Lithuania's Independence Day and American Soldiers

This blog is called “Transatlantic Connection,” and this week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, I experienced true transatlantic connections in action. As two colleagues and I jostled for a spot in the crowded Parliament Square for the country’s 25th anniversary celebrations, we found ourselves next to a group of young American soldiers. “Are you just here today or are you staying for a while?” one of my colleagues, a veteran Moscow correspondent from Soviet times, asked them. “We’ll be here for a while, sir,” one of them replied. American soldiers are currently serving in the Baltic states on permanent rotation.

“For a while”: that’s music to Lithuanian and other Baltic ears. The polite young men and women, not yet born when Lithuanians bravely dared to declare independence on March 11, 1990, despite their Parliament being surrounded by Soviet tanks, may just think of their Lithuanian sojourn as another overseas posting—they’re based in Germany, they informed me—but to Baltic leaders and citizens, these young Americans form a security guarantee. European solidarity with the Baltic states notwithstanding, it’s a US commitment that really counts.

Indeed, Lithuania’s belief in its allies was on full show, with the flags of Latvia and Estonia raised alongside the country’s own and the two fellow Baltic states’ military bands marching alongside Lithuania’s. Perhaps most importantly, the NATO and EU flags—along with those of the alliances’ member states—were proudly carried in the military procession at Parliament Square and on to the city’s cathedral. And in a moving tribute to the courage of the small group of democracy activists who stared down both the Kremlin and the Red Army and signed the declaration of independence, it was Vytautas Landsbergis, their leader and post-Soviet Lithuania’s first president, who received the loudest ovations. Rather fittingly, the former music professor waved to Lithuania’s military band as they marched past the podium.

Today the Baltic states seem prescient in having pushed so hard for the memberships that allow them to carry the NATO and EU banners in front of their parliaments. But 15 or 20 years ago many now-allies dismissed their stridency as exaggerated. “They thought we had a psychological problem with Russia,” as Lithuania’s former prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, now the parliamentary leader of the opposition, told me. It’s not that the Lithuanians believe a Russian attack to be imminent or even likely, but having Americans from states like Indiana and Kentucky in their country, dispatched their by the Pentagon, serves as a visible reminder to everyone that today’s Lithuania—unlike the Lithuania of 25 years ago—has strong and loyal friends. (Indeed, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius had returned from a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry just the day before.) No wonder Professor Landsbergis was smiling.

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