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Is Lithuania next on Putin's aggressive agenda?

Lithuanian soldiers march at independence celebrations in Vilnius Photo: Reuters

To find Lithuania’s second army, you have to travel down an unmarked dirt track on the outskirts of the capital Vilnius.

Here on the edge of one of the city’s arterial ringroads is a series of utilitarian and drab squat buildings; shooting ranges left over from the Soviet era.

There are dozens of these military installations dotted through the country, a throwback to when Lithuania was the front line of defence for Moscow in the Cold War.

But this base is now home to the Union of Riflemen, an 8,000-strong militia that is preparing for to go to war against, rather than for, Russia.

The Union of Riflemen is a civilian defence force made up of Lithuanian volunteers drawn from all walks of life; businessmen, farmers, computer engineers, carpenters and even local politicians.

It would be easy to dismiss them as delusional weekend warriors, but one look at their sophisticated and modern high velocity automatic weapons, the masked instructors from the Lithuanian army who train them and their well drilled routines tells you that they are deadly serious about being ready to resist what many of them believe is a coming confrontation with Vladimir Putin.

Liudas Gumbinas, the head of the Union of Riflemen, said membership of the corps is growing fast.

Watch Rageh Omaar's full report on ITV's On Assignment, on Tuesday at 10.40pm.

“Since the crisis in Ukraine we’ve had increase of 1000 new members over the last year, making the total membership of the Union around 8000 across the Lithuania.” “What is more, it is becoming very popular with young people, and we expect numbers to rise,” he added.

The Union was formed in 1919 as a civil defence force but was outlawed during the Soviet era. It reformed in 1989 just as Lithuania was beginning its battle for independence.

It now forms one part of the Lithuanian government’s carefully coordinated and very public strategy to prepare its tiny population of around three million for what feels like a very real Russian threat.

Earlier this month, parliament voted overwhelmingly, by 112 to three, with five absentions, to reintroduce conscription, which was abolished in 2008. The plan is to draft up to 3,500 young men aged between 19-26 for ninemonths of service every year, boosting Lithuania’s armed forces from 18,500 to 22,000.

President Dalia Grybauskaite has accused Russia of 'terrorizing its neighbours' Credit: Reuters

At the beginning of the year, the government also published a 100-page pamphlet which it distributed throughout the country.

Awkwardly titled: “What we need to know in Extreme Situations and in Instances of War”, it can best be described as a sort of self- help manual for Lithuanian citizens facing invasion and occuption.

It does not mention Russia by name, but it doesn’t need to. It is nakedly intended as a means of preparing the country to avoid the fate of Ukraine. It has been widely circulated in libraries, universities, schools and online and is full of helpful suggestions about what to do if you hear gunfire outside your home and how you can help to undermine a foreign occupation of Lithuania by continuing to do your job, but badly and inefficiently.

Although Lithuania has no border with mainland Russia, a three hour drive from Vilnius takes you to a Russian exclave that sits menacingly on the country’s Baltic coastline: Kaliningrad.

This is the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic fleet, one of the most important in its navy, on a strip of land that Moscow insisted on retaining in the aftermath of World War Two.

As well as tens of thousands of Russian troops, there are also missiles stationed there capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This month a Nato patrol intercepted Russian fighter jets off Lithuania’s Baltic coast as Moscow marked its effective takeover of Crimea by staging one of its largest military drills involving war planes, submarines and over 45,000 Russian troops. The planes were flying from Russia to Kaliningrad.

A russian naval vessel on operations in the Kaliningrad region Credit: Reuters

Sigitas Samborskis, a Lithuanian who grew up in Kaliningrad and was a leader campaigning for the rights of the Lithuanian community there has had to flee the enclave. “Right now, its dangerous,” he said as we spoke right on the border, a few hundred feet from the houses and factories in Kaliningrad. “They started arresting people. When you try to enter the border they might hold you for 48 hours and start provoking you in other ways. What can I do?”

Ramune Ramanskuiae, the editor of a Lithuanian newspaper based near the border with the Russian exclave said that in many ways a silent war has aleady started between Russia and Lithuania; an information war. Her and her team of reporters were recently offered substantial bribes to print articles friendly and flattering to Russia. Instead, they are about to print an investigative article about it.

“We were asked to report that if we had friendly relations with Russia, Lithuania’s economy and quality of life would be better,” she said. “And that if we did not keep friendly relations, Lithuania would be forced to rely on grants from Brussels and we would have a grim future.”

Lithuania is no stranger to being a victim of the aspirations of greater regional powers than them. High above Vilnius, with commanding views over the Lithuanian capital, sits the nation’s landmark; Gediminas’s Castle. It tells you much about Lithuania’s tortured past that its national symbol is a defensive fortification which has withstood attacks from the Crusaders and a war with Moscow back in 1655; an emblem of a small nation still looking over its shoulders at a threat from the east.

This year, it is marking the 25th anniversary of independence from Soviet occupation.

Many senior Lithuanian politicians were young men and women at the time of the independence struggle from Moscow in 1990, and remember all too well the economic blockade of Baltic states.

Foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said Lithuanians are 'nervous' Credit: Reuters

Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, described Russia as “a country that is not only threatening its neighbours but is also organising a war against its neighbours [...] it is the same international terrorism as we have in Iraq and Syria.” When asked to clarify whether she saw Islamic State and Russia as equals, she said: “Yes. I think that Russia is terrorizing its neighbors and using terrorist methods.”

Lithuania’s Foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, also has clear memories of growing up in Soviet-ruled Lithuania and does not demur from his president’s sentiments.

“I would not be frank with you if I said that our people were relaxed,” he told me in an interview. “They are definitely nervous, they are uncertain and this explains our stance (towards Russia)..It’s an illusion when somebody thinks that what’s happening in Ukraine is remote and it’s not with us (in our lives) - we cannot be relaxed.”

Larissa Dmitrijeva is a Lithuanian MP from the country’s Russian minority.

“The community I live in don’t believe it’s a real danger,” she says “but if you hear about it all the time, you starting thinking; maybe? This is an unwelcome situation that makes people scared”.

With all the talk of preparing for war, her fear is that the country will find itself sleepwalking into a real conflict with Russia.

  • This story has been published in today's Sunday Telegraph.