Authoritarians, terrorists and their proxies are aligned in their fight against democracy and the rules-based international order. The barbaric attack on Israel by Hamas is the latest manifestation of this. Russia continues its brutal war against Ukraine and is prepared for a long one. Together with China’s growing military power and assertiveness, the world is facing the most complex security environment in decades.

Simultaneous strategic dilemmas should be our main planning assumption. Excessive strategic focus on one near-peer state, priority theater or domain might mean that we are half ready or not ready at all to tackle all the shapes of tyranny acting in concert.

It is time to be at the top of our game; our response will shape the security environment for decades and generations to come. There is only one choice: to do everything it takes through unity and resolve. And there is only one way to do it: together within our alliances.

This is the choice Lithuania has firmly made and will continue to implement. We invest heavily in our defense. We strengthen the European pillar of NATO. We will continue supporting Ukraine as long as it takes. We build relationships with Indo-Pacific partners, recognizing that the security of our regions is interconnected. We do our part in defense both by acting independently and together with our European allies; the decision to deploy a permanent German brigade in Lithuania is the very first, sound and visible proof of that. The first elements are to be deployed as early as 2024.

However, the challenges of today can only be properly responded to by tip-of-the-spear U.S. leadership and U.S. forward basing. There is no substitute for that. Any type of U.S. isolation or neutrality in world affairs or erosion of military power in one strategic direction means an opportunity for nuclear authoritarians. This translates into bloody and costly regional wars, which escalate into strategic conflicts and, with a big bang, bring the U.S. back on the world stage to clean up the mess. The U.S. standing at the summit of democracies will remain in high demand in 2024 and the decade to come.

Do not underestimate Russia. Though it has not achieved its initial aims in Ukraine, Russia will continue the war of attrition and will restore its conventional military power sooner rather than later. Nuclear and other strategic elements are intact — modernized, fully integrated with conventional elements and well postured. For the first time after the end of the Cold War, some of these weapons are stationed outside of Russia — in Belarus, our neighbor.

The quality and even quantity of Russian conventional military capabilities, as well as Moscow’s observable operational failures, are not the best indicators for the regime’s strategic opportunism and related dangers. Let us bear this in mind in 2024 and beyond.

What do we need to do to ensure peace in the Euro-Atlantic area? In 2024, I would be looking for at least four success stories of unfinished business on the road between this year’s Vilnius summit and next year’s gathering in Washington.

First, NATO is strong, ready for collective defense and united with resolute U.S. leadership. NATO needs leadership that unites America internally as well its allies. As for the allied input, I expect visible progress of the Vilnius defense pledge — to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense — as I do of the less visible, but equally important, input to the NATO force structure. It is critical for defense of every inch, as agreed.

Lithuania in 2023 spent about 2.76% of its GDP on defense, and the goal is to keep the pace of increasing the defense budget and effectively transforming it into real capabilities. War-mode thinking enables a fast modernization of the Lithuanian armed forces. We are developing our maneuver units, their lethality and firepower, but also purchasing more UAVs and cyber capabilities as well as rapidly expanding host-nation support for enhanced allied readiness initiatives here.

Second, we need a visible boost of the defense industry and continued prioritization of front-line states. Russia is out-producing the West in some critical areas, such as the production of artillery rounds, with a wartime industry mode on. A swift increase in the allied defense production capacity is critical to ensure we can replenish our stocks and modernize while continuing the flow of military aid to Ukraine.

The United States is a key military supplier to Lithuania, with contracts worth 2% of our GDP. Yet, contracts will turn into capabilities no earlier than 2026-2029. We cannot allow Russians to reconstitute faster than our basic requirements, and this is especially acute for the front-line states.

Third, NATO is boosting its forward-defense posture with more brigades, ships, air defense and artillery units in place. Lithuania is increasing its force structure by developing a national division. Together with persistent rotations of the U.S. combined arms battalion and permanent German brigade in Lithuania, it will be the key pillar of combat-credible effects for deterrence and defense in Lithuania, which we will aim to sustain in the long term.

To respond to a growing China challenge, we will need an integrated strategy and operational solutions; Lithuania will plug in. Our government has recently approved a strategy for cooperation with likeminded nations in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes cooperation on security issues.

Fourth, victory for Ukraine is paramount. The most important success story is needed in 2024, if we, democracies, want to be and remain at the top of our game.

Arvydas Anušauskas is the defense minister of Lithuania.

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