JUODKRANTE, Lithuania — The accusation crackled through Lithuanian politics like a lightning bolt: A Russian military crew may have landed in a peaceful fishing settlement as part of an exercise, a senior Lithuanian lawmaker said, an apparent testament to the vulnerable nation’s inability to defend itself.
Here in the Baltics, a region mostly encircled by Russia and its allies, many fear they could do little to stop a Kremlin invasion. And a growing number of officials are saying that small probes of Baltic security may have already begun.
The anxiety comes amid the biggest military buildup between East and West since the Cold War. Russia has shipped nuclear-capable missiles to its bristling Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, and it has bolstered its conventional forces on the other side of the Baltics. Western military allies, meanwhile, have upped their presence in the area and plan to convene in Warsaw for a summit this week to deploy thousands more troops to the region. Officials say they are trying to dissuade any Russian temptation to test their willingness to defend the former Eastern bloc nations.
Because of the peculiar geography of the region, the deployments have made each side feel surrounded. Kaliningrad, a key Russian naval hub, was once German territory and was a Soviet war prize after World War II. It is disconnected from mainland Russia and bordered only by the NATO nations of Lithuania and Poland. That leaves Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia trapped between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia in a pincer that they fear could snap shut any moment.
The attention given to the alleged incident in the Lithuanian resort village of Juodkrante, a centuries-old settlement of 720 people surrounded by dunes and forest, is a measure of Baltic worries. No evidence has been offered publicly, but senior Lithuanian lawmakers who were briefed about their nation’s classified annual security assessment have said that the intelligence data expresses it in terms of probability.
“The chances are that it happened,” said Arturas Paulauskas, the chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s national security and defense committee, in an interview with the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT. “Apparently, it was some kind of exercise, and they landed.”
Contacted about the comments, Paulauskas said in an interview that he was speaking “hypothetically.” But a second committee member, former defense minister Rasa Jukneviciene, said separately that the possible incident took place before 2015. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said that his country’s “services acted in time and appropriately” and that he would have no further comment on the matter.
Lithuania never lodged any complaints about it with NATO, and some senior officials are skeptical that it happened at all. But the possibility has set Lithuania on edge ahead of the NATO summit, set to start in Warsaw on Friday. And the fears are a reminder of the poorly defended frontiers in all three Baltic nations. On Juodkrante’s spit of land, Russia is separated from Lithuania by a sand dune. In Estonia, some villages in the border region are so undeveloped that the main way to reach them is on a road that snakes in and out of Russia. In Latvia, residents have long been careful when mushroom-picking in forests in the border area, for fear they would accidentally stray into Russia.
Lithuanian leaders say they worry about Russia’s military buildup in Kaliningrad, where the Kremlin’s powerful new S-400 antiaircraft systems have the potential to block NATO air access to half of Poland and most of the Baltics. Iskander nuclear-capable missile complexes have also been moved to Kaliningrad for exercises.
“It’s becoming a threat. Because they’re trying to use it as a strategic forward post,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. “Needless to say, we are really concerned about the concentration of troops.”
The geographical proximity of Kaliningrad to the Baltics has become a major challenge for NATO. Klaipeda, a Lithuanian port city that is key to NATO defense, is just 28 miles from the border. The city is home to a liquefied natural gas terminal and a new electricity link to Sweden, both of which Lithuania is using to make the Baltics less dependent on Russian energy.
When the undersea electricity cables were being laid last year, Russia’s Baltic Fleet decided to hold military exercises for nearly a full month, precisely in the construction area.
“Our goal is to be as little dependent as possible on our eastern neighbors,” said Karolis Sankovski, the director of the Strategic Infrastructure Department at Litgrid, the grid operator that runs the new cable, which started transmitting electricity in February. “The period of laying the cable coincided with the period of training for the Russian marines,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
The U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, was on its way to the port of Klaipeda in April when it was buzzed by Russian fighter jets. When the incident happened, it was about 40 miles from Russia’s main Baltic naval port, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
In Juodkrante, many residents can easily remember an older era of Cold War border fears, although then they were sitting inside the Soviet Union looking out, not next to Russia staring in. The Curonian Spit on which Juodkrante sits was a resort area for the nomenklatura, or bureaucratic elite. And because it was so close to the military installations in Kaliningrad, ordinary Soviet citizens needed special permission to travel there.
“At 10 p.m., the border guards would go on tractors on the beach,” said Darius Jasaitis, the mayor of the tourist-focused municipality that includes Juodkrante. “They would check, and if they found a footprint, they would sound an alarm.”
The Soviet-era fear was Swedish submarines. Juodkrante residents now joke that they are keeping an eye out for Russian ones from the intricate carved-wood porches that look onto the lagoon that separates them from mainland Lithuania.
“We local people think that nothing happened,” Jasaitis said. “But we’ve been talking about it. Probably we should create an attraction. Put in a stone and say, ‘Here’s where the boat landed.’ ”
Russian leaders say they feel just as vulnerable about NATO’s expansion as the Baltics do about Russia.
“We make no secret of our negative attitude to the NATO policy of moving its military infrastructure closer to our border and involving other states in its military activities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month. “Serious and honest politicians know full well that Russia will never attack any NATO member.”
In Kaliningrad, many residents say they would rather get back to ordinary relations with their neighbors, since they are surrounded by the European Union and NATO.
“Every person here wants Kaliningrad to be a window to Europe and not a target for cannons,” said Konstantin Doroshok, an opposition-minded member of Kaliningrad’s regional parliament.
Some of those who work on the sea in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad’s main naval port, take a calm view of NATO, even if they see no immediate end to troop buildups.
“They’re saying that Russians will conquer Lithuania. We don’t need it. Don’t worry about it. Russia has so much land,” said Konstantin Bezpalov, 63, a ship engineer who was making repairs one recent afternoon aboard a ship that ferries sailors to and from their boats.
But he said he understands the logic of escalation, even if there is no clear end to it.
“If Lithuania says you must bring more NATO troops, then of course we need more troops,” he said.