Close Up 2016 Bundeswehr stations soldiers in Lithuania

Germany wants to provide military support to Lithuania as part of NATO’s deployment. The Lithuanians see this as a sign of loyalty and security for there is a growing feeling of the threat of Russia in the population. 

Rukla is a small town in Lithuania. Until now, Lithuanian soldiers have been performing their military service in Rukla’s military camp, but next year, 500 Bundeswehr soldiers will be stationed here. They are part of the thousand-man NATO battalion for Lithuania, which will be launched here next year, led by the Bundeswehr. The battalion also includes soldiers from the Benelux, France, Croatia and Norway. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been severely criticized for sending the Bundeswehr here with the accusation that it increases tensions with Russia. In September, Germany’s defense minister Ursula von der Leyen visited Lithuania and confirmed that she would send not only soldiers, but also the necessary equipment.

“Germany has always been very cautious with movements of its troops even in NATO partner countries,” says Linas Kojala, head of the Center for Eastern European Studies in Vilnius. “Berlin has always maintained pragmatic relations with Moscow and emphasized that it does not want to aggravate Russia.” However, Russia sees NATO’s expansion of its presence in the Baltic States as a provocation. “Therefore, the deployment of the Bundeswehr soldiers is a historic decision, which we are very happy about. For us, Berlin is a serious partner that has become one of our most important allies in recent years,” says the political scientist.

German hesitation

The citizens of Lithuania see the future presence of NATO in their country predominantly positively. In various surveys, 70 to 80 percent of respondents are in favour of the NATO decision. In their opinion, this will strengthen their security and deter potential attackers.

It is different in Germany. According to a Bertelsmann study published before the NATO decision, 57 percent of Germans reject defending Poland or the Baltic States in case of Russian aggression. Only about one in three believes that Germany must fulfil its obligations in NATO and the EU and be prepared to defend an attacked coalition partner.

Until now, German Bundeswehr soldiers have only taken part in exercises in Lithuania. Photo: l. Budzeikaite
Political scientist Kojala is convinced that there are historical reasons for the Germans’ hesitation, explaining, “Since the Second World War every demonstration of military power in Germany has been seen negatively, even when it is in the support of allies. This reminds many Germans of times they would rather not remember.”

Russia is also perceived differently in Germany than in the Baltic States. “While the Baltic countries see Russia as a possible attacker, Moscow is considered more of a partner for Germany,” says the political scientist. “The decision of the Federal government to send soldiers to Lithuania means, in my opinion, that Berlin is now assessing the Baltics differently from a strategic perspective. It perceives the threat of Russia.” In the minds of the people, the image of Germany is also gradually changing, but very slowly compared to the role it plays for European security.

Lithuania has expanded its defense in recent years. The most expensive and most modern purchases are Boxer-type transport tanks, which only the German and the Dutch armies have used until now. The first four of the “Wolves,” as the tanks are called in Lithuania, will be operational by the end of next year. A total of 88 Wolves will be procured. Additionally, in June, the first self-propelled PzH2000 howitzers arrived with a range of 40 kilometres. “Our army has never had troops that can manoeuvre quickly on the battlefield and are equipped with such weapon systems,” praised the chief commander of the Lithuanian forces, Lieutenant General Jonas Vytautas Zukas.

Porous defences

Experts warn, however, that the Lithuanian defense system still has many gaps. The three Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia can be easily isolated militarily from the rest of NATO and the EU. Only a narrow strip in the south of Lithuania borders Poland, squeezed in between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. This strip would be very difficult to protect.

NATO manoeuvres are held regularly in Lithuania: here US soldiers near Rukla in 2014. Photo: pictures alliance / AP images/M. Kubis (dpa)
“One of the biggest problems is air defense,” says Linas Kojala. “We are always observing military provocations: the Russian air force often flies near the NATO border and violates the airspace. We are glad that NATO has extended its security of our airspace indefinitely.”

The Lithuanian lieutenant general Zukas confirmed in an interview that there is a lack of air defense technology in Lithuania, saying, “Usually, armoured ground vehicles do not move on open terrain without cover from the air. We will discuss this with our allies. We hope that the Germans bring their systems with them next year. We are also talking with the US because we understand that the short-range defense system is not enough.” Lithuanian experts approve of Germany’s decision to send its own soldiers. They see it as a sign that Lithuania is an equal partner on the side of the free Western world should another cold war arise and a new Iron Curtain fall. Lithuania would not be abandoned.