Smoke rises from the white brick houses in the small village. It is the calm before the storm. Soon, machine guns start rattling from the neighboring forest, followed by a massive explosion.
Armored vehicles line up outside of the village, fighter jets zoom by at low altitude. Soldiers storm buildings, explosives detonating and gunshots ringing all the while. Suddenly, silence resumes. The humming of motors and the smell of tank fuel are the only reminders of what just happened here.
We are in a training zone just a few miles outside of the small town of Pabrade in Eastern Lithuania, an hour’s drive from the capital of Vilnius. This is where the Lithuanian military routinely performs drills to prepare for an emergency. More than 9,000 soldiers spend a total of two weeks training their response to a possible invasion of their territory, assisted by more than 1,600 NATO soldiers who are also stationed in the Baltic state – most of them German Bundeswehr troops.
The exercise with the martial name “Thunder Storm” has been held every year since 2010 – but never at this year’s scale. “We are preparing for a large-scale attack on the Eastern border of our great alliance,” a general of the Lithuanian army explains. He calls the project “a symbol for NATO’s power of deterrence.”
He does not specify who is supposed to be deterred by it. Officially, the enemy is a fictitious power called Griseus, a state whose territory stretches across nearby Belarus to the east and Russian enclave Kaliningrad to the south of Lithuania. But the geography of “Griseus” is just one hint as to who is the real addressee: The exercise is meant to show Russia that NATO is willing and able to defend the Baltic states.
For the Lithuanians, this show of force is highly symbolic. Relations with Russia have traditionally been thorny. The country on the Baltic Sea was the first socialist republic of the Soviet Union to declare its independence in 1990, 40 years after its incorporation into it, thus marking the beginning of the former superpower’s disintegration.
Nationalistic circles in Moscow have never forgiven Vilnius for this – especially since Lithuania clearly turned towards the West soon after independence. The country joined the European Union and NATO in 2004. The population holds both organizations in high esteem. The drift back towards Russia that some Central and Eastern European states are currently experiencing is unthinkable in Lithuania.
The country is deeply distrustful of Moscow. According to a survey by the Foreign Ministry, almost two thirds of the population consider Russia the most threatening and unfriendly nation in their vicinity. Almost one out of five residents even fear a Russian invasion.
The relationship has not always been that poor. “In the early 1990s, Russia was considered a close ally,” says Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, Director of the Institute for International Relations and Political Science at the University of Vilnius. During the Yeltsin-era, the two states worked in close coordination, trying to travel a joint journey towards democracy.
This changed when Vladimir Putin took office. “Russia has become increasingly autocratic since,” says Vilpišauskas. By the time the Russo-Georgian war broke out in 2008, mistrust had once again become the dominating sentiment in Lithuania. The crisis in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 put the country in full alert mode.
The NATO partners have sensed that, too. They used to think the Baltic nations’ concerns about Russian interference were exaggerated. The Crimean crisis changed their minds. Since last year, NATO troops have been stationed in the Baltics and Poland – about 1,200 soldiers are in Lithuania under German command. Germany itself is providing 500 troops.
Lieutenant Colonel Wolf Rüdiger Otto is sitting in his meeting room, not far from the training grounds in Pabrade. Four different recycling bins provide the only splash of color in the otherwise spartan room. This provisional camp was erected just a few weeks ago to house the German soldiers during the maneuver.
Their regular quarters are near Rukla, about 80 miles to the west. During the exercise, they are quartered here, a miniature village reminiscent of a trailer park. The soldiers are content, though. The canteen offers German food instead of the rather heavy Lithuanian fare. And their comrades from other nations are currently housed in huge tents.
Lithuania is not Otto’s first deployment abroad. Eleven years ago, he headed a company in Afghanistan. His time here in the Baltic is totally different, he says. “I’ve never seen such hospitality,” Otto says.
Otto commands the German troops. He does not have much time, as NATO troops are rotated every six months – to avoid a breach of NATO’s Founding Act on mutual relations with Russia, which forbids permanent stationing of troops at the Eastern border of the alliance.
Massive backing for the NATO presence
“Our assignment is to raise and train a battle group with our international partners under German leadership. We want to provide security to our Lithuanian partners,” Otto says, following the official wording. No mention of Russia, just like in the description of the joint maneuver. And yet, there are undertones, for instance when Otto says that the presence of the alliance is supposed to reassure Lithuanians “that we are here.” The small country should have no doubt that the alliance is behind them.
Lithuania accepts this reassurance with gratitude. Many here recall statements by NATO generals that the Baltic should not even be defended at all in an emergency. Donald Trump also caused alarm when he called the alliance “obsolete.” Lithuanians are paying close attention to the most recent dissonance in the transatlantic relationship, such as at the G-7 summit in Canada.
The population decisively supports NATO’s presence in their country. There is a bipartisan consensus to remain faithful to the alliance, says political scientist Vilpišauskas. The stationing of US troops in Poland also helped reassure the doubters. “Actions speak more loudly than words,” he says.
The Russians, on the other hand, are anything but pleased about the increased NATO presence. When the first units received their marching orders, Moscow called it a “provocation,” followed by attempts to rile up the population against alliance troops.
Shortly after the first troops were deployed to Lithuania, fake news began circulating that German soldiers had raped a young girl. The situation was reminiscent of the case of Lisa which had made waves in Germany sometime prior. In Lithuania, the attempt fell flat. The story failed to gain traction.
Both NATO and the Lithuanian government blamed Russia for the fake news attack. When the Kremlin rejected the accusation, Lithuanians just shrugged. That’s what we expected and we are used to it, said a spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense.
Fear of Russia’s mounting influence
In fact, in the past few years, Lithuania has seen incidences that would qualify as “hybrid threats” today, such as hacker attacks on government networks, cyberattacks on the energy and banking sectors, and fake news. Security authorities have no doubt that the instigators are located in Russia – even if the government in Moscow denies any responsibility. During these past few months, however, it has been remarkably silent.
Rasa Jukneviciene does not expect that this quiet will last. In her unadorned office in the brutalist soviet building that houses the Lithuanian parliament "Seima," the 60-year-old says: “The reason for the recent lull is the Russian Presidential elections and the World Cup,” she says. Moscow has no interest in negative international press coverage. “I’m worried about what comes after, though.”
It would not be unfair to label Jukneviciene a hardliner. From 2008 to 2012, she served as Lithuanian Minster of Defense. Even back then, she warned about Russia’s growing influence and interference in its neighbors’ domestic affairs. “Nobody listened to us back then – but we were right,” she says.
Next year’s outlook is causing her particular concern. Lithuania is set to elect a new President – a great opportunity for Russia to stir confusion and chaos, she believes. “We are in a relative state of calm right now, but that is no reason to relax,” she says. Too great is the danger emanating from Putin.
Jukneviciene believes that only a show of strength can keep the Russian President in check. She keeps referencing the year 1938 – the year the Western powers allowed Hitler to disintegrate and annex parts of Czechoslovakia. This is a stark comparison – but the former Secretary of Defense thinks it is an adequate one. “We might be headed towards a similar situation,” she says.
Professor Vilpišauskas is not so sure if the danger is really that great yet. But he does understand why the sense of threat in Lithuania is so enormous. “This fear is closely linked with traumatic experiences in our history and how we view our Eastern neighbors,” he says. He does not expect relations with Russia to improve any time soon.” This antagonism will persist – at least as long as Putin is in office,” he says.
The research trip to Lithuania was made possible by a Transatlantic Media Fellowship by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, Washington, DC.
This article originally appeared in German in Handelsblatt on 17 June 2018. It was translated into English by Kerstin Trimble.