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The paramilitary fighters training to keep Russia out of the Baltics

“T here were two possibilities,” Ramunas Markovas said one morning as he drove me out of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and into the pine forest. “Die on the battlefield or die in a labor camp in Siberia.” I was in the back seat of his Volvo, looking out the window at a countryside dotted with clapboard houses and evergreens.

Markovas, at forty-three, is physically compact with cropped blond hair. He works for a German company that produces detergents and cosmetics and moonlights as a deputy company commander in the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, the country’s preeminent paramilitary outfit. He was describing the choice that his family had faced during a previous episode of Russian expansionism. The First World War freed their country from the Russian Empire, and in 1919, his great-grandfather became one of the earliest members of the Riflemen. Two decades later, while the Wehrmacht was busy occupying Paris, the Red Army invaded Lithuania and proceeded to liquidate the military; in part because he was a platoon leader for the Riflemen, Markovas’s great-grandfather was sent to the gulag. He died sometime in 1943, but no one knows exactly where or how. “That is not unique,” Markovas told me. “One hundred percent of the people in Lithuania will tell you the same story.”

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Lithuania has spent more than half of the past hundred years under occupation — Soviets, Nazis, Soviets again — and when Moscow-backed forces occupied the Crimean Peninsula, in Ukraine, in 2014, many interpreted the takeover to mean that Russia was returning to old habits. History suggested an insurgency in the forest: Beginning in 1944, a nine-year guerrilla resistance against the U.S.S.R. was organized and waged among the pines. Many of the older fighters had been Riflemen. They were isolated, but they believed, from inaccurate radio broadcasts, that Allied forces would arrive soon to rescue them.

Lithuania finally claimed independence in 1990, and was followed shortly thereafter by the other Baltic States, Estonia and Latvia. Yet Moscow has since viewed their sovereignty as accidental and temporary. Accordingly, the Kremlin was displeased when, in 2004, they joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And lately civilians across the region have come to feel an anxious resolve, as anyone in the neighborhood could be Russia’s next target in its quest to extend its borders. Over the past three years, the ranks of the Riflemen’s Union have increased by almost 40 percent, to more than 10,000 members. “In 1940, our army did not fight,” Markovas said. “That is really a cut in the memories of everybody. We simply surrendered. And that should not happen a second time.”

It was mid-May, sunny and cool. Markovas had picked me up at the Gate of Dawn, a faded blue archway on the edge of Vilnius’s old town. Nearby was Gediminas Tower, where the city was founded in the fourteenth century. That was where Markovas had taken the oath to join the Riflemen, a few months after the attack on Crimea. He made the decision to enlist sitting in his kitchen, with his wife, Virginija, after they had put the youngest of their three children to sleep. “Really, I cannot imagine that somebody could be so idiotic as to start a war in the center of Europe,” he said. “But actually Ukrainians believed the same.”

After driving some fifteen miles, Markovas and I arrived at a clearing in the woods. I followed him to a shooting range. Target practice, he said, was a relaxed weekend activity, “like being at a resort, but with a little extra noise.” His English was fluent but more heavily accented than that of many Lithuanians his age, because he learned it only when he started working. During the Communist years, members of his family — businessmen, real estate developers — were marked as enemies of the state, and as a child, Markovas had believed that the Soviet administration would never permit him to travel outside Lithuania. This gave him little incentive to study foreign languages. Russian was taught in school, but he refused to commit the Cyrillic alphabet to memory.

We approached the rest of his squad, which included a real estate agent, a photographer, a professor at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, and Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius. Markovas greeted Šimašius, who was wearing a green beret, fatigues, and protective sunglasses with hot-pink temples that would shield him from blowback. Šimašius knelt to staple a target to a wooden post. In place of a bull’s-eye, it featured a suntanned man in a jacket and tie with high cheekbones and a gelled-back wave of hair; a pistol was aimed from his hip. “Agent Smith,” Šimašius said, and laughed.

