Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

China eyes expanded business ties with Eastern Europe amid EU concerns

July 7, 2018

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will offer the leaders of central and eastern Europe on Saturday expanded business ties at a summit in Sofia while seeking to reassure the EU that Beijing is not trying to divide the continent.

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Li, whose attendance at the seventh such “16+1” summit coincides with an escalating trade war between China and the United States, will also try to dispel growing doubts among some participants about the value of the annual meetings.

China has promised billions for development projects in the region as part of its Belt and Road strategy to carve out new export markets, but these deals are coming under greater scrutiny.

Li, whose country needs the European Union’s support in its trade battles with U.S. President Donald Trump, has been careful to stress China’s support for European integration and rules in trade and procurement.

“The 16+1 cooperation is by no means a geo-political platform. Some may say such cooperation may separate the EU, but this is not true,” Li told a joint news conference on Friday with the summit host, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

“We hope that through our cooperation we will improve the development of all countries involved and help them better integrate into the European integration’s process,” said Li, who will travel on to Germany from Bulgaria after the summit.

Analysts said Li would try to avoid issues that might annoy western European capitals, including the European Commission in Brussels that upholds the common rules that underpin the EU’s single market.

“I think that Premier Li Keqiang will adopt a low profile on issues that might infringe on community affairs of the EU this time around,” said Francois Godement, director of Asia and China program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

More than 250 Chinese companies and 700 business people from central and eastern Europe are expected to attend an economic forum alongside the summit, seeking deals in trade, technology, infrastructure, agriculture and tourism.


Bulgaria hopes the summit will help secure much-needed funds to build new roads, highways and other infrastructure in eastern Europe, a region that still lags richer states in the western wing of the EU in terms of development and income.

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Belene Nuclear Plant Project

“We do not aim to divide the European Union. On the contrary, we aim to help eastern Europe and the Balkans which are lagging behind to catch up,” Borissov said.

Sofia hopes to lure Chinese funds for highway and railway projects to link ports in northern Greece on the Aegean Sea and in Bulgaria on the Black Sea with Romania and Serbia.

China has expressed interest in the plan and also confirmed it was willing to back Bulgaria’s Belene nuclear power project.

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Last month, Hungary finalised the construction timetable with China for a Budapest-Belgrade rail link, one of the biggest Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the region.

Countries taking part include EU members Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, and also non-EU states Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

The EU will have observer status at the summit. Greece will also attend.


Additional reporting by Angel Krassimirov; Editing by Gareth Jones


Europeans leaders worry Trump wants to fulfill promise to bring American troops home

July 6, 2018

After 18 months of Donald Trump’s “America First” presidency, European leaders meeting with him next week fear the United States may change its traditional course and begin to bring American troops home from the continent.

It comes as nations, especially in Eastern Europe, are lobbying the United States to increase the number of troops on the continent as they worry about combating an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Trump has talked about bringing U.S. troops home from around the globe since he was on the campaign trail espousing a strategy he dubbed “America First” but he has yet to act.

“They are scared to death,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told McClatchy. “They are worried about a very unpredictable president of the United States. They are increasingly worried he is going to do things not based on what’s in the best interest..but based solely on his vision of ‘America First.’ “

The Pentagon is already reviewing the impact of withdrawing some of the 35,000 active-duty American troops in Germany, the Washington Post reported last month.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump during the Group of 7 summit meeting in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. The photo quickly went viral after it was shared on Merkel’s Instagram account. Jesco Denzel German Federal Government via The New York Times

The fate of American troops in Europe are not expected to be on the agenda of the Brussels meeting of NATO — the alliance formed after World War II to counter a Soviet, now Russian, threat — but will loom large, as it comes just before Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Some worry an unpredictable Trump, at the U.S.-Russia summit, could agree to take the first steps to embolden Russia, such as halting military exercises or agreeing that Crimea, a region of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014, belongs to Russia.

Magnus Nordenman, who worked as a defense analyst and a strategic planning consultant for major European defense industry companies, said European allies are “absolutely worried” after hearing Trump disparage allies of the G-7, as well as NATO members’ contributions and seeing him eager to meet Putin as well as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

“There is element of uncertainty in all this,” said Nordenman, now the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “But we all need to take a bit of a breath here…and hope the president is in a good mood when he goes to Brussels.”

