Lithuanians remain calm, but prepare for potential conflict | Russia-Ukraine war News

Suwałki Gap and Vilnius, Lithuania – In Vištytis, in the south-west of Lithuania, the atmosphere is calm.

But this sleepy little town, home to green meadows, a lake and quaint cottages, has found itself at the center of geopolitics this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Vištytis sits on the border with the Kaliningrad region, a heavily militarized Russian enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, where Moscow reportedly stores nuclear weapons.

Residents often see Russian border guards patrolling the border from their homes.

“We bathed in the lake about 10 meters from the barbed wire fence. Sometimes we can hear the border guards on the Russian side playing music. When that happens, we have a barbecue and dance to the music coming from the tower,” Irina Skučas, a factory worker, told Al Jazeera.

Irina Skučas and her husband Gediminas near Lake Vištytis, on the border with Kaliningrad [Natasha Bowler/Al Jazeera]

living by the border

She and her husband Gediminas have peacefully coexisted with their Russian neighbors for some 20 years.

“The Russians have never done anything to us,” he said.

“But when they closed the border with Russia, many cheaper construction materials stopped being transported from the Russian side. So, for example, the nails we use to pierce walls or hang electrical wires now cost three times as much because they come from somewhere in Europe, not Russia.”Interactive_Vistytis-01

His city lies on the northwestern edge of the Suwałki Gap, a strategic 100-kilometre (62 mi) stretch of land along the Lithuanian-Polish border, connecting Russia’s Kaliningrad with Belarus.

Experts have called it the “most dangerous place on Earth.”

But locals, many of whom have lived through and vividly remember Soviet times, find the claim ridiculous.

“Everyone is using language that fosters fear on all sides. Simple people like us really see it from a different perspective,” Gediminas told Al Jazeera. “They say that we are now at war, but it is not the reality that we see here.”

After Moscow sent troops to Ukraine, Lithuania imposed EU sanctions and closed its borders to Russia. Her army has also been preparing for any possible Russian aggression.

“We must start thinking as if we are living in a war,” Arvydas Anušauskas, Lithuania’s defense minister, told reporters in Rukla, a small central town, on October 8.

In late September, the Lithuanian Rapid Reaction Force, established in 2014 and made up of two battle groups, was also placed on high alert following Putin’s partial mobilization order.

However, some 90 km (56 miles) away from Irina and Gediminas at the southern end of the Suwałki Gap, 24-year-old Neringa Kilmelyte shares a similar view.

Neringa lives in Kapčiamiestis, a village along the border with Belarus, which was also a sticking point during last year’s border crisis, hosting some of the displaced people arriving from Belarus at the local school.

“Here you only live day to day, without planning in advance. That is the Lithuanian mentality,” Neringa, who returned to Kapčiamiestis to give birth to her son Joris, told Al Jazeera.

“In Alytos, where I lived before, I already saw armored vehicles passing by regularly, so it is part of everyday life,” he added.

Join the army

Many of Neringa’s friends joined the army or volunteer militias like the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union when the Russian-Ukrainian war escalated.

According to the Union, thousands more requests to join have been made this year. A volunteer told Al Jazeera that there is a two and a half year waiting list.

In 2015, compulsory military service was reintroduced in Lithuania following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The recruits are currently training with a newly formed German-led combat unit in Rukla.

The brigade was created after a NATO summit in Madrid, which reviewed defense planning in the Baltic to repel any attack in real time.

“One thing is certain. The current situation means that we must do more together,” German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters as she inaugurated a permanent German command center in Rukla.

Stop signal
A sign in the Lithuanian city of Kapčiamiestis marking the border protection zone between Lithuania and Belarus. [Natasha Bowler/Al Jazeera]

In the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Vaidotas Urbelis, policy director at the defense ministry, told Al Jazeera that his country recruits 4,000 new recruits a year.

“The worst case scenario is a major war in Europe and there are some indicators that it could happen. Nobody can predict what Putin will do. We must make sure the army is ready. That means more manpower and reservists,” he said.

“Militarily we do not distinguish between the Belarusian army and the Russian army. Lukashenko has no control over his army, it is just an extension of Putin and Russia,” he added.

“It’s an old saying from Roman times that if you want peace, prepare for war.”

In addition to defense tactics, to help civilians, the Ministry of the Interior has also published a map with safe shelters and buildings, for use in an emergency.

Some civilians have gone a step further.

Vytas, an ex-military man in his 40s, has resurrected an abandoned World War II bunker.

In the unlikely scenario that Lithuania is attacked, that is where he will go.

An abandoned bunker from World War II.
Vytas, a former military man in his 40s, resurrected an abandoned World War II bunker near the Lithuanian town of Kapčiamiestis, on the border with Belarus. [Natasha Bowler/Al Jazeera]

“This is not going to protect me against a modern bomb. Weapons are too sophisticated nowadays,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But the thick walls of the bunker would provide some protection from radiation, though probably not if a nuclear warhead were dropped nearby. I don’t think you’d be safe if that happened.

Meanwhile, others like Pawel Andrul, 33, have adopted a relatively calmer demeanor.

“It is somewhere in the DNA of Europeans not to be afraid,” Andrul, who lives in the Polish town of Suwalki, in the Suwalki corridor, told Al Jazeera.

“Concerns about this Russian aggressor are present in Polish society all the time,” he added.

Known for its picturesque landscapes, synagogues and churches, Suwalki is a multicultural place.

But Poland’s controversial history with the Soviet Union is etched in the minds of Suwalki locals.

“The Poles here don’t like the Russians. They have not forgotten massacres like the one in Katyn,” he added.

The Katyn massacre of the 1940s took place when Poland was under Soviet rule and involved the mass executions of thousands of Polish military officers.

Andrul stressed that if Russia were to invade any of Poland’s neighbors and attack the cities that dot the Suwalki Gap, Warsaw would step in to help.

“It’s Poland’s business to do it,” he said.

Neringa shared a similar sentiment.

a mother and a child
Neringa Kilmelyte and her son Joris outside their home in the Lithuanian town of Kapčiamiestis, near the border with Belarus. [Priyanka Shankar/Al Jazeera]

“I’m sure other countries will help if the Russians come here. Let’s not pretend that Lithuania can defend itself against an invasion,” he told Al Jazeera.

A stone’s throw from Neringa’s house, Jonas Sukditis, 70, and his wife Vida, 68, follow the war in Ukraine on their television.

Commenting on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest threats towards Ukraine and other NATO countries, Jonas told Al Jazeera: “We are just small pieces. Chess pieces, really. For the greatest powers to play against each other.”

He stressed that “war” was in their blood and that he and his wife were prepared to face any emergency.

An underground bunker
Jonas and Vida Sukditis stand inside their underground shelter with their emergency food stock in the Lithuanian town of Kapčiamiestis on the border with Belarus. [Natasha Bowler/Al Jazeera]

“We’ve seen so much of this throughout history that we have a basement that we could go into if bombs fell on us. The basement is full of food and other useful things,” he said, petting his cat.

Fear of war is a low-level, distant concern, as it has been for many years, for locals living in the former USSR.

For many like Irina, the biggest concern is that political rhetoric and warmongering will take over and perception will become reality.

“We have experienced much of this uncertainty throughout history,” Irina said. “So why worry? If the war starts, the war starts.”

Mantas Narkevicius contributed translation services to this report.

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