The target did look worryingly American — perhaps left over from a Soviet stockpile. These days, however, Lithuanians are happy to be on the “right side” of the Iron Curtain. Since 2014, NATO has steadily built up its presence in the Baltic nations and Poland, which form Europe’s border with Russia. There are now about 4,500 coalition troops rotating through the region, along with an additional 5,000 U.S. soldiers outside NATO parameters. Last November, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House, there was a wave of apprehension in the Baltics, because during his campaign he had called NATO “obsolete” and seemed to waver on whether America would fulfill its defense commitments there. But he later reversed that position, and the anxiety has since been replaced with quiet optimism. To residents of the Baltics, Trump turned out to be a blustery front man. Under the stewardship of Defense Secretary James Mattis, they sensed, everything would go on as it had with Barack Obama.

Three days before I visited the Riflemen, Mattis came to Vilnius to meet with his Baltic counterparts. He announced that the United States would enhance its surveillance capabilities in Lithuania in September — which is when Russia would be staging its quadrennial Zapad (“West”) military exercises, near the Baltics. Zapad is framed as a defense-readiness event, but in 2013, the Russians tested drones and missiles that were later used offensively in Ukraine and Syria. President Vladimir Putin’s administration said that 12,000 Russian troops participated; outside observers estimated that there were 90,000. In addition, the Russians had enacted a scenario in which “Baltic terrorists” carried out an amphibious attack that transitioned into urban warfare; the terrorists were widely understood to be NATO.

This year, American officials expected that as many as 100,000 Russian troops would amass in Belarus, twenty miles from Vilnius — Putin claimed it would be only a few thousand — and in July, Mattis briefly moved a battery of long-range antiaircraft Patriot missiles into Lithuania for testing. The one-upmanship had a whiff of West Berlin. While in town, Mattis had also met with members of the Lithuanian Army. Markovas told his squad about the visit: Approaching a group of American soldiers, Mattis had asked how they were getting along with their allies. “You guys look like you’re dressed to kill,” he quipped. “Can’t say that too loudly.” The Riflemen chuckled.

Now the guys were trying out red-dot scopes on their AR-15s. The goal was to repeatedly hit a small area inside Agent Smith’s chest cavity. After the first round of shooting, from twenty-five meters, we examined the results. Šimašius, who had used red-dot sighting before, had achieved a neat constellation of pockmarks clustered around the knot in Agent Smith’s necktie. Not bad, but twenty-five meters is damn close to the enemy.

I wondered if target practice would wind up being useful in the case of a Russian incursion; recently, assaults on former Soviet territories have taken a variety of forms, including cyberwarfare. Markovas told me that the weekend exercises were partly about group cohesion. “That is the most important, the tactic of the team, and your ability to orient yourself in the territory,” he said. “There are a lot of things you need to know.”

If Russians invaded Lithuania, Markovas told me, Riflemen would integrate into the military, which has 8,800 professional soldiers. The military and the paramilitary train together frequently, and over the past three years they have increased their communication and coordination, with members of the army taking over as district commanders in the Riflemen’s Union. Last fall, volunteers from Markovas’s squad spent three days with the military in the woods. It rained the whole time, and their program was rigorous. One day, over the course of seventeen hours, they traveled twenty miles in swampy, calf-deep water, some of them carrying twenty-five-pound machine guns and a thousand rounds of ammo, which weighed an additional thirty-five pounds. Markovas had been worried that his men would fall ill. But the idea was to learn how to survive in the forest while preparing to strike.

The Lithuanian army was drilling the Riflemen regularly in insurgency methods picked up during their deployments as part of the NATO coalition to Afghanistan and Iraq. They had observed how insurgents fought the heavily mechanized American army; the same approach could be used against the Russians. “Tactically it’s called ‘the bite of the bee’ — hit and run, hit and run,” Markovas said. “To find the place where, for a short time, you will have an advantage. Otherwise you will be smashed.”