A senior administration official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly did not initially answer the question about possible troop withdrawals on a conference call with reporters. But when asked a second time, the official said Trump is not expected to threaten troop withdrawals in Germany or elsewhere.

Congress is likely to oppose troop withdrawals and could pass legislation to prevent Trump from using money to move the military.

Trump has criticized international alliances and organizations, even the United Nations, and European allies fear he is less committed to their security and NATO as previous U.S. presidents. Last month, he abruptly refused to sign a joint statement with the G-7, the world’s largest economies following a meeting in Canada.

“At a time when the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the U.S. is under a lot of pressure over disagreements on Iran and trade, NATO is really at the core of this relationship and will Trump — by basically criticizing the Europeans and conditioning American support — bring more disunity within the alliance,” said Erik Brattberg, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Europe program who is in touch with a few diplomats who are concerned about Trump’s possible reduction of troops. “It would weaken the alliance and provide new opportunities for countries like Russia to take advantage of that.”

A third of active-duty U.S. military troops overseas — more than 60,000 — are stationed in Europe, including 35,000 in Germany, 12,000 in Italy, 8,500 in the United Kingdom and 3,300 in Spain, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of information from the Defense Manpower Data Center, a statistical arm of the Defense Department. Thousands more rotate into other European countries temporarily.

Many U.S. troops are there to do more than protect those countries. They are strategically located to help in other regions of the world, such as counter Iran or strike the Islamic State.

The Trump administration has been supportive of NATO and European countries at a tactical level — actions generally credited to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It has sent more military equipment, participated in regional exercises, signed new defense agreements with Sweden and Finland and increased the number of Marines in Norway on a rotational basis by 350 and in Poland by a battalion.

Poland, Romania and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been asking the U.S. for additional troops for several years. Poland is willing to spend up to $2 billion to lobby the U.S. to build a permanent military base there, according to a Defense Ministry proposal.

Still, Trump has repeatedly threatened to punish countries if they don’t spend enough on defense, even suggesting the U.S. may not protect them if they don’t pay their fair share. That’s in direct contradiction of NATO’s pledge that an attack against one member is considered an attack against all of them.

“That’s the question: Is the U.S. security conditional?” asked Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs for Bush and is now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

In June, he sent letters to several allies complaining they are not abiding by a 2014 commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on national defense. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said this week that all 29 NATO members are increasing defense spending with 16 of them on track to meet the 2 percent goal.

Daniel DePetris, a military expert as at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military and restrained foreign policy that is in periodic conversations with the Trump administration, said the countries either don’t believe Russia is a real threat to them or that the U.S. will protect them.

“Either they have to step up and do what’s rational based on their economic power or it is appropriate for us to reduce our contingent over there,” he said.

The White House declined to say if and how Trump might punish the countries. “I’m not going to get ahead of any announcement or any action he could potentially take, but as you guys know, he’s shown some frustration there on the financial burden that the United States unfairly is forced to bear, and he wants changes,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters this week.

In recent weeks, Trump suggested withdrawing more than 25,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea after trying to persuade Kim to rid his country of nuclear weapons.

Pentagon leaders canceled military exercises there at Trump’s direction but they quickly reaffirmed the United State’s ‘ironclad commitment’ to defend South Korea.


Prague, Budapest reject Merkel’s plan to return migrants

July 1, 2018

Details of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan to solve her government’s migration crisis – and avoid a possible break-up of her coalition – were revealed on Saturday in a letter to the leaders of her two coalition partners.

The letter said that Merkel had secured agreements with 14 countries for the rapid return of asylum seekers trying to enter Germany who first registered in those countries.

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The countries listed in the letter are Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium, France, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden.

The prime ministers of Czech Republic and Hungary – two of the fiercest critics of Merkel’s decision to admit migrants – vehemently denied they that agreed to any such measures.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that “Germany did not approach us, and in this moment I would not ratify such an agreement … We are not planning negotiations. There is no reason to negotiate. We decisively reject this.”

