Lithuania declared independence after the withdrawal of the Soviet army 25 year ago. Currently, the tiny European country is relieved to see NATO defend its airspace. Barbara Wesel reports from Siauliai.
Clutching their helmets, two pilots and four technicians burst from the lounge and rush down the stairs as alarm sirens wail. They jump into a van that takes them the 200 meters to the hangar where their fighter jets stand, waiting.
Currently, the Italian Air Force has four Typhoon Eurofighter jets at the Siauliai NATO base in Lithuania. Guiseppe, one of the pilots, knows his jet inside out; the procedure is ingrained. At the foot of the stairway to the cockpit, a mechanic helps him into his flight jacket, and the Italian storms up the steps.
On the ground, the mechanics rapidly go through their checklist. One of them removes the lock pins from the missiles fastened underneath the wings. In the other jet, Giovanni pulls on his helmet, connects it to the respirator in the cockpit, pulls down the visor - on cue, the mechanics draw back the set of stairs. The pilot starts the engine, the plane rolls from the hangar to the runway and, with an earsplitting noise, the plane takes steeply off. Seconds later, the Eurofighter jet is out of sight. Ideally, the procedure is meant to take five minutes, but this training flight exercise - called a Tango Scramble - has taken about 10 minutes.
Italians, Poles deployed together
Ever since the start of the Ukraine crisis last year, NATO has doubled its contingent for the protection of Baltic airspace: two countries monitor the airspace at the same time.
"Our entire command staff is made up of pilots," said Italian commander Marco Bertoli, adding that Italy has stationed 100 peopleat the base. "We conduct exercises every day, and we're ready for action 24 hours a day, so we can get going as soon as there's movement in the sky."
The latter is a reference to the violation of Baltic airspace by Russian military jets. Last year, authorities recorded 150 such incursions into NATO airspace - four times more than occurred in 2013.
"You never know what to expect on a mission," Giovanni said. "But that's the challenge: you run, your heart pounds, you jump into your plane and you don't find out until you're already up in the air - 30 000 feet up in the air at supersonic speed." It's a great job, the pilot adds, in particular in Lithuania.
They are far away from home, the small provincial town of Siauliai has little entertainment to offer - but flying is their passion, it is pure adrenalin. The cafeteria offers an Italian lunch: lasagna, tomatoes with mozzarella cheese and salami are on the menu. The soldiers have casually pushed their sunglasses up on the top of their heads, as if they were lounging on the piazza in Milan or Verona.
Cold War memories
Two kilometers away, near the runway, the teams in the base's Polish sector are not as well equipped. They spend their breaks in shipping containers, their jets are parked in open, makeshift hangars. When Polish planes take off to intercept Russian jets, both sides have to pay close attention to the aircraft markings as the Polish air force still flies old Soviet-made MiGs. But at least they have been upgraded, Lukasz Wojcieszko, one of the Polish pilots, said.
"Meeting a Russian plane is really exciting," he said. "It's interesting to see how they react."
The NATO pilots follow a set procedure: identify the planes and report them to their control center.
"As a rule, we only fly close enough to identify the planes and check how they are armed," Wojcieszko added.
All the same, encounters with Russian jets are nothing special for the Polish pilots, Wojcieszko said, adding that after all, Poland shares a border with Russia. But he pointed out the weather in Lithuania is different, less calculable, and very windy. Asked why he thinks the Russians enter Baltic airspace, the pilot suggests they want to see how the NATO pilots react, and "how many jets we take up."
An "angry, revisionist Russia was stopping at little to re-establish its clout in Europe," said NATO deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, voicing the alliance's harsh assessment last week during a visit to Latvia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has developed" a new form of 'hybrid warfare,'" that also includes military intimidation, he added.
Baltic states' fears
The small Baltic states perceive such intimidation as a genuine threat. The harshness with which Russia is discussed here is seldom matched elsewhere. At an EU foreign ministers summit in Riga where the topic of sanction policy against Moscow was discussed, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius urged his colleagues to take a harder stance.
In light of the tense situation in eastern Ukraine, the Lithuanian foreign minister said, "Doing nothing is not an option in my view."
The hawks in the EU and in NATO are currently in the Baltics. The history of the air base at Siauliai shows why. Built in 1931 for Lithuania's air force, the Soviet Union took over the site after the end of World War II and established one of its largest bases. At its high point, 22,000 people were employed at Siauliai. At times, intercontinental bombers were strategically positioned there that could have reached western European territory within 30 minutes.
Today Lithuania serves as a host for NATO in Siauliai with around 400 soldiers. One of them is press officer Ieva Gulbiniene, who's originally from the city.
"I was in the first generation that went to school here after independence, in a free Lithuania. I never would have thought that one day NATO would come to protect us. But now we're no longer alone. Instead we're part of this massive military organization, and they've come to help us," Gulbiniene said.
Siauliai, a poor and small city shaped by Soviet architecture, is seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the base. When the jets launch, it's deafeningly loud there, too.
"The noise is annoying," said resident Ludmila on an empty main street. "There's a school nearby, and it's hard for the kids. But it's good that [NATO] is there." She added that she thinks that the Russians and Armenians who live in the city also fear an invasion, "They feel as though they're Lithuanians."
"For us, independence is very important. When the tanks were on the streets in 1990, and the soldiers were shooting at people, I was 18 years old. I thought at the time it would be incredible if we were independent," Ludmila recalled, tearing up. "And then independence came. And now we can determine things for ourselves and travel. For us Lithuanians, independence is very important. We celebrate it and are very happy about it."
But that freedom depends on powerful partners. This week the US is sending 3,000 troops for maneuvers to the Baltic region. "Atlantic Resolve" is the name of the operation - a clear signal to Moscow.