There’s a burgeoning nationalism and militarization in Lithuania, whose president, Dalia Grybauskaite, is hotting up her rhetoric in the face of Russian incursions by air, and worries about being the next Ukraine. Urte Cibulskaite explains where Lithuania sits in the European landscape today.
It seems like Lithuania is getting ready to confront an enemy of sorts. Conscription is going to be reintroduced in May; media outlets are being monitored increasingly more closely, and the country’s president has openly called Vladimir Putin a terrorist. All signs indicate that Lithuania is getting ready for war.
The Lithuanian army has decided that its reserve of 2,000 conscripts is not big enough, and in the hopes of acquiring a greater military force concluded, together with the government, that reintroduction of conscription for at least five years is necessary. This is set to start in May 2015. Andrius Kubilius, the ex-prime minister of Lithuania, stressed the importance of having a reserve of at least 70,000 conscripts, quoting Russia as the main threat. 70,000 conscripts would mean that approximately 2% of the country’s population would be in its military reserve. This does not sound realistic at all, since the number is way too high for a country with a population of less than 3 million. This is illustrated by the fact the British Armed Forces have approximately 75,000 reserve personnel, with a population of 64 million. If Britain followed suit, it would produce a standing army of 1.28 million. Lithuania is going out of its way to prepare itself with a war with Russia that no one else is yet aware of. The great irony to Grybaskaite’s actions is that they look identical to other nationalist movements across Europe, which are accused of if not being funded by Russia then at least encouraged. It is in Russia’s strategic interest that Europe becomes fragmented, and fails to show a united front. Supporting the Front National in France, Syriza in Greece, and other movements, is useful for the Kremlin. So why then is the Lithuanian rallying cry one of nationalism first, and European identity second?
Lithuanian independence of course appears to be put at risk by the recent events in Ukraine and Crimea. Russian intelligence fighter planes that continuously keep invading Baltic airspace, and have to be escorted back by NATO fighter planes, are enough to put a country on edge. Imagine Argentinian fighter planes flying over Cornwall every other week – that would be outrageous. This is a common occurrence in the Baltic region, however. Last week alone there were two incidents of this sort in Lithuania and one is Estonia, where NATO planes are stationed in the Ämari Air Base.
On the other hand, Lithuania should be used to Russia’s aggression by now, and shouldn’t be so easily provoked by its recent behavior, however unpalatable diplomatically. An invasion cannot seem like a possibility any time in the future. Russia is definitely not prepared to wage war to the rest of the Western world just yet, having not finished their business in Ukraine. Thus, Lithuanian behaviour appears to be slightly irrational to say the least. Therefore, this recent surge of nationalism and the government’s attempts to create a sense of an external threat to Lithuania could be interpreted as a trick to awaken the disillusioned majority, which has lost all interest in petty politicians or the country’s affairs. Rallying support for politics is very difficult when faced with an apathetic population, and history has shown us that nothing induces better sense of unity and nationalism than a threat to one’s sovereignty or the ability to reclaim it. On the other hand, a powerful nationalist movement could be an excellent defence against the kind of frozen conflict that Russia has enacted in Donbass, Transnistria, and elsewhere. But it should not be seen as a replacement for a robust civil society.
Russia should not be seen as a sole aggressor, however. The increased concentration of its troops and military equipment, such as “Iskander” rocket launchers, in Kaliningrad has resulted in responses from other countries, especially the US, sending more military to the region as well. High quantities of US military equipment have been stationed in the Baltics for a month-long training period. Such great unprecedented concentration of military power in the Baltics surely makes the Russians uneasy. With the fighter planes stationed so close to the Russian border; it would take minutes for them to get to St. Petersburg.
It is plausible that US interests lie behind Grybauskaite’s attempts to ignite Lithuanian nationalism. Both the US and Russia are flexing their military powers in the Baltics with Russia seen as the main aggressor. Associated Press reports that Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, in his recent visit to Vilnius, Lithuania said that Russia aims to intimidate the Baltics as well as other countries in Eastern Europe, as it is simply their way. The US troops don’t make Russia feel more at ease, however, which makes one question whether it is the only aggressor in the area. Maybe the West is bullying Russia into arming itself.
The escalating armament in the Baltic region reminds one of the arms race preceding the First World War. We should pay close attention to Lithuania – a small country that feels beleaguered and bullied between two superpowers, the EU and Russia.
Urte Cibulskaite is a student at New College of the Humanities in London, and is from Vilnius, Lithuania.