Is the population ready?
Imagine a foreign intruder sets foot on Baltic soil in the most horrible scenario. Will the boots be firm in the region that, over the last 27 years, has rediscovered the joys of independence? Vaidas Saldziun as, a Lithuanian defense expert and Defence Editor at Delfi.lt, agreed to share his insights with The Baltic Times readers.
What do you believe are the greatest threats to Lithuanian defense besides the threat from Russia?
If we talk military threats only, that could potentially involve Belarus, since the military of this country is at least partially either integrated (e.g. air defence, intelligence) into the Russian military structure or overlapped. Lithuania has the largest border with Belarus, so it can not be ignored.
Speaking of non-military threats, the socio-economic situation may be under threat due to many factors, like: social injustice, massive emigration that creates many social-mines for both present (skilled workforce, military aged men) and future (aging population relying more on social security hence creating a burden for the present day working age population and future generation). This in the end may impair the defensive potential of a state.
In Lithuania, we never speak of military threats from Belarus. Under what circumstances can Belarus turn into a defense factor for Lithuania?
As I explained, it is already a factor, however it would be a direct threat if it is pressed by Russia or voluntarily decides to get involved into hostilities against Lithuania.
Lithuania's air defense is vulnerable due to the lack of a missile shield. Do you see the defense gap getting patched up with Donald Trump in office?
Yes, but that depends. Lithuania lacks air defence in general (only SHORAD is in place and Medium range systems are planned, but for those to reach full operational status, a number of years would have to pass), let alone missile defence. The gap may be patched by the missile defence capabilities (US naval and surface deployment) in the region and that looks promising, since Donald Trump hasn’t signaled anything, that would bactrack from the current developments of US (and NATO) integrated missile defence. On the contrary – Exercise Tobruk Legacy in July shows, that the US under the current administration plans to tackle that specific threat of missiles in the region.
Do you believe former US President Barack Obama has erred shelling the plans of the missile defense system for Eastern Europe?
First of all, he has shelved the ground based interceptor plans, which weren’t very successful in the first place. Secondly, those plans never concerned the Baltic States. Thirdly, the SM3 based missile defence has been developed and partially is in place. Fourthly, Obama’s administration has done it in a wrong fashion from a strategic and PR point of view, in fact, the worst way possible for Poland, during 17th of September. That said, the end result isn’t wrong, but the signals sent were indeed wrong.
How susceptible, defense-wise, are we at the Baltic Sea?
Let’s say, we are in a better position than we were at the beginning of 2014. We are still vulnerable, and there are many gaps (air defence, adequate ISR, advanced warning, capabilities to stop determined attack), but the direction is positive and means of deterrence are more visible.
Yet if a hostile foreign force invaded the Baltics, how long do you believe they could withstand aggression?
It would depend greatly on many factors, such as what kind of force, how big and which country would it invade. Also, what region, at what time of year, with what kind of capabilities and with what kind of advanced warning. The most basic, general and abstract idea is to hold off at least part of the territory for weeks, perhaps a month or so. But then again, perhaps the target of an invasion would be only part of a territory, to create another frozen conflict, hence the calculations would differ greatly.
How long will it be before NATO rushes in to help us in an emergency?
That also depends on the factors mentioned. There is one important thing to understand. It’s not us and them – NATO. It is US, since the Baltic States are part of NATO, and say Lithuania could be that NATO ally that would rush to defend Latvia or vice versa. Also, another important factor is the role of multinational NATO battalions that are already in place. The idea is, that they would fight from H+1, let alone US special forces, deployed in each Baltic State. If the talk is about reinforcements, that could be also prepositioned given advanced warning or rushed in, in a matter of hours. One thing is clear – the Americans (and following allies) wouldn’t go blindly without air cover, that has air superiority or air supremacy – and with an adversary such as Russia, it could take weeks or even months. But then again, the tactical situation may dictate unorthodox solutions.
