situation 2020, the Ministry of Defense pointed out “the Russian foreign and security strategies” as the biggest threat to Lithuania’s national security.
Sensitive relationship with Belarus
With its long border with Belarus, Lithuania has tried to strike a difficult balance between the power holders of the neighboring country and the EU’s sanctions against the authoritarian regime in Minsk. In the years following the turn of the millennium, relations with Belarus deteriorated as the Minsk regime’s oppression of dissent increased. Lithuania allowed Belarusian oppositionists a sanctuary in Vilnius, and when Belarus closed in 2005 the European University of Humanitarian allowed the Lithuanian educational institution to continue operating from Vilnius. The EU and Lithuania again approached Belarus during the second half of the 2000s, mainly since Minsk’s relations with Moscow had deteriorated due to conflicts over Russian gas and oil policy towards Minsk. In 2009, President Grybauskaitė received the Belarusian colleague Aleksandr Lukashenko in Vilnius,
In connection with the fiercely criticized elections in Belarus at the end of 2010, the EU imposed sanctions on the country’s leadership. The sanctions were lifted in 2016 since Minsk was considered to have shown increased respect for human rights. At the same time, Lithuania’s relations with neighboring countries were strained, now by Belarusian plans to build two new nuclear power plants some five miles from Vilnius.
During the 2010 century, Lithuania has been active in bringing countries such as Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia closer to the Western countries. During its period as EU Presidency during the second half of 2013, Lithuania had stated its goal of bringing former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia closer to the EU, prompting Russia to impose sanctions on Lithuania.
Other relationships in the immediate area
Relations with Poland have historically been complicated. The situation improved in the years before Lithuania’s EU accession as a result of Poland’s support for such. Relations between 2010 and 2014 deteriorated again when Poland accused Lithuania of discriminating against its Polish minority in school and language issues (see Education and Population and Languages). In addition, the countries have found it difficult to agree on plans for energy cooperation. From 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and increased tensions with Moscow, the countries have toned down their criticism of each other in an effort to keep together Russia.
In 2019, newly elected Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda made his first state visit to Poland, as a sign of the country’s strategic importance to Lithuania. In the same year, the country’s education ministers signed a joint declaration to work together to improve the teaching of the Polish minority in Lithuania and the Lithuanian in Poland in their mother tongue.
Lithuania has particularly close contacts with Latvia and Estonia, although disputes have occurred with Latvia over the border crossing in the Baltic Sea. Energy cooperation has also been hampered by some problems, including joint plans to build a nuclear reactor in Lithuanian Visaginas. The Baltic contacts are mainly handled by the Baltic Assembly’s Inter-State Advisory Parliament, as well as the Baltic Cooperation Councils and the Baltic Sea Councils. Cooperation with the Nordic countries is good, especially the relations with Sweden and Denmark.
Good relations with the United States
Former President Valdas Adamkus strengthened Lithuania’s relations with the United States and welcomed US President George W Bush in Vilnius in 2002. Despite domestic opposition, Lithuania supported the US-led invasion of Iraq the following year.
As a result of the Russian annexation of Crimea, US Vice President Joe Biden visited Lithuania in March 2014. He confirmed during the visit that the US will defend every Natoland in the event of any external attack. One month later, 150 US paratroopers were deployed to Lithuania as part of NATO’s troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland.
In 2014 and 2015, Lithuania – as the first Baltic country – was a temporary member of the UN Security Council.
Lithuania has built up its own defense force but has had difficulty meeting NATO’s requirement that at least 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) should go to the defense budget. In the wake of the financial crisis, the defense budget was kept at only 0.8 percent in 2012. In connection with the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, the Lithuanian government began to gradually increase defense spending and towards the end of the decade, from 2018, the country reached NATO’s requirements.
In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania agreed to form a joint brigade of 4,500 men to participate in peacekeeping operations. The government also decided to build up a rapid response force of 2,500 men with the task of protecting the country against, for example, border violations and attacks by armed groups.
Lithuania abolished the general military duty in 2008, but reintroduced it to a limited extent in 2015. About 3,000 men aged between 18 and 23 are called annually to a nine-month military training.
Lithuanian soldiers have participated in NATO operations in Afghanistan. Lithuania has also been represented by the EU in Mali, under the UN mandate in Kosovo and in the US-led coalition force in Iraq. In 2016, NATO decided to deploy up to 1,000 soldiers in each Baltic country (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to strengthen the defense alliance’s border with Russia. The soldiers would follow a rotating schedule, and not be permanently stationed.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 11 650 men (2017)
The air Force: 1 100 Men (2017)
The fleet: 700 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.7 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 5.0 percent (2017)