So, how Lithuanians will defend themselves? This is what the experts think

Exercise in Rukla
Exercise in Rukla. J.Butkutės nuotr.

Lithuania’s defence policy is one of the most talked-about topics in political circles and society. Everybody has an opinion about the current situation. Indeed, the voices of the most senior politicians are not heard on how Lithuanians will defend themselves. In the Seimas, the country’s defence policy moves from the most important problems to those which, according to experts, imitate activities or sprinkle herbs on the main course but are not the main course, Jūratė Važgauskaitė is writing at the news portal.

Criticism is also directed at the army or the Ministry of National Defence. Still, according to sources interviewed by the portal, this may be an attempt to divert attention from the undone work of the ruling majority and the entire Seimas. It is also about the fact that the Lithuanian Armed Forces and the defence sector have been neglected for many years.

It is true that, after 2014, there was a rush to increase funding and to bring back conscripts, but the work has been slow, and some of it, according to experts, was started but then stopped.

In 2022, when a major war broke out in Ukraine, Lithuania rushed to do things that had been decades in the making but had not been done. At the same time, the example of Finland is being looked at intensively and is often cited. The only difference is that the Finns have always had a sober view of the Russian threat and have always prepared themselves to counter a possible threat, not least when the turmoil began in Ukraine.

Lithuania’s neighbours, the Poles, with whom strategic-military cooperation is a priority, are rapidly increasing their defence funding. There is talk that it may soon reach 4% or even 5% of GDP. Poland is also buying a wide range of armaments and is seeking the closest possible relations with the US.

Lithuania should seek the closest possible cooperation with Poland in this case, as we share perhaps the most sensitive area of NATO’s eastern flank, the Suwałki Corridor. Still, real cooperation is lacking, analysts and foreign military experts monitoring the situation say.

Just as they miss the railway tracks to Poland, the Rail Baltica is supposed to connect the three Baltic countries and Lithuania with Poland. “Rail Baltica is the project of the century, launched almost 20 years ago (2004), but it cannot yet boast of any strategic success, even though it is now becoming a vital element in defending against enemies.

According to experts, Lithuania does not have a total defence plan, nor, because of political disagreements, does it seem to have any plans to introduce universal conscription. The defence budget, although rapidly increasing, is below three per cent.

According to experts interviewed by, a real breakthrough would require at least 4% of GDP to be allocated to defence and political forces to agree among themselves on universal conscription and, perhaps most importantly, on motivating the public for a possible universal defence. Experts state that there is a lack of political leadership and money, which is being masked by minor bills and imitation activities.

We are on the hunting ground, but we can’t see it

Albinas Januška, a signatory and former diplomat, says that we are in a “bear hunting ground” but do nothing to protect ourselves properly. He says we know what needs to be done because we put the necessary work together in the Inter-Party Defence Agreement last summer, but the work is not moving.

“Everything that needs to be done urgently was written down in the Party Defence Agreement. It should simply be followed and implemented. But over half a year has passed, and the strong notion that Lithuania needs to change radically, stop playing “defence”, and think about it realistically has disappeared. We live in a bear’s hunting ground and hope that if the bear eats, it will eat us last. But that is not the case. According to our geographical situation, we will be eaten first.

Here in Poland, the defence budget is planned to be over 4% of GDP, and we have not actually increased our defence budget since the outbreak of this war, and we are not even considering it. If we expect to get by with what we have, then that is probably the way it will stay. In the same agreement between the parties, it is stipulated that funding will be according to defence needs, not defence according to financial means.

But, as we can see, those needs are not great either. Everything is going according to some kind of plan, and the Ministry of Defence is putting forward plans that are not ambitious and do not correspond to the spirit of the agreement. This is cosmetic. If we say that the division is half-formed, we still have brigades, we will add something more in seven years and have this situation. And we do not have enough troops, and we will not defend ourselves if the Lithuanian public does not defend itself.

There is no organisation, and the agreement between the parties stipulates that by 2023 a plan for the total defence of the state must be drawn up, defining the role of the institutions, the citizens, the resources, and the reserve. Nothing of the sort is happening, and there is no discussion with the public. Of course, we cannot blame politicians alone; the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, the President, is silent and does not take responsibility. What is happening today is too little, it does not correspond to the seriousness of the situation, nor does it correspond to what is happening in the army,” said Mr Januška.

