Army Chief Rupšys warns of Russian retaliation for losing the war: ‘We must prepare for it’

Lithuanian Army Chief Valdemaras Rupšys. Photo MoD.
Lithuanian Army Chief Valdemaras Rupšys. Photo MoD.

Speaking about the past year of the war in Ukraine, Lieutenant General Valdemaras Rupšys, Commander of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, admitted that it had been full of tension and anxiety. Still, at the same time, it had also been very productive and quite surprising. It is true that as late as last February, when reading intelligence reports, military specialists could clearly see that Russia was preparing for a large-scale attack on Ukraine and that the balance of power was not in Ukraine’s favour. The situation apparently looked so bleak that the Commander of the armed forces says even today that ‘it is not the time to talk about how things looked to us then’, Jūratė Važgauskaitė writing at the news portal.

But Ukraine did not lose. It did not surrender, and the Russian leader, who was expecting an easy victory, remained as if he had bitten a fly. The year is over, but the war is not, and the Russian threat may never end. According to the Commander in Chief, that is why we must prepare.

One year has passed since Russia attacked Ukraine. How has this year been for Lithuania in terms of security? What were the forecasts before the war started? What did the situation look like a year ago?

It has been a tense year in every sense. Whether it is in terms of the calculation of resources and their use or what is essential for the army, this is a mandatory activity for the army leadership before decisions are taken. It is a matter of understanding the task, assessing, calculating and then deciding.

The year has also been unpredictable if we take 24 February as a starting point, or even 16 February last year, when we had already predicted that an invasion might take place. The data, the calculations according to all sorts of military calculation methodologies, showed that it could have been otherwise (than it was). Therefore, there was more concern. One could say that the pleasant surprise is that it turned out differently from what we predicted.

The other important thing is threat perception. It has changed in our country at all levels and institutions. The perception of the Allies and NATO has also changed radically. We have clearly seen who Russia is.

Some of our allies have seen Russia as we have seen it before. And, of course, some of the processes related to preparedness in the NATO area, particularly the defence preparedness of the eastern wing, have been greatly accelerated.

The focus on NATO’s eastern wing, deterrence and defence, has particularly increased here. This has a direct impact on our work. In addition to the usual work, such as training and equipping units, we have many innovations in defence planning and supporting Ukraine. We also need to respond to the changing situation.

What were the forecasts for Ukraine if you say that the calculations and the data showed a worse situation? Was it assumed that Russia would attack Kyiv, not just the Donbas region?

It was apparent, and all the data showed that Russia was preparing for an attack. A large-scale attack. The directions of that attack were visible. It could indeed have gone either way, but the forces massed on the borders signalled the direction of the attack. Indeed, it is not yet time to talk about how things looked to us then.

But it is naïve to think that if forces are massed on the Belarus-Ukraine border, they will be unused. Of course, according to the art of the operation, it could be used either way, but it was clear that it would be used.

And other data showed that an attack was inevitable. Only that, when we counted the initial assault groups, the size of a battalion, there were about 120-140 of them. So the force ratio showed that the Russians had a huge superiority. But they did not know how to use it. The analysis shows that this was because the Russians had faulty intelligence, miscalculated, and there was negligence in general, as there is everywhere, including in the army.

And, in my personal opinion, what we saw was a typical Russian way of waging war. They are such strange warriors. Even now, they are fighting strange wars.

A year after the start of the war, they are changing tactics. Human life and the preservation of forces are not valuable, and they cannot do that. The Russians have been doing this since the time of the Tsar. Yes, of course, they have a lot of people. But these tactics of warfare have become their weakness.

Until the war in Ukraine, intelligence could only make certain assumptions (about Russian capabilities). The numbers showed that they had a big lead, and nobody could predict how the human factor, the training, or the way of warfare would work.

The method and philosophy of warfare in Russia have not changed. At the start of the war, Russia had a sufficient amount of modern weaponry, but nobody could foresee how it would turn out, only to be fooled. And it was a pleasant surprise when we did.

What is our security situation now that there is a war nearby? How should we view the monthly exercises in Belarus and another wave of attacks in Ukraine?

The war in Ukraine, like most wars, sometimes takes an unpredictable turn, often for the worse. Therefore, predicting the security situation and what will happen is difficult.

Yes, several vectors can be drawn. It is not in the world’s interest for this war to spread. Everything is being done to prevent that from happening. This is clearly broadcast, it has been said repeatedly, and the US President has said it.

But it is complicated to predict everything. I would not dare to say that the security situation is absolutely clear that one-day peace will prevail, and we will live with fewer threats.

