Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army in Europe take part in military exercise "Black Arrow" in Rukla.
Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army in Europe take part in military exercise "Black Arrow" in Rukla, May 14, 2014.
Ints Kalnins / Courtesy Reuters

Visitors to Lithuania would be forgiven for failing to realize just how seriously its people take Russia. From Klaipeda to Vilnius, ordinary Lithuanians are preparing for the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin turns from Crimea and the civil war in eastern Ukraine toward them or their neighbors in Latvia and Estonia. Their jitters are understandable; every family in the Baltics has direct experience with Russian occupation. Jurgita Ludaviciene, a book editor, told me that when word of the Soviet invasion came in 1944, her grandfather—a reserve officer in the Lithuanian army—had only two hours to decide what to do. Since the Soviets would almost certainly have sent him to the Gulag, he fled west, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. They never saw him again.

Bad memories and fears of Russia are an old trope here. Once part of the powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Lithuania was first swallowed by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. Briefly independent after World War I, it was next invaded by the Soviet Union after Moscow signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. After the war, many tens of thousands like Ludaviciene’s grandfather fled and 250,000 were killed or sent to the Gulag.

For her part, Ludaviciene is making plans. “I don’t want to have only two hours to decide what to do if the Russians invade,” she says. She has two children of her own—both girls, which is considered lucky. “Others are trying to figure out how to ensure their sons don’t have to fight.”

But they might have to. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has called the country’s massive neighbor to the east a “terrorist state.” The outspoken center-right leader is the only EU head of state to have openly promised to send weapons to Ukraine. She has also announced a bill that would reinstate the draft to protect her country from a possible Russian invasion.

As Western countries debate how to confront Putin, this former Soviet republic of 3.5 million people—now a member of the European Union, NATO, and as of January, the eurozone—has emerged as a leading voice for action. If Russia’s “open aggression against its neighbor is not stopped,” Grybauskaite warned recently, “then that aggression might spread further into Europe.” That is not to say that Lithuanians are frothing hawks. They are mostly circumspect about their worries and tend to be apologetic about the possibility of appearing needlessly hysterical. But they believe that the centuries they spent under Russian rule and their proximity to Moscow give them important insight into the Kremlin's thinking, and they worry their voices are being drowned out by the self-interest and inertia of Europeans further west.

On the Russian side, the Kremlin has called Lithuania's support for Ukraine a “provocation” that undermines a peaceful settlement there. As such, Lithuania has become a front line of Moscow’s new Cold War with the West. In the first ten months of 2014, NATO scrambled its fighter jets more than 130 times to intercept Russian planes near Lithuania, up from only four times in 2010.

Lithuania is particularly exposed because it borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania. Kaliningrad was a closed military zone during the Cold War. Moscow now uses it as a station for missiles that it says are pointed at European countries. Russia carried out a military drill in Kaliningrad last January that involved some 9,000 soldiers and more than 55 naval vessels from its Baltic Sea Fleet. Similar drills preceded Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 as well as its annexation of Crimea.

Beyond brute force, Lithuanians also fear the less visible aspects of Moscow’s so-called hybrid war. Russia has threatened to reopen criminal investigations against several thousand Lithuanians who defied the Soviet draft in 1990 and 1991. And there are worries that the Kremlin is seeking to exploit activists from Lithuania’s small but vocal minority Polish community, which often opposes government policies. The leader of a group called the Polish Election Action Alliance in Lithuania, who often supports Moscow’s line on Ukraine, is suspected of having ties to the Kremlin.

Whether or not Moscow is directing such activists in Lithuania, concerns about pro-Russian influence are growing. Even the setting up of an innocuous-looking outdoor stage to mark Maslenitsa—the Russian Orthodox celebration that precedes Lent—on a small square in Vilnius’s beautiful Baroque Old Town raised suspicions. Loudspeakers broadcast pop music and appeals for passersby to join in, but only a few dallied.