A German government spokesman later said Merkel “regretfully” accepted Prague’s decision, insisting however that “the Cezch side had expressed willingness to make a deal for better cooperation in the return [of migrants]” at an EU summit in Brussels.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban referred to the deal as “fake news.” Speaking to state news agency MTI, he said “there was no such agreement.”

The number of migrants arriving in Germany who are returned to where they first registered currently stands at 15 per cent. With the agreements revealed in the letter – even without the participation of Prague and Budapest – this number should rise significantly.

Germany already announced a similar agreement with Greece and Spain earlier this week.

According to the plan, larger collection centres in Germany – so-called “anchor centres” – would be used to house migrants while their asylum requests are considered and unsuccessful applicants would be deported from there.

Also laid out in the letter is a plan to send German police by the end of August to help strengthen the EU’s external border in Bulgaria in order to reduce the number of migrants entering the passport-free Schengen zone.

In 2017, the letter said, tens of thousands of asylum seekers had a corresponding entry in the EU’s visa information system.

With stricter allocation procedures, “we could substantially reduce visa abuse and with it the number of asylum seekers in Germany,” it said.

In addition, the European border protection agency Frontex should be strengthened in Greece along the borders with Macedonia and Albania.

“We must also be prepared to help support Slovenia and Croatia with border control if necessary,” the chancellor said.

The rapid-return agreements in particular are meant to satisfy German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the more conservative sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

The Bavaria-based CSU, and Seehofer in particular, have been holding Merkel’s feet to the fire on asylum policy, including a threat to close Germany’s southern border to large groups of migrants without Merkel’s consent.

Merkel was scheduled to host Seehofer in the chancellery late Saturday for an emergency meeting to try to convince him that her efforts to stop the influx in coordination with other EU countries makes border closure redundant.

The results of the meeting were not expected to be made public before a series of meetings of the parties’ respective leadership teams on Sunday.

A split between her conservative CDU and the CSU, a political alliance that has existed since 1949, would rob Merkel’s three-way coalition with the centre-left SPD of its parliamentary majority.

A broader EU asylum deal, reached after marathon negotiations between EU leaders in Brussels, foresees the creation of “controlled” processing centres, firstly in Europe, and then later in North Africa.

On Saturday, Merkel denied some interpretations of the deal by CSU members that it gave them carte blanche to go ahead with unilateral border closures.

The summit had called on EU members to come up with “internal” legal and administrative measures against secondary migration with the EU, a Berlin spokesman said.

Those measures include better surveillance of outbound mobility and residency requirements for asylum seekers in external border nations.

“Unilateral measures at the expense of other countries are not what is meant,” said the spokesman, adding that they are neither “internal,” nor do they fulfill the summit’s desire for cooperation.

Brussels heads for showdown with Poland over rule of law

June 18, 2018

Battle over EU power to sanction member states comes to a head

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The commission’s Frans Timmermans meets Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki in April © Leszek Szymanski/EFE/EPA

Michael Peel in Brussels and James Shotter in Warsaw

Poland and Brussels are poised for a showdown in their battle over the EU’s power to sanction member states accused of sliding into authoritarianism or corruption.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice-president, will hold last-ditch talks in Warsaw on Monday ahead of a crucial EU hearing on Poland’s observance of the rule of law — potentially opening the way to the first member state censure.

Such a rebuke would set up a further possible clash between EU countries over whether to impose sanctions on Poland, including the suspension of its voting rights. Hungary, after its own disputes with Brussels over the rule of law, has said it will block any countermeasures against Warsaw, which would require unanimity.

The next few weeks could reshape Poland’s relationship with the EU, at a time when the bloc is strained by pressure over migration and its disputes over trade and foreign policy with President Donald Trump’s administration.

One EU diplomat said he feared the Poland case had exposed a sharp divergence of views around the bloc on “what rule of law means”.

“If our starting points are fundamentally different, we may never find an understanding,” the diplomat said. “This is the fifth-largest member state. It is not something you can easily contain.”

The Poland dispute has become urgent because of Warsaw’s planned overhaul of the country’s supreme court which will take effect on July 3. The move would force more than one-third of the court’s judges to retire. This and other changes to the Polish judicial system have led Brussels to charge that Warsaw is endangering the rule of law — a fundamental EU tenet. Poland has said it is overhauling an inefficient system that has not adequately been reformed since communist times.