Talking to the politicians responsible for these things, the signatory said there is a lot of hope in the victory of Ukraine and that “things will work out there,” and we will not have to do anything.

“They say that we need to help Ukraine, that the Ukrainians will save us, and that we will have time. Maybe it’s not worth spending so much money now if we won’t need it. The argument is understandable, but state politicians, the state itself, cannot rely on someone else’s will, especially when it comes to Russia and the Kremlin. The state must prepare for the worst and war so there is no war. Everything is needed to prepare the army, the public and the NATO forces in Lithuania”, said the former diplomat.

He admitted that there is not much money for defence, not enough, but it is always possible to borrow. However, he said, the most important thing is not money but will.

“There is no political will. We are overwhelmed by the fatigue in the transatlantic community, but we are tired of ourselves. We cannot concentrate for long periods of time, and we cannot carry out strategic tasks. There is no strategic discipline or understanding that if you start something, you must finish it.

Maybe we start preparing for elections, other interests come up, and the interest of the state, the interest of defence, and the interest of survival are no longer in the picture. We need to talk to the US, to Poland about our situation, but there is not much of that. This is a coalition problem, and the public, which is also tired of war topics, does not demand any effort from politicians. They feel that there is no pressure, so nothing happens. This is a typical Lithuanian situation”, Januška sadly stated.

According to him, from the present perspective, it is clear that we have done very little for our defence during the whole period of independence. Until 2014, we did almost nothing and did not provide additional funding for the army. It developed according to the funding it received, which was negligible.

“We have heard from top Lithuanian politicians in the past that 2% of GDP for national defence is a fabrication. Of course, in 2014, we were shaken by the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. There were some changes, but then everything returned to the same situation we see now. There was some kind of breakthrough, we got two per cent, but then we seemed to have come to the conclusion that nothing would happen here, and nobody would attack. Last summer, it really seemed that the timing was right and the political will was right, but now we see that the situation is the same – everything is dead,” said Mr Januška.

He assured us that although we present ourselves as experts on Russia, we have not been there for a long time and do not know what is happening there. This is not the worst thing because, in addition to knowing, we also have an instinct that Russia is evil, a threat.

“With this instinct, we have also “driven”, we have told everybody, and they now agree that we have. But the bad side is that we have got used to talking the talk, but not to do. We are good talkers but not doers. We thought that in those speeches, everything would come out, that we could boast that we were good prophets, but General Hodges brought us down to earth, saying that we could not defend ourselves with our two per cent. And we need to do it now, and yes, we need more money. It is a pity that this coalition has lost its strategic backbone today”, said the former signatory.

Are we afraid of what needs to be done, so we do nothing?

Mantas Martišius, a specialist in political communication, says that defence issues and whether or not to tell the whole truth to the public is a delicate and difficult matter.

For politicians, he says, it is extremely difficult to tell the public bluntly that the security situation in the country is difficult not only because of the possible reaction, which can be very simple – emigration – but also because of the economic and reputational damage to the country when investors may leave after hearing bad security forecasts.

“Then it happens that certain things are simply not talked about out loud. And if we don’t talk about it out loud, it is not part of the political agenda. Conscription funding does not become a full priority. The other thing is Ukraine. It has been successful for a long time, and we hope with them that everything will be all right, that Ukraine will be happy and that the security issues will work themselves out. Therefore, maybe it is not worth ‘making waves’ to frighten the public and spend money. <…>

Plus, if we asked the country’s top leaders today what is most important to us, we would probably get many different answers. In other words, there are many different priorities, and if there are different priorities, it is not clear where to start. Some people talk about a division, others about a general call-up, others about a German brigade, which is very costly.

We are like a traveller at a crossroads who stands still and does not know what to do. So that is what the debate is. We do not want to be bold and frank about how it really is. We do not know our objectives, and the politicians point fingers at the military. The military says that it is the politicians’ decision. Then there are the NATO issues. Some say we need troops here, and others say we need them elsewhere. Then there are infrastructure issues. It’s a mishmash”, said the political communication specialist.

