(CNN) — Having a neighbor like Russia means that Vytas Grudzinskas, 59, does not get much rest. “When I best see the soldiers [rusos] it’s evening,” says this Lithuanian militia member, pointing to a green area behind his neighbor’s garden.
“They have a shooting range that they use there, behind that range. In the afternoon, you can hear the guns,” he says.
Grudzinskas has her own weapon, a machine gun, which she keeps locked in a cupboard close at hand, though her guard dog, a Maltese terrier, might be less effective in battle.
The small town of Kybartai, where Grudzinska lives, is, like all of Lithuania, within NATO and the European Union, but also along one of the hottest borders in the world: the Suwalki corridor. This strip of land, about 100 kilometers wide, lies between the heavily fortified and nuclear-armed Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and its ally Belarus. The pass – considered by many analysts to be a weak point within NATO – is caught in a pincer between Kremlin troops. The fear is that if Ukraine were to fall, Russia would push through it, possibly isolating the Baltic states within days.
The scars of the Soviet occupation are deep in this part of Europe. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were forcibly deported to the gulags of Siberia and the Far North by the Soviets in the 1940s and 1950s. Nearly 30,000 Lithuanian prisoners died in the labor camps.
“My father was posted to Sakhalin, in the far west of Russia, for 15 years,” Grudzinskas said. “He ate grass for the first year to survive.”
So, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014Grudzinskas joined Lithuania’s centuries-old volunteer militia – the Riflemen – and took up arms in his own backyard.
That means it is the first line of defense if Kremlin troops, stationed 30 meters away in the Russian exclave, set foot on NATO soil.
“How can Russia be trusted? With our history?” he asked.
“Of course, I’m scared. How could I not be?” he added. “My family is here. I built this house with my own hands.”
The 103-year-old Riflemen militia has seen its numbers increase since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to its commander.
Currently, there are about 12,000 volunteer members, said Egidijus Papeckys, commander of the 4th Rifle Regional Command. And the number of new recruits is multiplying tenfold every month, he said.
Since the early days of the Ukraine war, the number of new recruits seeking to join each month has risen from 10-12 to more than 100.
At his headquarters in the town of Marijampole, deep in the Suwalki corridor, Papeckys shows off some of his unit’s arsenal, including assault rifles, pistols and grenade launchers.
This 51-year-old man is also desperate to prevent a return to Russian rule. His father was sent to Siberia, as were the relatives of his wife.
“We remember the Soviet occupation and we don’t like that they continue to occupy us. We are free people,” Papeckys said.
At a swearing-in ceremony to mark the Riflemen’s 103rd anniversary in the neighboring town of Kalvarija, new member Karolis Baranauskas says he’s always been interested in the organization, but the war in Ukraine prompted him to take action. Although he was born in 1990, the year Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union, he says that “every Lithuanian knows that Russia is a threat. Recent events prove it.”
To better protect the Baltic, NATO has radically revised its defense planning in this part of the world, announcing before its summit in Madrid that it would increase its presence in the region enough to repel any attack, rather than send troops to reconquer territory once it was taken.
This will mean thousands more troops, which Lithuania would like to have permanently around the small country’s nearly 1,000-kilometre border with Belarus and Russia.
Deputy Defense Minister Margiris Abukevicius admits it could be two years before those troops are operational. But he says it is now understood that military capabilities need substantial improvement around Suwalki and elsewhere. The corridor, also known as the Suwalki Pass, has always been a cause for concern, according to Abukevicius. It is understood to be a “weak point” for the Balts and NATO.
“In the current situation we understand the vulnerability much more clearly,” he told CNN in an interview Tuesday at the Defense Ministry in Vilnius, the capital.
“I think NATO understands it and makes decisions,” he said. “I really hope that the NATO summit […] give a very strong response and a very clear direction of where NATO’s long-term adaptation needs to go.
At the same time, Lithuania says it has been fending off ongoing Russian cyber-attacks on its state institutions and the private sector in recent days, following its decision last week to block the rail transport of some goods such as grain and steel. – which are subject to European Union sanctions – to Kaliningrad. Although cyber attacks from hackers Russians are relatively common in Lithuania, Abukevicius says the blockade was the “triggering point”.
“We are seeing increased activity in state institutions against some critical operators, especially transportation and media,” Abukevicius said.
During target practice at a practice range nestled in the lush landscape of Marijampole, Grudzinskas and other members of Papeckys’ unit take aim with their assault rifles during target practice, as Russian soldiers often do when they are behind Grudzinskas street.
Their shots momentarily break the tranquility, but for now the fragile peace remains.