If our starting points are fundamentally different, we may never find an understanding

Mr Timmermans will on Monday call on Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, to pull back from the judicial changes. Last week the commission vice-president warned Poland’s government in a speech in the European Parliament not to abuse its powers. “You cannot say ‘Because I have got a majority, I can do with the rule of law whatever I like’,” he said.

The commission opened the so-called Article 7 process of possible sanction against Poland last year, arguing that Warsaw was at risk of breaching EU laws and values.

A failure to force Poland to back down would be a huge blow to the EU’s ability to govern itself at a time of rising autocracy and of corruption claims in countries such as Malta, Slovakia and Romania.

EU ambassadors voted informally by 14 to four last week to escalate the dispute with Poland to a hearing of member states on June 26, which could be followed by a vote on whether to press ahead towards possible sanctions. Older EU members, including Germany, France and the Benelux countries, backed holding a hearing, while Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia opposed it.

Critics of Brussels’ stance accuse it of double standards and a willingness to ignore breaches of EU rules by bigger and more influential members.

EU officials privately recognise the bloc’s lack of tools to tackle alleged rule of law breaches. The commission has proposed tying observance of the rule of law to funding from the bloc’s next proposed multiyear budget — a plan that Poland branded a “massive power grab”.

If the commission and Warsaw remain at loggerheads, the fate of the dispute will rest on whether either side can count on support from sufficient member states to force the other to back down.

A four-fifths majority of EU countries is needed to press ahead with the case against Warsaw, which equates to 22 of the bloc’s 27 members, excluding Poland.

The position of states that ducked the informal ambassadors’ ballot will be crucial if a vote is forced on whether to pursue possible sanctions against Poland. Austria, Romania, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Estonia, Slovenia, the UK and Bulgaria — which holds the rotating EU presidency — all abstained.

Some diplomats from countries that want to push the Polish case forward fear they may be short of the votes needed. “It would be a big defeat,” said one.

After a period during which relations between Warsaw and the commission appeared to be thawing — when the Polish parliament amended some of the reforms criticised by Brussels — fronts have hardened in recent weeks.

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Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Diplomats in Warsaw see little sign of further compromise — although Mr Timmermans is visiting at the invitation of the Polish government. “I don’t think Poland is going to change its mind,” said one.

An added complication in recent weeks has been the prolonged hospitalisation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader, which officials in Brussels said coincided with an end to Polish offers of concessions in the rule of law talks.

Doctors have said that Mr Kaczynski’s stay, which ended on June 8, was due to osteoarthritis but rumours have swirled about more serious afflictions. The country’s health minister said on Friday that his condition was such that not admitting him “would have threatened his life”. However, Beata Mazurek, the Law and Justice party’s spokeswoman, said Mr Kaczynski was now “in good form”.

Orbanism is sweeping across the European continent

June 16, 2018

Illiberal democracies are spreading across Europe. But what we are witnessing on the continent today actually originated in China and Russia, says journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek.

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Slovenia, with just 2 million inhabitants, is a small and little known country. So when Europe’s leading media outlets announced that right-wing populist Janez Jansa had emerged as “the clear winner” in the country’s parliamentary elections, hardly anyone was surprised. But even with this election success, Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) still did not garner the levels of support it had back in 2011, when he won a second stint as prime minister.

Read more: Angela Merkel-style conservatism: Does it have a future?

So, what happened? Despite Europe’s overall shift to the right, the SDS is not as powerful as it once was. Did Slovenia buck the trend? Did voters in the country reject the allure of “illiberal democracy” — despite economic problems and the burdens of the refugee crisis? Not necessarily. But lacking an explanation for what had happened, many journalists fell back on stereotypes, painting a simplistic picture of East versus West.

A problem of Eastern Europe?

Since the 1980s, a booming China has demonstrated that democracy and capitalism must not necessarily be two sides of the same coin — as many always assumed. And when, at the turn of the millennium, Vladimir Putin took power in Russia, this new model of “capitalism without liberal democracy” took root in the world’s largest country by area, as well. In 2010, when Viktor Orban won Hungary’s elections, it had also reached the European Union.