There is no consensus on what to do

Institutions are talking about it, but there is no consensus on what to do. This is because some are waiting for the war’s end in Ukraine, while others explain that the security situation is difficult, we cannot defend ourselves, and there is no money for defence, so we have to rely on foreign partners to help us.

“When you calculate how much is needed, it makes you feel uncomfortable. And if we start discussing in a disingenuous way, then the discussion becomes so superficial. Everything is fine. I understand why that is because, if you are honest, some people will pack their bags and leave. And then what to do? The situation is that we have not taken care of defence for 30 years. In 2014 we reinstated the draft, we did this, we did that, we bought this, but it is not enough,” Martišius lamented.

He added that, yes, there are politicians who understand that the security situation is really difficult. But there is no decision on which way to go, where to go first to improve the situation. Therefore, he said, when we cannot take fundamental decisions because there is no money or political will, we take secondary or tertiary actions.

“We issue brochures and laws restricting the actions of Belarusian and Russian citizens. So there is a security theatre. These are good things, but they are not the main course, but rather the herbs that are sprinkled on top of it. Let us look at, say, Ukraine, and they need warplanes. Maybe we need them too? But if we buy warplanes, none will be left for anyone else. <…> Everything costs billions, not millions, so you end up thinking that maybe we don’t need anything at all, maybe we can get by. Because we have lived without it, and we have survived”, said the political communication specialist.

He agreed with the idea that since the beginning of independence, our investments in national defence have been very modest. He said that Lithuania had learnt the lesson that there will be no war, and if there is going to be a war, it will be somewhere else, certainly not here.

“The prevailing thinking in society and elsewhere was that nothing would happen here. Then there is the other thing, the cuts in defence funding right after the Russo-Georgian war. That was done by none other than the government of Andrius Kubilius.

The Lithuanians boast about how expert they are on Russia and how they know that Russia is a threat. So what? We know that that country is a threat, but we have not done enough to protect ourselves. <…> Let us say now that we are asking for this and that from NATO, but we do not even have a general summons ourselves. Basically, now only volunteers and one other person is called up to serve in the army. We say one thing and do another. That is hypocrisy. <…> We only want to consider ourselves as Russian experts. We call ourselves so”, Martišius stated.

There is no understanding of total defence

Vytautas Jonas Žukas, former Commander of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, speaks sternly about the situation we find ourselves in. He says we live in dangerous times, but society and politicians are completely unprepared for the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, it is possible.

“There is no concept of total defence. Yes, there are defence plans, but that is different. Nobody in Lithuania knows what to do in the event of a possible mass bombing. All citizens, whether they have served or not, do not know. There is no preparation for armed resistance by the state. There are regional defence plans, but there are no stocks, no idea how hospitals would function in the event of direct aggression, and how civilian institutions would function. Where to go? Where are the children from schools and kindergartens to hide? Are there any supplies? Water? Where are the shelters? This has been talked about for a long time. Even when I was an army commander, this was talked about. <…>

It is very difficult to move forward, although there have been a lot of talks. There have been pieces of training, although they have been very formal. Someone would come from the ministries, we would sit down, and we would discuss the issues, but nothing would go anywhere. There are many things involved, the same railway, bridges, medical facilities, and shelters. So there is no strategic approach to the defence of the state of Lithuania involving not only the armed forces but also the citizens. There are some reflections, some conferences, but nothing turns into a concrete plan”, regretted the retired general.

In his view, it all comes down to the competence of politicians.

“Do we have a plan ready for citizens on what to do in case of nuclear aggression? Where to go, where to hide? What to do if the whole infrastructure is destroyed? We can learn from Ukraine what to do now. There are concrete examples. When I worked as an adviser to the President, there was a fire in Alytus, and nobody knew what to do.

There was chaos, even though the training had just taken place. Then there was the refugee crisis. <…> Now I hear there will be a national crisis management centre. It has not existed so far, but if it does, maybe it can bring together all the peacetime issues: refugees, floods, and fires. That is good, but it has not happened so far. There is no joint effort to bring together ministries and municipalities so that everybody knows what to do and when to do it. Yes, the military knows what it would do in a crisis and what infrastructure it would use. But we don’t have a comprehensive national crisis plan, ” said the former army chief.

