“How can you trust Russia?” Nervous Lithuanians join the border police

“They have a shooting range that they use over there, behind this field. During the day you can hear guns,” he said.

Grudzinskas has his own weapon, a submachine gun he keeps locked in a closet at hand, although his watchdog, the Maltese Terrier, may be less effective in combat.

The small town of Kybartai, where Grudzinskaya lives, is located inside both NATO and the European Union, but also along one of the hottest borders in the world, the Suwalki Gap. This piece of land, about 60 miles wide, is sandwiched between Russia’s heavily fortified, nuclear-armed Baltic hideout in Kaliningrad and its ally Belarus. The pass, considered by many analysts to be a weak spot in NATO, has been caught in a pincer between Kremlin forces. There are fears that if Ukraine falls, Russia will move through it next, possibly cutting off the Baltic states in a matter of days.

The scars of the Soviet occupation run deep into this part of Europe. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were forcibly deported by the Soviet Union to the Gulags in Siberia and the Far North in the 1940s and 1950s. Nearly 30,000 Lithuanian prisoners died in forced labor camps.

“My father was sent to Sakhalin in the far west of Russia for 15 years,” Grudzinskas said. “He ate grass the first year to survive.”

So when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014Grudzinskas joined the age-old Lithuanian volunteer militia, the Riflemen, and took up arms in his backyard.

This means it is the first line of defense if the Kremlin troops, stationed 60 feet from the Russian exclave, set foot on NATO territory.

“How can you trust Russia? With our history? he asked.

“Of course I’m afraid. How can I not be? he added. “My family is here. I built this house with my bare hands.”

Vitas Grudzinskas and his fellow volunteer on a hill in the Suwalki corridor.

The 103-year-old Strelkov militia has been showing off its hot air balloons since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to its commander.

Currently, there are about 12,000 volunteers, said Egidijus Papetskis, commander of the 4th Regional Rifle Command. And that number is increasing tenfold every month, he said.

Since the first days of the war in Ukraine, the number of recruits wishing to join it has increased from 10-12 to more than 100 per month.

The new volunteers of the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union take the oath on Monday.
Police weapons are mostly donated by the Lithuanian armed forces and received through crowdfunding.

At his headquarters in the city of Marijampolė, deep in the Suwalki Corridor, Papetskis shows off some of his unit’s arsenal, including assault rifles, pistols and grenade launchers.

The 51-year-old is also desperate to avoid a return to Russian rule. Father was sent to Siberia, as were his wife’s relatives.

“We remember the Soviet occupation, and we no longer like it when we are occupied. We are free people,” said Papetskis.

At a swearing-in ceremony held on the occasion of the Riflemen’s 103rd anniversary in the nearby town of Kalvaria, new member Karolis Baranauskas says he has always been interested in the organization, but the war in Ukraine galvanized him into action. Although he was born in 1990 when Lithuania became independent from the Soviet Union, he says that “every Lithuanian knows that Russia is a threat. Recent events prove this.”

To better protect the Baltic countries, NATO has radically revised its defense planning in this part of the world, proactively announcing Summit in Madrid this week that he will increase his presence in the region enough to repel any attack in real time, instead of sending troops to retake territory after it has been captured.

This would mean that for a thousand additional troops, Lithuania would like them to be permanently based around the small country’s 621-mile borders with Belarus and Russia.

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Deputy Defense Minister Margiris Abukevičius acknowledges that it could take two years to create such troops. But he says there is now an understanding that military capabilities need significant upgrades around Suwalki and elsewhere. According to Abukevičius, the corridor, also known as the Suwalki Pass, has always been a source of concern. The Baltic States and NATO consider it a “weak point”.

“In the current situation, we have a much clearer understanding of vulnerability,” he told CNN on Tuesday at the Ministry of Defense in Vilnius.

“I think NATO understands this and makes decisions,” he said. “I really hope that this week’s NATO summit will give a very strong response and a very clear direction in which NATO’s long-term adaptation should go.”

At the same time, Lithuania says it has fended off ongoing Russian cyberattacks on its government institutions and private sector in recent days following its decision last week to block the transport of some goods, such as grain and steel, that are subject to EU sanctions. by train to Kaliningrad. Although cyberattacks by Russian hackers are relatively common in Lithuania, Abukevičius says the blockade was a “trigger”.

“We are seeing an increase in activity in state institutions against some critical operators – especially transport and the media,” Abukevicius said.

While shooting at targets at a shooting range nestled among the lush vegetation of Marijampolė, Grudzinskas and other members of Papetskis’ unit aim their machine guns while shooting, as Russian soldiers often do outside Grudzinskas Street.

Their shots break the silence for a moment, but for now, a fragile peace remains.