Certain strategic calculations can be developed only through local expertise. When Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence, Evgen Dykyi, a young Ukrainian biologist, was among the residents of Vilnius and their foreign supporters who gathered to defend the parliament building. Two decades later, when protesters in Kiev convened to oppose Russia’s meddling, he was back on the scene, observing the Kremlin’s new methods for bullying its neighbors. Thinking again of his comrades to the north, Dykyi wrote a paper for the Military Academy of Lithuania about what is often referred to as “hybrid war.” A Russian incursion, he wrote, would almost certainly appear “externally disguised as an internal political conflict in the state which is the victim of aggression.” It would couple the “conducting of direct war by the Russian Federation” with the “declared refusal by Russia to recognize its involvement.” Any effort to negotiate with the seemingly “independent parties of the conflict” — i.e., Russian mercenaries in the guise of local separatists — would not only be useless, since they made no decisions themselves, but would also help sustain the illusion of an internal civil conflict, increasing Russia’s ability to manipulate public perception.

One of the early clashes to which the term “hybrid war” was applied, Dykyi explained, took place in 2008, when Russia used separatist violence in the Republic of Georgia as a pretext to launch an invasion; today, Russia continues to push into Georgian borders. In the case of Crimea, unmarked soldiers, widely believed to include Russian special forces, set up checkpoints and took control of the airport. Russia soon annexed the territory and sent in “peacekeeping units.” That move was partly intended to highlight the inability of Ukraine’s government to maintain stability. It was through such unconventional threats, Dykyi believed, that Russia would attempt to reestablish the “Russian world.”

In April, after Dykyi’s assessment was published, the Lithuanian interior ministry organized an exercise to test the country’s readiness. One Saturday morning, a group of ten law enforcement officers dressed up as unidentified soldiers, without insignia, and staged a takeover of a police station in Šalcininkai, a town on the border with Belarus. Unfortunately, the insurrectionists were successful — they managed to march several miles from the border and into town, storm the police headquarters, disarm some of the unwitting officers, and take over the station. Apparently the actors got a little carried away and, against their official directive, declared a breakaway territory, the People’s Republic of Šalcininkai.

The interior ministry used this outcome as data on the country’s level of preparedness, though it came under criticism for failing to inform the public in advance about the exercise. Surprise was part of the point, but if, for example, a group of Riflemen had been conducting drills at the time and happened to come across the officers without knowing who they were, the encounter could have been dangerous.

Markovas hadn’t been training the weekend of the faux coup, but he read about it the next day, and the story sparked a worried conversation between Riflemen’s Union leaders and their counterparts in the regular military. “Those ten people looked very much like Russians, they behaved like we see on TV from eastern Ukraine,” he told me. “Black jackets, not shaved.” He felt the operation had been far too risky. “If I were drilling in that forest, I would be with a patrol of some five soldiers, and if I met those ten people with the strange dress, with the Kalashnikovs in hand, I most probably would immediately ask the soldiers to shoot them.”

One afternoon, I met Audrius Butkevicius, an eccentric doctor who played an important role in the independence movement and became the new nation’s first minister of defense. At fifty-six, he has a brawny frame and a beard that’s turning gray. He wore a leather jacket and spoke in a tumbling stream of thoughts. For the past few years, he had been advising the interior ministry of Ukraine, traveling there frequently on fact-finding missions about the state of the conflict; 10,000 people have died since Crimea was occupied. “We haven’t had enough reliable information,” he told me. “You just have to smell it.” What Butkevicius has found is familiar to him: “Now it’s very popular to speak about hybrid war. Okay, for us, this is nothing new. In the Nineties, when I was minister of defense, such hybrid war was my everyday activity.” After independence, he said, some former Soviet security operatives remained in Lithuania, no longer part of any formal state structure but being illicitly paid by Russia, to unknown ends.

