News2023.04.29 10:00

‘We know exactly what we’d do in the event of attack’ – how German troops prepare to defend Lithuania

Ieva Žvinakytė, 2023.04.29 10:00

Since 2017, not only the Lithuanian Armed Forces but also the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group have been preparing to defend Lithuania in the event of a military crisis. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the presence of NATO forces on the alliance’s eastern flank has taken on a new meaning, say the troops deployed in Lithuania. 

We arrive in the small Lithuanian town of Rukla, where the eFP battle group is deployed, on a sunny spring morning. We are soon escorted to a small barracks chapel set up in a container, where we sit down for a chat with Colonel Wolfgang Schmidt, German contingent leader within the eFP battle group in Lithuania, and the German soldiers.

The multinational NATO eFP battle group in Lithuania consists of around 1 700 troops, 1 100 of which are deployed by Germany. NATO troops, commanders, and equipment spend six months in Lithuania before the new rotation arrives.

“Every German rotation takes approximately six months. This goes back to the beginnings of the eFP concept in 2016 when it was decided to strengthen NATO defence and deterrence capabilities on the eastern flank, in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act. That’s why the deployment of the battlegroup is always rotational. So, it’s not the same personnel and material all the time,” Schmidt explains.

The NATO-Russia Federation Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, signed in Paris in 1997, states that “in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces”.

For this reason, NATO troops in Lithuania and other countries on the alliance's eastern flank rotate instead of staying there permanently.

However, according to Major Robert F., who commands a German company of around 180 troops, six months is enough to get to know the country and be ready to defend it if necessary.

The German contingent leader also stresses that he and all the troops deployed in Lithuania know exactly how they would react and what their task would be if the country was attacked.

Asked how they feel serving a country which is not their homeland, the Germans say that “the answer is simple”.

“Lithuania, Germany, and 29 other nations are part of NATO, and we have Article 5 that an attack on one ally would also be an attack on all other allies. I’m pretty sure everybody understands that,” Schmidt says.

"And as I said time and time again, especially to the soldiers, we should be really grateful to Ukraine because they are fighting for our freedom and the soldiers of the eFP battlegroup and all other German soldiers would be also obliged to fight for the freedom of the rest of Europe if need be,” he adds.

According to the German soldiers, they discuss a different Lithuania-related topic – from history to sports – every day during their morning meetings. Their moral welfare unit also organises trips to Vilnius and other Lithuanian cities to help the troops “get to know the people and the country we serve”.

Changing mindset

The interviewed German soldiers arrived in Lithuania at the beginning of this year. They say that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has changed their perception of the NATO mission on the alliance’s eastern flank.

“On the western side [of Lithuania], there’s the Suwalki Gap and the Russian forces [in Kaliningrad]. On the east, the country is bordering Russia, and, of course, there’s still war. So, [the meaning of] being here changed last year on February 24,” shares Major Robert F.

“We know that we have to do our task, which is to do a substantial part for deterrence and working together with all the other nations and forces here to be part of the national defence plan and fight for Lithuania as part of NATO country. So, the task isn’t different, but the mindset that something can happen has changed due to the Russian attack,” he adds.

The Lithuanian and foreign media have recently reported that NATO has prepared new defence plans for the Baltic countries. It is said that the new plans envisage an immediate response to an attack instead of leaving the Baltic countries to hold off an offensive until allied reinforcements can arrive to help them.

The leader of the German contingent in Lithuania stresses that NATO defence plans cannot be discussed in public for security reasons. However, when asked whether the new planning means that the alliance’s current plans for the Baltics are not sufficient, he says that “the Lithuanian armed forces have a very sound plan in place, and NATO is capable to defend the Baltics and restore territorial integrity if needed”.

Lack of training areas

Rukla barracks are equipped with sports fields, a shop, a post office, a medical centre, a leisure area with pool tables, table football, etc., and a “zero-promille bar”, as soldiers are not allowed to consume alcohol during their service.

“Life in the barracks is very fine. We are comfortable with the situation that we have,” says Major Robert F.

According to him, in some cases, the troops feel even more comfortable in Lithuania than in Germany: “The barracks buildings in Germany are quite old, and infrastructure needs lots of time. At least from my point of view, Lithuania is way faster in building up and adapting to the situation.”