Orban and Kaczynski carnival float in Dusseldorf (Reuters/T. Schmuelgen)Orban’s right-wing nationalist allies in Europe are increasingly numerous

And yet, we are not talking about a phenomenon that is found exclusively in the east. Today, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban can count on powerful allies in Italy and Austria. In France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway various right-wing parties can count on the support of between 15 and 30 percent of the electorate. Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is not far off, either. And a new, right-wing mood is also gripping many staid conservative parties. The far-right has not consolidated its power, but there are signs that these forces could gain strength where they wrecked havoc in times past: in Italy for example, in Austria, and in Germany. But not in France, and not in Slovenia.

Withdrawing to the nationalist cave

A nationalist and authoritarian mood is spreading across Europe. But right-wingers in the West differ from those in the East. The former like complaining about the “shithole countries” immigrants hail from, while the latter feel they have always been disadvantaged and never fully accepted. The far-right in the West scorns political institutions and instead prefers a kind of “Facebook democracy,” happily clicking like buttons and railing against politicians. In the East, they want a return to law and order, clearly demarcated nation states, and want everyone to always carry an identity card — a return to the good old days, but with different national symbols. Evidently then, both sides’ ideals cannot be reconciled. But there is no need for that, anyway, as both are quite happy to withdraw to their own, nationalist caves, so to speak.

Read more: Young Europeans believe in the EU, fear Donald Trump

The new right thrives on antagonism, on dividing the world into east, west, north and south, rich and poor, one nation against the next. While the Visegrad states of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic currently pose the greatest threat to European peace, a right-wing alliance lead by Italy could take over from them, or even a group of stingy countries eager to cut their contributions to the EU budget, transforming the bloc into a group of competing teams. Then, the EU would break apart like all right-wing alliances, where ultimately, each party fights for itself. And where bilateral “deals” are struck, with the powerful leveraging their might.

Orban election victory party (Reuters/L. Foeger)Orban famously declared an end to the era of ‘liberal democracy’ after starting his fourth term as prime minister in May

Smaller EU states would suffer most

EU skeptics will then only lose influence if there is not a single member state that imagines it could be stronger outside the bloc than in. Appeals to eastern EU members to be reasonable, given that they benefit most from EU funding, fall on deaf ears. Because all arguments can be flipped on their heads, the bottom line is that more money flows from east to west than vice versa; and despite an impressive gross national product, many Czechs earn meager wages.

Read more: Populism and media mistrust go hand in hand, PEW study says

Or look at how EU states variously demand others show solidarity in the refugee crisis. Berlin only insisted others take in asylum-seekers after Greece and Italy had been left to their own devices for decades and could no longer cope. Small EU members like Luxembourg — which has produced so many renowned European politicians — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovenia will not play this game, as they have much to lose if the EU falls apart. Unfortunately, Europe’s big players have not yet come to their senses.

Journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria and reports on southeastern European affairs for numerous German-language newspapers.

Baltic states to ask Trump for greater protection from Russia

April 3, 2018


© AFP/File / by Vaidotas BENIUSIS | Baltic state leaders will ask the United States to send more troops and bolster air defences on NATO’s eastern flank to deter Russia when they meet President Donald Trump on Tuesday

VILNIUS (AFP) – Baltic state leaders will ask the United States to send more troops and bolster air defences on NATO’s eastern flank to deter Russia when they meet President Donald Trump on Tuesday, officials said.Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis are visiting the White House as Washington is apparently adopting a harder stance towards Moscow.

Trump’s more confrontational rhetoric of late has eased initial concerns in the region over what had appeared to be a more conciliatory approach to the Kremlin when the US leader first arrived in power.

A senior Lithuanian official who wished to remain unnamed said the three Baltic leaders were asking the US to send Patriot long-range anti-aircraft missiles more frequently for war games. They also want to become a part of NATO’s larger European anti-missile shield.

“I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended,” Lithuania’s Grybauskaite told her country’s public broadcaster LRT ahead of the visit.

