VILNIUS, Lithuania — The military and political games Vladimir Putin is playing with all of Europe will continue, whether Moscow invades Ukraine or not. Nowhere in Europe do leaders and citizens understand this hard truth better than in the vibrant capital of the tiny Baltic state of Lithuania.

In this country of less than three million, Lithuanians fought Soviet troops to keep their independent state after breaking out from the Soviet Union and declaring independence in 1990. They believe that without their NATO membership, gained in 2004, Putin might be eyeing them as a potential next meal — after devouring nearby Belarus and Ukraine.

So I came to Vilnius, the capital city of around 600,000 people, which features a spectacular historic old town and an active tech scene and arts community, to view the Ukraine crisis through the eyes of those who see Putin’s threats without illusions. We should listen to what the Lithuanians say.

Without NATO, a gray zone

Officials here are clear-eyed about Putin’s efforts to force Ukraine and Belarus — and other former Soviet republics — back under Kremlin domination. For that reason, they support Ukrainian membership in NATO, even though Russia’s military threats have ruled this out for the foreseeable future.

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“Without NATO membership, we’d be in a gray zone like them [Ukraine],” the chairman of Lithuania’s parliamentary committee on national security, Laurynas Kasčiūnas, told me over coffee at the elegant Stikliai Hotel, in the heart of Vilnius’ old town. In Russia’s eyes, a gray zone does not mean neutrality between East and West; it means Moscow rules.

The Lithuanians understand that Putin is using his threat to invade Ukraine as a weapon to force the West to revamp the current security system in Europe, demanding that NATO pull back all troops and installations from NATO member states in Eastern Europe. So far, NATO, led by Washington, is rejecting this blackmail.

But Lithuanians fear some key European states, notably France and Germany, may buy into Putin’s insincere offer of negotiations over Ukraine’s future. (The Russian leader has ignored or broken every agreement Russia has signed with the Ukrainians from the 1990s onward, invading the country and annexing Crimea in 2014.)

“Putin is using the weakness of West,” Kasčiūnas argued. “He comes to negotiations ready to fight. The West comes with a diplomatic approach, which means concessions.”

The leaders of this tiny Baltic state have fought to preserve their democracy and see Putin’s military moves as an authoritarian threat to Europe’s other democratic states. A visit to a couple of key memorials to those who died in Lithuania’s 1990-1991 independence struggle makes the country’s determination clear.

A struggle for independence

For 1,000 years, the Lithuanian state had a long and tortured history of kingdom, empire, union with Poland, and overlordship by Russia. Lithuanian leaders boldly declared independence before the breakup of the Soviet Union, even though Western European states did not support them.

When Soviet troops tried to rebuff them, including an attack on a mass protest at the Vilnius TV tower on Jan. 13, 1991, unarmed citizens fought back. Today, as parents shuffle kids onto the elevator and up to the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV tower, a poignant photo exhibit on the ground floor honors 13 young men and one young woman who were shot or run over by Soviet tanks as they defended the tower.

Outside the TV tower, in front of a concrete marker with the names of the dead, visitors light candles in their honor.

Drive less than 20 miles down the highway, just before the border with Belarus, and you see another symbol of their gutsy independence struggle: a small, trailer-like shed encased in glass, then a row of seven white crosses, mounted on a concrete base almost covered by snow.

This is a memorial to the seven unarmed Lithuanian border guards who were shot in the head, execution-style, by Soviet special forces on July 31, 1991, as Moscow tried to wipe out Lithuanian efforts to protect their newly independent borders. They didn’t buckle.

In an ironic twist, that same Belarus border, so close to Vilnius, is another critical reason why Lithuanian officials are warning so urgently about Putin’s current military games.

30,000 troops and a narrow gap

As part of Russia’s military encirclement of Ukraine, Putin has moved 30,000 troops into Belarus for so-called “exercises,” along Ukraine’s northern border. The Russian president has made clear he considers Belarus to be part of Russia, as he does Ukraine.

Lithuania believes Moscow has effectively annexed Belarus, whose dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is now completely dependent on Putin for his political survival.

“Belarus definitely changes the whole calculation and strategic environment for Europe and NATO as a whole,” I was told by Vice-Minister of National Defence Margiris Abukevičius at his office. With the deployment of these troops, Russian troops can now move right up to Lithuania’s border.

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In other words, while Europe was focused on Putin’s threats to Ukraine, the Russian leader has effectively annexed Belarus. (Stay tuned for more on the significance of this in an upcoming column.) That new Russian presence in Belarus (and Lithuanians don’t believe Putin’s claim that his troops will leave there) nearly cuts off Lithuania and the two other Baltic states from the rest of Western Europe.

Only a 60-mile stretch of border with Poland, known as the Suwalki Gap, gives Lithuania an outlet to other NATO member states, a stretch that could be easily isolated by Russian troops in a conflict. “We feel like West Berlin in Soviet days,” Kasčiūnas said.

Deterring diplomacy

The Lithuanians are urging Washington, as well as French and German leaders, to shed any illusions that Putin’s hunger to recreate Russian “greatness” can be satisfied by denying NATO membership to Ukraine. Abukevičius insists: “The German approach is to engage. Our approach is to deter. Based on our experience, diplomacy has little chance for success [with Putin]. Concessions only invite him to come back.”

Deterrence means sending more troops to NATO nations in Eastern Europe and enacting harsh sanctions on Russia up front, including on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, without waiting for an invasion. In other words, demonstrate the high cost of Russian military threats now, rather than get sucked into selling Ukraine out at the negotiating table.

Looking at how Putin has jerked the West around for weeks by threatening to invade Ukraine, I think the West would be wise to heed the Lithuanians’ advice.