Thursday, February 26, 2015

Amid Escalating Russian Tensions, Lithuania Initiates Civilian Plan of Action

By Natalia Kopytnik

When Putin swiftly snatched Crimea from a bewildered Ukraine in early 2014, a collective shudder passed through the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These tiny European countries, with populations smaller than that of New York City, have found themselves wondering if they might be the next targets of Russian aggression. But while the collective West has been responding with a rather disjointed war of words and sanctions, tiny Lithuania has been rallying its people, resources and allies, hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union and the United States have all sought to reassure the Baltic States that they will remain active in protecting their interests. Nevertheless, Lithuanians, much like many Eastern Europeans, are painfully aware that they cannot put their faith in assurances alone (, February 11). The government in Vilnius has taken increasingly strong steps to bolster Lithuanian security, simultaneously sending a strong and defiant message to Russia. Notably, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense recently published a comprehensive guide aimed at preparing Lithuania’s three million citizens for the worst possible scenario. The document, bluntly titled “How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War,” provides a framework for a civilian plan of action in the event that the border is breached by enemy combatants (“Ką Turime Žinoti as found on, accessed February 26).

While potential enemy combatants are not specifically identified as Russians within the document, the message is clear: the country should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. The editor’s note explains that “we aimed in this publication that [Lithuanians] receive comprehensive information of the state and its possible action in the event of disaster or war [...] we try to provide all the necessary information but realize that issues remain, which require further explanation.”

As to its contents, the guide provides many general suggestions as to the best evacuation routes, construction of home bomb shelters and recommended demeanor around enemy soldiers. The section entitled “Practical Tips for Residents” aims to teach Lithuanians a plethora of survival skills related to specific situations of peril such as: a) how react when sirens sound (move to a safe area), b) how to act in an emergency (do not panic, listen to the radio for instruction), c) what to pack in an emergency pack (first aid, non-perishables, blankets and of course, adhesive tape, among other items), and d) how to act in the event of an explosion (take shelter in a basement, ditch or tree).

In the case of more extreme situations, the guide offers both emotional and practical advice on how to behave as a hostage, stressing that “your only goal is to survive”; it is unwise to refuse food and do not “stare down your captors.” Yet another section advises on the proper course of action in the event one is unable to evacuate the area of hostilities. Some pieces of advice are more ambiguous than others: “if you fail to evacuate, you will have to acquire a gun, it will protect you from bandits.” Where to obtain weapons or munitions is not spelled out.

The advice and guidelines range from fostering psychological support, to more practical basic survival skills. For example, in situations of duress, “do not lie to people to encourage them” and “do not risk your life to defend property or assets” and, most importantly, “do not panic.” More pragmatically, the Lithuanian defense ministry document recommends its readers to “have an ample supply of non-perishable food” and “ensure each family member’s needs are considered when planning.”

In the event of occupation, citizens are advised on how to actively resist the enemy regime, by holding strikes and demonstrations, advocating resistance through social media, staging cyber attacks and engaging in passive resistance through unproductive work. “Be aware,” the guide advises, “if your country is surrounded, escape abroad will be almost impossible.” Be prepared, “to stay in the country and join a resistance movement of defense or survival.” So far, about 2,000 copies have been distributed in schools and other institutions, though the full document is also available for download from the defense ministry’s website.

At the end of the day, the reality is that Lithuania directly borders Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad (its border with Belarus provides little comfort as well).  Judging by Putin’s playbook in Crimea, the evolution of a Russian-choreographed crisis in a region with a significant number of Russian speakers (about 6 percent of Lithuania’s total population) is not beyond the realm of possibility (RT, January 15). A plausible choice in this case? The port city of Klaipeda, home to a considerable Russian minority and strategically valuable liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, which is conveniently located less than 150 kilometers from the Russian border.

Thus, in addition to releasing the “survival guide,” Lithuania has also decided to increase its defense spending to at least 1.1 percent of GDP by next year, and 2 percent (as recommended by NATO) by 2020. It has also vowed to increase military cooperation with Latvia and Estonia (, February 11). Nonetheless, the looming reality remains that Russia’s defense spending has skyrocketed in the past few years and is expected to hit a record $81 billion this year (about 4.2 percent of its GDP). Therefore, Lithuania needs a contingency plan because no European country, regardless of its size or military budget, has the resources to be able to successfully take on Putin’s Russia alone (The Moscow Times, October 16, 2014).

While other countries in the region (such as Poland) have hesitated to send lethal weapons to Ukraine’s aid, the Lithuanian foreign ministry (as well as that of neighboring Latvia) reaffirmed that they were keen on sending assistance for the Ukrainian army ( February 5).  In general, Vilnius has remained one of Kyiv’s strongest supporters during the course of the crisis in the east. And Russia has noticed; the country’s NATO airbase has reported an increase in Russian planes flying into Lithuanian airspace without identifying themselves or submitting flight plans (, February 7). Russian news outlets have predictably and repeatedly decried President Dalia Grybauskaite and the Lithuanian government for its “hysterics” ( February 16). Similarly, Russian media relegates the perceived threat of invasion in the Baltic States to “fear mongering” and “delusion” ( February 20).

Perhaps Lithuania’s “survival guide” seems like more of a curiosity than a serious government initiative to Western media as well. But the West might be too quick to dismiss such things as overeager nervousness. Indeed, there is a pervasive lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation that the residents of the Baltics currently feel they face (Lithuania Tribune, July 18, 2014). A recent Gallup poll shows that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is at the bottom of the list of Americans’ security concerns (, February 13). After Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is generally wary of involvement in any conflict, much less a direct war. This reality only contributes to the increased understanding in the Baltics that (despite the reassurances of their allies) they may have limited outside support when push comes to shove. Initiatives such as this “survival guide” might not be a foolproof way to ensure safety or organization in war time. They are however, a pragmatic step to ensure that, if the day comes, citizens might have at least some better idea of how to ensure their own safety and, ultimately, their survival as a nation. 

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