The threat will remain. Russia’s political posture, the militarised regime, which is not just Putin’s inner circle, remains. I dare say that even the milieu currently opposed to Putin does not hide its imperial ambitions and desires. Even some of the oppositionists. Therefore, the threat will remain for a long time.

Putin, I think, clearly understands that he would not tolerate a wider war than he is currently waging. Ukraine, with the support of the Western world, is forcing Putin to mobilise the military power of the whole country. And underneath that military ambition, all the state’s resources are there, and he cannot defeat Ukraine anyway.

Now the possible Russian counter-attack that has begun in Ukraine is, as it were, visible, you could say that something has begun. But if it has indeed begun in this form, it is unlikely to achieve anything. There is no clear intention. We see this kind of ‘washed-out’ offensive everywhere, but there is no progress.

Today’s figures show that Russia still has resources. But now is not the time to talk about it. However, Russia is not succeeding in achieving its military-operational objectives.

But Putin is unpredictable. It is sometimes difficult to predict what measures will be taken because people in their right mind could not attack Ukraine.

However, Putin is not suicidal. He should calculate and is as afraid of ruin as any dictator. I think that he will avoid war with the Western world because any means can be used, and the consequences will be sad.

But Russia remains a long-term threat, and the revanchism of losing this war will remain and grow. So we must prepare for that.

Is Belarus a threat to us? And how many Belarusians are left in Belarus?

Belarus, without Russia, is not a threat to us. But together with Russia, it is as much of a threat as Russia is because Belarus is dependent on Russia in almost every respect.

It is more than an allied state. Let us say that military integration is complete. The fact that these military units have not been used directly in the war against Ukraine, even though Belarusian territory is being used for the war, indicates that the level of trust in them is not high.

Russia and Belarus clearly understand that there is no threat to Belarus, so there is no reason to have a defence force of this size in Belarus. Therefore, the fact that they are not being used in the attack on Ukraine is a sign of a lack of confidence in that army.

How has our perception of the war, its course and its armaments changed since the war in Ukraine began?

It is important to see the bigger picture. As a NATO country, we have security guarantees because we participate in collective defence. Yet, even before 24 February last year, NATO’s military and political leadership decided that NATO forces, which are under the authority of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, needed to be reinforced. 

All this in order to have an appropriate response if something were to happen. Today, that plan is in place and has been activated. The number of air platforms alone has multiplied several times. In other words, the NATO Commander-in-Chief could now use many more aircraft.

Also, the response time of ground forces has been raised to the maximum for peacetime. NATO has performed very well, I would say. Some decisions have also been accelerated, such as the revision of defence plans. This automatically triggers a review of national defence plans and the maintenance and development of capabilities.

Today’s plans have to be viable, so we need to have the capabilities that we must have now, no matter what.

Looking at the short-term and long-term perspective of the threats, as they are now and as they may be, we need to make decisions on how to build up those capabilities as soon as possible.

This is important both at the NATO level and at the national level because NATO does not have an army itself. It is a national response, a ‘table-top’ capability, a manning. That is the philosophy.

To avoid being taken by surprise, we must have defence plans. We also need to have the capacity to implement them and be prepared so that we are not caught unawares. This has a direct impact on the development of our capabilities.

It is now clear where Russia’s weaknesses and strengths are and where they still have reserves. And if they were to launch a military campaign against us, how could we be on the winning side?

How many times have we heard from military experts that the Baltic countries are a weak point in NATO? And the Suwałki Corridor has even been called ‘the most dangerous place on earth’. What do you think about that?

The Baltic States can be a weak spot as much as we ourselves are weak. But what we do not have, the allies have. This is clearly arranged in time as well. So some will fill our weak spots.

Today, whatever the threat is, whatever the threat might be, we have arranged things so that we can outrun that threat so that the necessary forces are here. First to deter and then to deploy them. So I disagree with the experts here.

As for the lack of military capability throughout NATO, that is… We should talk about what happens if Russia recovers, and we sit back and do nothing. That would be a challenge with today’s capabilities. But countries do not sit on their hands, and there is no way that Russia, as it is now, can overtake NATO.

We have strong security guarantees. Those who say otherwise are ignorant. And there is no need to mislead the public because if the Baltic States were a weakness in NATO, if there were not enough capacity here, Russia would have taken advantage of it before the war in Ukraine.

But they know that the NATO countries, especially those that support us with capabilities we do not have, are great powers. Russia knows that NATO is not Ukraine. It is not even Russia.

The US, the UK and others have a capacity of 3.5 million troops. Russia still needs to get up to that, and technologically Russia is many times behind. The Russians also understand this. Look at the effect of bringing HIMARS to Ukraine. And that is a drop in the ocean of what the US and its allies have. The Russians know that, if necessary, strikes on their facilities would be much more severe.

