VILNIUS, Lithuania -- On the streets of the Lithuanian capital, events unfolding in Ukraine feel both distant and yet far too close for comfort.
“Of course we are watching what is happening in Ukraine,” said 54-year-old Vytautas Kriksciunas, a commodities trader standing in the bustling town square in the center of Vilnius, his two children next to him. “It is worrying. Maybe we will be next – first Ukraine, next the Baltics,” he added.
Since Russian troops began flooding into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula late last month, ostensibly to protect the pro-Russian citizens but viewed in the West as an act of military aggression, people across the former Soviet satellites have watched with mounting concern.
Despite sometimes frosty relations, this is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union over two decades ago that Russian forces have occupied the territory of an Eastern European nation, and there is a fear among the neighboring states that it could be the start of a downward path. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has already accused both Poland and Lithuania of helping train the “extremists” who ousted Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was considered a pro-Russian leader.
At an emergency meeting of European Union leaders held in Brussels last week, Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, told reporters that “Russia today is dangerous…They are trying to rewrite the borders after the Second World War in Europe.” Meanwhile, Poland’s foreign minister has compared Russia to a predator whose appetite grows as it continues to eat.
Lithuania so far has been among the most vocal in raising the specter of further Russian aggression. The tiny nation, population just 3 million, gained its independence in 1990, the first part of the Soviet Union to break away, but before that had spent centuries largely under the rule of czarist and then later communist Russia, as had its fellow Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia.
Few in the country want to return to those darker days.
“We all remember what Russia did to our parents and grandparents,” said Enrika Peteraitytem a 25-year-old accountant, wrapped up against the cold and standing on the Green Bridge, one of the few Soviet-era relics that has been allowed to remain in the Lithuanian capital.
Above her, towering statues of Red Army soldiers and Soviet model workers stare proudly out across the city. Underneath the statue of two soldiers, a plaque, added in the last few years, reads: “1940-41, 1944-91 More than 300,000 residents of Lithuania were exiled, imprisoned, killed.”
It is a bloody past, and Russia’s actions over the last few weeks, when it conducted large-scale snap military maneuvers in and around the Baltic Sea, have only heightened new concerns over growing tensions in the region, despite their distance from the Crimea.
“There was no warning for these latest military games,” Petras Austrevicius, vice speaker of the Lithuania Parliament and a member of the country’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told McClatchy, adding that the exercises being conducted by the fleet are a clear show of power by Russia.
“Russia is presenting a clear threat, and, knowing the Russian leadership, there is a great risk they might not stop with Ukraine. There is a clear risk of an extension of activities.”
Last Thursday, in response to Russian activities in the Baltic Sea area, the Pentagon sent six additional F-15 fighter planes to Lithuania, along with two aerial refueling aircraft, adding to the four already stationed here as part of NATO air patrols over the skies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that are aimed at deterring Russian aerial incursions. Another dozen planes are being sent to Poland and are set to arrive on Monday.
“Understandably, they are concerned,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, in reference to NATO’s Eastern European partners. “They seek our assurance for their security.”
Lithuania joined the EU and NATO in 2004, and many Lithuanians are hoping that this offers an extra degree of security and support that they didn’t have in the past. NATO members are bound by treaty to treat an attack on any member state as an attack on all NATO countries.
“I hope that our membership of the EU and NATO offers us some protection,” says Justinas Krasuckas, a 24-year-old artist from Utena, a small city a hundred kilometers from Vilnius. “It is unnerving to see what is happening in Ukraine, but for us things are no longer like they were in the past when we were isolated.”
Russia’s Crimea incursion also has started discussions about whether the Baltic States need to boost their military capabilities. Lithuania currently spends just 0.8 per cent of its gross domestic product on its defense budget, with the equivalent of $394 million set aside for 2014, and some have suggested the need to increase this figure.
“We have to increase our defense budget,” said Austrevicius, the vice speaker of Parliament. “We shouldn’t panic, but we need to give a clear message that as long as Russia is ready to use force rather than dialogue with its neighbors we will be prepared.”
Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, also has said recent events have clearly shown the need for the Baltic States to invest more heavily in national defense.
Others, however, are less certain that the countries are willing to take that step. “Resources are always limited, so the government will have to choose between defense or pensions and education or something else, and I know which one they will choose,” said Ramūnas Vilpisauskas, the director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.
Experts in the region are uncertain how likely a military threat from Russia is, but they view Russian activities with caution. Lithuania has a relatively small Russian population -- about 6 percent -- so Putin’s pledge to defend Russians is not viewed with the same concern as it is in Estonia and Latvia, where Russians make up around 25 percent of the populations.
Of even greater immediate concern than a military engagement, said Vilpisauskas, is the possibility that Russia will attack Lithuania’s economy by cutting supplies of natural gas; like much of Europe, Lithuania remains dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.
“Russia has used foreign trade as a weapon before, cutting gas supplies and exports, and they might do it again,” he said.
Lithuanian parliamentarian Austrevicius said that even if the military threat is not immediate, his country needs to take steps now to make certain it can defend itself in the future.
“What Russia is doing in Ukraine is a major change in European security architecture,” he said. “Maybe there is not an immediate military threat, but I believe Russia will continue to build up its military presence in the neighborhood and there is a clear risk.”
Gillet is a McClatchy special correspondent.