“It is important that (US troops) are here on permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states,” she said.

Last year, NATO deployed four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states as tripwires against possible Russian adventurism, while the US military sent a Patriot battery to Lithuania for drills.

US Vice President Mike Pence in July raised the possibility of deploying Patriots in nearby Estonia.

– Hardening line –

The Baltic states were deeply rattled by Trump’s campaign rhetoric questioning NATO’s relevance, his erratic behaviour and his initial unwillingness to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2016, Vilnius artists painted a mural depicting Trump passionately locking lips with Putin, while a public opinion poll last year showed two thirds of Lithuanians did not trust the US president.

But the public mood changed after Trump decided to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists and to boost funding for US forces in Europe.

“Concerns about his commitment to NATO were initially widespread, but have eased in recent months,” Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius told AFP.

For Simas Celutka from the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, the recent expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of a spy was a sign of a more confrontational posture.

“Advisers might have convinced Trump that a resolute show of strength is the only form of communication Putin takes seriously,” he said.

– Setting standards –

Trump, who has repeatedly attacked “free rider” NATO allies, is expected to praise the Baltic trio for meeting NATO’s rule to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defence.

“The president wants to show that these countries are setting standards where we want to see allies moving in terms of defence,” said Anne Hall, the US ambassador to Lithuania.

The Baltic-US summit will also include a business forum where Lithuania plans to sign deals to boost imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US to reduce reliance on Russia’s Gazprom.

Diplomats say the prospect of trade wars between Europe and the United States could also be discussed in the talks, as the Baltic states are increasingly concerned over a trans-Atlantic rift.

The Baltic states, with a combined population of just six million people, were occupied and annexed by Moscow during World War II.

The trio broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004.

by Vaidotas BENIUSIS

Russia tells 23 countries that envoys must go

March 30, 2018
 / 10:39 PM March 30, 2018

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A van leaves the U.S. consulate in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, March 30, 2018. Russia announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, on Thursday and said it was closing a U.S. consulate in retaliation for the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, a tit-for-tat response that intensified the Kremlin’s rupture with the United States and Europe. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

PETERSBURG, Russia – Russia’s Foreign Ministry says it has informed ambassadors of most of the countries that ordered expulsion of Russian diplomats that an equal number of their diplomats have been declared persona non grata.

A ministry statement Friday said the ambassadors were from 23 of the countries that are expelling Russians in connection with the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian double agent and his daughter. Russia on Thursday announced it was expelling 60 US diplomats and closing the consulate in St. Petersburg in retaliation for Washington’s moves.

The countries informed Friday of expulsions were Australia, Albania, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Finland, France, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Estonia.


It said it Russia would consider mirror expulsions of diplomats from Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro.

The statement did not mention NATO, which is expelling seven Russians.

Read more:
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Europe’s NATO members failing to meet spending targets

March 15, 2018

NATO members have increased defense spending in general, but European countries are having difficulties meeting a target of 2 percent of GDP demanded by US President Donald Trump. Germany is a long way off.

NATO battalion in the Baltics (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Kulbis)

Only three NATO members from the EU are meeting defense spending goals, the military alliance said in its annual report on Thursday.

Only Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom met the 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal agreed in 2014. NATO members have until 2024 to reach the target.

But there were words of encouragement from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who noted that “in 2017, European allies and Canada increased defense spending by almost 5 percent.”

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In 2017, European Allies & increased their defence expenditure by almost 5%. And since 2014 we have added $18 bn more to spending on major equipment. – @jensstoltenberg

The United States remained the largest defense spender in the alliance, comprising two-thirds of the alliance’s overall expenditure. Washington last year spent 3.6 percent of GDP on defense.

Despite the current disparity, NATO expects four more countries to meet the target this year: Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia.

Read more: How does Germany contribute to NATO?

Trump and 2 percent 

US President Donald Trump has lashed out at NATO allies over their failure to meet their commitments.

Read more:  Germany ‘not fair’ on defense spending, says Donald Trump

He has particularly pointed to Germany, which spent 1.24 percent of GDP on defense in 2017, up from 1.2 percent the previous year. In real terms, Germany increased defense spending by 6 percent to 40.5 billion ($50 billion), up 2.8 billion from 2016.

