A dull rumble, followed by a cloud of smoke, could be heard from the forest, where Lithuanian mushroom pickers calmly walk. A column of German Leopard tanks, each weighing 60 tons, is shown from behind the fir trees. They are moving at a high speed to the Rukla station (80 km northeast of Vilnius) for loading onto railway platforms. In a few hours, this impressive convoy will travel to the Pabrade training ground near the Belarusian border to participate in the Eager Leopard exercise.
They include 900 soldiers and 150 pieces of equipment, in particular, fifty tanks. Their goal is to test the scenario of a hostile invasion and test the defensive capabilities of the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), which has been deployed by NATO in the Baltics since 2016. "The challenge is to hold back the enemy as long as possible to allow reinforcements to pull in," explains German Lt. Col. Per Papenbruck, eFP commander.
In this scenario, the enemy was named Ocassus, but none of the 1,200 soldiers from eight countries (of which 300 are French) deployed in Lithuania as part of this containment force have no doubt about who is actually meant. So 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the three Baltic republics once again see Russia as a threat. The use of force in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), as well as Russian-blamed cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, have forced these countries to seek NATO help.
At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, the organization decided to deploy an international contingent in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to "show the strength of the transatlantic link and clearly demonstrate that an attack on one of the members would be viewed as an attack on the alliance as a whole."
The deployment of four "battle groups" (a total of almost 5,000 people) pushed Russia to further strengthen its military presence in the region. The Kremlin sees this as a desire to encircle the country and considers it a violation of the agreements reached at the end of the Cold War. NATO members, in turn, believe that Moscow wiped its feet on the agreement when it seized Crimea.
Over 10,000 Russian soldiers are now in the Kaliningrad region (on the southwestern border of Lithuania), where S-400 air defense systems and Iskander missile systems (capable of carrying nuclear warheads) have been deployed in recent years. Almost every year Russia conducts joint exercises with Belarus, whose scenario is alarming in the Baltics. "Exercise Zapad (West) is aimed at training Moscow and Minsk's response to the destabilization attempt from the Baltic republics," said Gustav Gressel, an expert on Russia and defense issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
NATO's presence is highly regarded in the Baltics, but it cannot change the balance of power. Anyway, it must allow valuable time to be gained in the event of a large-scale invasion. While experts believe that an offensive against the Baltic republics is not in Russia's interest in the short term, they believe it may be tempted to strike at these NATO "weak links" in response to tensions elsewhere. “There are 19 combat-ready battalions on the Baltic side against about 40 from Russia,” Gustav Gressel clarifies. “In such conditions, everything will depend on the ability of the Baltic armies and allied contingents to slow the enemy's advance for three, four, five days. conditions play a decisive role.”
In recent years, Alexander Lukashenko has largely restrained the strengthening of the Russian military presence on his territory, but the Baltic leadership fears that Russia might take advantage of the weakening of his position in order to impose on him expanded integration of the armies of the two countries or even the formation of an air force base in the west of the country, about than Moscow has long dreamed of.
Lithuania, neighboring the Kaliningrad region, also has a long border with Belarus. It fears a potential enemy breakout along the Suwalki Corridor, which would cut off the Baltics from the rest of Europe, and is taking more active defensive measures. The compulsory military conscription, canceled in 2005, was reinstated in 2015, and the defense budget rose to 2% of GDP in 2018. “We have also fortified our borders, in particular, we installed cameras and sensors to detect a potential invasion,” emphasizes one Lithuanian diplomat.
“The annexation of Crimea was an awakening for many Lithuanians,” says Donatas Giknius, a company commander at the Union of Riflemen, a paramilitary organization under the auspices of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry. Its ranks have grown significantly in recent years and now number 11,000 people. “Our organization is part of an integrated defense system that should enable Lithuania to fight back in the event of a Russian invasion. “Our organization is part of an integrated defense system that should enable Lithuania to fight back in the event of a Russian invasion, despite the obvious inequality of forces. For this, we teach our members to prepare for war, organize resistance. And, of course, fight...”
Read the original text at Le Figaro