Defence reinforcements: how much is enough to defend Lithuania?


Picture of Margarita Šešelgytė
Margarita Šešelgytė

Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University (IIRPS VU)

Margarita Šešelgytė is Studies Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

Due to their vulnerable geographic position and complicated history, the Lithuanian people have seldom felt secure. The exception is the period from 2004, when Lithuania became a member of the European Union and NATO, to 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied and annexed Crimea.

A 2012 survey suggested that more than 60% of Lithuanians did not see any major threats to their country, but another in 2016 indicated that 60% now believed Russian foreign policy to pose a serious threat to their country. Direct military invasion is considered the most devastating risk, but hybrid activities, such as those employed by Russia in Ukraine, are seen as a more likely threat. Russia’s previous tactics towards Lithuania have included economic blockades, trade wars, political pressure and interference in internal politics.

Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine have made Lithuanians anxious that Russian President Vladimir Putin also intends to intimidate the Baltic states. These fears were reinforced by Russian militarisation, the uneven military balance in the region and frequent snap exercises directed against NATO. Russian armed forces outnumber NATO’s by ten to one. There are also serious geographical ‘holes’ in Baltic defence. Russia’s hybrid strategies are difficult to identify and attribute in the early stages, and may not even fall under the scope of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause.

In response to this deteriorating security environment, NATO has taken a number of steps: the deployment of four NATO multinational battalions in the Baltic states and Poland by the end of 2017, to remain on a rotational basis; an additional American brigade in Poland, on a bilateral basis; the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), approved at NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, to be used in the case of aggression.

These measures have increased the Baltics’ sense of security. But new studies suggest that they would not be sufficient to defend against a large-scale conventional attack. A recent report from RAND, a think-tank, argues that Russian forces could reach the outskirts of Baltic capitals within 60 hours, and that seven brigades deployed in the region are needed to prevent such an outcome.

Lithuania has devoted a considerable amount of attention to improving its own defence capabilities. Since 2014 it has steadily increased defence spending, planning to reach two percent of GDP by 2018. It has invested in equipment and reintroduced conscription. Measures are being taken to reduce the country’s vulnerabilities against hybrid attacks, and these steps are strongly supported by politicians and the public.

Whether this is sufficient to ensure Lithuania’s security will depend on developments in Russia and transatlantic dynamics. New security challenges might require new reinforcements. Belarus is building a new nuclear power plant 50 km from Vilnius, with Russian investment. This project may be a geopolitical tool to blackmail Lithuania – a sign that more creative security strategies are needed.

Debating Security Plus – the global online brainstorm on security

This and other security issues – including terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, cyber defence, security and development, climate change – will be discussed on the occasion of Friends of Europe’s online global brainstorm Debating Security Plus. It starts on 26 September at 13:00 CEST and finishes at 14:00 on September 28.

Registration is free and quick, click here.

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