September 11, 2015

Change of winds: how Lithuania stopped being pacifist and started to love the military again

The Lithuanian Army's rapid reaction force unit carries an anti-riot drill in Rukla, Lithuania, in this March 19, 2015 file picture. From sabotage of energy installations to cyber attacks and declarations of "independence" by Russian-speaking villages, the Baltic states are preparing for possible flashpoints of war.
The Lithuanian Army's rapid reaction force unit carries an anti-riot drill in Rukla, Lithuania, in this March 19, 2015 file picture. From sabotage of energy installations to cyber attacks and declarations of "independence" by Russian-speaking villages, the Baltic states are preparing for possible flashpoints of war.

Few events change the course of states like big shakeups, and it has been 14 years since the last major shakeup. On a quiet September morning in 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States changed not only that superpower, but the whole world. The change was not only in the way Americans see the world and the way it sees them, it also dictated a new set of rules for modern conflicts.

Sometimes it is even hard to imagine that a country like France was one of the first to rally behind the American determination, calling for justice and vengeance against the new enemies. In the end though, the protracted US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly ventures filled with pain and disillusionment, and the image of America has suffered, with its reliability questioned.
Rare events like American military servicemen saving the day in France once again by stopping a terrorist attack on a train are mostly exceptions in so-called old Europe, where anti-American sentiment is high.
If it were not for the reliance on the might of US military power, which Europe has been clearly shown to be lacking, there would be even fewer tears over the closing of US military installations in Europe.
One of the reasons for this antipathy can be explained by the nature of US- European relations. Over the past century America has played the role of saviour, but now there seems to be nothing to be saved from, no clear and defined enemy left. Or is there?
In a post 9/11 world, Europe even more now than a decade ago, has learned to fear radical Islamic terrorism. Just like the Americans, Europeans have learned the hard way how to fight insurgents in distant lands, how to avoid roadside bombs, how to talk nicely to village elders.
The counter-terrorism agenda has clear limitations. The threat of either Al Qaeda a decade ago or ISIS now may bind Europeans with Americans on targeted approaches, but an enemy that is largely faceless and secretive in nature cannot be the perfect glue for US and European relations.
At the same time moreover, both the American and the European military and security apparatus almost completely forgot about the old conventional threats. This is now being admitted by the top American generals themselves. Few if any American soldiers know what it’s like to be under sustained artillery fire. US troops who recently came to teach Ukrainians how to fight became quite silent in lessons where Ukrainians told them about barrages of Russian artillery.
Decades spent in a relatively safe airspace environment haven’t taught the US Air Force anything about multilayered, networked and highly capable air defence systems. The Ukrainian air force, and unfortunately Malaysian Airlines, have learned this lesson the hard way.
Historically nothing can glue US-European relations and show the change of defence policy as effectively as a common threat. The current Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey and the future Chairman, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, have already named the biggest military threat to US.
The list is not topped by terrorists, nor by the regimes of North Korea, Iran or even China, as the position has been retaken by Russia, which had long since been downgraded as “a mere regional power”.
Ironically, Russia has been named as a threat for years now by some who the US considers to be staunch allies. And few US allies are stauncher than the Baltic states. During the war on terror this was proven many times, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all punched above their weight.
Lithuania for instance is a clear example of a country that has adapted its defence policy according to the geopolitical winds. In 1994 Lithuania set its goal of becoming a NATO member and Lithuania and its political elite made a strong pro-NATO case. The lesson from the interwar period was clear: it is better to be in a good defence club. It may not bring 100% guarantees, but it is better than a neutrality that your Eastern neighbour does not care about. And no one had any illusions about Russia, even in the 1990s.
Even the US, a strong supporter, was sceptical at first – why would NATO need a small, rather poor, post-soviet country that was considered to be indefensible? But after 9/11 the path became clear. By offering help to America and sending a Special Operations Forces (SOF) detachment to the US-led war in Afghanistan as early as 2002, Lithuania demonstrated its goals clearly.
Two mantras have become important: help your allies, especially the US, and meet NATO standards. Sending troops on foreign missions has served two main goals of showing solidarity with allies and helping the troops themselves gain experience.
