Lithuania prepares for a feared Russian invasion

March 16, 2015
Lithuania's Army soldiers march during independence restoration celebrations in Vilnius

Lithuania’s Army soldiers march during independence restoration celebrations in Vilnius, March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The war in Ukraine has sent shock waves through Eastern Europe, and nowhere more so than in the Baltics. The Kremlin’s aggression since Russia’s annexation of Crimea has blurred the lines of the impossible. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states, fear a Russian attack.

In tiny Lithuania the threat from Moscow feels so real that the country plans to reintroduce military conscription. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania does not share a border with mainland Russia. To the south is Belarus, headed by Aleksander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet dictator. The Russian army is bolstering its bases there. To the west lies Kaliningrad, Russia’s heavily militarized exclave in northeast Europe.

Fighters with the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army ride in the back of a truck towing a mobile artillery cannon as they leave the frontline, and head toward Donetsk

Fighters with the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army ride in a truck towing a mobile artillery cannon as they leave the frontline, and head toward Donetsk, February 23, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Lithuania’s chief of defense, Jonas Vytautas Zukas, announced the plans for renewed military service. “A critical shortage of soldiers,” he explained, “prevents us from being properly prepared and poses a real threat to our national sovereignty.”

President Dalia Grybauskaite said restoring conscription was a “necessity” and Lithuania, with a population of almost 3 million, has “no other way to strengthen its army.” If parliament passes the bill, roughly 3,000 men between age 19 and 26 could be drafted into the army as early as this September.

One of Europe’s smallest militaries, the Lithuanian armed Forces now has 15,000 personnel. Since Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, it was largely prepared to contribute to any joint missions, such as Afghanistan or Kosovo, not for territorial defense. But Russia’s sharp revisionist turn has forced Vilnius to dramatically reconsider its security policy.

The return to conscription culminated a series of steps to prepare Lithuanians that the threat from Moscow is not imaginary. Fearing an incursion of Putin’s “little green men” — Russian soldiers who infiltrate foreign nations without insignia — Vilnius banned any wearing of military-style clothing without permission. Saturday, Berlin said that Lithuania was reportedly interested in buying tank howitzers. Last month, Lithuania’s defense ministry published a 98-page manual to gird citizens for the possibility of invasion, occupation and armed conflict.

Lithuania's President Grybauskaite speaks to the media during European Parliament and Lithuania's presidential elections in Vilnius

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite at a polling station during European Parliament and Lithuania’s presidential elections in Vilnius, May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many security experts have warned that Moscow’s hybrid warfare could spread to the Baltics. But Marius Laurinavicius, a senior Lithuanian analyst at Vilnius’ Eastern Europe studies center, believes his country faces a real threat of conventional invasion from Kaliningrad.

“They [the Kremlin] need a corridor from Kaliningrad to mainland Russia,” Laurinavicius said, “just like they need one from Crimea to Donbas.”

Kaliningrad has long been an outpost for confrontation with the West. It was one key reason the Baltics joined NATO as late as 2004, five years after Central Europe’s post-communist states. Warning signs of the danger from the region were clear years before Russia’s Ukraine adventure.

In August 2013, for example, the Kremlin flaunted Kaliningrad’s armed might when Putin and Lukashenko raced their tanks in a massive military exercise near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. They shelled a 14th-century Prussian church.

Guests watch Lithuania's army parade during celebrations of the "Millennium of the Name of Lithuania" in Vilnius

Guests watch Lithuania’s army parade during celebrations of the “Millennium of the Name of Lithuania” in Vilnius, July 6, 2009. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

But a scenario in which Russia invades the Baltics is only possible after Putin first tested his expansionist plans in Georgia and Ukraine. The European Union seems to believe that Moscow would never dare attack a NATO country. Laurinavicius, however, says the West is mistaken to view Putin through the prism of its own values. “Putin,” he said, “does not believe NATO will defend such, in his view, unimportant countries, risking nuclear confrontation.”

