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Opinion Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda: Now is the time to make NATO even stronger

Finnish soldiers perform war simulation exercises during NATO military drills on June 11 in Varmdo, Sweden. (Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)
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Gitanas Nauseda is the president of Lithuania.

“Never again” was the oath most widely pledged after the end of World War II. Yet for more than 100 days now, Russia’s brutal war of aggression has been raging in Ukraine. The war has fundamentally challenged the security architecture of the West. NATO’s initial response was admirable. But now we must go further — by making urgently needed adjustments to the alliance and its structure. NATO must adapt to a radically changed security environment.

Russia has been publicly challenging the West for at least the past 15 years. It has tried to gain the upper hand through aggressive action, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas in 2014. Despite all this, some Western countries have continued business as usual with Moscow, some even expanding their cooperation. For decades, the West has failed to understand what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is about — namely expansionism, revisionism, violence, rule by fear and coercion. Russia is not interested in creation or cooperation, but rather in destruction and rule by force.

Feb. 24, 2022, was the day when the rose-tinted glasses fell off. Now the countries of the West have imposed stringent sanctions on Russia and are delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine. Europe has started moving toward energy independence from Russia. It might seem as though a lot has been done, but this is not enough to stop the war in Ukraine. And are we really doing enough to stop Putin from continuing his aggression elsewhere?

The time has come to understand that Russia cannot be stopped by persuasion, cooperation, appeasement or concessions. Russia takes such gestures as a sign of weakness, as permission to expand and intensify its onslaught. When Putin hears Western leaders talk about the need to negotiate, the need for a cease-fire, the need to avoid “humiliating” Russia, he is only encouraged to increase his gamble for world conquest. Recently Putin even compared himself to Peter the Great and openly declared his determination to take back lands previously occupied by the Russian Empire. Such rhetoric clearly demonstrates his contempt for one of the most fundamental pillars of the rules-based international order: the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Putin is clear in his desire to subvert Western values, cut the links between North America and Europe, and subdue Europe to Russia’s will. He knows that he can achieve these aims by confronting NATO. We can prevent this from happening by ensuring that the transatlantic community has a clear plan for defense. We are at a crucial moment in history, one where we must show decisiveness and determination. The NATO summit scheduled to start on June 29 in Madrid will be our chance to do so.

First, we must clearly define Russia as an explicit long-term threat to the entire Euro-Atlantic area. NATO policies must be adjusted accordingly. There is no place for passive hesitation and appeasement.

Second, we must scale up our defenses. We can no longer place our faith in the policy of tentative reinforcement. We need to make sure that NATO has no weaknesses. It is crucial that no potential adversary should be tempted to attack the alliance. The three Baltic states are already on the front line if Putin decides to test NATO’s boundaries, strength and commitment. In this situation, there is no credible alternative for NATO but to invest more in the defense of the Baltic countries. We must quickly move to modern forward defense by upgrading NATO’s battalion-scale enhanced forward presence to brigade level and by building regional air-defense capabilities. This would send the strongest signal yet to Russia that it will not be allowed to set the parameters for the security of NATO’s eastern flank. Failure to do so would invite further trouble.

Third, we must make sure Ukraine wins. We must provide every form of support to Ukraine, including (and most especially) heavy weapons, quickly and in significant quantities. Time and numbers matter in this war. We must understand that every centimeter of Ukrainian land occupied by Putin’s forces brings Russian terror closer to our door. We must understand that this war is about the world we and our children are going to live in. Values cannot defend themselves. If left undefended, they will perish, and democracy will be replaced by authoritarianism. We need to choose between succumbing or standing up for our values. We need to choose Ukraine.

And finally, NATO’s “open door policy” must be officially maintained as the most effective tool in expanding security and providing peace for millions of Europeans. We should wholeheartedly welcome Sweden and Finland into the alliance. This decision will have a wide-ranging positive impact on the Baltic region and NATO as a whole.

To be truly safe and stable, Europe must be whole and free, united in peace, democracy and prosperity. For this future to become a reality, the success of NATO as the backbone of collective defense spanning the whole transatlantic area is crucial.

This also means that the alliance will have to reinvent itself. Only by being more proactive, investing more in our indivisible security and making it more difficult for adversaries to wreak havoc can we hope to achieve the return of a lasting peace in Europe.

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