June 3, 2014

Making the Sign of the Cross when Lightning Strikes? Lithuania’s National Defence and the Ukraine crisis

President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite inspects the guard of honor upon her arrival for a meeting on April 24, 2014 at the Prague Castle to mark the fifth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, which aims to bring the former Soviet republics closer to the EU. Five years after its launch, the European Union's project to bring ex-Soviet states into the Western fold is mired in uncertainty as Moscow refuses to yield influence over its former fiefdom. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK
President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite inspects the guard of honor upon her arrival for a meeting on April 24, 2014 at the Prague Castle to mark the fifth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, which aims to bring the former Soviet republics closer to the EU. Five years after its launch, the European Union's project to bring ex-Soviet states into the Western fold is mired in uncertainty as Moscow refuses to yield influence over its former fiefdom. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK

The present state of national defence and its funding is a political failure.

“Until lightning strikes, a Lithuanian will not cross himself.” With this adaptation of an old Russian saying, a Lithuanian defence policy planner summed up reactions in the country evoked by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It is quite an apt parallel, for it captures many aspects of where Lithuania’s defence stands, and how it got there, when the geopolitical weather in Europe suddenly turned nasty. It reflects an unwillingness to invest in prudent safety measures against an entirely predictable event (lightning), reveals a political preference for symbolic gesturing (crossing oneself) rather than substantive action, and implies deep trust in the protective help of external higher forces (God) rather than taking responsibility oneself.
The year 2014, when 19th-century ghosts came back to haunt the security of 21st-century Europe, was met by Lithuania’s defence establishment with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it has been largely vindicated in its strategy of solidarity with its NATO allies, which implied a defence posture balanced more towards expeditionary “out-of-area” operations and an underlying expectation that, should the weather turn ugly at home, those very same allies would stand by to support Lithuania’s defence. NATO’s actions to bolster the security of the Baltic states  are rightly seen as a justified return on that investment and years of successful participation in NATO-led international operations. On the other hand, it now operates a defence organisation that needs very urgent attention in order to avoid a possible military failure at home as well as not to give reason to doubt its preparedness to defend a country that its allies have  put their soldiers in harm’s way to protect.


One of the key points that immediately came to the fore is, of course, money. Time and again, Lithuania has been scolded by its allies and officials in Brussels for its pitiful levels of defence spending. With just under 0.8% of GDP earmarked for defence in 2014, it sits at the bottom of NATO’s defence (under)spenders—above  only Luxembourg, which is comfortably tucked into perhaps the safest corner of the continent one can imagine. This might have been justifiable when the economy tanked during the global financial crisis, but not when Lithuania has been experiencing one of the most impressive recoveries in Europe. And it might have been defensible when Russia was still naively considered to be NATO’s partner – but certainly not when it has turned itself into a rogue state threatening its neighbours. Such low defence spending became a ridiculous feature for an exposed frontline state.
Everyone seems to realise this. In the wake of the Crimean land-grab, fully 64 percent of the general public is supportive of increased defence spending, although there are differences in opinion as to how quickly this should be achieved. President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the country’s commander-in-chief, has suddenly rediscovered her ability to cajole political parties towards a broader consensus – a new, and third since the late 1990s, agreement of the parliamentary parties has been rushed through, committing the political establishment to reaching the magic benchmark of 2 percent of GDP by 2020. Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius even promised an additional 60 million litas (over €17 million) for the Armed Forces this year, particularly to support urgent procurement projects.
All seems well, but one could be excused for having reservations about this round of spending enthusiasm. Some economists say that Lithuania will find it difficult to reach the defence spending benchmark without a significant restructuring of its fiscal policies and system. Compared even to free-market  Estonia, Lithuania redistributes a very small share of overall GDP through the national budget (about a quarter), so 2 percent of GDP as a proportion of that budget will be much higher than is the case in Estonia. A clash with other pressing needs and priorities is thus pre-programmed and will become unavoidable if economic and financial circumstances become stressful again. And this is not the first political agreement of its kind, so there should be little confidence that it will not be just a symbolic act of crossing oneself. Even then, when facing an existential threat, after years of financial underinvestment in defence, is that 2 percent by 2020 not too little, too late? And last but not least, will the increase, if it materialises, be spent wisely?


