AMBASSADOR FISHER: Good morning. Good morning, everyone. Great to see everybody. Mr. Secretary, it is an honor to join in welcoming you to Vilnius in this meet and greet with your team and their families. Allow me to start us off with just a few words about the Vilnius team, if I can.
Mr. Secretary, this team exemplifies your concept of a modern, agile, forward-deployed diplomatic presence, designed to advance the administration’s goals. Think of us as your forward operating base, advancing democracy and confronting autocracy. Standing up the Belarus Affairs unit last year was essential to this effort. When Lukashenka kicked out many of our diplomats and the forced the termination of our local staff colonies, the Belarus Affairs unit served as the vehicle to continue our diplomatic efforts: reinforcing our coordination with the democratic forces led by step by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya; standing the AID’s Office of Transition Initiatives; and supporting the work of the independent media.
And while we’ve been advancing priorities on this side of the border, our colleagues at Embassy Minsk, under DCM Ruben Harutunian’s leadership, continued advocacy on the ground by attending trials for political prisoners, even when they knew they’d be turned away at the doors. They welcomed families of political prisoners into their own homes to reassure them of American support, and they coordinated with likeminded diplomatic missions. They and their families did this in the face of incredible hostility from the host government and its propagandists.
Unfortunately, the regime has been tirelessly writing new chapters of the authoritarian’s playbook: bringing down a civilian airliner, instrumentalizing migrants against its neighbors, and now its active support for and involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine. I am so very proud of our team that, against this backdrop, provides evidence of our values of work – evidence to Congress, evidence to our partners in the region, and evidence to those working towards a more democratic future for Belarus. We and our families cannot do this work without the amazing support of Ambassador Gilchrist, DCM Waser, and the entire Vilnius family. They have been incredible to us, all of them. And, Mr. Secretary, we are so very grateful for your personal leadership on these issues. Thank you.
Ambassador Gilchrist. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR GILCHRIST: Thank you, Ambassador Fisher. Mr. Secretary, this year we marked one hundred years of unbroken diplomatic relations between the United States and Lithuania, 51 of which were under Soviet occupation. Last month marked 31 years since Vice President Quayle inaugurated our embassy in Vilnius. Three members of our wonderful locally AID staff here have been with us since those early days. And outside this building, 20 years ago, shortly after Lithuania was invited to join NATO, President Bush said, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States.”
That commitment took on new meaning in the face of Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine. Today, Embassy Vilnius hosts over 60 Americans and more than 120 local staff. In the two years I’ve been here, we’ve grown by nearly a third, and we are fortunate to have a very strong management and security team to support us. As Ambassador Fisher said, the establishment of the Belarus Affairs unit – and the suspension of operations in Minsk – has brought together two missions, but we operate as one team. Our team has worked incredibly hard over the past year as actions by Belarus, Russia, and the PRC have increased the urgency and the importance of what we do. This increased workload has been tough, but especially on families – and I am glad we have family members here today. But they’re not here to listen to me, Mr. Secretary.
Colleagues and members of the community, it is my pleasure to introduce the 71st Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning. It is wonderful to see all of you here today. And Bob, Julie, thank you not only for the warm introductions, but thank you for your remarkable leadership during what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkable time that each of you is not only living through, but acting in and making a huge difference.
We focus a lot on the challenges that we’re facing right now in this part of the world, in this part of Europe – and I’ve just come from Belgium and Poland and Moldova. And there’s some very, very big principles at stake as a result of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, a war of choice – unprovoked, premeditated.
And we talk a lot about them. It’s important to talk about them because it’s important that people understand what’s actually at stake, and it goes beyond even Ukraine, beyond even the Baltic countries, beyond even Europe. Basic principles of the international order came into being after two world wars as a means of trying to keep peace and security after the world had been torn apart, not once but twice. Principles like: it’s not okay for one country to invade another country, to change its borders by force; it’s not okay for one country to try to dictate to another its choices, its future, its policies, with whom it can associate. Principles like: it’s not okay for one country to say it has a sphere of influence over another, to try to subjugate that country to its will – all of that is at stake here by Russia’s aggression.
