In 1932, the year Lithuania’s elder statesman Vytautas Landsbergis was born, Europe was starting to come apart. Several countries, led by Greece, were defaulting on sovereign debts. In the north, a fascist coup nearly succeeded in Finland. To the south, an antisemite named Julius Gombos became prime minister of Hungary. The National Socialist German Workers Party (aka the Nazi party) won 36 percent of the vote in Prussia. As 60 hopeful nations met in Geneva for a world disarmament conference, an Austrian named Adolf Hitler was in the process of obtaining German citizenship.
Landsbergis, much like the late Václav Havel—the Czech playwright turned president after the collapse of communism a quarter-century ago—has led one of those improbable lives Communist rule seemed to spawn. The son of a famous Lithuanian architect, Landsbergis was a professor of music during the Soviet era. Before that, as a young boy he had lived through fascism (his family sheltered a Jewish teenager in the early 1940s). Like Havel, Landsbergis entered politics out of obligation and necessity. He was fiercely anti-Communist and anti-Soviet. And like Havel in Czechoslovakia, Landsbergis became Lithuania’s first head of state after independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Today, Landsbergis thinks freedom and peace in this part of Europe are again in jeopardy. He believes in deterrence, pure and simple. At a conference of the Transatlantic Renewal Project in Warsaw, he urges the West to convey to Russian president Vladimir Putin and associates that aggression “will end with them hanged at Red Square.” If you have Landsbergis’s biography, you see no point in beating around the bush. In January 1991, he witnessed the Kremlin backlash against Lithuanian independence, with Soviet forces moving against civilians in the capital, Vilnius, and several other cities. Thirteen Lithuanians were killed and nearly 1,000 injured.
Today, the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia feel vulnerable. After the events in Ukraine—and still remembering Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia—they fear that Moscow may use energy, espionage, “little green men” (masked unmarked soldiers in green army uniforms), and other means to destabilize their young democracies. Estonia and Latvia have significant ethnic Russian minorities, 25 percent and 28 percent, respectively. In fact, Russians make up roughly half the population of the Latvian capital, Riga. It’s unclear whether NATO has specified what nonconventional forms of aggression would trigger article 5 of the NATO treaty, under which member states regard an attack on one as an attack on all. In 2007, Estonia suffered a massive cyberattack thought to have originated in Russia. The country’s banks and media, government and parliament were thrown into disarray. In this part of Europe, countries not members of NATO are getting jittery as well.
The Swedes are sensitive. Over Easter last year, Russian aircraft simulated a bombing raid on Stockholm. More recently, a submarine thought to be Russian turned up in the waters off the Swedish capital. “The Russians,” one Swedish official tells me, “are deliberately trying to undermine the confidence of our armed forces.” There’s not much confidence in those armed forces to begin with. Since the end of the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force has scaled back by 70 percent, the navy by 80 percent, and the army by 90 percent, from approximately a half million soldiers to 50,000 troops. According to a 2013 poll, 6 percent of Swedes believe their country can defend itself. While Sweden’s center-left government opposes NATO membership, for the first time more Swedes favor, rather than oppose, joining the alliance.
The Finns are pensive, too. In Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia and where incursions by Russian aircraft are now a weekly occurrence, Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said in September, “We should have become a [NATO] member in 1995 when we joined the EU.”
Like Landsbergis and others in the neighborhood, the Finns are marinated in history. Back to 1932: In that year the country signed a nonaggression pact with the USSR, only to see it unilaterally renounced by the Soviets before the decade was out, when Soviet forces shelled one of their own villages and claimed Finland was responsible. “Everything is possible, nothing is to be excluded,” says Landsbergis of the situation today. It was incidentally a Finnish magazine, Suomen Sotilas, that first noticed that those mysterious soldiers in Crimea—the men in green without insignia—happened to be carrying the full suite of weapons and equipment exclusive to Russian special forces.