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Posts tagged ‘Land of the Baltic States’

Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

By Anne Kauranen

Narva, Estonia (AFP)

Jan 18, 2017

A machine guns rattles as pale and exhausted teams of Estonian weekend warriors struggle to climb a final obstacle: the wall of Narva Castle facing their country’s powerful neighbor Russia.

The bullets fired on the snowy banks of the Narva river separating Estonia from Russia are blanks, but the steely determination of volunteers participating in Utria Assault, the NATO member’s biggest annual military competition, is palpable.

Ruth Maadla, a waitress who spends her weekends as a paramilitary volunteer, told AFP she would give her all to help defend the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people “if anything ever happened”.

Sporting white winter camouflage gear, a headlamp and a huge backpack, the 29-year-old who has just finished a brutal 90-kilometer (56-mile) marching race in bone-chilling subzero temperatures is in high-spirits, despite being caked in mud and nursing painful blisters on her heels.

Like other east Europeans, Estonians were deeply disturbed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

US President-elect Donald Trump then raised more concerns with his campaign threat to think twice about defending NATO’s eastern allies.

These factors coupled with Kremlin sabre rattling in the Baltic region — especially in its heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave — have triggered a paramilitary revival in eastern European states that were under Moscow’s thumb during the Soviet era.

Part of the USSR until 1991, Estonia has seen its Kaitseliit volunteer paramilitary force expand by 10 percent over the last two years.

– ‘Citizens with strong will’ –

With 16,000 members — up to 25,600 including units for women and children — the organisation is seen as a crucial extension of the EU member’s modest military force comprising 6,500 peacetime personnel, half of them conscripts.

While some paramilitary volunteers play war games to hone skills like shooting or orienteering, others prefer more peaceful duty like wielding knitting needles to make socks for war victims in eastern Ukraine.

The Kaitseliit force has even attracted some volunteers who are ethnic Russian, part of Estonia’s largest minority accounting for about a quarter of its population.

Kaitseliit commander, Brigadier General Meelis Kiili, describes the force he leads as “a very important element in deterrence” when facing Russia.

The role of “ordinary citizens with a strong will to defend” must not be underestimated, Kiili told AFP, as he congratulated a troupe of volunteers exhausted after the two sleepless nights they spent marching through snowy forests in the race.

Many are former military conscripts, but more and more ordinary Estonians and women, like Maadla or Sille Laks, are joining.

A 30-year-old cyber security expert from Tallinn, Laks told AFP that she has spent around 400 hours in Kaitseliit basic training over three months.

“It’s about doing something for my country,” said the athletic public servant as she braved the freezing cold before dawn to supervise one of the checkpoints in the competition.

While NATO’s collective defense clause is the bottom-line guarantee of Estonia’s security, analysts acknowledge that paramilitaries do have a role to play.

“In the worst case scenario, Russia could advance very swiftly to take all of Estonia, but with its own resistance, Estonia could buy more time” for help to arrive, said Kristi Raik, a senior Baltic security researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, stressing that any such attack was unlikely at the moment.

– Under NATO’s wing –

Moscow upped the ante in the Baltic region late last year by deploying nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost bordering NATO member Lithuania and Poland and sending two ships capable of launching warheads to the Baltic Sea.

The move came on the heels of NATO’s decision to deploy four multinational battalions to eastern Europe, including a 1,100-strong rotational unit that will be stationed as of April at the Tapa military base, an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital Tallinn.

Over the next few months, the United States will also deploy part of a 3,500-troop armored brigade to Estonia and Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania.

They have all eyed Trump’s pro-Moscow rhetoric with mounting unease.

Ordered by the outgoing Obama administration to reinforce NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank, the US brigade arrived in Poland last week as part of one of the largest deployment of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Moscow angrily branded a security threat.

While the advent of a Trump presidency adds an element of uncertainty to future US commitment to defend vulnerable eastern European allies, Estonia’s paramilitary chief remains confident about NATO’s resolve.

“It’s not only Trump we are talking about, NATO has 28 members,” Kiili told AFP.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Estonians_join_paramilitary_forces_to_face_Russia_fears_999.html.

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McCain calls for permanent US troops in Baltics

Vilnius (AFP)

Dec 29, 2016

Republican Senator John McCain on Thursday called for US troops to be permanently stationed in the Baltic states as a deterrent against Russia amid regional concerns over President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-Moscow rhetoric.

