The headline news in April about a brazen flyover by Russian fighter jets in close proximity to the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea missed out one important detail: the destination of the American ship. As the warship settled in for a long weekend in the Lithuanian seaport of Klaipeda, Lithuania’s only gateway to the Baltic Sea, the international brouhaha could not have come at a better time for the country.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania together with Poland have been pushing Nato and the US to ramp up defences since Russian imperialism raised its ugly face in 2014 with the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and the fomenting of the war in the east of the country.
And on May 2 they appear to have got their wish: US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the allies are considering a rotational ground force of four battalions, about 4,000 troops, which would be in addition to the recently announced unilateral US decision to send an armoured brigade of about 4,200 troops to the region in February 2017.
Ash’s comments prompted a sharp rebuke from Russia: “This would be a very dangerous build-up of armed forces pretty close to our borders,” Andrei Kelin, a department head at the Russian defence ministry, said on May 4. “I am afraid this would require certain retaliatory measures, which the Russian defence ministry is already talking about.”
The Nato moves come amidst Baltic intelligence revelations about Russia’s more roundabout tactics that seek to place Nato in a less comfortable position whilst avoiding an open conflict that it would almost certainly lose.
“The essence of Russia’s new game plan is to prevent making Nato's life easy by presenting a direct and incontrovertible threat. No one is going to shoot a placard-waving teenager, nor a firefighter battling a blaze, and Nato has no power to scrutinize the ultimate beneficiaries of property sales or backers of fringe lobby groups,” says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a columnist for bne IntelliNews.
A recent intelligence revelation out of Lithuania spoke of how a couple years ago Russian paratroopers, simulating a special task operation in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between the Nato states of Poland and Lithuania, might have crossed over the border into Juodkrante, a lush Lithuanian settlement on the Baltic Sea.
“I stand by my words: there is a strong probability that a special Russian military unity might have descended there undetected by our border patrol. Air control is a weak link there and Russia certainly, knows it,” Arturas Paulauskas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s Committee on National Security and Defense (NSGK), tells bne IntelliNews.
The possible incursion was the strongest statement in a report from Lithuania’s State Security Department (VSD) released in late March on threats to national security, which revealed little other explosive material. “Intelligence agencies play a sneaky game of cat and mouse all the time, therefore the frugality of the text. You cannot expect tidbits being put on display,” Darius Petrosius, another member of the parliamentarian NSGK committee, tells bne IntelliNews. “The possible landing of a hostile force on our territory underlines a wide spectrum of challenges to our national security. The Russians’ actions have lately become a whole lot more brazen, sneakier as well as subtler and more intensive.”
Yet the VSD report still gave lots to chew on. It acknowledged the activity of Russian-supported civil groups and movements in Lithuania, as well as more intense Russian efforts to recruit Lithuanian nationals for surveillance. “As trade with Russia has significantly shrunk amid the standoff [between Russia and the West], the recruiting now has intensified on the Lithuanian and Belarusian border,” explains Petrosius. “It can usually start off with an ‘innocent’ accident – for example, with a threat to seize ostensibly contraband goods or disallow travel to Belarus for business or family reasons… Lithuanian citizens are given ‘a chance’ to proceed with the trip in exchange for certain favours: providing an appointed Belarusian official upon returning another time with information on Lithuanian colleagues, especially if they serve in law enforcement agencies, the deployment of the units etc.”
“We are hearing increasingly more cases of that kind,” he says, adding that, “Possible penetration of foreign intelligence that way into our border patrol, police and other law enforcement structures raises a particular concern.”
In most of the cases Russian-speaking Lithuanian citizens are targeted or those who tend to side with the Russian view of the world. According to the VSD report, the threat is one of the hottest issues for the state intelligence services to deal with.
Another part of the VSD report was devoted to the country’s internet- and cyber-security. “As a parliamentarian, I cannot be sure, honestly speaking, of the security of my own communications,” admits Arvydas Anusauskas, a former chairman of parliament’s NGSK committee, to bne IntelliNews. “This week [April 10-17] somebody hacked into my personal webpage and I still do not know who was behind the attack. Cyber and electronic communication security is a big issue for us.”
Four Lithuanian institutions, including the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament), the President’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were hacked by unidentified hackers in April – this despite Lithuania boasting the Vilnius-based National Cyber Security Center. But its capacities are insufficient to deter all e-threats and react to them properly, claims Anusauskas. “Let’s face it: the world is galloping in stepping up e-security, but the centre is under-resourced like all our communications means,” he argues.
Petrosius agrees, pointing out that “the radars in the Kaliningrad region are very powerful”. “We can just wonder about their real technical capacities,” he concedes.
Both dismissed, however, the possibility that because of the underfunding of the National Cyber Security Center and the country’s various intelligence agencies Lithuania is prone to significant breaches in national security. “Do not forget that we have a lot of friends out there who help us if we ask them as partners of the organisations [EU and Nato],” Anusauskas emphasizes, adding that the Lithuanian intelligence report comprises only “a couple percent” of the information that VSD possesses.
For Laurynas Kasciunas, a senior analyst at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius, the time for bolstering the state’s security services is long overdue. “Ahead of the Nato summit in Warsaw in the summer, we need to lobby for it as much as we can, as well as invest a lot more in our own defences,” he tells bne IntelliNews.
Petrosius, of the parliament’s NSGK committee, hints of doing something about the “increased presence” of suspicious persons around Lithuanian military bases. “The military vehicles and movements are filmed clandestinely from passing cars, most of which hold Russian plates. The occurrences are not coincidental,” he maintains.
The country’s military conscripts are another group raising security concerns, the MP reveals: “They can be used as tools to foray into our land defense systems or infiltrate recruited persons into it.”
First and foremost, though, the security of information matters most. When last year a group of mostly Russian-speaking Lithuanian pupils went to Russia participate in a Soviet-type youth boot camp, many of the educators defended the trip as a longstanding tradition from which the teenage boys only benefit. “That such camps are hotbeds for radicalization many still do not grasp,” one of the NSGK members laments to bne IntelliNews.
Such radicalization also occurs in Lithuania, where the Kremlin looks to pump out propaganda to Lithuanian citizens, especially those with roots in Russia, through numerous dodgy media projects and the blatant dissemination of disinformation.
Referring to the Juodkrante revelation, Eugenijus Vosylius, head of Lithuania’s Association of Retired Colonels, has likened the power of the word to “a huge snowball” turning into an all-sweeping avalanche on the way down. “Alas, the importance of strategic communication has not been perceived until the end in Lithuania,” he told local media.