According to the retired general, we live with the enemy outside the gates. The scenarios can be many and varied, and we have already seen one of them – an influx of refugees. We have also seen how difficult it has been.

According to Mr Žukas, there is a lack of leadership, although this is not a symptom of recent years; it has been going on for years.

“In 2014, it was clear what to expect from the Russian regime. Nine years have passed, but we have not reached any conclusions. We have not learnt our lessons”, said the retired general.

We are still a long way from Finland

He added that Lithuania has never had a strong desire to finance national defence. Many social issues potentially needed more and more money. According to Mr Žukas, healthcare and pensioners were always more important than national defence.

“Finland has a bitter experience with the Soviet Union. The whole nation understood that it was very serious. After the Second World War ended, they took measures and created a national defence system, starting with shelters and ending with the army and the reserve. This understanding has never existed in Lithuania. When the Russian army withdrew from our country, nobody thought there would be any need for an army.

Then we joined NATO, and people started to think we were safe and did not need to develop our own defence capability. Suppose there was an election, and the parties involved never had a positive view of national defence. Both the press and the public had the same opinion, negative rather than positive. Everything changed only after 2014 when it was realised that the dangers were real. So there is no concept of national defence.

We have no idea that an aggressive state has not gone anywhere. It is nearby, and sooner or later, we will have problems. Apart from isolated statements by politicians and army commanders, nothing has happened. General Kronkaitis used to say, back when we first joined NATO, because there was a euphoria, that here we are, we are members of NATO, so there is no need for anything because Article 5 will come into play and protect us. There was already a lot of controversy about whether it was necessary to reorient the Lithuanian Armed Forces from what we had to peacekeeping missions”, Žukas said.

He recalled that in 2014 we had one of the lowest funding levels in NATO, even though we demanded defence plans. The Estonians and Latvians gave more, we were last, and the attitude was that there was no need to spend the money here – there were other priorities. Ironically, we were asked who we were going to fight, and conscription was abolished, and reserve training was abolished.

“For a good ten years, nothing was done at all. <…> It is better now than it was 9 years ago, but the bottom line is the same – there is no common idea and no consensus that Lithuania is in a danger zone and that it is not going anywhere,” recalled the former army chief.

He added that the sniping between politicians and the army we sometimes see nowadays is probably a manifestation of internal party disagreements. There are more important, more strategic problems to be solved, not to bicker among themselves.

The Baltic countries have made efforts, but there is still a long way to go

Scholars and defence experts are studying the progress made by the three Baltic countries in strengthening their defence after the start of the large-scale war in Ukraine. Most recently, a report by Baltic Defence Development has been published, which gives an overview of what is being done to strengthen the countries’ defence capabilities.

“The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian militaries were established from scratch after the three countries regained their independence in the early 1990s. The countries had no military forces of their own, they had no NATO experience, and the Soviet system was not acceptable because it was the one they were trying to escape from. The three countries sought a robust defence development strategy and, at the same time, to meet their main foreign policy objectives, NATO and EU membership.

Despite their size, history and similar geostrategic position, the three Baltic States followed slightly different paths in defence development. Estonia has made a greater effort to build up a large reserve focused on territorial defence. Latvia and Lithuania have (at least so far) invested in developing an all-volunteer force and had conscripts.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 gave a new impetus to the Baltic defence modernisation programmes. The large-scale invasion in 2022 led to decisions by the Baltic States to increase defence spending further and build up national defence capabilities.

The war has also led to greater convergence between the three countries’ defence policies, notably with the reintroduction of conscription in Lithuania and Latvia.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 was a clarion call to the Lithuanian public and decision-makers. At the time, the country spent less than 1% of its GDP on defence. Since then, significant efforts have been made to strengthen Lithuania’s national security and defence system – not only in military capabilities but also in other key areas such as cyber and information security, intelligence and counter-intelligence, foreign investment screening and internal security.

The armed forces themselves have become important players in non-military areas such as the fight against disinformation.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 demonstrated the crucial importance of military capabilities and the need to prepare to fight a high-intensity, large-scale war.

The war in the neighbourhood has accelerated Lithuania’s plans to acquire new weapons and improve the readiness of its army,” the report says.

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