Report — From the October 2017 issue

Everyman’s War

The paramilitary fighters training to keep Russia out of the Baltics

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“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.”

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

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