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 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.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
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.
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.
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.”