Local populations in the Baltic states have seen armies come and go over the decades. As NATO forces gather in the region for military exercises, this time feels different. DW's Teri Schultz reports from Lithuania.
Martas Stelmokas watched the heavy armored vehicles roll down the dirt road in front of his house, accompanied by hundreds of troops. Lithuanians have watched this kind of scene play out before with excruciating consequences. During World War II, four years of brutal German occupation gave way to more than 50 years of forced Soviet annexation.
But Stelmokas and his family weren't sheltering inside, hiding the valuables from the inevitable demands of the camouflage-faced soldiers swarming the fields. They were out taking selfies with the troops.
"It's very exciting!" the 33-year-old Stelmokas exclaimed. "It's the first time we've seen these big tanks here!"
"He's too young," quipped an older relative, alluding to previous visits by "big tanks" that weren't so thrilling.
Stelmokas goes on happily describing how French soldiers let his little boy sit in a tank and start it, calling the presence of foreign forces in his front yard "only positive."
Closing potential gaps
This "invasion" of the Lithuanian countryside is part of NATO's "Saber Strike," annual exercises that this year are incorporating the alliance's four new battle groups, stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, led by the UK, Canada, Germany and the US, respectively. The long-term deployment of roughly 1,000 armed personnel in each country - making up a new NATO effort called the "enhanced forward presence" or eFP - was approved at last year's Warsaw Summit and assembled in just a few months.
The exercises held May 28-June 24 across the Baltic states and Poland are designed to fine-tune international compatibility and also to formally inaugurate the battle groups, which reached full operational capacity this week.
Germans gear up as battle group leader
If this experience is a world of difference for Lithuania and the other Baltic states, that's also the case for Germany. Often seen as reluctant to take a leading role in NATO, and constantly mindful of the need for Bundestag approval for offensive action, Germany stepped up as the lead eFP nation in Lithuania at the express request of President Dalia Grybauskaite.
"It was a very simple and easy choice for us," Grybauskaite said at a news conference Tuesday. "We are very friendly with Germany, with the chancellor. We know her responsible attitude toward the threats. She understands what the threats meant for East Germany also."
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said while Lithuania's wartime experience with Germany is a very painful memory, it's one that's long gone. He would like to see more German influence in all practical areas, including security and defense.
"Yes, the American presence and leadership in NATO and worldwide is good," he told DW, "but I also think that it is the time for Germany to take the lead and with this eFP presence, we expect that it's also one of the beginning stages of such leadership in Europe."
President Grybauskaite explained that "it's not only about [German troops] stationed here, it's about working together as friends. "
German Colonel Christoph Huber is among those German forces stationed in Lithuania, where they are told to make themselves visible in uniform whenever possible - exactly contrary to instructions given in most European countries and many others around the world.
"We are really very warmly welcomed," he told DW. "By authorities for sure but also by the Lithuanian people. We feel very needed and this is a very good feeling for our soldiers here."
That solidarity has already served the German-led battalion well, when "outside influences" tried to drive a wedge between the allies. In February, some entity widely believed to be Russian tried to spread rumors that German soldiers had raped a Lithuanian teen. Lithuanian and German officials collaborated immediately on finding out if any such crime had been committed and, finding the claim utterly devoid of truth, were able to snuff it out. That's the kind of response required with Russia's arsenal of hybrid weapons.
Russia's turn in September
There may be new tests to come just a couple months from now. While spirits were high among both NATO officials and the impressed locals for these exercises, the underlying reasons for NATO's build-up in the region is sobering. The Baltics - with their proximity to Russia, history and Russian-speaking minorities - provide the Kremlin's favorite target practice. In September, Russia and Belarus will conduct their own series of exercises called "Zapad," which will simulate a NATO invasion and pack in troops on a scale that dwarfs Saber Strike.
What most officials say they're worried about is not that Moscow would use the exercise to blatantly stage a physical invasion of the Baltics, but that there will be some kind incident or accident that, with the hair-trigger nerves along this border, will escalate in a flash.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says that's why the alliance has asked Russia to be transparent about its plans, to follow the requirements to notify the international community about certain types of exercises that will mass large numbers of troops. That information from Moscow has thus far come through tweets, with the Russian government assuring everyone they'll be informed.
At the moment, NATO's reassurance measures are working for Martas Stelmokas. He says while he's not sure Russia actually would dare cross the border, Lithuanians fear the past determines the future. And if that's the case, Stelmokas says, he feels much better having NATO camped out in his front yard.