Butkevicius expressed some sympathy for Trump’s view of the Baltics. “My imagination of Trump is that he is an extremely practical guy,” he told me. “And being in his place, to start a war or military conflict because, let’s say, five hundred drunk Russian boys are playing war and taking over a small city that nobody knows of — not only in the United States but also in neighboring countries?” His face expressed doubt. “We have to explain, to prepare our Western partners to help themselves to help us,” he said. “NATO and European Union leaders, they are not prepared for such threats.”

Butkevicius’s relations with the Russians were long, intimate, and sour. He spoke of his Russian counterparts as if he were a resentful divorcé. “We have experience in how to solve psychological problems with Russians,” he told me. “The conflict is psychological, and you cannot solve mental problems with a pistol in the hands.”

From Vilnius, I traveled north to Estonia, where, every May, the government holds a month of training exercises known as Spring Storm. The program was designed for the small Estonian military, which has about 6,000 people on active duty, as well as its reinforcements from NATO and Kaitseliit, the local name for the Estonian Defense League. Estonia had an earlier rush of paramilitary recruits than Lithuania — in 2007, when the government decided to remove a statue of a Soviet soldier from the middle of Tallinn, the capital. In response, hackers with ties to the Kremlin launched a massive cyberattack that brought down the national infrastructure — Estonia has one of the most robust tech industries in Europe — while the ethnic Russian population rioted, allegedly with encouragement from the Russian embassy. Now Kaitseliit members, of whom there are now 25,000, camp out each spring in the forest less than a hundred miles from the Russian border and participate in drills.

May in northern Estonia was cold as December in New York. Many of the trees were still leafless. Beneath a clay-colored sky, a Kaitseliit company commander led a group of visitors down a gravel drive, heading toward HQ tents where they had set up maps and surveillance equipment. Suddenly we heard a swooping sound. “That’s an air alarm,” the commander said. “It means hostile air movement is coming. Everyone into the woods.” We stepped off the road and into the mossy underbrush to take cover among the trees.

I shared a pine with one of the many female fighters I met in Kaitseliit, a twenty-two-year-old student at Tallinn University who had a long blond braid. She had gotten involved with the organization a few years earlier, when a friend asked her to help out at its youth camp. She realized that she liked military life. I asked whether she was worried about Russia. “Of course I become concerned if I think about it,” she said. “But if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Then we’ll do something. But it hasn’t happened yet. So I don’t worry.” It was around eleven in the morning and the unit had been out since dawn. She handed me a “cow candy,” a creamy toffee wrapped in camo paper, to put some sugar into my bloodstream.

In the afternoon, I joined a battalion playing the defensive role in a staged attack. For three days, their machine guns loaded with blanks, they had been waiting eagerly for the enemy to appear. Finally, two hours before I arrived, a group passed, only about six hundred feet away; the enemy was supposed to be clearly identified, but they had decided to change the rules and not mark themselves. The enemy troops sneaked around from the rear and reached the front line. The battalion I’d attached myself to was fourth from the front, so it didn’t suffer serious losses, but the first unit saw two thirds of its company killed. This meant that designated observers wearing blue plastic streamers on their uniforms came to inform them that they were dead, at which point they had to remove their helmets and sit on the sidelines for several hours.

A few days later, I went out with a group from the 1st Battalion of the U.S. 68th Armor Regiment, known as Chaos Company. The unit was from Fort Carson, in Colorado, and for four months had been stationed alongside eleven hundred soldiers in Estonia with NATO. When I visited, the troops were engaged in an exercise outside Narva, just across the river from Russia. The town seems to be on the Estonian side of the border only through a technicality of history. Unlike the rest of the country, which has transformed rapidly since its independence, very little English is spoken there. Most of the city was constructed when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, and it was populated by Russian settlers, many of whom are still without all the benefits of full Estonian citizenship. The place has retained the look and the atmosphere of a Soviet outpost; as you drive into the city, gigantic blocks of apartment buildings roll out, row after row, like waves onto the shore. The Estonian government has some concern that if a conflict were to break out, it would begin in Narva.