The SOF is a prime example of this policy, as not only has the combination of different special operations units grown into a separate branch of elite forces, but it has also boosted the image of Lithuania in the eyes of the Americans. Lithuanian soldiers saving US SEALS in battle probably did more for NATO membership than the required military reforms did.
At the same time, the conventional wing of the Lithuanian armed forces has adapted to the NATO requirements: NATO needs an expeditionary capability and a counter terrorism force? That is where we will excel.
The second brigade and the concept of territory defence were scrapped and all efforts were diverted to the expeditionary element with light, well-trained and well-equipped troops, who are ready to deploy. As the years passed and the need for “state building” and counterinsurgency only grew stronger in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, Lithuania seemed to be riding high and enjoyed praise from Washington.
Some in the Lithuanian military complained about the army becoming a skeleton of several battalions, logistic support and a motorcycle cavalry in the form of the famed Special Operations Forces with combat experience in Afghanistan. But even Americans turned a blind eye to the 0.8% of GDP that Lithuania was spending on defence. The mood in Lithuania was clear – what we have is more than enough to fight modern counterinsurgency wars against terrorists.
Contrary to the myth, the war in Georgia in 2008 did not have a real impact in Lithuania, which abolished conscription the same year and continued with expensive purchases of dubious military value. Even President Dalia Grybauskaite was quoted then as saying that 2% for defence is an unwritten rule, so there’s no need to abide by such obligations.
Events in Ukraine changed all that 180 degrees. As the security situation degraded dramatically, so the Lithuanian approach to it has changed. Russia made it rather easy.
The Kremlin’s military takeover of Crimea, the war against Ukraine, the ongoing and ever more realistic exercises of an aggressive nature, the demonstration of prowess in the Baltic sea, and even the threats to launch nuclear weapons at Denmark have reinvented the image of an evil empire trying to regain its image and power.
Metaphorically speaking, at least in the eyes of Russia’s western neighbours, smoke rises again from Mount Doom, and the eye of Putin gazes from the tower of the Kremlin and this gaze is truly frightening for its western neighbours.
The Baltic states have already felt the suffocating embrace of the Russian bear and in their instincts they feel that winter is coming, and a new cold war is already a reality. Thus, it has become very popular to talk about the clear and present Russian threat. Vilnius was one of those leading the way.
Never so careful with strongly worded statements, Grybauskaite has called Russia a terrorist state and a threat to all Europe. For a NATO country that borders Russia but spends 0.8% of GDP on defence, such statements are bold at best and essentially irresponsible.
But the hypocrisy died down soon enough, as the president herself has become one of the main steamrollers pushing for stronger defence. Since 2014 the president took it almost as a personal insult if any ministry protested against more money for the military. Anyone opposing this spending risked falling into the “pro-Kremlin” camp. Judgmental verdicts and a lack of room for compromise on this topic has become the norm.
At the same time, the centre-left government and the key ruling and opposition parties all fell into line like subordinate soldiers, and military spending went up from less than 267 million euros in 2013 to more than 425 million euros in 2015. It will grow even further in 2016.
The change was marked by new faces as well. The new and charismatic commander of the armed forces, General Jonas Vytautas Zukas, quickly formed a bond with the president. Both seemingly understood that people need to see the change and gain confidence. After 9/11, most Lithuanians never really cared about threat of terrorism or the fight against it. Russia was a different matter altogether – not only as a living memory, but also through the eyes of the Ukrainians.
Unlike Estonians or Latvians, Lithuanians are able to talk of once being a really big country. After all, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania used to be bigger than France and incorporated nearly all of modern Ukraine. Lithuanians have a pride in this and like to boast of a country that stretched from “sea to the sea”, meaning from the Baltic to the Black sea. With this feeling comes a bond that Ukrainians are only so happy to indulge by calling the Lithuanian occupation “a soft or golden one”.
Seeing the suffering of Ukrainians, fires, explosions and death in the same soviet-style buildings as in their own country, Lithuanians could only feel sympathy for Ukraine and dread that the same could happen to them.
The MoD reacted to such fears and introduced a 100-page book that teaches citizens what they should do in case of war. People are taught where to seek shelter, urged to work out how to contact relatives if there is a loss of communications, and to have extra radios, batteries and food in advance.
