Champion of Lithuanian freedom appeals for help from West: Adrian Bridge reports from Vilnius on widespread fears that Russia again has designs on the Baltic states

VYTAUTAS LANDSBERGIS, the man who steered Lithuania to independence just over two years ago, appealed to the West yesterday not to leave his country in the lurch in the wake of what he declared was a growing threat from Russia.

Speaking on the eve of a visit to Washington to drum up support among US congressmen, Mr Landsbergis predicted that, as with the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine would soon fall back into Moscow's orbit and that attention would then be trained upon the Baltics. 'Like it or not a new line is being drawn across Europe,' said Mr Landsbergis, now leader of the opposition. 'At the moment it is unclear which side the Baltic states will end up on. The West does not seem to show much interest. But for us it is a matter of life or death.'

Concern about Russian intentions in the region is not confined to Mr Landsbergis, the former musician whose hardline stance against Moscow during the independence struggle of 1990 to 1991 quickly earned him global respect.

Lithuanians across the political spectrum have reacted with horror at the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist Russian who makes no secret of his desire to re-annex the Baltic states. Alarm bells have been ringing over the increasingly belligerent way in which the Russian government has begun talking about the 'near abroad' or the former Soviet republics.

When Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, declared this month that Moscow should have the right to station its troops in the 'near abroad' to protect 'vital' Russian interests, the howls of protest from Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn were immediate. Lithuania, the only Baltic state from which all Russian troops have been withdrawn, has made a formal application to join Nato. All three countries want to participate in the recently agreed Partnership for Peace initiative under which they will be able to engage in limited joint military manoeuvres with Nato countries.

For Mr Landsbergis, who at 61 remembers the Soviet annexation of his country in 1940 and the mass executions and deportations that followed, Partnership for Peace falls well short of what is required and is yet another example of what he fears may be Western indifference over the fate of the Baltics. 'We do not expect instant admission to Nato or the European Union, but we would like to have a stronger signal that we are heading that way,' he said. 'At the moment we are in a state of limbo - and that plays right into Russia's hands. If Moscow ever gets the feeling that it could get away with aggression here, then it would act accordingly, as it has elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.'

While not ruling out the possibility of a fresh annexation - sparked perhaps by a dispute over the transportation of troops through Lithuania to and from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad - few Lithuanians seriously think it will come to military conflict, at least not at the moment. But many are concerned that unless they can break their continuing economic dependence on Russia, they might eventually slide into becoming only nominally independent: a satellite state rather along the lines of that now being set up in neighbouring Belarus.