Fearful of Russia, Lithuanian volunteers sign up fearing a repeat of Ukraine

Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Moldova, all former Warsaw Pact states, feel vulnerable at the creation of 'Novo Russia'

Finishing his working week as a lawyer, Robert Juodka puts on his fatigues, loads his assault rifles into the car and heads off to the woods to take part in training. He and his comrades regard their “war games” as deadly serious; preparations for resisting a Russian invasion.

The Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, which was disbanded by the country’s communist government, now has 10,000 members. New recruits join every week. The age range is wide, but a hard nucleus is being formed of former service personnel. And experienced foreign volunteers may be admitted in the future. Many fear that what has happened to Ukraine may be revisited in Lithuania.

Last week the parliament in Vilnius voted overwhelmingly to bring in conscription. Security forces surrounded two railway stations after the foreign ministry received “intelligence” that large numbers of Russian men in civilian clothes were on board trains coming from Belarus, a neighbouring state and a Kremlin ally. They were said to be heading for Kaliningrad, the Russian-controlled enclave between Lithuania and Poland.

The Vilnius parliament has voted in conscription (Robert Juodka)

The reports proved to be wrong, but the Lithuanian government was quick to point out that Moscow had carried out extensive naval exercises off Kaliningrad and had since announced reinforcements for the base. At the recent commemorations of the 25th anniversary of independence, President Dalia Grybauskaite warned that Lithuania needed “the same unity which got us liberty now”.

Her government has published a 100-page pamphlet on how to survive an invasion. “Don’t panic… gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world,” one passage reads.


Robert Juodka, of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, stressed that there were no shortage of volunteers to fight the invaders. “The aggression in Ukraine, which is close to us, has certainly helped recruitment,” he said. “Our members start as young as 10 and can go up to 80. But it is the ex-army people who are very useful; some of them have been to Afghanistan and they bring a lot of experience and skill. The aim is to back up the regular army if we are invaded by the Russians. We think the Ukrainians were caught by surprise. We are going to be prepared.”

Keen to play his part is Briton Mark Harold, who has become the first foreigner to become a Vilnius city councillor. The 36-year-old said: “People see what has happened in Ukraine and so naturally they are worried. This country is looking towards a Western free-market economy, not to what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin brings.”

Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Moldova, all former Warsaw Pact states, feel vulnerable at the creation of “Novo Russia”. They fear that Mr Putin’s ambitions are unlikely to end with the annexation of Crimea and the creation of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. 

Dalia Grybauskaite warned that Lithuania needed “the same unity which got us liberty now” (Getty Images)

Lithuania is the only Nato country supplying arms to Kiev. In Washington, Barack Obama is waiting to see whether a ceasefire agreed last month in the Belarus capital holds. The two European leaders who brokered the Minsk accord, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and French President François Hollande, are adamant that such a course would add fuel to an already incendiary scenario.

The government in Vilnius has remained one of the strongest proponents of sanctions against Russia despite its economy being hard hit as a result. Rolandas Krisciunas, the deputy foreign minister, said: “We’ll find other markets. The problem is some of our European partners, they are worried about losing the Russian market, but  they may end up by losing not markets, but land.”

Mr Krisciunas stressed that there would be no shortage of people prepared to stop aggression from the east. “My son is just 14 and he wants to join up,” he said.

New recruits join the Riflemen’s Union every week (Robert Juodka)

In this febrile atmosphere, there is renewed interest in learning the lessons of history. Lines of young visitors visit the Museum of Genocide Victims at the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Ricardas Petrauscas, 19, a student, said: “We are told we need to learn from the past, and we don’t want those times returning. Of course, we don’t want the Russians back and we don’t want another Ukraine here. I don’t want to see people from Russian families being targeted; Lithuanians from all backgrounds should be together.”

For Yevginy Bogomolov in Visaginas, one of the few Russian majority towns in the country, it is the nationalists who are creating divisions. “You here this kind of talk more and more now, saying there are spies at work. This is nonsense,” the 52-year-old said. “What is happening in Ukraine and other countries around here is complex; there should be a debate about it. If people stop talking, stop listening to each other, they may well end up fighting.”