As Russia builds up forces along Ukraine's borders and Chinese officials seek to punish Lithuania for opening a door to Taiwan, the heads of the Lithuanian parliament's defense and foreign affairs committees called on their allies in Washington for support.
Their message was clear: Lithuania is holding the line against two of America's most powerful challengers and that U.S. support is critical to its success in defending against aggression from Moscow and Beijing.
"This week in Washington, we're here to address two issues. One is security, and it's about Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic region. The other one is China. Those are trade issues, but not only trade issues. It's about our security as well," Laima Liucija Andrikiene, chair of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA as she and her colleagues wrapped up a weeklong trip to Washington on Feb. 3.
The delegation was made up of four lawmakers in charge of national security, defense and foreign affairs committees in the Lithuanian parliament, known as the Seimas. They met members of both the Senate and House Baltic caucuses, as well as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and Republican Senator James E. Risch, the chairman and ranking senior minority member of U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others.
"The biggest thing happening right now is Russian buildup around Ukraine, it creates so-called strategic uncertainty, which means different scenarios are possible," said Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee. Whether through negotiations or the "military scenario," Russia's goals are the same, he said.
He said Moscow wants not only to "have the veto right" to prevent any NATO enlargement to the east, but also to "create a two- or three-tiered NATO, with second-class membership for the Baltic states," meaning Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would remain in NATO formally but "without military exercises in our region, without NATO deployment in our region."
"We are against that, we reject that, it's very good for the U.S. and NATO to respond and say they reject this as well," he said.
Kasciunas also voiced concern about Belarus, his country's neighbor to the east, which he said has "lost its sovereignty and neutrality" since President Alexander Lukashenko turned to Moscow for help when threatened by mass protests over a disputed 2020 election.
Lithuania has since become a safe haven for activists fleeing Belarus, including exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her children.
Russia's deployment of troops into Belarus as part of a buildup for a potential invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how quickly Lithuania — a NATO member state — could be subjected to similar pressure, Kasciunas said. "If two years ago Lukashenko could have 48 hours neutrality, now he [presents] zero neutrality."
Lithuania this week welcomed decisions made by Germany and the Netherlands to increase the number of troops deployed to Lithuania. U.S. help is also critical, Kasciunas said. He described what this help could look like.
"We have now a rotating military battalion, but we need more combat-ready, more integrated into our national system," he said. Even more importantly, "no gaps" between rotations, he said.
Dovile Sakaliene, another National Security and Defense Committee member who was not part of the delegation, said she agrees. "Deterrence is much cheaper than defense," she said in a phone interview from Lithuania.
"We feel like West Berlin in Cold War times," Kasciunas said. "We have only a small corridor, the Suwalki Gap, which links us Baltic states with the rest of the NATO system via Poland. Just like NATO defended and deterred the Soviets in West Berlin, we're also asking NATO to deter possible attacks in the Baltics."
Kasciunas also recounted some of the decisions made during what he called "a year of anti-communism fight" that angered Beijing, beginning with a strong investment screening mechanism aimed at protecting Lithuania's strategic assets and ending with an agreement to let Taiwan establish a representative office using the name Taiwan.
"They decided to punish us, not only to punish us but also to prevent others from following suit," Kasciunas said.
"They not only banned our exports to China, but also Chinese export to Lithuania, which created a lot of problems for companies that depended on Chinese import for their production. And they also harassed international companies, which in their supply chain had some small Lithuanian element, especially German companies.
"They want to make Lithuania a noncredible financial partner, not attractive to foreign direct investment," he said.
Andrikiene, the Foreign Affairs Committee chair, pointed out that Lithuania became an independent state after 50 years of Soviet occupation 32 years ago. "Without allies, like-minded countries, other democracies from whichever region of the world, we simply wouldn't have survived, let alone become a successful European Union and NATO member state," she said.
The presence and concrete support of worldwide democracies is critical, the Lithuanian lawmakers say, if they are to rally their own population and stand up to China's attempts to isolate the country and harm its image.
One way the U.S. could help is by connecting their northeastern European state with countries providing market access in the Asia-Pacific region, Andrikiene said.
"The United States maintains a dialogue with the Indo-Pacific region, and we were asking for their expertise, their experience and their support for Lithuania. That would be a very concrete assistance and support in addition to political support and resolutions," she said.
Kori Schake, a senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told VOA in an exchange of emails that China "is draconian in response to small states' bravery, fearing that if they aren't made examples of, others will also gain the courage to resist China's intimidation."
Ensuring Lithuania's success, she said, "is the right response" because it demonstrates solidarity with frontline states that dare to question and spotlight Chinese strategic intentions and practices.
"Same for Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries China is trying to intimidate," she said.
VOA's Mandarin Service assisted with filming and video editing.