But I have to tell you – and I you know this because you’re seeing this in different ways every day – what’s also at stake, what gets lost sometimes as we’re talking about these big principles, are the individual lives and futures that are at stake: the mothers and children you see fleeing across the border from Ukraine into Poland, into Moldova, to other neighboring states, some coming here sometimes, to Lithuania; the husbands, fathers, brothers staying behind to fight; those who are caught in the onslaught by Russia, shelled – shelled to death. We see the images on TV of families torn apart.
Each and every one of these principles that we talk about, it has a real person behind it in one way or another. And what you’re doing every single day here in – pardon – Lithuania is validating everything we’re doing to try to uphold those principles and so protect the futures of those men, women, and children whose lives are now at stake.
I’m grateful to the team here in Vilnius for some extraordinary work here at this extraordinary time. We’ve had increased military presence, and the support that you’ve given to our military personnel coming in, the resources coming in as a result of our efforts to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, that’s making a big difference.
There have been more than a few high-level visits. I know the Secretary of Defense was here. We’ve had CODELs. I’m sure there’ll be the others coming next. The only thing I want to tell you is that I know the one benefit of these visits is you get a wheels-up party. (Laughter.) So I wish I could stick around for that. In advance, have a happy wheels-up party.
I really (inaudible) the work that you’re doing – tremendous, important cables from Minsk and Vilnius, on migration in Belarus, on the economic coercion in Lithuania. And that’s a whole other subject that it comes to. So in each of these ways, big and small, you’re making a real difference.
And one of the things that really touched me was learning about some of the younger folks in our community who have collected products for Ukrainian refugees. Some of you, I understand, skipped recess to do some of that work, packing things so that some kids just like you could know just a little bit of relief in the turmoil they’re experiencing.
And then I just want to reiterate what Bob and Julie pointed to. Since the ordered departure from Minsk, the two teams have been working so closely together. The Belarus Affairs unit, they’re doing remarkable work promoting democracy in Belarus – promoting democracy in Belarus there from afar – and indeed it is one mission with two locations. Set up in 2021 but doing remarkable work and keeping faith with our friends in Belarus.
Finally, let me just say that there’s tremendous resilience here in another way too, and I see this in our missions around the world. We’ve all been working through COVID. I hope we’re getting to the endpoint. Back home in Washington, we’re following Washington, D.C. regulations. We just got to take off our masks at the State Department, so hopefully not too far behind. The – Main State itself is coming back to life, cafeteria opening up, the sort of Starbucks coming back, for those of who know it. So we’re getting there, and you’ll get there too.
But here’s what I know: I know that over the last couple years, this has been incredibly challenging – on a professional level, but also on a personal level. Some of you have been ill. Some of you have lost friends and loved ones in one way or another. But you’ve all come together. You’ve shown incredible resilience. You’ve shown that you’ve had each other’s backs, and that makes a huge, huge difference. So I want to thank you for that, for sticking together, for sticking with the mission, for getting the job done.
Finally, let me say to those of you who are part of the Locally Employed Staff: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Every place that we go, every embassy in the world, you are the lifeblood of the mission. We can’t do our work without you, without that partnership. And as Bob said, there are folks who have been here for 30 years working side by side. I don’t know if any of them are actually here today – and I’m probably going to do a terrible injustice to their names. But just in case you’re here, Jurga Cesniene. Jurga? (Applause.) Jolanta Kudabaite. (Applause.) All right. Let’s see. Veronika Grincelaitiene. (Applause.) It’s really extraordinary – thirty years working side by side with us. We are so grateful.
And to each and every one of you, whether you are Locally Employed Staff, whether you’re a Foreign Service Officer, a civil servant, whether you’re a family member – because you, too, are our frontline diplomats, and we’re so grateful for that – whether you’re a contractor, whether here with one of the other extraordinary agencies that we’re privileged to work with, I really just wanted to come by with two simple words: Thank you. And carry on. (Applause.)