That day, the Americans were playing the enemy, using lessons from Ukraine to simulate what an attack from the east might look like. The main objective was to practice interoperability, or the capacity of forces from so many countries to fight together on short notice. The lingua franca was English, but there had been a few communication hiccups. “One of the challenges they had was what we mean when we say a ‘movement to contact,’ which for us is an attack where we don’t know exactly where the enemy is,” Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Kluck, the commander of the 1st Battalion, told me. “So you’re doing both a reconnaissance and an attack at the same time. There was definitely some disconnect there.” The secondary goal was for the Estonians, playing defense, to practice delaying and reducing the invading force, which would give NATO partners time to deploy whatever reinforcements might be needed from Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

I joined Chaos Company at the back of a caravan of nine Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two M113 armored personnel carriers, still desert-tan from their previous stationing, in Kuwait. The troops were planning to drape them in pine branches for the new terrain, and would paint them green when they got back to the U.S. Army base in Germany. In the distance, a string of Apache helicopters touched down in an empty field like big black locusts.

Chaos Company had dispatched Latvian infantrymen, who were participating in the attack force, to the south on foot — “Straight-up boots and rifles,” Kluck said. Their task was to work their way through the woods and seize a small stream. American armored vehicles were to follow and reinforce the Latvians as necessary. But the force hit a patch littered with mines — tree stumps that had been laid out by the Estonians. Kluck smiled and said, “With all those tree stumps, I wouldn’t risk going over there in the Brads!” A Dutch engineering team arrived to demine the field, so the American troops waited while two Netherlanders went ahead down the road, swinging handheld minesweepers from side to side. During the intermission, the Estonians were in the woods, launching a series of hit-and-run, anti-tank missile ambushes — “bee bites” again — and they set out a series of abatis, felled trees laid out in the middle of the road in giant X formations, to block the enemy’s advance. The Dutch engineers, meanwhile, discovered an I.E.D., which they would have to call in a special team to dismantle. It would be several more hours before Chaos Company could begin to move.

No one was particularly keen to say anything about America’s new commander in chief. While I was in the Baltics, Trump was in Brussels attending his first NATO summit, where he neglected to endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty — the collective-defense clause that holds an attack against one member as an attack against all. (In 2014, NATO expanded its policy to include cyberwarfare.) Every previous U.S. president since 1949 has backed Article 5, and on a trip to Warsaw in July, Trump apparently determined that he should finally pledge to support it. Kluck told me that he stayed away from politics, and that he had no doubt, given the display I could see before me, that “all of NATO is all in on this.”

For decades, there has been an understanding that, absent its American foundation, NATO would be far less effective. U.S. air power and heavy armor can deploy much faster than those of any other country in the region. That would be crucial against Russia, which, it has been estimated, could overrun the capitals of Estonia and Latvia in less than sixty hours. Kluck believed they’d be ready. “Our core mission as an armored battalion is really to fight another mechanized enemy, not to walk around Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan,” he told me.

But I was reminded of something that Butkevicius had said in Vilnius. If unmarked or irregular forces backed by Russia should appear, their arrival would hardly conform to the conventions of traditional warfare that would allow NATO to intervene, putting the alliance in a conundrum. “We are making a big mistake if we are thinking that only NATO will help us,” he’d told me. When I raised this with Kluck, he admitted that the nature of the threat in the Baltics has changed. “It was pretty simple when we published all our doctrine, they published all theirs, we knew exactly how they at least purported to fight,” he said. “There was no such thing as Facebook, the internet was in its infancy. The ability to instantly transmit information to the whole world, to proliferate false narratives, didn’t exist. So it’s a new dimension to warfare that there’s no easy answer to.”