The German contingent leader Schmidt also says he is satisfied with Lithuania’s host country support.

“These barracks formerly were used for the basic training of the Lithuanian army. Since we had the requirements, they gave us large parts of these barracks for our own use,” he explains.

Regarding infrastructure, the Germans also say they have not found Lithuanian roads or bridges unsuitable for heavy military equipment. This has recently been mentioned as one of the main problems to be tackled with the funds raised by taxing excess bank profits.

“The battlegroup conducted a tactical road march two or three weeks ago for an exercise going from here to the Pabradė training area. To my knowledge, there have been no limitations with regard to bridges and so on,” Schmidt says.

He also notes that military infrastructure is an issue not only in Lithuania: “Especially after 2014, we have seen in Europe that we need to improve all the infrastructure with regard to military mobility.”

The Germans make no secret, however, that what they lack in Lithuania are military training areas, as exercises are currently taking place only at the Gaižiūnai and Pabradė training areas.

“Talking about the capability of having training exercises, that’s where we are quite limited since there are lots of troops here, especially when the eFP battle group and the Lithuanian army want to do the training [at the same time],” explains Major Robert F.

In March this year, around 600 soldiers of the German brigade assigned to Lithuania also took part in an exercise in Pabradė. The German major agrees that deploying an entire brigade in Lithuania, as Vilnius wants, would create even more problems for organising military training.

“What is true right now, because of the high number of NATO nations in Lithuania, the infrastructure is a challenge. But we also understand that Lithuania is going to improve the infrastructure, they opened the Rūdininkai training area last year. It will be rebuilt until 2026,” the German contingent leader Schmidt adds.

Brigade question

Last year, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed a communiqué on the assignment of a German brigade to Lithuania. Since then, the debate about where it should be deployed has been simmering.

Vilnius wants the entire brigade on its territory. Berlin, meanwhile, has deployed its forward command element in Rukla and says that the rest of the brigade could be moved to Lithuania in 10 days if needed.

Asked if this time gap is sufficient to defend Lithuania against Russian aggression, Schmidt assured that “at NATO, we are working with indicators and warnings. So, we should have ample time to decide if we deploy and then to move the brigade by whatever means available to the foreseen place”.

The German contingent leader points out that NATO was aware of the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border since April 2021, so in the event of a threat to Lithuania, it would not go unnoticed either.

According to Schmidt, the brigade issue is complex, and the German and Lithuanian defence ministers meet regularly to discuss topics related to it, including infrastructure, military exercises, etc.

“These meetings take place every two months, either in Vilnius or Berlin. I think this is the right forum to commonly decide on all the open questions with regard to the commitment,” the colonel says.

But so far, Germany has “reacted very quickly” in fulfilling its commitment to Lithuania, he notes.

“If you look at the timelines, the NATO summit was at the end of June 2022. The first element of the brigade arrived in Lithuania towards the end of August. We had the first big exercise together with Lithuania in October, and since then, we have done two big exercises showing that we are able to deploy parts of the brigade rapidly to Lithuania, which is not a small feat in my view,” Schmidt says.

Moreover, the German and Lithuanian militaries are working together to integrate elements of the brigade into the national defence plan and NATO plans, says the German contingent leader.

The NATO eFP battle group is integrated into Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Brigade at the alliance level, while Germany has assigned the brigade to Lithuania based on a bilateral agreement.

“To make it work, from my point of view, we also need to make sure that this bilateral agreement is in sync with NATO plans. [...] We have to synchronise everything which is going on with regard to the defence of the Baltic states with NATO planning because in the end you need one plan and then it’s easier for all the soldiers to really fulfil these plans,” Schmidt explains.

“So, right now, we have the spearhead of the eFP battle group, which really works and has all the required capabilities, and we are trying to make the bilateral agreement work as well. We are looking forward to the upcoming NATO Summit in Vilnius, where all NATO partners will discuss joint defence planning,” he adds.

The NATO eFP battle group and the German brigade are currently conducting separate military exercises in Lithuania. Asked if this does not cause planning problems, Schmidt assures that “all exercises are useful”. However, he does not rule out the possibility that in the future the brigade will also be placed under NATO command, as this will depend on the forces needed to implement the new Baltic defence plans.

LRT has been certified according to the Journalism Trust Initiative Programme

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