Russia's Crimean incursion revives fear in Baltics

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VILNIUS, Lithuania -- On the streets of the Lithuanian capital, events unfolding in Ukraine feel both distant and yet far too close for comfort.

"Of course we are watching what is happening in Ukraine," said Vytautas Kriksciunas, 54, a commodities trader standing in the bustling town square in the center of Vilnius, his two children next to him. "It is worrying. Maybe we will be next -- first Ukraine, next the Baltics."

Since Russian troops began flooding into Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula last month, ostensibly to protect the pro-Russian citizens but viewed in the West as an act of aggression, people across the former Soviet satellites have watched with mounting concern.

Despite sometimes frosty relations, this is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union over two decades ago that Russian forces have occupied the territory of an Eastern European nation, and there is a fear among the neighboring states that it could be the start of a downward path. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has accused Poland and Lithuania of helping train the "extremists" who ousted Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was considered a pro-Russian leader.

At a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels last week, Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite said: "Russia today is dangerous. They are trying to rewrite the borders after the Second World War in Europe." Poland's foreign minister has compared Russia to a predator whose appetite grows as it continues to eat.

Lithuania so far has been among the most vocal in raising the specter of further Russian aggression. The tiny nation, population just 3 million, gained its independence in 1990, the first part of the Soviet Union to break away. But before that, it had spent centuries largely under the rule of czarist and then later communist Russia, as had its fellow Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia.

Few in the country want to return to those darker days.

"We all remember what Russia did to our parents and grandparents," said Enrika Peteraitytem, 25, an accountant, wrapped up against the cold and standing on the Green Bridge, one of the few Soviet-era relics that has been allowed to remain in the Lithuanian capital.

Above her, towering statues of Red Army soldiers and Soviet model workers stare proudly out across the city. Underneath the statue of two soldiers, a plaque, added in the last few years, reads: "1940-41, 1944-91 More than 300,000 residents of Lithuania were exiled, imprisoned, killed."

Russia's Crimea incursion has started discussions about whether the Baltic States need to boost their military capabilities. Lithuania currently spends just 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product on its defense budget, with the equivalent of $394 million set aside for 2014, and some have suggested the need to increase this figure.

Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves also has said recent events have shown the need for the Baltic States to invest more heavily in national defense.

Others, however, are less certain that the countries are willing to take that step.

"Resources are always limited, so the government will have to choose between defense or pensions and education or something else, and I know which one they will choose," said Ramunas Vilpisauskas, the director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.


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