Although the anti-russian sentiment is pretty strong in the country, yet, judging from the public domain, there is still much support for Russia whatever it does? How do you explain the phenomena?
One would need to define “pretty strong sentiment” whether in numbers or other specific measurements. I personally believe there would be collaborators, since the reasons are obvious – old nostalgia, Russian (dis) information campaigns, business interests, or ideological reasons. However, what Russia does is it tries to create an illusion that this sentiment is greater than it actually is. It takes a small group of people to do big and awful things, yet it may not represent any substantial numbers.
Without any doubt, it would be urgent for ordinary people to stand up and resist collectively against an aggressor. What part of the population do you believe would engage in a collective resistance effort? Is there any "secret" assessment of such things?
Recent (May) research conducted by Vilnius University has shown that 88 per cent of respondents believe that defence of Lithuania is a duty of every citizen. 78 per cent believe it should be defended with weapons if a state is attacked. 71 per cent believe in NATO defence. 35 per cent believe we could defend ourselves independently before NATO help arrived. 63% believe Lithuania could organize an effective resistance, and more than half of adult Lithuanians would join the fight. 42 per cent would personally defend (25 per cent wouldn’t, the rest don’t know). From military age 1929 year olds, 66 per cent would defend the country, 87 per cent support conscription for men, 25 per cent - for women also, 72 per cent believe in the necessity of military training in schools. I hope that answers the question.
Yet, you have to agree that part of the population would collaborate with the intruder. Do you think such collaborators could garner eventually a critical mass and be able to take over and run state institutions and, locally, municipalities? Most importantly, have the people obeying their commands?
I do not believe there would be a critical mass of collaborators, yet experience shows, that it doesn’t have to be critical mass in general, all it takes is indecisive government, smart hybrid tactics, illusion of a critical mass (with help of provocators, SOF infiltrators, etc.) could create a potentially dangerous situation. The question of loyalty of armed forces is also debatable, but there would hardly be many collaborators in the ranks.
Do you see a local political force or individuals now that would act similarly as in the 1940s, on behalf
of the nation for the cause of the intruder?
Yes, although those are marginals or individuals who have no influence, capability, resources or enough brains to conduct such an action in an effective way.
How strong do you believe Lithuanian civic society is in preventing it from happening?
It’s not as strong as it could be, but like mentioned previously, things have been moving in a positive direction since 2014 – people are more active, more attentive security-wise (depends on regions as well), but they still lack knowledge in what to do in case “it” happens and may even be afraid/discouraged to take action due to imperfect legal issues (like shooting little green men first and asking questions later).
What's your take on Lithuania's conscription and the conscript-based national forces?
It’s a positive one. It was returned due to the need to fill the ranks of battalions (to train and operate effectively battalions and larger formations there must enough personnel), as well as create capable-to-fight reserve forces that could be activated. It has disadvantages, as more training should be given to them, and conscripts utilize a lot of resources (infrastructure, NCOS, Lts, other trainers need to be prepared in adequate numbers), it takes more time to obtain knowledge of sophisticated systems, but in the end, it was a logical and necessary solution that has a place in the 21st century, not just being a cannon fodder, but a useful task orientated tool for the job.
Can it be a force against a well-trained regimen of hostile foreign troops?
Yes it can. The art of war is to achieve goals (like victory) with a lesser trained and smaller force against a bigger and better trained one. History has shown it is possible given the right conditions – first of all: mentality, effective command and control, and good intelligence.
What do you make of the recent defense drill in the Salcininkai district in Eastern Lithuania?
It was a risky wake up call, and it showed a lot of mistakes or shortcomings in C2, communications and training. It was also used for Russian infowar means. The positive side is, that all of those shortcomings have been found in exercises and not during a real situation. Therefore, hopefully people will learn from mistakes and that in turn would increase the resilience and deterrence.
Vaidas Saldziunas is a Lithuanian defense expert and Defence Editor at Delfi.lt