Signs of an intensifying Moscow-led information campaign have the Lithuanian government worried that Russia is laying the groundwork for “kinetic operations” like those recently seen in Crimea.
Lithuania’s defence minister and military communications officials told The Guardian that they were “taking very seriously” Russia-organised propaganda efforts to undermine stability in the Baltics, which consist of Lithuania and its northern neighbours, Latvia and Estonia.
“Russia is a threat,” Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told The Guardian. “They are saying our capital Vilnius should not belong to Lithuania because between the first and second world wars it was occupied by Poland.”
“There are now reports that Klaipeda,” the country’s third-largest city, Karoblis said, “never belonged to Lithuania; that it was a gift of Stalin after the second world war. There are real parallels with Crimea’s annexation [from Ukraine] … We are speaking of a danger to the territorial integrity of Lithuania.”
Lithuanian officials said attempts to dispute or alter history could be a prelude to offensive action, similar to more than a decade of such disinformation efforts in Ukraine that led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Prominent Russian politicians have challenged Lithuania’s right to exist, and television and social-media campaigns have charged that Vilnius is mistreating ethnic Russians or laid claim to parts of Lithuania, which does not border Russia but abuts Kaliningrad, a Russian semi-exclave on the Baltic Sea.
The Lithuanian military’s strategic communications department has also noticed the creation of Facebook pages for “statelets” in the Baltics, another development reminiscent of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Recent developments in Russian military capabilities have given more weight to fears about looming kinetic actions.
Lithuania’s intelligence service said in its annual threat assessment that last year Moscow upgraded its military in Kaliningrad, reducing lead times for any attack and potentially preventing NATO reinforcements. Vilnius said Moscow was able to launch an attack on the Baltics with as little as 24 hours’ notice.
Russia has recently deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, which prompted protests from Lithuania. Moscow is also making its biggest push into the Arctic and running its submarine force at the highest operational tempo since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“This is a signal to NATO to improve its decision speed,” Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told reporters at the presentation of the report. “NATO’s reaction time is not as fast as we would like it to be.”
Moscow, for its part, denounced recent reports about its capabilities in the Baltics as “total Russophobia,” but other NATO members and neighbouring countries have been stepping up their military activities in Eastern Europe, which is already bristling with offensive and defensive weaponry.
Germany is to lead a contingent of 1,000 troops from NATO states to Lithuania. Battle groups led by the UK and Canada will also take up positions in Latvia and Estonia.
More than 1,100 troops — 900 of them from the US — recently took up position in Poland, which plans to buy $US7.6 billion worth of Patriot air-defence missiles to counter Moscow, in a move that was greeted with Russian ire.
“This is a mission, not a cycle of training events,” said US Army Lt. Col. Steven Gventer, who heads the battle group in Poland. “The purpose is to deter aggression in the Baltics and in Poland … We are fully ready to be lethal.”
French jets have also shadowed Russian fighters in the skies above the Baltics, identifying and observing Russian planes in international airspace along NATO’s northern border.
Heightened tensions between NATO and Russia in Europe come as relations between the military bloc and the US have become more contentious with the arrival of President Donald Trump.
Trump and other US officials have stressed that NATO countries need to step up their defence spending or risk US pullback from the alliance.
At least one NATO member, Estonia, which sits at the northern edge of the Baltics, has thrown in with Trump on the issue of NATO commitments.
“There is the legitimate expectation of the Americans that the Europeans spend more money on defence,” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told Die Welt in mid-February.