It is not surprising that, under the strain of the financial austerity regime, the Lithuanian Armed Forces spends close to 80 percent of their budget on personnel. Skilled people are indeed of utmost importance and should be somehow kept in the organisation during hard times. And some military officials were quite pleased to see that this regime had induced the culture of very careful spending in other areas. But, taking a broader view of things, this has come at the expense of the materiel side of the military machine: in terms of armaments, equipment and supplies, the organisation has been cut almost to the bone. So, for instance, seeking to replace the Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters with new ones, especially for search and rescue tasks which were foolishly assigned to the Armed Forces a few years ago – and which are also necessary to support the NATO air-policing mission – the Ministry of National Defence (MoND) went cap-in-hand to other ministries in search of unused EU funds for the purchase, causing a massive public uproar. (In the end, two out of three helicopters will have to be acquired using defence money but, strangely, without the corresponding adjustment of requirements to enable them to fly military missions as well.)
The Ukraine crisis is pushing defence officials to make some quick decisions to compensate, at least minimally, for the years of neglect. Realising how inadequate ground-based short-range air defence capabilities are (currently based on US-made Stingerand Swedish-made SAAB RBS-70 missile systems, as well as some old L-70 air-defence artillery systems), the MoND rushed to announce the procurement of Polish-made Grom man-portable surface-to-air missiles. . This, however, may well get mired in governmental procurement bureaucracies on both sides, as well as be undone by the poor state of political relations with Poland. Also, to fill the gaps in air surveillance, a third medium-range air surveillance radar has been added to the two currently being purchased through a tender run by NATO’s Communication and Information Systems Agency. The ministerial guidelines – a document guiding development of the national defence system for the next four years – have been urgently amended to include directives to procure 120-mm and 81-mm mortars, as well as more anti-armour weapon systems, in order to add to the firepower of the Iron Wolf motorised infantry brigade – the core of Lithuania’s national defence capability.
However, by and large, it remains to be seen how well the anticipated funding increase will be used in these stepped-up procurement and modernisation efforts. There are experts who charge that, in the past, many large defence acquisition projects have been misguided. They are referring to the Hunt-class mine countermeasures ships, Flyvefisken-class patrol vessels, C-27J Spartan transport aircraft, Sisu logistics trucks and similar examples as adding nothing to the firepower and mobility of the brigade.  (However, the procurement of Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, the rearmament of the entire force with HK G-36 assault rifles, and the purchase of HMMWV vehicles was obviously supported by these critics.) Some of the criticism is a little unfair: the procurement decisions were made in a different strategic context and may still serve Lithuania’s  national interests. For instance, patrol boats will always be useful in responding to Russian mischief in the Exclusive Economic Zone (where its naval vessels have been spotted “directing shipping traffic”), while the Sisu trucks are now proving useful in supporting the deployment of allied troops to NATO  exercises in Lithuania (even though their specifications are well beyond current requirements). Still, everyone found it rather baffling that, in the light of serious shortcomings in armaments and equipment for the Land Forces, the MoND started publicly considering replacement of training jets for the Air Force – this is indeed useful for training forward air controllers (the “boots on the ground” who guide aircraft to ground targets), but hardly an urgent priority in the present context,  especially when such training can be conducted with the NATO aircraft already based in Lithuania for the air-policing mission.