That may be unsurprising in a country where ethnic Russians make up less than six percent of Lithuania's population. Although most people over 30 still speak Russian, almost no one younger than that understands the former lingua franca. But Lithuanians do worry about neighboring Latvia, where ethnic Russians make up a quarter of the population and lax regulations have helped turn the country into a major laundering center for Russian cash. Ethnic Russians compose a quarter of Estonia’s population, too. If Putin decides to invade either country or both, citing the old gem about protecting rights of Russians abroad, Lithuania would surely follow.

None of this is lost on the rest of the West. Last month, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon warned of a “real and present danger” of Russia potentially trying to destabilize the Baltics with tactics similar to those it has used in Ukraine. Since that crisis began, NATO has moved to reassure its eastern-most members by updating response plans and announcing that it would establish new command centers in six countries that would oversee a new rapid-response force of around 5,000 troops. In preparation for such a battle, in January, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry distributed a manual to soldiers and civilians advising what to do in the event of a foreign invasion. “Keep a sound mind, don’t panic, and don’t lose clear thinking,” it read. “Gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world.”

Although Lithuanians do see NATO as their best guarantee of independence, many question whether the alliance’s Article 5—which stipulates that an armed attack against one member represents an attack against all—would be invoked if Russia invaded Lithuania. Many take the EU’s acquiescence to Moscow in Ukraine as an ominous sign. Rimvydas Valatka, editor of the news website 15 Min and one of the country’s leading political commentators, blames self-interest across Europe, which relies on energy and other business deals with Russia. “It’s understandable the West isn’t supplying weapons to Ukraine—they don’t want to get involved if they can avoid it,” he says. “Even Franco’s Spain stayed out of World War II, so why would you expect them to become involved now?”

But the overwhelming attitude toward perceived Western inaction over Ukraine is of philosophical resignation rather than anger. “Of course it’s difficult for the EU’s 28 members to agree on anything,” a university student told me. Although Valatka criticizes German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders for refusing to arm Ukraine, he doesn’t believe that Lithuanian politicians should openly protest. “You have only the allies you have,” he says. “Getting into arguments would only help the Russians undermine European unity.”

Valatka also questions Grybauskaite’s motives. With two years left in her second (and last) term, her uncompromising manner has earned her the nickname Iron Lady. But Grybauskaite has been accused of harboring strong communist sympathies in her youth, most recently in the unflattering unauthorized biography Red Dalia, copies of which were mysteriously delivered to members of the European Parliament in December. Grybauskaite studied in St. Petersburg—then called Leningrad—in the 1980s and resigned from the Communist Party later than many other Lithuanians. “It’s not clear exactly what she was doing in the last years of Communist rule when everyone else was fighting against it,” Valatka says. Now she’s either “protesting too much or else displaying the zeal of the converted,” he says of her standing up to Russia, “but at least she’s on the right side.”

For now, Lithuanians see their main role as battling the many myths surrounding Moscow’s actions. Kremlin propaganda has helped reinforce a strong current of argument among some in the West that Putin is justified because Ukraine and Russia share a single culture, and that Ukraine by itself is not a viable state. Although some Lithuanian politicians have suggested banning Russian propaganda, a panel at a book fair I attended last month focused on maintaining a “multiplicity of narratives.” The venerated poet Tomas Venclova, who teaches at Yale, echoed the common view by saying censorship would be a “road to ruin … It’s a lazy answer to a very difficult problem.” Others agree, saying that the particular nature of Lithuania’s plurality gives its arguments strength. “We’re a hybrid society,” the veteran journalist Ramunas Bogdanas told me. “We understand the Soviet system because we were part of it and now it’s our role to speak the truth to the West, which doesn’t understand the threat.”

For now, Lithuanians are watching Ukraine and hoping for the best. “We cry for Ukraine,” another editor told me. They also understand that confronting Moscow will require a long, hard struggle. “I won’t live to see the day when Russia is no longer a threat,” Lolita Varanaviciene, the head of one of the country’s main publishing houses, said, shaking her head. “I realize that now.”

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  • GREGORY FEIFER is author of Russians: The People behind the Power, which was published in paperback with a new afterword in February.
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