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Lithuanian Popular Militia Expands to Defend Against Russian Threat (Eurasia Daily Monitor)

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).

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.

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.

Paul Goble, Eurasia Daily Monitor

[The opinions expressed in this article, except the quote from Stanislav Byshok, are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the CIS-Europe Monitoring Organization.]

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