Ideas, skills and structures

Fierce ongoing discussions surrounding the direction of defence development underline a simple point: there is no overarching consensus as to how and by what means the country should be defended in the event of military aggression. Major differences of opinion revolve around such questions as: what the likelihood and potential nature  of a direct military attack would be; whether NATO would have a sufficient warning period to deploy its troops and deter or defeat the aggression; how long the Lithuanian Armed Forces would have to act on their own in the event that NATO’s deployments are delayed or hampered by Russia’s “anti-access/area denial” strategy, and what their operations should then focus upon, etc. The multifaceted and insidious nature of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine poses an additional problem of how to integrate conventional and unconventional military tools with civilian security measures, as well as national and allied power. The lack of consensus leaves doors wide open to future lobbying battles between different armed services and branches, murky political projects and waste of resources.
Since its accession to NATO ten years ago, Lithuania’s defence posture has been based on a perception that no direct military threat to the homeland existed and has been balanced more towards expeditionary “out-of-area” operations, as well as becoming an integral part of the collective defence system of the Alliance. In practical terms, this has meant a number of things, such as:
· A need for units and personnel with the right skills for expeditionary operations (crisis management, stabilisation, counter-insurgency), which could be deployed, sustained and protected in distant theatres of operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan;
· Declining utility of conscription as a manpower acquisition framework. As a result, the military draft was suspended in 2008;
· A higher degree of deference to NATO force planners when committing to force development goals. This entailed accepting their point that there was “no need for more heavy armour in NATO”, but a need instead for more combat support and combat service support elements, as well as special forces;
· More or less dismantling territorial defence structures. The National Defence Volunteers’ Forces (NDVF) became part of the Land Forces structure, aimed at augmenting contributions to international operations, providing assistance to the civilian authorities, and participating in ensuring host-nation support for allied troops. The force of over 10,000 (albeit many nominal) members shrank to 5,200 and was left with just six territorial units;
· Establishing Special Operations Forces (SOF) as a separate service, alongside Land, Air and Naval Forces, to nurture and advance unconventional warfare skills and capabilities.
Many of the central tenets of current Lithuanian defence policy, strategy and doctrine are now coming under intense scrutiny. Since the Russo–Georgian war, worries started creeping in about building a large mobilisation reserve, earlier seen as no longer necessary. This led to the reintroduction of a basic training course for those men and women still willing to exercise their constitutional right and duty to prepare to defend their homeland – which also became a recruitment tool for the standing force, left short of soldiers after the hasty transition to a full-time all-volunteer format, as well as a means for the minimal replenishment of the active reserve. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, the debate about reactivating the military draft will certainly be rekindled.
On the other hand, a surge of enthusiasm for voluntary participation in national defence triggered by events in Ukraine offers an opportunity to revive territorial defence structures, which are essential in dealing with the phenomenon of “little green men”. The moribund Riflemen Union and the NDFV are receiving an influx of new members from all walks of life, eager to channel their determination to defend the country through existing structures. However, both organisations seem to have been largely unprepared for this opportunity, and the higher echelons of the defence command have so far not taken any visible steps to leverage it towards a new kind of whole-of-society territorial defence approach. Meanwhile, members of the general public are not sure what they should do in the event of a military crisis or mobilisation, or how they could contribute to national defence if the country were attacked.
Another great opportunity lies in leveraging the overall experience of the Armed Forces gained from the operation in Afghanistan. Although expeditionary operations and homeland defence are often portrayed as the opposite ends of the mission spectrum, this is quite a misguided perception. Military skills acquired overseas can be just as relevant in homeland defence. Military officials in Lithuania are now preoccupied with how to maintain not only interoperability with NATO allies but also such skills as air-to-ground interaction that were learned and honed in Afghanistan but which would also be crucial in the event of a military crisis at home, when Allied air power would have to be guided to ground targets. As a result of the Afghanistan mission, the understanding of the importance of “human terrain” knowledge, of skills in information operations, and of “winning hearts and minds” of the population are now part of the fabric of military culture and would be extremely useful in detecting and countering covert threats emanating from Russia in the event of a conflict.
Perhaps the greatest leverage is the country’s special operations forces (SOF)– the part of the Lithuanian Armed Forces that developed and matured the most thanks to the Afghanistan experience. Highly trained in unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, and counter-terrorism tasks, with top-notch weapons and equipment, and with an adaptive and resilient service culture drawing heavily on the ethos and history of the Forest Brothers (the armed underground resistance movement to the Soviet occupation), this service is now the crown jewel of the Lithuanian military. More importantly, it is highly relevant in countering both latent and overt forms of aggression that Russia has displayed during the Ukraine crisis. Not surprisingly, the updated ministerial guidelines included the development of the SOF as a top priority (one should be curious why it was not so in the earlier version).
The challenge is to bring together all the excellent bits and pieces of the military, the positive developments in the public mindset and in NATO’s posture triggered by the Ukraine crisis, and the renewed efforts to fill the evident capability gaps into a coherent conceptual and doctrinal whole. This is something where the revision of the Lithuanian military doctrine of 2010 should come to the fore, with the military conducting the proper professional debate required to adjust it, educating society and the political elites about “the art of the possible”, and engaging various stakeholders in a discussion about what is needed to deal with Russia’s new way  of warfare. Sadly, this is hampered by the bureaucratic culture of the Armed Forces, which makes those with the best ideas reluctant to discuss and advance them  openly.