Stoltenberg said that Germany has stepped up contributions to NATO, for example in its mission in Afghanistan and forward deployed force in Lithuania to counter Russia.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has already pledged Berlin will spend more on defense.

The problem for Germany and other states is that while they have increased spending, the percentage change is minor due to simultaneous economic growth. This means that in order to meet NATO goals, members must significantly increase expenditures for defense.

In addition, 23 EU nations in 2017 committed to a joint defense cooperation, focusing on coordination and investments, that could pave the way towards a European defense union.

cw/rt (AFP, dpa)

Russia’s conflict-laden foreign policy

March 12, 2018

Russian foreign policy has hardened under President Vladimir Putin. Although Russia is looking for cooperation, it is not afraid of confrontation, which has often led to difficult foreign relations. DW has the lowdown.

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United States

Russia has an ambivalent relationship to the US. During the US presidential elections in the fall of 2016, Russia apparently tried subtly to influence public opinion to benefit the future president Donald Trump. At least, that is the gist of special investigator Robert Mueller’s work to date.

But since Trump’s inauguration, the relationship between the two heads of state has been strained. At the beginning of March, Putin announced in his speech on the state of the nation that he wanted to turn new, and what he described as impossible to attack, nuclear missiles against the West.

This was also a reaction to the US’ withdrawal from the treaty with Russia on missile defense in 2002. In any case, the US did not seem surprised by this move. Trump announced the construction of new nuclear missiles with reduced explosive force. Political scientist Susanne Spahn told DW that she suspects it is important to Putin to strengthen his country’s position of power specifically in relation to the US.

“The main enemy is the United States. Putin has used very threatening rhetoric towards the West along the lines of, ‘in the past you did not want to listen to us, then at least listen to us now’.”

Middle East

Russia’s ambition to become an international political heavyweight again is most evident in the Middle East. Russia strongly supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is at war with sections of his own population. Russia has set up a substantial military contingent to protect Assad and his established political order.

Read moreWhat foreign powers want from the war in Syria

There are several reasons for Moscow’s involvement: Firstly, it is about having a military foothold in the Mediterranean region. Above all, however, Russia has become an actor in the region that no one can avoid. Together with Assad’s other key ally, Iran, Russia now has considerable influence in the region between Iran and Israel.

Russia’s authority holds significantly more weight than at the beginning of the Syrian war, in Iraq, Syria and in areas of Lebanon controlled by Iran-backed Hezbollah. Russian authority also counts in Turkey, which intervened in northern Syria in January. The US had largely withdrawn from the Middle East under the Obama administration. They left behind a gap that Russia is increasingly filling.

Central and Eastern Europe

Russia has rather difficult relations with the former satellite states of the Soviet Union. Lithuania has barely had any political contact with Russia since the Ukraine crisis. Around 65 percent of Lithuanians regard Russia as an “unfriendly” neighbor, while around 18 percent do not rule out the possibility that Russia could invade their country. This has made them all the happier about the 1,000 NATO soldiers who have been deployed to Lithuania.

Lithuania has also distanced itself economically. For a long time, the Baltic country was heavily dependent on Russian energy exports. It has systematically reduced this dependence.

Russian relations with Poland are also at a low point. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose role as chairman of the right-wing conservative ruling PiS party makes him a kind of eminence grise of Polish politics, is a staunch anti-communist. He has also distanced himself from Putin’s Russia. For example, he is a strong supporter of the EU’s sanctions against Poland’s neighbor to the east. Neither country has any discernible interest in rapprochement.

On the other hand, Russia enjoys good relations with Serbia, which is in large part due to the good personal relationship between Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Serbia also gets a substantial part of its arms and energy imports from Russia.


Russia has had a difficult relationship with Germany since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Germany supports the EU’s decision to impose trade sanctions on Russia, despite the fact that German firms have suffered heavily as a result; around 40 percent of trade losses affect Germany.

Nevertheless, Germany is maintaining its critical stance on the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine, SPD foreign policymaker Rolf Mützenich told DW. The breach of international law in Crimea is unacceptable, he said. However, he explained that the relationship with Ukraine and Russia generally remains a focal point of German foreign policy. “We must not put ourselves at the mercy of domestic political actors in either country,” said Mützenich.

