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Vilnius graffiti
Photograph: Saulius Ziura

How this tiny country in Eastern Europe is sticking two fingers up to Vladimir Putin

Lithuania is leading efforts to oppose Russian military aggression – and express solidarity with Ukraine

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham
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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Lithuania – a tiny Baltic country of just 2.8 million people – would be feeling the heat following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It doesn’t just share a 300km-long border with Russia, it also has a major border with Russian ally Belarus. The country only gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and is still kind of surrounded, with the main bit of Russia on one side and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the other.

With Putin on the warpath, we’d understand if Lithuanians were more than a little bit nervy right now. And the government isn’t taking any risks, having declared a state of emergency on February 24. But Lithuania and its citizens have also totally ramped up their opposition to Putin, both expressing solidarity with Ukraine and sticking two fingers up to the dictator next door.

Take the above graffiti, which is right outside the Russian embassy in the capital Vilnius. It reads: ‘Putin, The Hague Is Waiting For You’, goading the Russian leader with comeuppance for his (currently alleged) war crimes. And this ballsy bit of graffiti hasn’t been sprayed by any rogue street artist, it was commissioned by Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius himself. The same text has been plastered across a government building in the city centre. Plucky stuff, indeed.

Vilnius Ukraine protest
Photograph: Kristina Jasudaite

And that isn’t the only act of gutsy Lithuanian solidarity. Alongside plenty of bold street art all over Vilnius expressing camaraderie with the people of Ukraine, thousands of women gathered in cities across the country to protest Russia’s invasion on February 27. And just last Saturday (March 5), eight hot-air balloons took off over Vilnius, each one draped with a 20-metre-long Ukrainian flag – an act visible from across the border in Belarus.

Vilnius balloons
Photograph: Gabriel Khiterer / Go Vilnius

And these symbolic acts have been matched by robust political action by Lithuania’s government. As part of the European Union, the country is enforcing EU-wide sanctions on Russia and Belarus, and is currently operating an open-door refugee policy for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.

Lithuania has also been one of the main voices within the EU pressuring for harsher sanctions and isolation measures on Russia and Belarus. It was among the first to hassle the rest of the union into cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system, and to call for sanctions on Belarus for hosting Russian troops prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

As a member of the bloc, Lithuania hasn’t really been able to implement economic sanctions on Russia and Belarus other than those endorsed by the EU as a whole. But it’s still managed to take other measures, like advocating for the suspension of Russia and Belarus from the European Higher Education Area, and terminating all academic and scientific collaboration between Lithuania and the Russian and Belarusian authorities. And this is all the more significant because Russia is one of the country’s most important trading partners.

Although on a map Lithuania appears to be surrounded on two sides by hostile countries, it’s not as vulnerable as you might think. As a member of both the EU and the NATO military alliance, an attack from Russia on Lithuania would have much further-reaching consequences. Article 5 of the NATO treaty lays out the principle of collective defence for its members, meaning that an attack against any single NATO member is considered an attack against all of them.

In any case, Lithuania’s bold protest movement is showing that even the smallest of countries can stand up to Russian aggression – and go above and beyond to support those in real danger, too.

Want to do your bit to help? Here are 17 ways you can support the people of Ukraine right now.

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