“I think that permanency is important, that there will always be some American troops here,” McCain told reporters in Lithuania, an EU and NATO member bordering Russia’s highly militarized Kaliningrad exclave.

“Maintaining that presence is necessary to make sure that our friends here understand the United States is always with them,” he added, wrapping up a three-day tour of the Baltics with fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

Mentioning Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, McCain expressed concern over his “relationship with (Russian president) Vladimir Putin” but said he will be given an “opportunity to make his case about why he is qualified”.

McCain and Graham also called for increased sanctions against Russia over its cyber-meddling in the US election.

“I think the sanctions need to go beyond what it is today, they need to name Putin as an individual and his inner circle because nothing happens in Russia without his knowledge and approval,” Graham said.

The US deployed around 150 troops in each of the Baltic states and Poland in 2014 after tensions in the region flared over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The outgoing administration also pledged to deploy an additional armored brigade in eastern Europe from early next year on a rotational basis.

Linas Kojala, who heads the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center, said the senators’ visit was reassuring after Trump’s “worrisome” comments.

“For the Baltics, NATO and the presence of American soldiers in the region are key factors which distinguish us from war-torn Ukraine,” he told AFP…

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/McCain_calls_for_permanent_US_troops_in_Baltics_999.html.

Lithuanian civilians fearing Russian attack train for worst

December 01, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Rasa Miskinyte spent the day in a freezing forest near Lithuania’s capital learning to gather water from a pond with a condom, to filter it through sand, charcoal and cloth, and to make her own stove from a beer can. She thought some basic survival skills would be helpful if Russian troops ever entered Vilnius and her family escaped into the woods.

“Russia is a very dangerous kind of neighbor,” said Miskinyte, a 53-year-old film producer. “They are always aiming at us.” Across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, fears are intensifying that Moscow, after displaying its military might in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria, could have the Baltic states in its sights next. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned he wouldn’t hesitate to defend Russians wherever they live — words that feel like threats since significant numbers of ethnic Russians live in the Baltics.

Whether the danger is real or just bluster remains to be seen. But in Lithuania, a country that experienced a Russian occupation before, some people aren’t waiting to find out. Young Lithuanian civilians are learning counterinsurgency tactics on weekends. Others, like Miskinyte, have taken steps to protect themselves. The government, in response to pleas from a fearful public, has issued a preparation manual.

Rimvydas Matuzonis directs a project that teaches weekend guerrilla warfare courses. He explained the resolve to be ready by citing a popular saying in the forests of Dzukija, the southern region where his father grew up.

“Spring will come, the cuckoo will sing and we will pave our roads with the corpses of Russian soldiers,” Matuzonis said. To be sure, some in the Baltic states feel confident their NATO membership would protect them from a Russian invasion. Others describe a dull anxiety that flares up only sometimes. But there are some who are truly afraid and already preparing for the worst.

When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Miskinyte packed a bag with bread, salt and some essential items and planned to flee to a village where she has a house. She has urged relatives to join her there, if her fears are confirmed.

“In the village you always survive,” Miskinyte said. “There is land, there are vegetables. There is everything there.” Exacerbating the dread lately is Moscow’s move to build up troops and nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian region wedged between NATO members Lithuania and Poland.

Poland is creating a so-called Territorial Defense Force to train thousands of volunteers in cyber-warfare and other low-intensity forms of combat seen in Ukraine. Some of the new volunteers will be assigned to protect Polish territory near Kaliningrad.

But the foreboding is no doubt greater in the ex-Soviet republics, whose decision to regain independence when the Soviet empire collapsed humiliated the Kremlin. In response to calls for guidance from citizens fearing war, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry issued a manual that includes information on survival skills and recognizing Russian weaponry.

The best way to prevent war is to “demonstrate to the aggressor that we are ready to fight for our freedom, for every centimeter of our land,” Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said. “The capabilities, the readiness — this is the only way to stop Russian aggression in the region,” Olekas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lithuania re-established a conscript army last year, but so many citizens have volunteered for military duty that a draft hasn’t been necessary. Many civilians in the hugely patriotic nation of 3 million people remain eager to do their part.

