The news was met with concern, doubts and even scorn - but why was this information kept under wraps for several years before Palauskas' committee was briefed about it by a counter-intelligence officer of the Second Investigation Department (AOTD)?
The counter-intelligence officer talked about “illegal infiltrations into Lithuanian territory that happened earlier than 2015” in a laconic tone. These facts are mentioned in the public AOTD activities report.
“There are signs that Russian Spetsnaz military forces are enacting infiltrations into foreign countries during peacetime,” the report said. Questions why Russian troops were able to infiltrate and scout the Lithuanian shore and why they chose Juodkrantė were left unanswered, as that information is classified.
Russian forces chose Juodkrantė for a reason. The quiet Lithuanian seaside resort village, much like the entire Curonian Spit on which it is located, is significant for things other than just a great environment to relax. It also carries strategic significance for the country.
Whoever controls this plot of land may also influence who controls the main port of Lithuania, Klaipėda.
Klaipėda and its ice-free harbour would be one of the places where, if a threat of a conflict arose, NATO support could arrive. Klaipėda also houses another strategic object, which caused aggravation to Russia and changed the rules in the Baltic Sea.
Attacks on LNG terminal and radar
The liquefied natural gas terminal, symbolically named the Independence, helped Lithuania free itself from dependence on Russian gas. The expensive floating terminal has been in operation since 2014 and guarantees Lithuania an alternative supply of gas to that delivered by Gazprom. It is held up as a successful regional example of breaking Gazprom's monopoly.
Because of its significance, the facility is very well guarded. Just last month, military training exercises were carried out near the vessel.
Radical protesters and Russian saboteurs, disguised as members of a fictional “Earth movement”, swim up to the Independence vessel at night and blow it up. That’s an extract from Tom Clancy’s book series about Jack Ryan.
Mark Greaney, a collaborator of Tom Clancy, started his book "Tom Clancy’s Commander in Chief" with the destruction of the Independence, that turns out to be a part in Russia’s plan to isolate Lithuania and split up NATO.
Even though this scenario is fictional, some similarities to reality are striking. The book was written after the occupation of Crimea, an event that frightened the Baltic States. During the occupation, Russian special forces, also known as the little green men, played a major role.
It is also worth noting that the Russian Spetsnaz landing in Juodkrantė, mentioned by Mr. Paulauskas, happened earlier than 2015. These claims were made by a member of the National Security and Defence Committee and Defence Minister Rasa Juknevičiūtė. The Independence did arrive in Lithuania earlier than 2015, in October 2014.
The supposed arrival of Russian forces in Juodkrantė isn’t necessarily tied to the LNG terminal. Not all people relaxing on the beaches of Juodkrantė know of a Lithuanian military installation which might be of interest to Russia.
“The Lithuanian air force long-distance radar station, Naval force and State Border Guard infrastructure is located in Juodkrantė. These units monitor movement on the surface of the Baltic Sea,” defence analyst Aleksandras Matonis said on Žinių Radijas last week.
One of the military radars, the P-18, is located near Nida, in the lower part of the spit.
It’s an old Soviet-made radar with limited capabilities, so in itself would be of little interest to the Russian Special Forces.
But infiltration units working on gathering intelligence always look at the bigger picture, such as the number of people working with the radar, how and when it is guarded and what the best and worst methods of approaching the radar are.
In case of a conflict, Lithuanian military radars would be among the priority targets. Despite its age, the P-18 radar is the only one that can cover large distances (According to Mr. Matonis – up to 400km, according to the Ministry of National Defence – up to 230km).
If this radar and the State Border Guard Service’s (VSAT) radars were destroyed, Lithuania would lose the ability to monitor movement on the Baltic Sea. This would allow Russian ships to approach the Lithuanian seaside undetected, more so if NATO support wasn’t present in the region during that critical time.
“In a potential military attack scenario, the [enemy's] special forces would be tasked with neutralizing this military infrastructure, to allow larger military units to approach undetected,” Mr. Matonis said.
Who noticed what, and what was the response?
The allegations that Russian special forces scouted Juodkrantė and potentially observed the military installations described above, sparked resentment and discussions. Algirdas Butkevičius, Lithuania’s Prime Minister, indirectly confirmed the supposition when he said that “the responsible services responded promptly and adequately”.
“The Prime Minister is talking nonsense about adequate response. They [the infiltrators] weren’t shot or arrested, which means that they weren’t detected,” Juknevičienė, the former defence minister, said.
According to her, similar infiltrations happened in Poland. She also said that Lithuania could have been notified about the Russian military exercise by foreign partners. Unofficially, when NATO (and the US) rushed to answer pleas for help from the Baltic States in 2014 and strengthened the Baltic air-policing mission, another US mission was left unnoticed.
When US F-15 fighter planes were landing in the Zokniai air base, accompanied by flashing lights and cameras, American reconnaissance aircrafts RC-135 were seen flying above the Baltic Sea. These planes are filled to the brim with advanced and secret reconnaissance equipment which collects a lot of different signals and could have picked the signals Russian forces used for internal communication.