Other analysts warn that Putin could use ethnic Russian populations in the Baltics as a pretext for intervention. But Lithuania’s Russian population is far smaller than that of Latvia or Estonia. The country’s 200,000 Poles make up Lithuania’s largest ethnic minority. It is to them that the Kremlin has turned to.

The Polish minority’s political party, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, is shrouded in controversy. Its leader, Waldemar Tomaszewski, slammed Ukraine’s Maidan protests, has compared the Crimea annexation to Kosovo and publicly wore the St. George ribbon, a Russian award for bravery established by the tsars in the early 19th century and now adopted by Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Allied with Lithuania’s ethnic Russian party, the Russian Alliance, Tomaszewski has a seat in the European Parliament and finished third in Vilnius’ recent mayoral election. Even Warsaw, which has a longstanding disagreement with Vilnius over the rights of its compatriots in Lithuania, has grasped that Moscow is exploiting the Polish minority to put pressure on the country.

Tomaszewski’s strongly pro-Russian attitudes are a reminder that Moscow’s spies are working hard throughout the region. But the conflict with Putin is not just about Eastern Europe. Moscow’s destruction of the post-Cold War order tests the strength of Western institutions. In Eastern Europe, many look back to Munich 1938, when Western appeasement led to disaster. Though Britain, France and Italy agreed to cede parts of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, it did not forestall war.

munich pact

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, German Chancellor Adlof Hitler, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. September 29, 1938, WIKIPEDIA Commons

“We need to remember,” Alvydas Medalinskas, an analyst at Vilnius’ Mykolas Romeris University told me,    “how much Munich increased the aggressor’s appetite.”

Nowhere are the consequences of these mistakes more visible than in the Baltics. Abandoned by the West into Soviet servitude, Lithuania’s long fight for independence has left many unhealed wounds. Today, the Kremlin’s spokesmen and Russian propaganda consistently undermine the sovereignty of the three Baltic countries. Many Russian intellectuals, who before the Maidan revolution had strongly stood up for the Baltics and Ukraine, are nowhere to be heard.

It was not always this way. The solidarity of Russian democrats with Lithuania was an important part of the country’s fight for freedom. Medalinskas remembers banners on Red Square in 1991 that read “Today Vilnius, Tomorrow Moscow.” In 2015, he struggles to find a common language with many of his Russian friends.

One of those Russian democrats in the fight was Boris Nemtsov, shot dead near the Kremlin last month. The threat to the Baltics grows with every day of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and sinister clampdown at home. Nobody knows what Putin will do next.

Lithuanians, meanwhile, are preparing for the worst.

26 comments

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The “Iron Lady” is instituting a military concription of roughly three thousand personell on the remote chance Russia will invade ??? That hardly seems significant enough to run this kind of western press cover.

How many people honestly believe Russia will invade a NATO country ?

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The one that wrote this article is a puppet of NATO spreading propaganda about Russia. Russia is no threat to any nation, but US is by presence in Estonia, Latvia and Poland

Posted by SouthDweller | Report as abusive

Who would have expected Russia to have invaded Ukraine?
Russia is the one creating frozen conflicts, certainly not NATO.

Posted by vincasvilnius | Report as abusive

Reuters: “…Aleksander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet dictator…”
… In its anti-Russian hysteria, the West increasingly supports different persons, who easy change their views on exactly opposite, – including the President of Lithuania and many other “democrats” that are finding refuge in the offices of the US and the EU administrations. I think with such allies, the West has no need in enemies.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

I’m tired of the whole Russia Debate. Speak to the natives, not the paid ones to divulge propaganda. Stick to the facts, economic, trade ect… and you will come to your own conclusions.

Posted by Anna77 | Report as abusive

I like seeing the 1938 picture of the peacemakers. It’s like they were all in a riverboat together, heading toward the falls, which as of then lay less than a year ahead.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

What’s fantastic is how the comments section always demonstrates the Kremlin’s new tactics in hybrid warefare and its move to online, international propoganda.

Posted by mjbk88 | Report as abusive

What’s that crazy man Putin up to? Why threaten world stability?

Posted by doitall | Report as abusive

Vladimir The Righteous is back!!!