Russian “diplomats” also felt the stronger work of Lithuanian counterintelligence. That is no coincidence, since the new head of the State Security Department Darius Jauniskis is a highly-decorated former commander of the Special Operations Forces. He took a more aggressive approach to his job than his predecessors did, and now “diplomats” have become weary of being tailed.
Electrified by the Russian threat, Lithuanians have also flooded to paramilitary organisations like the Riflemen’s union. Considered not long ago to be a platform for a quasi-military gang of boy scouts and old men telling campfire stories from their youth in the 30s, it has changed dramatically.
Young professionals, including prominent figures like singers, businessmen, journalists and even the liberal mayor of Vilnius, have put on military fatigues, picked up weapons, drilled in urban combat, and learned survival and partisan tactics.
For a country where many considered the military to be a nuisance filled with those who never grow up, losers or idealists, this hunger to know more about national defence was unusual, or rather was something long forgotten. A proud sense of the warrior nation mentality is now experiencing a renaissance.
Defence officials have used this mood to their own benefit. General Zukas, the commander of the armed forces, toured military units and bombarded soldiers with sharp and to-the-point questions: “how ready are you? what do you need?”. The conclusion was obvious: we need more manpower. Battalions are at 50% strength, some are at less than 30%. The solution was also obvious – return conscription, since it is duly noted in the Lithuanian constitution as the duty of citizens after all.
The State Security council, where the President, the army chief and other key security officials meet, has already gained something of a Churchillian war cabinet image, but the sudden decision has caused quite a stir nevertheless. However, after some fiery debates and public objections by those who were about to become conscripts last spring, it has become obvious that support for the draft is gaining ground.
Since autumn 2014, 3000 have been called up to serve. Fears about whether any would actually show up are now gone, as enough young men and women have shown up voluntarily.
Yet even without conscripts the Lithuanian army has changed dramatically. The past two years have been marked by the most intensive period of training during all years of independence.
Gone were the peacekeeping exercises in hot zones. Old fashioned territory defence, even limited armoured warfare, artillery and air support elements came into play with the help of US allies. Some soldiers were able to fire more ammunition in one single exercise than they had previously done in their whole military careers.
Extensive anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile training drained supplies somewhat and more missiles have been ordered. In fact, the bigger budget meant that more military hardware could be bought. New short range anti-aircraft missiles have been ordered together with medium range anti-tank missiles.
The President’s palace once again steamrolled through big projects like the PZH2000 self-propelled howitzer deal with Germany, and sent clear signals of its intention to fast-track the Boxer Infantry Fighting Vehicle deal with Germany. Anyone opposing these deals seems to be cracking under the invisible iron fist. New battalions and a whole new brigade will be formed up with several military bases near Vilnius, while talks about Lithuania and other Baltic states working with Poland in using the Patriot long range anti-aircraft system are becoming serious.
The Lithuanian armed forces have also finally remembered how to defend territory en masse. The army has created within itself a rapid reaction force of two mechanised infantry battalions and supporting units that are ready to roll and react to any self-declared “people’s republic” in a matter of hours, as was demonstrated in massive urban exercises. People see troops training in small towns and big cities more often, while NATO allies help a lot with shows of force.
Cheers from people waving to American Apache helicopters flying over the Vilnius old town is a clear sign of change. Some can already even recognise the type of NATO jets by the sound their engines make when they fly over the capital at the beginning and end of each Baltic air police rotation.
Back in the autumn of 2013, just a few months before the crisis in Kiev broke, the presidents of all three Baltic states, the NATO secretary general and SACEUR gathered in Latvia for an international exercise.
All three presidents were asked one simple question: would they approve of NATO equipment being pre-positioned in the Baltic states. It took them by surprise: yes, why not? But is there any need? Indeed those were still the times, when it was fashionable to talk only about Afghanistan, cyber defence, defence spending and the future of NATO. Two years later there are no doubts and the work is nearly done for NATO regional HQs in the Baltic states. Not only the talk, but also the work and plans show one thing: if anything, the military more than ever before is being prepared for a real war at home.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

Filed under: CommentaryTagged with: ,