Lithuania has unpublicized equipment of its own, which means that the secret fact of “responding promptly and adequately” might be part of something bigger.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that the observers at the radar post in Juodkrantė could have encountered professionals of their craft, who had spent years perfecting the subtleties of infiltrating a foreign territory and managing to stay unnoticed.
Russia has spent half a decade perfecting the abilities of its Spetsnaz units. One of these elite units is stationed near the Lithuanian border, in Kaliningrad Oblast.
A Russian Spetsnaz base right next to Lithuania
In what was formerly known as East Prussia, there was a settlement called Gaudiken. Today, however, Russian soldiers refer to it as Parusnoye.
At first glance, the settlement does not seem like much, but it is home to the base of the elite 561st OMRP (Detached Naval Reconnaissance Point) Naval Spetsnaz Unit in the Baltic Fleet.
The 561st OMRP, under the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), consists of reconnaissance specialists. They are the first ones to scout enemy territories, are able to plant mines on ships, attack or paralyse strategic tagets, such as harbours, and coordinate friendly units.
These units were especially active during the Cold War. Back then, Sweden's troops were the ones that had to deal with Soviet saboteurs.
Back in 1986, the daily newspaper The Dispatch reported that during the last five years, Soviet forces had tried to infiltrate Sweden more than 100 times.
In 1996, a former soviet soldier told Swedish journalists that the Soviet Union had been carrying out infiltration missions since the 1950s. The objectives of the operations were the same: to scout military targets and find weaknesses that could be used during war.
Elite soldiers of the infiltration unit were the ones carrying out the missions. The scouts also carried out operations against America.
A report from the Pentagon mentions that the speciality of GRU Naval Spetsnaz Unit is attacking enemy's nuclear capabilities (ballistic missile submarines which carry nuclear warheads), assaulting objectives on the shore and seaside infiltration.
However, the fact that Lithuanian military objects might interest the Russian Naval Spetsnaz Unit means that Lithuania is not as insignificant as the Kremlin's propaganda would have us believe.
The number of successful infiltration missions during the Cold War is not known. According to analyst Audrius Bačiulis, even after the Soviet empire crumbled, the work ethic of some organisations has not changed much.
“The only thing that might have changed is the upgraded technology. Continuity is sacred when it comes to infiltration and sabotage,” Bačiulis remarked.
After the USSR collapsed, the 561st unit had to go through rough times, they were short on technology and other equipment. However, in 2008, when Russia started its military reform, the 561st unit received upgrades as well. Since then, the GRU Spetsnaz seemed to have disappeared - that is until the war in Ukraine.
Last year, Ukrainian news outlets reported that a speed boat went over a mine and exploded near Novoazovsk. GRU Spetsnaz units from the 561st division were onboard, allegedly two soldiers died and six were badly injured. Russian media laughed off the reports, as it did with other similar stories. Evidence of a destroyed speed boat and dead Russian soldiers was never presented.
More military exercises on the Curonian spit are expected
We shouldn’t expect that any evidence about the Russian Spetsnaz unit landing in Juodkrantė would be disclosed to the public. However, the possibility that hostile military forces were scouting an area of strategic importance to Lithuania is enough to get Lithuanians worried.
“It’s an important psychological practice, to infiltrate the territory of a NATO country knowing full well that it isn’t a military exercise and that you could face consequences such as being arrested, going to jail or even getting shot. Attacking the Klaipėda harbour is also much easier and safer from the seaside. Again, this is psychological pressure, because we believe that the Baltic Sea is a safe rearward,” tBačiulis noted.
The radar on the Curonian Spit is not sufficiently protected. Bačiulis thinks that at least one company from a battalion in Klaipėda should be sent to defend the object.
The only armed units situated in the Neringa municipality are policemen and border guards. It was announced last year that the Border Guard Service is planning to buy automatic weapons and even rocket launchers, but it has not been revealed where the weaponry was placed. In case of a conflict, the border guard units would be the first to respond, while policemen would be the first ones to open fire on the enemy.
The border guard officers and the military have organized numerous military exercises in 2013 and 2014. Lithuanian military forces and border guards are trained to coordinate actions among themselves. Each year, anti-aircraft military exercises are held in Juodkrantė. During these exercises, soldiers fire Stinger and RBS-70 missiles at targets in the sea.
National Defence and Security Committee chairman Paulauskas’s remarks about a possible Russian landing in Juodkrantė coincided with a short message that the Ministry of National Defence delivered to the residents of the Curonian Spit, which said that a joint exercise between Lithuanian military and its allies is planned. The message said that aircraft are to be used, but the types of units that took part in the training weren’t disclosed.
This means that the Ministry of National Defence and other institutions are taking the threat of a seaside attack seriously. It also means that the increased military activity around the Curonian spit will hopefully help spot and neutralize potential Russian infiltration units faster in the future.
Translated from Lithuanian by Aivaras Medeubetovas