Last weekend, in an area of pine woods and fields outside Vilnius, a group of young men donned military fatigues, loaded pellets into replica assault rifles and practiced counterinsurgency tactics. Using armored vehicles and other retired military equipment, they stormed a pretend enemy position amid explosions and thick smoke. Target practice with real weapons followed.

Many of the men said military exercises have been a hobby for years, a way to release stress after a week in the office. But their instructors from Defense Project, a warfare training group, make clear the drills carry a new urgency given Russia’s assertiveness.

“We have a border not only with Russia, but also with Belarus, and we should be aware that the little green men might appear from other borders or even from within,” said Zilvinas Pastarnokas, a 45-year-old retired soldier who helped found Defense Project.

Fears of stewing Russian aggression have raised questions about the loyalties of the ethnic Russians who live in Lithuania and make up about 6 percent of the population. Many settled there when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union and remained.

Lithuanian officials insist they are not under any suspicion. Yet many Lithuanians worry if war ever came, ethnic Russians would side with Moscow. “The Russians will absolutely be on Putin’s side,” said Miskinyte, the film producer who took the survival course.

For their part, Lithuania’s ethnic Russians decry what they call the “anti-Russian propaganda” of Lithuanian officials, and many hold pro-Kremlin views. “Everything in the Lithuanian press is represented from the one side — that the Russians are the bad guys, that the Russians are coming, that Putin is always bad,” complained Roman Nutsubidze, 30,

Nutsubidze, expressed frustration that the West doesn’t see Putin as a good leader who has restored national pride. He said he loves Lithuania, but thinks Putin has no reason to want to seize the Baltic states.

“I don’t see what he has done bad,” Nutsubidze said. “I don’t actually see it.”

Lithuania acquires sniper rifles

Vilnius, Lithuania (UPI)

Nov 8, 2016

Lithuania’s military has received new British-made sniper rifles which will be distributed to troops by the end of the year.

The weapons are AXMC sniper rifles manufactured by Accuracy International Ltd under a contract worth more than $1.4 million.

The AXMC rifles can use either .338 Lapua Magnum or .308 Win ammunition through a barrel change, even in field conditions.

The Lithuanian Land Force previously did not have sniper rifles and used an FN SCAR-H PR semi-automatic precision rifles instead. AXMC sniper rifles double the effective range of the FN’s 1,968 feet.

“Accuracy International of the United Kingdom cherishes old traditions of weapon making and is respected worldwide,” said MSgt. Ernestas Kuckailis, an expert of sniper and precision rifles with Juozas Lukša Warfare Training Center, Lithuanian Land Force. “The weapons it manufactures are of high quality and reliability in any conditions, including arctic or desert.

AXMC rifle has a powerful Kahles sight and night vision. The new weapon will allow Lithuanian Land Force personnel destroy targets at nearly 1.5-kilometer [nearly 1 mile] distance both during the day and at night.”

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Lithuania_acquires_sniper_rifles_999.html.

Lithuania signs missile agreement with Norway

by Geoff Ziezulewicz

Vilnius, Lithuania (UPI)

Oct 24, 2016

Lithuania has signed an agreement worth $108 million with Norway for the procurement of the Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS.

The deal, signed last week by the ministries of defense for each country, covers the sale as well as future support Norway would render to Lithuania in developing midrange air defense capabilities, the Lithuanian ministry said in a statement.

This acquisition and others will combine into an air defense system that offers Lithuania aerial surveillance and control, early warning for ground units and the ability to destroy targets if needed.

Two defense batteries will be acquired under the deal.

The midrange NASAMS equipment is scheduled to be delivered to Lithuania by 2020.

NASAMS was co-developed by Norwegian company Kongsberg and Raytheon…

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Lithuania_signs_missile_agreement_with_Norway_999.html.

Agrarian newcomers claim victory in Lithuanian election

October 24, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania’s political newcomers, representing an agrarian union, claimed victory after Sunday’s runoff in parliamentary elections as voters turned their backs on the ruling Social Democrats, blamed for being unable to revive a sluggish economy and held responsible for a sharp rise in prices following the adoption of the euro.

The Peasants and Green Union, led by 46-year-old millionaire farmer Ramunas Karbauskis were expected to end up with 56 seats in the 141-member Parliament, according to preliminary results provided by the Central Electoral Committee, in the biggest victory by a single party in 20 years.

The conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats would have 30 seats, while the incumbent ruling party, the Social Democrats, would take 18 seats, the preliminary results show. The remaining seats were split among several smaller parties.

