It’s been a weird six months for Karolina Kalinauskaitė.
Six months ago, she was driving a truck, now she’s part of a paramilitary volunteer force preparing for the possibility of a Russian invasion of the EU.
Lithuania, a tiny former Soviet republic home to 2.7 million people nestled in the northeast corner of Europe, is at the sharp end of fears over Russian expansion.
The Baltic state sits in an incredibly delicate area of eastern Europe, not only sharing a border with Belarus – a Russian client-state ruled by an erratic dictator – but also Kaliningrad, a tiny, highly militarised and geopolitically strategic patch of Russian territory nestled between Poland and Lithuania. Russian goods move daily through the country from Belarus to Kaliningrad, and tensions are growing.
Karolina Kalinauskaitė, centre. PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
Kalinauskaitė joined the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union – a fast-growing paramilitary volunteer group with 14,000 members – six months ago.
“I was trying to discover who I want to be, and I think this is it,” she says.
Normally, Kalinauskaitė works as a truck driver, taking long, lonely rides across Europe hauling frozen meat and mechanical devices across the continent. But when she’s not on the road, she dedicates her time to the LRU. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Lithuania is on high alert, and for good reason.
“When the war in Ukraine started, I was afraid,” Kalinauskaitė says, talking to VICE World News at a mass for Lithuania’s defenders in Marijampolė, a city close to the Polish border.
“But eventually, I faced this new reality. Now I don’t have any doubts: if something happens here, I would go defend my country.”
The stretch of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad is known as the Suwalki Gap, and it is a crucial trade corridor for Moscow. It’s been called the most dangerous place on Earth and analysts believe that if Russian president Vladimir Putin would expand his war outside the borders of Ukraine and drag NATO into a wider conflict, this is exactly where he would strike.
In response to the threat, 4,000 people have joined the LRU this year, to be ready for a fight if it’s brought to them.
The LRU was founded in 1919 and all members – known locally as Šauliai – abide by a “ten commandments,” a strict moral code laid down in 1927, that goes from “strengthen your will and body” and “respect the weapon” to “talk straight, be fair.” People with criminal records are barred from joining.
The LRU, which received €4.8 million (£4.1 million, $4.8 million) from the government this year – three times more than it was given in 2021 – plays an important role in the country’s defence, both physically and mentally. It allows regular citizens to feel ready if the war starts.
PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
Every member of LRU has to go through one week of basic training, learning basic skills about orders, armament, tactics, and first aid. At the end of the course, they are assessed on their theoretical knowledge as well as their physical training skills.
“We would need to react very quickly and protect the territory until NATO army joins,” explains Edgaras Juškevičius, who joined the LRU two days after the full-scale assault on Ukraine began in February.
It’s believed that NATO would take days, or possibly months, to get to Lithuania in the event of a Russian incursion, so the country is having to prepare to defend itself.
Juškevičius, a father of two daughters, aged 18 and 11, lives in Marijampolė and works as a project manager at the metal construction factory where he manages 60 people. He has a lot to lose. But we met him in an LRU training camp in the town of Rukla, dressed in camouflage, and holding an old Swedish rifle issued by the Lithuanian government.
Edgaras Juškevičius. PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
Russia’s invasion in February was a galvanising moment for him. “I realised that Russia did not grow like the rest of the world,” he says. “We have entered the 21st century and they are still in their imperialistic dimension. And I realised that it is necessary to prepare quickly. The events in Bucha showed that if you don't belong to any organisation, your hands will be tied behind your back and you will be shot.”
He says he would not hesitate to go to the front line if one opened up. “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I wouldn’t go,” Juškevičius says. “What would I tell my daughters, where I was at the war? I would be ashamed if I run away.”
Some members of the organisation actually went to war – in Ukraine. Mindaugas Lietuvnikas, a member of Marijampolė’s LRU, went to Ukraine at the start of the war in February where he was a sniper.
“Earlier, people would join our organisation because of the idea of it,” Lietuvnikas says. “Now they are joining knowing that they might actually need to go to war.”
Just like the other Baltic states – Latvia and Estonia – Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years. This bitter history means that Lithuania has strongly and vociferously condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine. Lithuania’s parliament unanimously voted to declare Russia a terrorist state after the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha emerged – a global first. The street that Russia’s embassy sits on in the capital, Vilnius, was renamed “Ukrainian Heroes Street”. Vilnius’s mayor also painted a giant sign saying, “Putin, the Hague is waiting for you” outside the embassy building.
LRU members are not the only people defending Lithuania. The country has a growing professional army, which stands at 11,453 soldiers compared with 7,980 in 2014.
In 2015, Lithuania started a conscription “lottery” which makes every Lithuanian man aged 19-26 eligible to be drafted – around two percent of them can expect to be called up each year. And in March, Lithuanian parliament unanimously raised defence spending to 2.52 percent of GDP, one of the highest in NATO, which Lithuania joined in 2004.
At a gun show in Vištytis, across the lake from Kaliningrad. PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
In Kybartai, the town bordering Kaliningrad and Lithuania, Russia’s threat is not only theoretical, it’s physical. Russia’s military presence in Kaliningrad is constant. In May it carried out simulated nuclear strikes in the enclave, and Lithuanian officials strongly suspect it keeps nuclear weapons there too. People across the border frequently hear gunshots from the training of Russian soldiers in Kaliningrad.
“A few years ago they were destroying their bombs in Kaliningrad,” remembers LRU member Valius Kučiauskas, 45, a farmer and construction teacher. “After some of the explosions, the doors to my home were blasted open.”
“I live three kilometres from the border with Kaliningrad. If Russia invades, we would need to resist,” he says, holding his personal rifle.
VICE World News met him at a gun show in Vištytis, a town only separated from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad by a lake, and a 20-minute drive from Kybartai. This gun is valuable property; Kučiauskas bought it for €1,300 euros (£1,100, $1,300), but the average Lithuanian earns about €1,000 a month. “I keep it in a safe at my house, but I use it at least once a month to practice,” he explains.
At the gun show, people chatted and Lithuanian pop and folk music blasted from soundsystems, but looking out across the lake separating Lithuania from Kaliningrad, it’s impossible not to think about how close the threat is.
Looking towards Kaliningrad. PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
Locals took pictures with weapons, talked to the riflemen about the different guns, how far they shot and what they cost. They held rifles in and tried to figure out how to properly look through the scope. Children shot from pneumatic rifles and pistols. A woman in a folk costume, looking through the scope of a rifle, joked to her friend: “Look, I'm aiming at the Russians!”
PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
Some locals remembered how before 2014 they would go to Kaliningrad to buy cheaper fuel and food, as well as booze and cigarettes. People from Kaliningrad would go to Lithuania to buy meat and used German cars. This neighbourly connection now is replaced with fear and uncertainty.
PHOTO: Denis Vėjas
“I have an uneasy feeling every day in my heart,” says Danutė Kulisevičienė, a Vištytis local and member of the Riflemen’s Union since 2004 and an active member of the union’s choir. Now at 79, she lives on her pension and every month sends money to the Ukrainian army, by calling a special army support telephone line. “Ukrainians and Lithuanians, we are friends. I am terrified to see how young men are dying. So I send money and pray for it to end. That’s all I want.”