Preparing for War in Lithuania

Letter From Vilnius

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

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