While military officers continue to  discuss their professional approaches internally, Lithuania’s  political elites are however not used to defence as a topic of debate. Since the parliamentary election in 2000, when the “2 percent of GDP” aspiration was heavily contested by a party led at that time by the current chairman of the National Security and Defence Committee of the Parliament (Seimas), Artūras Paulauskas, national defence has never been an item on which elections could be won or lost. With the general public indifferent at best about national defence (although always expressing high levels of trust in the Armed Forces), the political elites felt they could bypass the topic or, if necessary,  pay onlylip service to it. To all intents and purposes, in Lithuania defence ceased to be part of politikos.
The result is not only political impunity when cutting defence funding. There is a tremendous intellectual atrophy among the governing political elites concerning strategic defence issues, leading to lack of strong leadership, paralytic decision-making, and disastrous strategic communication. It took several years after the Russo–Georgian war for the government apparatus to process a new draft National Security Strategy to reflect the changed geopolitical realities, but no politician lifted a finger to unblock and expedite this process. The current prime minister does not even have a national security and defence advisor, and is stumbling from one gaffe to another during the ongoing crisis (such as his suggestion that Lithuania could purchase a Patriot air-defence missile system if necessary and that there was enough money for this in the current defence budget). The defence minister is sailing serenely through this crisis, occasionally telling everyone that there is no military threat to worry about or that the need for an allied presence will be determined by NATO authorities (as if Lithuania had no voice in this). The president, in the heat of the presidential election campaign, managed to “assure” some concerned elderly lady in the provinces that the Constitution did not permit NATO bases on Lithuanian soil – which is an incorrect assertion, both in terms of the letter and spirit of that particular clause, and not exactly an example of mature leadership. In the midst of an unprecedented European security crisis, the president has not not even bothered to call a meeting of the State Defence Council, a constitutional body coordinating national defence matters, on the grounds that she could not trust one of the members – the Speaker of the Seimas, Loreta Graužinienė – due to her membership in a party with murky connections to Russia. The overall result is a mess in strategic communication, sending uncoordinated and contradictory messages from various political quarters and institutions to the public, our allies, and Russia about how seriously Lithuania takes the Russian threat, , how eager it is to obtain a NATO presence, or what it will do to strengthen its Armed Forces.
Lithuania faces an urgent need not only to rebalance its defence strategy or review its military doctrine, but also to start treating national defence very seriously and as an existential issue – which has not been the case since accession to NATO and the EU in 2004. And it needs political elites who understand defence and who are capable of wisely guiding and leading public opinion instead of just echoing it. The country would do well to remember that occupation in 1940 was a political failure. The present state of national defence and its funding is also a political failure that may well turn into a military one, if promises to fix the problem are yet again not followed through. The figurative (and literal) “crossing oneself when lightning strikes” is as good a strategy as investing in a white-flag factory when it comes to defending the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, or assisting allies in times of trouble.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.