There has been a lot of strong rhetoric from the Lithuanian government in reference to the Ukrainian Crisis. The small country by the Baltic Sea has been one of Kyiv’s greatest allies in the EU and NATO. Their ambassador, at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in response to the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic’s parade of captured Ukrainian Soldiers at bayonet-point, had said, “… instead of seeking the solution, Russia has been escalating the situation as flow of weapons, equipment, mercenaries and now troops continue across Russia’s borders into the territory of Ukraine. Let us be clear; weapons don’t fall in the hands of rebels out of blue skies.”
Likewise, Lithuanian officials have made their anti-Russia stance completely clear.
What little experience I have with Lithuanians is with their most elite soldiers in Afghanistan – the Aitvaras, or their Special Forces (LITHSOF) – and I know that if they were to respond to the Ukrainian Crisis, it would change.
The LITHSOF were the mechanized horsemen of the Apocalypse – where they rode, death would come after.
Instead of horses, they had four motorcycles, and wore a black and white kerchief over their nose and mouth with the outline of a skull. The Taliban feared them.
They had a blatant disregard for US regulations, such as the 10km/h speed limit around the base or the need to constantly wear helmets and reflective belts. If the rule was stupid, they didn’t follow it. Their sense of independence, and unit autonomy drove many an American commander insane.
Once, the Lithuanians were refueling a vehicle on base, and a young American sergeant approached to correct their lack of helmets and protective gear. The driver shrugged and claimed “No English!” and drove off (too fast), leaving the young sergeant standing in his dust.
With only dozens of LITHSOF in Afghanistan, they made their numbers count. They became the terror of the Taliban in Zabul Province. It was the single justification of their existence, and the basis of their legend. They were amazing fighters, vicious and joyful in the combat, living in a constant, controlled recklessness.
They criticized the American’s unwillingness to go outside the wire, and the accompanying safety regulations that degraded common sense.
“You want to play safe in war? That is how you lose…” or more directly, “We are soldiers. Not children.”
They would go out on a dime if called upon. No fear. No excuses. They bent the rules if it helped the mission.
For all that viciousness, they were gracious hosts. They opened their compound to a few of us who would spend our evenings smoking cigars in their “cave” – a place that became a sanctuary for many of us.
They made us loose-leaf chamomile tea from fresh flowers or coffee from fresh grounds with fresh honey (imported from their home). Each newcomer has to try their sauna, which they were very proud of. Through my time, I often asked for permission to steal a cup of coffee or grab some of their tea, until they became frustrated and said, “Katyte, you don’t understand,” using the nickname they had picked out for me, which was the cute form of the word cat, “Our cave is your cave. Feel free, don’t hesitate. Stop asking!”
Around the base, their commander was called Leonidas (but never to his face) which was a reference to his striking resemblance to the Spartan King, as played by Gerard Butler. The name also suited his reputation.
Leonidas once sat me down to teach me numbers, days, months in his native Lithuanian language – which, by the way, was not easy. Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, he would sit with me in the common room and we would talk about life, about family, and he would try to impart his brotherly advice.
“We are a big family in this cave,” Leonidas said, “We spend more time with each other than even our real family. We fight, we get angry at each other, but we are family. And I think we are your family too.”
Leonidas once told me that Americans were too used to a comfortable life – in prosperity we had lost our perspective. We were a comfortable, fat, super power and losing our sight of the world.
Leonidas lamented the Russian invasion of Lithuania.
He explained to me that their society had been prosperous, comfortable and fat too. They gave up their liberties for continued comfort until the day they were invaded when they had no more of their liberty left to trade.
“The Russians were allowed to take over without firing one single shot,” he said.
It was shameful to him, and he spoke with great resolve, declaring that it would never happen again. The little country of Lithuania would never allow themselves to be taken cheaply again and, through the conviction of his dark eyes, I came to believe that Putin would have to pry Lithuania’s liberty from Leonidas’ cold, clenched fist.