Is NATO a united alliance? How are decisions made?

I cannot say anything about the prevailing debate at NATO political level, and I am not involved there. But I can say that there is 100% consensus at the military-strategic level. When the Chiefs of Defence meet around the oval table at NATO meetings, we do not speak on our own behalf. We speak on the state’s behalf and deliver the state’s message.

Yes, the technical details may already be a message from the Commander-in-Chief, but in defence terms, the strategic messages are state messages. And all 30 NATO countries are in the same boat in that sense, and we are rowing in the same direction.

If it says that one country is supporting less or more, that is a national decision, but it does not mean that a country is renouncing its NATO commitments or objecting to support from other countries. I do not see that.

There is no silence about the presence or absence of a German brigade in Lithuania. It would help with deterrence and defence, but have decisions been taken?

I am not talking about one brigade but about brigades or the military organisation that is supposed to provide deterrence and defence. Those plans are there. They are now being reviewed, and new plans are being drawn up. Those plans provide for the structures that will ensure deterrence, preparedness and defence. They include all the forces (air, sea, land).

So the (defence) plans are not about one brigade but about many brigades. They have tasks, response times, and locations. Locations are based on threats, some in Lithuania, some not. And certainly not one brigade. We are clear about this, and we are counting. Plans have been activated for this day (but not the brigade you are referring to).

As for Germany, Germany is the only NATO country that has said that they are committing a brigade to the defence of Lithuania. So as of today, according to their readiness and our readiness to receive it, we have a plan in place as to when it could be here if it were needed.

It has already been allocated. How it will proceed, where it will be, I cannot say today. It is a question of working groups. Politicians, diplomats and soldiers are working. As agreed, the other side will be able when we are able. They may be here so that it will be easier to ensure readiness.

However, the question is that we have to prepare for it. But today, that brigade would be there if something were to happen. It is formed, it has tasks, and it has weapons. Based on data, logic and practice, I can say today that that brigade would be here before we were directly threatened.

Sweden and Finland are expected to join NATO soon. And Poland is intensively buying weapons and modernising its army. So how do we look in the context of these neighbours, and are we safer when we are in their neighbourhood?

NATO’s strength is all countries. Before NATO’s fifth article, which refers to responding to an attack on one of the NATO countries, there is a third article, which refers to our capabilities and contribution to collective defence. Poland understands this very well, and that is encouraging. But to the extent that it arms itself alone, without other countries, it would not be a determining factor.

It is no secret that however we arm ourselves, the bulk of our military capability is/comes from the US. So we cannot survive alone, but we can survive together. In Europe, everybody is important. As for NATO’s third article, Poland is an example so that others could spend more (financially on defence). But I think other countries have already understood the nature of the Russian threat and are spending money on defence.

And strategically speaking, the southern and northern shores of the Baltic Sea will hopefully soon be part of NATO. And that is a huge dilemma for Russia. It will have to reorganise its forces in order to remain aggressive. Although NATO is not threatening Russia, everything that is happening is in response to Russian threats. It is collective defence.

Russia will have to invest even more in its military in order to threaten. In fact, they have only recently announced that they are going to invest in remodelling the army to create new districts. In this way, Russia is ‘undressing’. There will be even less money for other areas, and people will live even worse. I do not know from what resources this will be done.

The situation in Kaliningrad is also becoming complicated. However, Russia should have realised earlier that, although Finland and Sweden were neutral, they were not on their side but on our side. So the legal status of Finland and Sweden will change, and what is more significant physically is that the Swedes will be providing even more finance for defence. And given Sweden’s potential, this is a big blow for Russia.

There is a lot of talk about the need for Patriot air defence systems because we will feel safer if we have them. Poland already has them, and Ukraine would very much like them. Is it realistic that we will have Patriot in Lithuania one day?

“Patriot is a long-range missile system for air defence, it must be linked to a larger defence plan, and there must be an idea of how to use it. It is not the case that if we build Patriot, Lithuania will be defended. There are many such systems needed, and to cover the whole of Lithuania requires a large investment, which is, of course, not impossible.

There is a misconception now that here in Poland, there is a Patriot (and as if that is enough). No, in Poland, Patriot is in a specific place to defend a particular object. They are placed where they are needed now. A lot of Polish territories are used for transit to Ukraine, so there is a need to protect certain facilities there.

If there is a need for Patriot systems or other systems here, it is up to the Commander of the NATO Armed Forces to decide. But do not think we will buy one Patriot battery and have Lithuania covered. No. That would be nice, but it is not.

If you have it, yes, it is good to have it. It contributes to the common defence system. If we need it, if we need some units, say more than a brigade, to come here, then Patriot air defence systems will come.

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