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Baltic States

Lithuania's deep fear of Russia

Lithuania spent 45 years under Soviet rule. There are still traces of that today - which have become all too evident following the Ukraine crisis - and the Lithuanians are ready to fight.

"If I have to, I'll pick up a weapon and defend my country," says Kristijonas Vizbaras. He looks determinedly over to Lukiskiu Square in the center of Vilnius and the large flag carrying the symbol of Lithuania - Vytis, the white knight, in full armor.

Vizbaras is actually a businessman who runs the laser firm Brolis. But now he spends his weekends in the forests on military training, preparing for a Russian invasion. "I know that people in Western Europe are saying that won't happen," he says. "But believe me: we know Russia a lot better."

Ever since the Ukraine crisis, Vizbaras is a member of the Lietuvos Šaulių Sąjunga, Lithuania's armed brigades - after the army and the volunteers, this is Lithuania's third line of defense. Founded in 1919, its applicant numbers have risen by a third in the last few weeks: lawyers, doctors, engineers, public officials, workers, and businessmen like Vizbaras want to be ready if Russia decides to march across the border.

NATO AWACS in Lithuania. (Photo: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)

NATO has stepped up reconnaissance flights in the Baltic region

"If there are just one or two policemen in a village, and then Russia decides to station ten men there, they will bring chaos," says the 30-year-old. "That's why we need local brigades who can hold them up until the real army arrives."

Bad memories

There is a lot of tension in the country. From morning till night the radio stations discuss political developments, energy policy, and military security. The older generations are particularly worried. "We have bitter experience with Soviet invasions, and the memories are coming back when we see what's happening in Ukraine," says an old man in Vilnius.

The memories of their own struggle for independence are even fresher in many people's minds, says Eastern Europe expert Felix Ackermann, who teaches at the Belarusian European Humanities University in exile in Vilnius. "TV images of tanks, and the idea that peaceful demonstrators are being shot or run over or killed in some other way is bringing up deep-seated fears," he told DW.

In the first years of Soviet occupation beginning in 1940, thousands of people - almost always of the political, economic, and cultural elite - were deported to Siberia. Younger Lithuanians, though they grew up in a state that has been independent for 25 years, know the horror stories from the grandparents or from school. But they still have a lot of faith in Lithuania's western allies - after all, their country has been part of NATO and the European Union since 2004.

What if…?

And those allies have acted. At the start of April, NATO stepped up its air space reconnaissance over the Baltic region. Around 150 US soldiers are now in the country - officially for training purposes. "That makes it all the more surprising to me that on the radio, in the newspapers, and in conversation, the theoretical possibility of a Russian annexation of the Baltic states - a Crimea scenario - is being seen as a real possibility," says Ackermann.

36-year-old Laura is very conscious of this: "We see NATO airplanes, we hear them, and it reassures us a little - but will they protect us? I've been a peaceful person all my life, but now the thoughts keep bubbling up: What if…?" She thinks that Putin has always wanted to expand his territory and extend his influence.

Grybauskaite (C) looks on as Latvia's President Andris Berzins (L) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. (Photo: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

Grybauskaite (center) says she would personally fight to defend her country

That's why Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius - like his counterparts in Estonia and Latvia - has been calling for a permanent NATO presence in his country. "The threat is real," he told DW in an interview. "Sometimes you have to speak a clear language that your opponent understands."

Serious words

Vizbaras maintains that his brigade is not just about playing war games in the countryside. "It's about education," he says, and, according to him, Russian propaganda has been spreading so quickly that people have to be protected from brainwashing. "We explain why it's important to defend Western values, which we have learned to appreciate in the past 25 years."

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite wants to fight for the same thing. During her current election campaign, she has accused Moscow of harboring "imperial ambitions." If national security is on the line, the 58-year-old says, she is resolved to "take up arms" herself to defend the country. She is the clear favorite in the run-off vote set for Sunday (25.05.2014).

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