A U.S. military official familiar with the region told me later that there had been many “low-level incursions” along Narva’s border, often involving Russian drones. The Estonian Border Guard interpreted these incidents as attempts to probe for weak spots. The official thought that the risk of a physical incursion was relatively low, in part because the town was far better off economically than it would be as part of Russia. Yet he’d seen a lot of disinformation in the Russian media designed to influence the local Russian-speaking population. “They do it without even thinking about it now,” he said, and he would not rule out the possibility of other kinds of attacks.

The Estonian government recently launched two new Russian-language outlets, a television channel and a radio station, to combat disinformation campaigns. But getting through to the locals has been a challenge. Recently, the official had met a Russian-speaking teacher who was perplexed by the presence of foreign troops. “She just thought, you know, why are they here?” He went on, “It just speaks to the amount of information they’re getting, and where they’re getting it from.”

Back in Lithuania, I went to the black, glassy headquarters of the national intelligence service. Darius Jauniškis, the agency’s director, is slim, with gray hair, blue eyes, and a staid demeanor. Like much of the country’s defense leadership, he had been an integral part of the independence movement; he went on to create the Lithuanian Special Operations Forces, and then led them in Afghanistan, battling Taliban fighters shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.

Recently, his role had taken on greater urgency and scope, particularly when it came to strengthening Lithuania’s cyberdefense against possible Russian strikes; a hack in his country’s system could have ramifications for all of NATO. “I don’t like that name, so-called hybrid war,” Jauniškis said, speaking about Moscow’s tactics. “You can call it modern warfare, which actually includes all means of how to influence states and overcome them — diplomacy, information, military, economic, and now cyber. So that’s just setting the ground for occupation. The main aim is not just to break your will to fight against the occupier, but actually just to come very easily and to settle the troops without any fighting, not spilling any blood or anything. They are avoiding fighting an open war.”

Jauniškis told me that Russia had launched a television channel in Lithuania. Other international programming — including American TV — was available for a cost, but this network was broadcast for free. They also sponsored forums featuring pro-Russian panelists from elsewhere in Europe, including Spain and Germany. “That’s very profitable, you know, when you have Western think tanks saying the same messages as what Moscow says,” he explained. “You think that the West also thinks like that.”

There had just been a scandal, Jauniškis continued, in which an email was sent to the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament, claiming that German NATO soldiers had raped a fifteen-year-old girl living in a foster home near the base. The story was fake, and when investigators looked into the email address from which the tip had come, the account no longer existed. “So in Russia they say, look at what is happening in little Lithuania,” he told me. “They are completely confused, the German soldiers are a threat to the nation, NATO is bad, they don’t need to be there. And then the next step is, okay, the Russians will come and help you because it’s a pure state, and so on.” Similar tactics are being used in the United States, he noted. “They are trying to create a complete mess in populations’ hearts and minds. And they are shaping the ground for other actions.”

Since taking over the intelligence service, in 2015, Jauniškis has launched a public-information campaign to make the work of his office more transparent and explain to Lithuanians what the Russians are trying to do. He wants his countrymen to be in a position not only to disregard their media meddling but also to actively combat it. He showed me a video that his agency had circulated last winter on YouTube, in which a woman recounts how a man she met at an art-house cinema seduced her using their mutual love of movies. He gave her a thumb drive with a film he thought she’d like, and when the file didn’t work on her home computer, he suggested that she try it at work. Shortly thereafter, a worm appeared in her company’s I.T. network.

The campaign worked. Lithuanians began recognizing and reporting peculiar encounters. In fact, the weekend before I met Jauniškis, someone had called the police after spotting a suspicious group of people carrying what appeared to be automatic rifles. It turned out that they were playing Airsoft — a game similar to paintball, but with air-filled plastic pellets — a common enough pastime, but this particular group had split into several teams, and some of the participants were wearing Russian uniforms. “So from a distance, it’s very hard to say whether it’s real or not,” Jauniškis said. The police arrived and arrested the group, all Lithuanian citizens.