Russia’s President Putin has an unclear relationship with Germany. On the one hand, Moscow maintains a close dialogue with Berlin. On the other hand, Putin questioned Germany’s sovereignty in June 2017. “There are not that many countries in the world that enjoy the privilege of having sovereignty. I don’t want to offend anyone, but what Mrs. Merkel said [in a previous speech – Ed] is an expression of the resentment of a limited authority that has accumulated over a long period of time.” The relationship is also strained by alleged Russian hacker attacks on German government computers.


Since relations with the EU have cooled as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has increasingly turned its attention to China. Both countries want to expand their trade relations. Russia also wants to participate in the expansion of the “New Silk Road” — the dynamism of this primarily Chinese-European trade route should also benefit the Russian economy.

Read moreAre China and Russia challenging US military dominance?

In political terms, both states maintain a similar style, in particular, authoritarian dealings with critics and opponents within the country and a robust representation of their own interests to the outside world. Both states have repeatedly spoken out against Syria’s condemnation in the UN Security Council. They argue that interference in the country’s internal affairs is not admissible.

The two states have also come closer to each other militarily. They conducted several joint maneuvers — not only in central Asia, but also in the East China Sea. As a result, Russia has moved away in part from its previously cultivated neutrality in the dispute between China and Japan over islands in the South China Sea — a state of affairs that weighs heavily on Russian-Japanese relations, but that has further strengthened those with China.

Russia deploys nuclear-capable missile system in Kaliningrad

February 7, 2018

The Kremlin has stressed it has the sovereign right to deploy missiles on its own territory after reports Russia deployed the Iskander nuclear-capable missile system in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

Loading a quasi ballistic missile into an Iskander-M missile launcher during a military exercise held by missile and artillery units of the Russian Eastern Military District's 5th army at a firing range in Ussuriysk.

Russia said on Tuesday that it had the right to put weapons anywhere it chose on its own territory after reports that Moscow had deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad drew criticism from its neighbors and NATO.

Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, and the missiles would be able to reach large parts of territory in NATO-members Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The president of Lithuania, which neighbors Kaliningrad, and a senior Russian lawmaker, both said the missile systems had been deployed to the region. Russia has not confirmed the deployment.

Read more: Russia mulls boosting missile capabilities on NATO border

While on a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked about the reports. “The deployment of one weapon or another, the deployment of military units and so forth on Russian territory, is exclusively a sovereign issue for the Russian Federation,” said Peskov. “Russia has never threatened anyone and is not threatening anyone. Naturally, Russia has this sovereign right. It should hardly be cause for anyone to worry.”

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry on deployment of Iskander missile system in Russia’s Kaliningrad region: Russia has never threatened anyone, and I would like to remind that Russia naturally has the sovereign right to deploy hardware and military units on the Russian territory

Read more: Escalation threat high as US-Russia INF anti-missile treaty falters

NATO concern over missiles

In Latvia, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that developments in Kaliningrad fresh impetus to discussions already underway inside NATO about improving the alliance’s capabilities.

“It means that what we have been talking about — the necessity to discuss strengthening air defense elements during the NATO summit in July; strengthening the chain of command, to talk about many questions that affect defense of our region and Latvia specifically — it all has been confirmed by the practical actions of Russia,” said Rinkevics.

The alleged placement of Iskander missiles so close to NATO territory are perceived by some alliance members as a threat at a time when tensions between Russia and its Western neighbors are running high over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“This again makes the situation even more serious because Iskanders in Kaliningrad means dangers for half of European capitals,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite on Monday.

Read more: Russia slams new US nuclear weapons proposal

The Kremlin has often said it would station Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to counter the US missile shield being developed in eastern Europe. Washington says the purpose of that shield is designed to counter possible missile attacks by Iran. However, Moscow says it is directed against Russia.

A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Any deployment close to our borders of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads does not help to lower tensions. In the spirit of transparency, we look forward to hearing more from Russia on this.”

av/aw (Reuters, Interfax, ap)