March 8, 2017
By Paul Goble
The Donald Trump administration has repeatedly suggested that the true measure of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country’s commitment to the Alliance—and hence of the Alliance to it—is defense spending equal to at least 2 percent of GDP. But often, such fixation on the relative size of military budgets obscures the additional measures many member states are taking to increase their ability to defend themselves and the North Atlantic Alliance itself against threats from Russia.
Though it already meets NATO’s 2 percent spending requirement, the Baltic republic of Estonia has been notable for its additional contributions to Alliance security, such as by integrating its Armed Forces with NATO, promoting economic development in ethnic-Russian-majority Narva region, as well as better incorporating its Russian population into Estonian life (see EDM, February 21). Some similar “beyond 2 percent” measures are also worth exploring when it comes to Lithuania. Not only is Lithuania increasing defense spending to reach the 2 percent level and constructing a wall along its border with Russia—with Kaliningrad—but activists are rapidly expanding a popular militia capable of resisting any “hybrid” war actions by Russia, either alone or in combination with its ally Belarus (RIA Novosti, Svobodnaya Pressa, March 4).
Lithuania has a long tradition of popular militias: they played an active role in the early years of the republic and again in resisting the Soviet occupation. As a result, when tensions with Russia rose after Vladimir Putin launched his aggression in Ukraine, ever more Lithuanians joined its units. Three years ago, there were only about 50 people in such militias; now, there are “more than 3,000,” according to commanders (Svobodnaya Pressa, March 4). Many of them are convinced that they are already on the frontlines against Russian aggression. Moreover, because Lithuania is overwhelmingly Lithuanian—ethnic Russians and ethnic Poles form no more than 7 percent each—such popular militias within the country are unifying rather than divisive.
The Lithuanian militia has attracted relatively little attention in the West, apparently because of the focus on state defense structures and the 2 percent rule. But it is a real matter of concern among Russian defense experts, including three that Sergey Aksyonov has surveyed for the Svobodnaya Pressa portal (Svobodnaya Pressa, March 4).
Vladimir Sytin, one of their number, says the rise of the militia shows that “Lithuania is preparing for defense. Today, this country—if one excludes of course Ukraine—is at the epicenter of the process of preparation for responding to a possible attack from Russia. Universal military obligation has been restored, the presence of NATO forces [in the country] was increased, and the entire complex of defense measures is being elaborated … Of course, Lithuania hopes for assistance from NATO under Article Five” because any attack on it would be an attack on the Western Alliance, Sytin pointed out.
A major reason that Lithuania is in the lead in this regard, Sytin continued, lies in the personality of the country’s president, Dalia Gribauskaitė. Not only has she had more experience in Russia than her two Baltic counterparts, but Lithuania, being “the southernmost of the Baltic countries” and bordering directly on Kaliningrad, “considers the situation for itself dangerous”—more than the other two appear to.
Stanislav Byshok, a Russian analyst for the CIS-EMO Monitoring Organization, said that Lithuania’s tough talk about Moscow and the formation of the national militias reflect the fact that “the struggle with Russia is the most important part of the national myth” in Lithuania and that “all aspects of the current situation there are interpreted in an anti-Russian key.” He added that stirring up such feelings also helps distract attention from the economic problems in Lithuania that are prompting many young Lithuanians to emigrate and even contributes to the idea that expanded defense spending will trickle down and improve the lives of ordinary Lithuanians.
Vladimir Abramov, a political analyst from Kaliningrad, agreed, saying that “a foreign enemy always distracts attention from the lack of meat in the soup,” an observation that could with far greater force be applied to the militarist rhetoric of Putin’s Russia. Abramov was dismissive of the wall being built between Lithuania and Kaliningrad because 90 percent of that border is along waterways and, according to him, no wall will do much to change things. It may protect wildlife but nothing more. Nonetheless, the formation of militias represents a potentially serious force in the event of a hybrid war of one kind or another.
Obviously, in any serious clash in Lithuania, it would be the Lithuanian Armed Forces, backed by NATO units, which would play the key role in countering Russian actions. But the rise of the militia is important not only because it promotes national unity among Lithuanians—making it far more difficult for Moscow to succeed—but also because it will put in place a force able to continue to fight in the forests against any successful Russian occupation.
It took Soviet forces more than a decade to wipe out the “Forest Brothers” in Lithuania after World War II. That Putin’s Russia might face a similar challenge in the future may, therefore, be one of the main constraints against Kremlin action now. At the very least, such “beyond 2 percent” actions should be counted as part of Lithuania’s contribution to its own defense and that of NATO as a whole.