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Comrade Dalia Grybauskaite – a communist of most high rank in the USSR. She’s been a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. So is the West today – from Henry Kissingerq KGB agent ‘Bor’, Jens Stoltenberg – a communist from childhood to KGB agent ‘Steklov’ and now Secretary General of NATO, John Forbes Kahn or Kerry – a member of communist-maoist group, to the European Union as a whole. It’s the new USSR.

Posted by Ifandiev | Report as abusive

A clear and precise account of a disturbing reality. There can be little risk of any military response from NATO to an invasion of any of the Baltics. The recent Munich-like agreement between the French and German leaders with the Russians and their Ukrainian LGM showed the shamelessness of the Western powers in this respect. Rarely has a democracy been invaded, suffered thousands of deaths, and then been not only told to cede authority over the territory taken in perpetuity but even to pay (again in perpetuity) money to the occupiers!

(I am referring to the arrangment where Kiev is obliged to pay the seccessionists sums to cover their adminstrative and energy costs.)

It’s not so much appeasement as shameless collaboration.

Posted by Docmartincohen | Report as abusive

It is sad that countries have to worry about invasions and occupations in today’s day and age. Have we not learned enough from History? Are we not living in the same world? Do we all not hear and read about what has been going on in this world? Again where is the U.N.? Could they get off their well paid big fat arse and start living up to the name. Do they really think these are actually United Nations?

Posted by Gozoborn | Report as abusive

Moscow is the 21st Century Nazi regime of Europe.

Posted by Canela | Report as abusive

Pootin is World’s #1 Lone Wolf Terrorist.

Posted by ab22 | Report as abusive

Guys, cmon, what is this paper?? The hell is with “Lithuania is preparing for the worst” should there be threatening music with that sentence? No one is preparing for the worst, nothing is up tight and scared. Russia won’t mess with NATO country, if they will, all NATO will come for them.
So relax and stop writing nonsense.

Posted by V.. | Report as abusive

Im no fan of Putin, but how did this get past Reuters editorial? Not exactly an impartial analysis of the situation.

Posted by Legburger | Report as abusive

Some time back, a Prayer team from India, traveling on a world tour, arrived in Lithuania after the boarding time, during their journey. The Traffic Official adamantly asked them to rebook their tickets, which meant extra expenditure and inconvenience, as they were on a shoestring budget. A group member told the Officer, ’Madam, we are from India. We are here to pray for your country!’ The official immediately warmed to the group, bypassed customs clearance, got their luggage loaded on the conveyor belt, detained the plane for 30 minutes, and ensured the pilgrims continues their journey smoothly. May the Lord grant Lithuania Peace!’

Posted by viper78912 | Report as abusive

Amazing how the first comments on this article are from Putin’s trolls. It’s like they wait and pounce to be at the top of the comments section with their disinformation and soviet propaganda. For reference: SouthDweller and VVS.

Posted by ww_dc | Report as abusive

NATO had better get serious about protecting the Baltic States and establishing more of a NATO presence and tripwire there. NATO has posed no threat to Russia up to this point, as defense spending has declined among its members, armies have been reduced substantially, and the U.S. reduced its troop presence and bases in Europe when the Cold War ended. In return Putin has doubled defense spending, invaded his neighbors, redrawn borders, and threatens the use of nuclear weapons if anybody resists. It is now time for NATO to respond appropriately as nothing else but military deterrence will prevent Putin from more aggression against helpless neighbors such as Lithuania.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

If you’re reading this op-ed, thank a journalist. There are undoubtedly more underpaid and thankless jobs around the world yet we haven’t spent a dime to read this, and whether you find yourself in agreement, or not, there is always something to learn in every piece.
I’m to the point that I am just glad we still have journalists, the times being what they are.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Fear-mongering article.

Posted by Tapa | Report as abusive

Death by a thousand little cuts.

Posted by notputin | Report as abusive

Cichowlas….congrats on last name

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Sudetenland was always Germany, the allies pushed Germany in a corner until a leader said enough.Germany will rise again in the future once a new leader is found.

Posted by sixty | Report as abusive

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