It is new military territory for the Bundeswehr: by the autumn, plans are to be in place for the permanent stationing of around 4,000 Bundeswehr soldiers on the eastern flank of NATO. Men and women should live in Lithuania for a few years. And if necessary, fight to give weight to the military alliance's promise of assistance. "We want to provide a large unit that is independently capable of conducting combined arms combat," says Brigadier General Christian Freuding, head of the Defense Ministry's planning staff.
Germany is thus complying with a vehemently expressed wish from Lithuania, which is looking uneasily at Russia. The politicians in Vilnius were not convinced by promises that the Bundeswehr soldiers would come quickly in the event of tension and then prepare for combat with weapons stored in the country. Like the Americans and British did in West Germany during the Cold War, the Germans are supposed to live in the country: kindergartens, schools and houses are to be built - in addition to the military infrastructure that is still needed. The Lithuanians have already brought locations into play, including a barracks on the outskirts of the capital Vilnius and in the port city of Klaipeda, the former Memel on the Baltic Sea. From there it is about 50 kilometers to the border of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
The eastern NATO partners in the Baltics - but also Poland - fear that something is brewing in the region. They look at Belarus, which is an ally of Russia, but also at the so-called "Suwalki gap". NATO uses this term to describe the narrow land corridor that lies between Belarus and Kaliningrad and that leads through Polish and Lithuanian territory. The concern: Russia could cut off the Baltic states from the other NATO countries and thus test the will to defend themselves.
On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke of a "strengthening of the troop formations of the Russian Federation army on our western borders," without naming specific areas. On Friday, Lithuania said it would step up its security measures along the 680-kilometer border with Belarus in response to the presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries in the neighboring country. Two out of six border crossings will be closed. "We have more intelligence officers deployed, our institutions are functioning, and there are certainly many more forces from the national defense system and law enforcement agencies. They also carry out exercises together and take other actions," Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said.
The day before, the Polish government had announced that it would station a total of 10,000 soldiers in the border region with Belarus to "deter the aggressor from daring to attack Poland." But there is also concern that large numbers of migrants are once again crossing the border from Belarus without permission. The fact that there is an election campaign going on in Poland doesn't exactly contribute to a sober view. The western NATO partners do not see any concrete preparations for military attacks from the east, but share the assessment that deterrence must be increased. Stationed NATO soldiers are the greatest form of commitment.
The Bundeswehr has been represented in Lithuania since 2017, currently with around 800 German soldiers and as the lead nation of a multinational NATO battle group (eFP battle group) on a rotating basis. This belongs to the Lithuanian Iron Wolf Brigade. It is conceivable that, in return, a Lithuanian battalion will be integrated into the future German brigade. It also has to be decided whether Germany will set up a completely new association for the project.
"We want to go about it completely openly. That can mean moving an existing brigade or setting it up again. We first have to look at what operational demands there are on this brigade in order to be able to decide what it has to look like at all," said Freuding. The internal structure has yet to be decided. "Whether he now has two armored infantry battalions and one armored battalion or vice versa, or whether he still has an infantry battalion due to geographical requirements, I would leave that open at this point." It is clear that the association must be able to act independently, i.e. it will also have medical supplies, logistical supplies and IT and cyber support. Freuding says: "This is a pure turning point."
In June, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius promised the stationing, following on from less concrete assurances from Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Within the military, the SPD politician dropped an unexpected bombshell, and the skeptics immediately spoke up. However: If Pistorius first wanted to clear up all objections, he would probably be left empty-handed until the next federal election, as previous experience shows. In fact, the stationing is also a tour de force with unanswered questions. By the fall, the Lithuanians themselves will have to deliver when it comes to plans such as accommodation.
"Of course there are many models. We're looking in particular at the American stationing in Germany. We know how socially integrated schools, kindergartens, social institutions and cultural institutions are," says Freuding. "We don't have much experience with that, but we'll work out a good package with the Lithuanians." There will be soldiers who commute and others will move with their families.
The aim is to discuss every post with the soldiers and to make it attractive "with a wide range of instruments". But it also applies: "Voluntariness is not the basic principle of the armed forces. We will set up troops there, move them and equip them with the necessary personnel," says the general. "My impression is that this is a big task that will be exciting for many to be part of."