At stake in Sunday’s runoff were 68 seats. All the other seats had already been allotted after a first round of balloting on Oct. 9. In the first round, the ruling Social Democrats came in third with 13 seats, behind the Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, which won 20 seats, and the Peasants and Green Union with 19 seats.

Expecting a poor showing, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius acknowledged earlier Sunday “a kind of defeat” if his party was forced into opposition. “We should have focused more on the campaign, but we were working instead and hoped people would notice the progress,” Butkevicius told reporters, when casting his ballot at a school in central Vilnius. He was referring to recent policies which the Social Democrats launched after gradually losing support since the last election in 2012, including a controversial labor law that favored employers and measures on transforming the energy sector, leading to a sharp drop in consumers’ utility bills.

The preliminary results indicate that the agrarian bloc will likely form the basis of the next majority ruling coalition, but its partners were unclear. “We are not ruling out any possibilities, even a broad coalition if we agree on the major challenge: how to stop citizens fleeing Lithuania,” Karbauskis, the party’s chairman, told reporters. He has said, however, that he would not take the post of prime minister in any coalition.

Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia, regained independence after splitting from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has since lost nearly a quarter of its pre-independence population of 3.7 million with many seeking work elsewhere in Europe. It is a member of the 28-nation European Union and was hit hard by the global economic recession in 2009-2010. At the beginning of last year it adopted the EU’s common currency, the euro, which has sharply increased prices while wages and pensions remain among the lowest in the bloc.

Both government and opposition parties had promised to raise living standards in the country of 2.9 million. The conservatives, who campaigned heavily for change were hoping for sizable gains in the election. Their leader Gabrielius Landsbergis, at age 34, had been expected to become Europe’s youngest prime minister. He is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and considered by many as a national hero.

“This means that our message about necessary changes was not able to reach many voters. But again, this is just the beginning of the long road we will have to travel,” Landsbergis said, visibly disappointed by the result.

Lithuanians vote in what is expected to be a close race

October 23, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuanians voted Sunday in a runoff election that is expected to bring the center-right opposition to power and end the rule of the current Social Democrat-coalition, with the incumbents taking the heat for a sluggish economy and a sharp rise in prices following the adoption of the euro currency.

At stake are 68 seats in the 141-member Parliament, with all the other seats already assigned after a first round of balloting on Oct. 9. Sunday’s runoff is expected to be close, which could complicate government formation talks.

In the first round, the ruling Social Democrats came in third with 13 seats, behind both a conservative group, the Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, which won 20 seats, and the agrarian Peasants and Green Union with 19 seats.

“I voted for a conservative candidate today because the current Cabinet is a bunch of sleepy bureaucrats who have no idea how to get this country moving forward,” said Vytas Kazlauskas, a 30-year-old teacher in Vilnius. “We all look at Estonia with envy; they had real reforms while we just keep on talking about them.”

Casting his ballot at a high school in the Lithuanian capital, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius acknowledged that it is likely his party could end up in the opposition, which would be “a kind of defeat.”

“We should have focused more on the campaign, but we were working instead and hoped people would notice the progress,” Butkevicius told reporters. He was referring to recent policies which the Social Democrats launched after gradually losing support since the last election in 2012, including a controversial labor law that favored employers and measures that focused heavily on transforming the energy sector, which led to a sharp drop in consumers’ utility bills.

Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia, regained independence after splitting from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has since lost more than a quarter of its pre-independence population of 3.7 million as many have sought work elsewhere in Europe. It is a member of the 28-nation European Union and was hit hard by the global economic recession in 2009-2010. At the beginning of last year it adopted the EU’s common currency, the euro, which has sharply increased prices while wages and pensions remain among the lowest in the bloc.

Both government and opposition parties have promised to raise living standards in the country of 2.9 million. The conservatives, who campaigned heavily for change, are led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, who at 34 is trying to become Europe’s youngest prime minister. He is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and considered by many as a national hero.

The leader of the agrarian party is a 46-year-old farmer millionaire, Ramunas Karbauskis, who has sponsored village-themed TV shows, musical festivals and built up his popularity by promoting ethnic Lithuanian culture.

The two men have exchanged harsh rhetoric since the first round, signaling that coalition talks between their parties — if not totally out of the question — would be long and complicated.

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