Lithuanians Prepare To Resist Russian Aggression Ahead Of NATO Reinforcement
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
NATO leaders met in Warsaw yesterday to discuss what many see as a growing military threat from Russia. They agreed to send military units to Poland and the Baltic states. People in those three small NATO countries on Russia's western border - Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania - have vivid memories of living under Soviet occupation. As Corey Flintoff reports from Vilnius, Lithuanians say they're ready to resist any Russian aggression.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's possible to cross Lithuania by car in a little over four hours, and people here know they could be overrun very quickly if Russia ever chose to attack. NATO allies are pledged to come to its defense, but the country could be firmly in Russian hands by that point. That's why the defense minister, Juozas Olekas, says Lithuanians don't plan to sit around waiting for help. He recalls that Lithuanian partisans fought a nearly 10-year guerilla war against the Soviet occupation after World War II.
JUOZAS OLEKAS: Our civilian men and women in the forest - they fight for our freedom. And in this situation, our civilian society - they are ready to defend their country.
FLINTOFF: Lithuania has a professional army of only about 8,000 soldiers, but it also has a civilian draft. Conscription for both men and women was reinstated in 2014 after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The plan is to draft up to 4,000 people each year for nine months of tough military training. So far, most of the trainees are young people who volunteered for the draft.
We caught up with some of them at an army base near Vilnius where draftees are in their seventh month of training. They're hidden in the forest to provide stealthy communications for an artillery battalion. The first sign that there's a military operation here comes when a camouflage sentry materializes from among the trees.
Further on there's a communications truck hidden under a leafy-looking net that makes it nearly invisible. Zygimantas Grinkevicius is as well camouflaged as the truck with green and brown face paint that matches the leaves around him. He says he volunteered for the draft right after college.
ZYGIMANTAS GRINKEVICIUS: I serve my country 'cause I'm kind of - I love my country, and I want to be safe.
FLINTOFF: He says he has the feeling that conflict with Russia could break out at any time, and he wants to be ready. Julija Gailliusaite volunteered for the draft at 19 because she says she wanted to give herself a challenge and give something to the country. She says it was much harder than she imagined.
JULIJA GAILLIUSAITE: (Through interpreter) I can see now that every one of us has gotten better. We can't catch up to the professional soldiers, but I think we're getting some respect from them. They're not thinking of us as civilians anymore. We're soldiers now.
FLINTOFF: Grinkevicius says he's heartened by the fact that NATO soldiers from other countries are now training regularly in Lithuania. Right now, he says, his base has Danish, Portuguese and German troops.
GRINKEVICIUS: I see them every day, so it is the feeling that we are not alone in the world.
FLINTOFF: Lithuania is hoping that troops from its NATO allies will become a permanent presence in the country. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Vilnius.
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NEARY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.