Lithuania’s defense minister said Friday that NATO member countries should push for closer integration with Eastern European countries amid efforts by Russia to extend its influence in the region.
H.E. Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s minister of national defense, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that Ukraine is expected to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU) at the meeting.
Lithuania will host the Eastern Partnership Summit next month, an EU initiative to deepen ties with former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Moldova.
While Ukraine has said it will release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to allay the concerns of EU governments and secure the agreement, Russia has balked at the proposal. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Russian officials have threatened to ban all Ukrainian imports if the country inks the agreement next month.
The Kremlin’s threats are part of a larger campaign to cajole former Soviet states into joining the Russian-led Customs Union and rebuffing advances from the EU. That strategy includes prohibiting wine imports from Moldova, a small and politically unstable country that is Europe’s poorest.
"We do work very closely with Georgia, Moldova, and other countries," Olekas said, adding that "our Eastern partners have to pay the price for this."
Russia targeted EU member Lithuania this month by toughening customs inspections and halting milk and other dairy imports.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that it would be "impossible" for Ukraine to join the Customs Union if it reaches a deal with the EU, but added, "this is not our [Russia’s] business."
Ukraine is viewed as crucial to the EU’s goal of strengthening relations in the East, especially after Armenia succumbed to pressure and withdrew from the Eastern Partnership to join Russia’s Customs Union—currently comprising Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—last month. Members of the union also say they are eyeing agreements with Turkey and India.
Olekas discussed the regional security implications of the Eastern Partnership as well as a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan at a meeting of NATO defense ministers earlier this week.
NATO plans to leave a training and advisory force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops after fully transferring combat responsibilities to Afghan forces after the end of next year, but many countries are still waiting on the final approval of a security agreement that has so far eluded U.S. and Afghan officials.
NATO is also planning a response to "Zapad 2013," a joint military exercise between Russia and Belarus last month involving 12,000 Russian troops and the linking of weapons and troops commands.
"Exercise Steadfast Jazz" will take place in several nations next month to train the NATO Response Force, a multinational and rapidly deployable force with land, air, sea, and special forces components.
"We should be ready for something if it happens," Olekas said on the exercise. "Our collective defense is very important for all of us."
Olekas reiterated the importance of offering an alternative for countries that Russia hopes to move closer to its orbit.
"Russia doesn’t have a veto for EU enlargement or NATO enlargement," he said.