Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis is in Washington, DC, this week with a message: when Americans and Europeans fight, as they did at the recent G-7 summit, neither one wins. Another message: Russia is getting more, not less, prepared to take on both.
“Russians are fully prepared to start the conflict with the Baltic countries,” Karoblis told BuzzFeed News. “It’s absolutely clear.”
“The speed and readiness of Russian armed forces are very high,” he added.
Karoblis’s visit, which featured a speech on Wednesday at the Atlantic Council think tank and will include meetings with members of Congress and with Army Secretary Mark Esper, comes a month before the next NATO summit — and just after President Donald Trump vexed some of America’s closest allies at the G-7 summit last week when he said Russia should be invited back into the group, which was known as the G-8 before Russia was kicked out for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Asked for his opinion on the idea of making the G-7 the G-8 again, Karoblis offered, “We can’t allow…that business (to become) normal.”
Karoblis’ message was received warmly by the anti-Kremlin crowd at the Atlantic Council, which was founded in 1961 to bolster public support for NATO.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Karoblis stressed in particular the potential problem NATO might have in Kaliningrad, a Russian province that lies between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania. Earlier this year, Russia deployed short-range Iskander ballistic missiles to the province, and the part of Russia’s most recent Zapad military exercises conducted in Kaliningrad, he said, broke from tradition in that they were offensive, not defensive, in nature.
Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, all NATO members, won’t be the frontlines only if literal war with Russia breaks out, Karoblis said. The Baltics have often been Russia’s testing ground for all things cyber (for example, the distributed denial of service attack in 2007 that took out much of Estonia’s computer networks, one year before similar tactics were deployed during Russia’s invasion of Georgia).
Karoblis said Lithuania has seen an intensification of cyber attacks aimed at shutting down websites and that these attacks seem aimed more at military, government, and energy sites than at the websites of financial institutions. In February, a television website was hacked to say that Karoblis himself is “a homosexual” who harasses journalists. Leading politicians then received emails containing that claim — and viruses. Karoblis said he was sure that Russia was the source, although he declined to “disclose details.”
Karoblis said Lithuania is seeing “increasing attempts at cyber espionage,” and pointed to viruses as a Russian method of choice for contaminating computer networks, though Tim Maurer, co-director of the Cyber Policy Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment, said it’s difficult to tie computer viruses to espionage. “Viruses (are) malware that spreads indiscriminately whereas espionage is usually targeted,” he noted in an email.
But the US’s slowness to act on recent Russian hacking is likely encouraging Russia to contemplate cyber intrigue. Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., told BuzzFeed News by email that he couldn’t judge whether attacks are increasing: “I don't have a good baseline to compare it to, in order to say rising.”
But, he added, “[I] Can say that they're active and multi-faceted and that the message that Russia has taken away from the last few years is that this is all low cost, high gain to them. As long as they think they can get away with it, cyber deterrence is in utter collapse."