Lithuania recently published its National Security Threat Assessment 2020, an annual report evaluating the key events, processes, and trends threatening its national security. In response to this assessment, Lithuania is accelerating its timeline and efforts toward total defense.

Total defense is the condition when the government orders the highest state of alert in all functions of society—including both military and civilian—to ensure national security. But between Western and Baltic analysts, there is a gap in understanding about how this concept applies to Lithuania. Some in the West focus on Lithuania’s societal resistance under a potential occupation scenario, while Lithuanians center their efforts on deterrence and defense. This difference in focus might come from cognitive inertia: Western assessments have estimated that Russia could occupy the Baltic States within a matter of hours while others have questioned the defensibility of the Baltic states by NATO.

Strong Lithuanian resistance during an occupation scenario is essential, but under Lithuania’s total defense approach, it is only one part of deterrence and self-defense. Lithuania prioritizes its threats: not allowing the aggressor to win an information war; eliminating the risks of localized conflict; and deterring and preventing territorial occupation. Doing otherwise might send the message that Lithuania and its allies are unwilling to defend its territory, and cause a miscommunication that could potentially provoke military action by an adversary. Lithuania also has a long history of societal resistance, including fighting Soviet Russia’s aggression and occupation between 1944-1953, and the January Events of 1991, when Lithuanians defended their newfound independence by forcing the Soviet army to withdraw from Vilnius.

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In the six years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Lithuania has gone through three different stages of national defense strategy development. Each has left its mark on national defense policy. In 2014-2015, the dominant narrative was about so-called hybrid war and how to respond to it. It was followed by a discussion about the Suwałki Corridor—a 65-kilometer wide strip of territory linking Poland and Lithuania, a vulnerable NATO chokepoint—and the conventional military response.

Since the end of 2018, the concept of total defense has gained momentum in Lithuania. In September 2018, the political parties elected to the Seimas (Parliament) signed a new agreement on Lithuanian Defense Policy Guidelines for 2020-2030 to ensure a consistent commitment to strengthening national defense capabilities. In so doing, the political parties reaffirmed their commitment to the major provisions of Lithuanian defense policy, including both aspects of total defense. This meant allocating at least 2 percent of GDP to defense spending and increasing appropriations to at least 2.5 percent by 2030, as well as pledging to strengthen the Lithuanian Armed Forces (LAF) and addressing personnel challenges by making it a more attractive modern employer for the next generation. The agreement also called for building hybrid threat resilience in state institutions and among the Lithuanian public, and continuing to enhance national cybersecurity capabilities. Although the priority remains building warfighting capabilities, there is a clear commitment towards preparing for resistance as a last resort with investment in the National Defense Volunteer Forces and the integration of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union (a paramilitary organization) into national defense plans.

While there is now political consensus in Lithuania about the significance of total defense, the practical matter remains of coordinating and cooperating across state institutions. Theory and practice are often two separate realms. It took several years for the government to finalize the National Model for Integrated Crisis Prevention and Hybrid Threats Management (the Model), a legal and procedural framework for implementing Lithuania’s National Security Strategy that structures national efforts to monitor and assess national threats, prevention and crisis solving plans, and risk management. And in order for the Model to function smoothly, the Threat Management and Crisis Prevention Bureau—the part of the National Security Commission that monitors the implementation of tasks on a daily basis—was established. While it is too early to assess the effectiveness of this effort, Lithuania must take steps to ensure that bureaucratic inertia does not hinder necessary cooperation.

Total defense is only as strong as its weakest domain. How quickly state and regional institutions and agencies meet the requirements for total defense will depend on political consistency and leadership. Nonetheless, Lithuania’s political leaders committed to total defense with a new agreement, which should give the West reason for optimism.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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