Even though it was a nonevent, Jauniškis was encouraged that concerned people had alerted the authorities, given that confusion is part of Russia’s method for eroding resistance. “If you are wearing the Russian uniform and saying that you are playing games, it’s completely innocent,” he went on. “And then they can show the Lithuanian population that you can wear the Russian uniform, and it’s okay. But just imagine, one day, if the real Spetsnaz will come, with Russian uniforms. Then you will be confused. Is this a game? Or is this for real?”

After Lithuania declared independence, the Russian Army deployed across the country; tanks charged the television station and tower in Vilnius, killing thirteen people. It was the middle of January 1991. Hundreds camped out in front of parliament, making fires in the cold, preparing Molotov cocktails in case the Soviets tried to occupy the building. They believed it would be a suicide mission, but the crowd won the standoff. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union collapsed and, unable to keep fighting to maintain its empire, the Russians eventually withdrew from Lithuania, leaving the nation to rebuild from the wreckage.

In twenty-five years, Vilnius has recovered dramatically. It’s now a vibrant city with growing tech and gaming industries. Opulent stone carvings on the city’s baroque churches and theaters have been repaired, drab fa cades repainted in vivid, dreamlike pinks and yellows. On spring evenings, the blush light of northern Europe doesn’t so much fade as lift, and Lithuanians, welcoming and unpretentious, sit out late on restaurant terraces. Even some young Russian entrepreneurs, uninterested in politics and seeking to escape the oligarchy of Moscow, have come to town. A century of tragedy in Vilnius has turned into a resolute confidence in the country’s future.

On the flip side, Markovas said, “because we’ve lived quietly for many years, the country has become typically Western, lazy. The army is fully professional, and the people believed that professionals should do their business to protect the country.” But during the occupation in Ukraine three years ago, it was civilians, hastily organized into ragtag, ad hoc militias, who were largely credited with halting the Russians’ advance toward Kiev. “Then, the people woke up,” Markovas went on. If there should be an attack on Lithuania, more volunteers would be ready. “Our army would fight till the last soldier.”

He told me proudly that, after he took the Riflemen’s Union oath and completed the first few months of courses, his company commander had found him well suited for battle, the most promising in his squad. “He told me that, of those ten people, I’m the best.” Since then, Markovas has spent nearly every other weekend leading training sessions. Organizing exercises in the woods keeps him away from his family more than he’d like, yet he believes that he and his fellow Riflemen, in conjunction with the army, the NATO buildup, and the deployment of American surveillance and missile defense systems, have mounted a serious deterrent. “The Russians are like small hooligans in a dark street,” he said. “They only attack weaker ones. The probability of conflict is getting lower and lower as our country is getting stronger and stronger.” Besides, when he returns home, his children enjoy watching him clean his gun. All of them now know how to assemble an assault rifle, even if it’s a little heavy for the three-year-old.

When he is not with the Riflemen, Markovas brings his family out to Nida, where he and Virginija rent a summer home. Nida is a resort town on the Curonian Spit, an isthmus of white-sand beaches that runs parallel to Lithuania’s western coast on the Baltic Sea. It lies less than three miles from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave that was once the capital of East Prussia and today sits inside the boundaries of the European Union, between Lithuania and Poland. In response to NATO deployments in the Baltics, the Kremlin placed S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander ballistics there.

In June, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry officially began the construction of a fence along the Kaliningrad border, ostensibly to thwart smugglers, though the gesture is heavy with implication. There are American special operations forces working in the area, too, training with Lithuanian commandos to bolster surveillance capabilities. A fence wouldn’t stop tanks from rolling in, but it might block unwelcome figures attempting to tiptoe across the line.

During vacations in Nida, Markovas wakes up early in the morning to tend to business on the patio with his laptop, while Virginija and their children sleep in. In the afternoon, the family goes for a walk along the coast, which takes them right up to the border demarcation. Sometimes they bring binoculars and look out at the crossing point. From there, they’re close enough to see Russian border guards moving along the other side.

’s article “Front Runner” was published in the May 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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