19 December 2014, The Tablet

Head of Lithuanian Church warns of Russian threat to his country

The head of Lithuania's Catholic Church has warned that Russia may be preparing to attack his country, using "new forms of warfare".

"We're members of NATO - and it's a visible and appreciated sign of solidarity that there are US boots on the ground here", said Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, the Bishops’ Conference president.

"But Russia has shown aggression against Ukraine and other countries, and we're expecting the same here. There's a high degree of tension, and everybody knows from past history how dangerous the situation could become".

The 53-year-old church leader was speaking as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia announced plans to increase defence spending by a third in 2015, and the United States confirmed new funds for NATO deployments under a European Reassurance Initiative.

In a Tablet interview, he said the "propaganda war" which preceded Moscow's involvement in Ukraine was now also under way against the Baltic States, which have invested heavily this year in anti-tank defences and are debating the reintroduction of military service.

He added that recent Baltic border incidents appeared to signal "new forms of warfare and indirect aggression". Lithuania's Defence Ministry has reported irregular Russian air and naval movements this autumn in the Baltic Sea, where NATO fighters were scrambled seven times in the first week of December.

In October, the country's Chief of Staff, General Jonas Zukas, announced a 2,500-strong rapid deployment force to counter "hybrid warfare", involving "manipulating national minorities, provocations, attacks by non-state armed groups, illegal border crossings and breaches in military transit procedures".

A Vilnius University military historian, Deividas Slekys, told The Tablet the Catholic Church could play a key role in fostering community bonds and encouraging Lithuanians abroad to speak up in defence of their country. He added that Catholic parishes could be called on to help organise civil defence against a Russian attack, and said the Church was likely to become "intentionally or not, a focus of national resistance".

Catholics make up 79 per cent of Lithuania's 3.7 million inhabitants, according to official data. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, gaining protection under the alliance's Article 5 collective defence guarantee.

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