On an average afternoon in Kaunas, a group of children in their early teens cheerfully discuss their day on a commuter bus. They are dressed in camouflage uniforms and carry backpacks. On the main pedestrian street in Lithuania’s second-largest city, soldiers of both genders can occasionally be seen strolling by. The annual Armed Forces and Society Festival has suddenly become a big hit with young people, and ‘Thank you, NATO’ fighter jets circle not only Lithuanian airspace, but also the photos on people’s Facebook feeds. The armed forces Facebook page suddenly boasts over 12,000 ‘likes’ in a country of under three million.
A 2004 promise by George W Bush to defend the Baltic States is written on a plaque on Vilnius city hall. Yet Lithuanians are not entirely confident in the US’s protection, and calls to regard defence as a responsibility that all individuals must share are becoming more frequent.
The conflict in Ukraine, consisting of military clashes, activities of unidentified combatants and a propaganda war, is being monitored with concern by many in Lithuania. As a result, NATO and the country’s own army have both stepped up their military presence in the country, with multinational training exercises and the creation last year of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.
Andrius Romanovskis, a Political Science graduate with a lucrative career in business consulting, was one of those who took the conflict in Ukraine as a wake-up call. After the attempted Soviet coup in Lithuania in 1991 he eagerly joined the military volunteers, but left in 1997, when security challenges seemed over. ‘Let me tell you, when the developments in Crimea started, I got scared. It brought back memories from [the attempted coup], when an armoured vehicle rolled past our house to announce a curfew,’ says Romanovskis, who recently decided to join the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.
The Riflemen’s Union was established in 1919 as a civilian paramilitary group. It joined the anti-Soviet resistance after Lithuania became a part of the USSR, and was hence persecuted. It relaunched in 1989, and in 2014 its membership swelled by 1,000.
Riflemen co-operate closely with the military and train on its premises. They have a right to carry guns. Conservative Lithuanian MEP Gabrielius Landsbergis joined the Union together with Romanovskis – and did not forget to share the update on Facebook, gathering hundreds of ‘likes’ and wellwishers. His political competitors, leaders of the Liberal Movement, applied to join the Riflemen’s Union as well, along with famous entrepreneurs.
According to the daily newspaper Lietuvos rytas, military training camps for children, organized by the Riflemen’s Union, now attract over 3,700 teenagers, and that number is expected to grow. The Lithuanian military is also actively reaching out to students and pupils.
‘It is a lingering syndrome as Lithuania invested so much into the military before World War Two but failed to fire a single shot [at the Soviet army],’ Romanovskis says. He adds that Lithuania is most likely to face a so-called ‘hybrid war’ in the future, involving a combination of conventional, irregular and cyber-warfare such as that witnessed in Ukraine. In this case, as a member of the Riflemen’s Union he would be able to shoot at unidentified combatants without having to wait for orders.
Tense and vigilant
Justina Statuleviciute, who is studying at the military officers’ training programme for students of medicine, says she has noticed her instructors increasingly warning: ‘“Let’s hope we won’t need this, but just in case...” We are also learning about the propaganda which is being spread in our country,’ she adds.
Darius Pocevicius, who identifies as a publisher in the morning, an activist in the afternoon, a writer in the evening and an anarchist at night, says that Lithuanian society has proven to be susceptible to propaganda – but not only that coming from Russia. As an active organizer of discussions highly critical of fear-mongering in Lithuania, he fears a witch-hunt. ‘Not only real or imaginary allies of Putin will be hunted, but also dissident thinkers who don’t agree with the government,’ he warns. Since the conflict in Ukraine escalated, hardly a week goes by without an article in the mainstream media asking what various population groups would do in case of war.
Military training camps for children, organized by the Riflemen’s Union, attract over 3,700 teenagers, and that number is expectedto grow
Pocevicius is surprised how profoundly the fear of war has affected his most educated friends. ‘Recently a poet I know joined the Riflemen. His argument was fear of occupation. The social groups that are closer to elites read more media, so they fall prey to state propaganda more easily.’
Many agree that these fears are not unfounded. Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon warned that the Russian president posed a ‘real and present danger’ to three Baltic states after Russian jets were seen off the Cornwall coast in February.
Also in February, the Lithuanian government announced that it would bring back military conscription, abolished in 2008, because apparently the armed forces were not recruiting enough professionals. How can this be the case during such a surge in interest in the military? The ELTA news agency reported that in 2013 only half of those who completed basic training became professional soldiers. According to Justina Statuleviciute, ‘Some get scared, having seen how strict military discipline is.’
Adomas Bužinskas, a Conservative municipal councillor in Vilnius, joined the military volunteers about a year ago: ‘I had been considering joining the armed forces for a long time. Promoting and raising the prestige of military service should be priorities.’ The conflict in Ukraine was an additional incentive not to wait any longer. One of the leaders of his party, Rasa Jukneviciene, who was defence minister from 2008-12, agrees with him. Speaking at Independence Day festivities in Kaunas, she said every young person should undertake basic military training: ‘If we are ready, nobody will come to get us.’
The Conservative government of 2008-12 implemented education reforms that scrapped partial state subsidies for tuition. Last year the ruling Social-Democrat-led government decided to reinstate tuition coverage for military volunteers and reservists who had their contracts renewed for another term.
The military advertises junior officers’ training programmes by claiming that ‘a record of completed training on your CV will boost your chances of finding a job. A prospective employer will appreciate your responsibility and discipline...’
A new popularity
Celebration of the military is now widespread. Last autumn, Lithuanian national television created a reality show called ‘Real Men’, where celebrities, politicians and athletes undertook military training. This year’s Independence Day festivities in Kaunas were all about the military, with parades, consecration of a statue called ‘The Soldier’, and honouring students who had completed junior officers’ training.
Increasing numbers of civilians are curious about the military, and this interest is being strongly encouraged. The Armed Forces and Society Festival in spring takes place in various cities and is a massive display of military technologies, as well as live role-playing of medieval battles. Additional open days are planned for later this year, at which civilians will be able to ‘be a soldier for a day’, according to official announcements.
The army is now popular on social networks. Whereas for many years young people shunned military parades during Independence Day celebrations, many now take photos to share online.
Many believe that close co-operation between the armed forces, paramilitary groups and society is crucial in a ‘hybrid war’. The militarization of society in Lithuania is well on its way.