The Lithuanian president’s plan to limit Russian media follows similar trends emerging in other Baltic states. The creation of the rapid reaction force, however, represents a new strategy. Žukas said that Lithuania must be ready for “unconventional attacks by unmarked combatants” – a thinly veiled reference to Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Vilnius’ plan will not be sufficient to counter potential Russian moves against Lithuania. It is instead an initial response to an evolving security environment in which the conventional Russian military threat to the Baltic states is overshadowed by that of hybrid warfare, which includes the use of proxies, special forces and information campaigns.
In his statement, Žukas said Lithuania’s rapid reaction forces would consist of 2,500 troops from Lithuania’s 7,000-person military. These troops would be placed on high alert beginning in November and would have the capacity to mobilize within two to 24 hours. Their mission would be to counter unconventional security threats such as attacks by unofficial armed groups, illegal border crossings and the foreign manipulation of national minorities.
Lithuania formulated this rapid reaction plan within the context of the ongoing standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine – a conflict that has spread throughout the former Soviet periphery. The Baltic states are on the front lines of this broader conflict and are particularly concerned about Russian encroachment into their territory because of their small size and close proximity to the Russian heartland. This is especially concerning because the Baltic states, particularly Lithuania, have been strong supporters of Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West, putting them squarely in Moscow’s sights.
There has already been a great deal of Russian activity inside the Baltic states and the area surrounding them. Russia has built up its forces near St. Petersburg and in the exclave of Kaliningrad, both of which border Baltic states. Moscow has also increased the scale of its military exercises in both areas, while the Russian minorities in several Baltic states have held pro-Russia demonstrations. The rallies are of particular concern because of the size of the Russian minority populations: 24.8 percent of the population in Estonia, 26.9 percent in Latvia, and 5.8 percent in Lithuania.
Cross-border incidents between the Baltic states and Russia have also been on the rise in recent months. The Russian coast guard detained a Lithuanian fishing boat, and Russian officials held an Estonian official in custody for allegedly crossing the border on a spying mission, a charge Estonia denied.
The Baltic states see these recent actions in the context of the events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s support for demonstrations eventually led to the deployment of Russian military and unofficial militant forces. This has given way to concerns that the Baltics could be the next target for hybrid warfare.
As NATO members protected by the Article 5 collective defence clause, the Baltics are somewhat insulated from a Russian conventional military threat. The classification of a threat as subject to Article 5, however, requires a unanimous NATO council vote. This leaves effective defence of the Baltics subject to Western Europe’s political will to intervene. A rapid NATO response would be even more doubtful in the case of hybrid or asymmetrical warfare. The Baltic states have called for a permanent NATO military presence within their territory. Instead, NATO and the United States have only stepped up troop rotations for joint exercises and military training to a semi-permanent basis.
Lithuania’s decision to organize its own rapid reaction force is an effort to build the capacity to preemptively counter or contain Russian actions and reassure the public that the government is taking concrete action. Given Russia’s larger security forces and broader financial resources, however, Lithuania’s new force is unlikely to fully neutralize the threat. Maintaining more than a third of Lithuania’s forces at that level of readiness will require substantial resources, raising questions about the initiative’s long-term sustainability. At best, the plan supplements NATO’s efforts, which include launching the bloc’s own rapid reaction forces that can be deployed to the Baltics, Poland or Romania. Lithuania will continue to call for a greater U.S. and NATO commitment to regional security.
For its part, Russia will likely continue to use the same methods of hybrid warfare it implemented in Ukraine to project power regionally. Lithuania’s creation of a rapid reaction force is simply an acknowledgement of this reality and the need to confront it in a more flexible and creative manner.