Lithuanians remain calm, but prepare for potential conflict
In Vištytis, in southwestern Lithuania, the atmosphere is tranquil.
But this small sleepy town, home to verdant meadows, a lake, and quaint cottages, has found itself at the centre of geopolitics this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Vištytis is on the frontier with the Kaliningrad region – a heavily militarised Russian exclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, where Moscow reportedly keeps nuclear weapons.
Residents often see Russian border guards patrolling the border from their houses.
“We take a swim in the lake just 10 or so metres from the barbed wire fence. Sometimes, we can hear the border guards on the Russian side playing music. When that happens, we have a barbecue and dance to the music that’s coming from the tower,” Irina Skučas, a factory worker said.
Living by the border
She and her husband Gediminas have coexisted peacefully with their Russian neighbours for about 20 years.
“The Russians have never done anything to us,” she said.
“But when they closed the border to Russia, a lot of cheaper construction supplies stopped being transported from the Russian side. So, for example, nails we use to drill into walls or hang electrical cords, they now cost three times as much because they come from somewhere in Europe, not from Russia.”But locals – many of whom have lived through and vividly recall Soviet times – find the claim laughable.
After Moscow rolled troops into Ukraine, Lithuania imposed EU sanctions and shut its borders to Russia. Its military has also been preparing for any potential Russian aggression.
“We must start thinking as if we are living in a war,” Arvydas Anušauskas, Lithuania’s defence minister told reporters in Rukla, a small central town, on October 8.
In late September, Lithuania’s Rapid Reaction Force – established in 2014, comprising two battle groups – was also put on high alert following Putin’s partial mobilisation order.
Yet, some 90km (56 miles) away from Irina and Gediminas on the southern tip of the Suwałki gap, 24-year-old Neringa Kilmelyte shares a similar view.
Neringa lives in Kapčiamiestis, a village next to the Belarusian border, which was also a friction point during last year’s border crisis, housing some of the displaced people coming in from Belarus in the local school.
In 2015, conscription was reintroduced in Lithuania following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
Those drafted are currently training with a newly formed German-led combat unit in Rukla.
The brigade was set up following a NATO summit in Madrid, which overhauled defence planning in the Baltics to repel any attack in real-time.
“One thing is certain. The current situation means we need to do more together,” German defence minister Christine Lambrecht told journalists while inaugurating a permanent German command centre in Rukla.“The worst case scenario is a large war in Europe and there are some indicators it could happen. Nobody can predict what Putin will do. We must make sure the military is ready. That means more manpower and reservists,” he said.
“It’s an old saying from Roman times that if you want peace, prepare for war.”
Besides defence tactics, to help civilians, the interior ministry has also published a map with shelters and safe buildings, for use in case of emergency.
Some civilians have gone a step further.
Vytas, a former military man in his 40s, has resurrected an abandoned World War II bunker.
“This isn’t going to protect me against a modern-day bomb. Weapons are too sophisticated today,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But the thick walls of the bunker would give some protection against radiation, though probably not if a nuclear warhead was dropped close by. I don’t think you’d be safe if that were to happen.”
Meanwhile, others like 33-year-old Pawel Andrul, have adopted a relatively calmer attitude.
“It is somewhere in the Europeans’ DNA not to be afraid,” Andrul, who lives in the Polish town Suwalki of the Suwalki corridor said.
“Concerns about this Russian aggressor are present in Polish society all the time,” he added.
Known for its picturesque landscapes, synagogues and churches, Suwalki is a multicultural place.
But Poland’s contentious history with the Soviet Union is etched in the minds of Suwalki locals.
“Polish people here do not like Russians. They have not forgotten massacres like the Katyn,” he added.
The Katyn massacre of the 1940s took place when Poland was under Soviet Rule and involved the mass executions of thousands of Polish military officers.
Andrul highlighted that if Russia were to invade any of Poland’s neighbours and target towns which dot the Suwalki gap, Warsaw would step in to help.
“It is Poland’s business to do so,” he said.