June 22, 2024

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How Lithuanians are preparing to stop Putin

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A fiftysomething man I met in Klaipėda, Lithuania, last week told me his life story. As a teenager, he’d been a Soviet army conscript, ferrying prisoners to Siberia and sleeping in two-hour shifts. In the early 2000s, he worked in a petrol station in Dublin. Now, he and his wife have joined Lithuania’s army reserve, ready to repel a Russian invasion. If he died while killing five Russians, he chuckled, it would be his “personal revenge” for his Soviet service.

Today’s Lithuania is prospering. Former emigrants are returning, especially from the UK, to a burgeoning economy. Incomes have jumped from Soviet levels to 89 per cent of the EU’s average. Signs of peaceful prosperity abound: a shopping mall in an ordinary suburb of Klaipėda with Pierre Balmain and Calvin Klein outlets; beachcombers by the Baltic Sea picking through seaweed for bits of amber; Soviet apartment blocks around Radviliškis renovated to look OK.

Peaceful prosperity is an anomaly in modern Lithuanian history. Russian invasions are the norm. Russia is a “survival threat”, Lithuania’s former president Dalia Grybauskaitė told me. Vladimir Putin’s troops could destroy in days everything Lithuanians have built since independence in 1990. Just 2.7mn Lithuanians are sandwiched between Russia’s satellite Belarus and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. How can they resist? By mobilising every Lithuanian. Inspired by Ukraine, Lithuania is trying to build a resilient society.

Of course, everything starts with a resilient military. Russia’s war of destruction in Ukraine has shown Lithuanians that they cannot retreat and then retake territory. “If you have to retreat,” warned Grybauskaitė, “there will be nothing to regain.” The new strategy is therefore for beefed-up Nato and Lithuanian forces (conscription was reintroduced here in 2015) to defend land…

2023-11-02 07:00:54

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