Donald Trump may admire Vladimir Putin, but Russia’s neighbors are readying for war. Over the past few years, the government of Lithuania has ramped up defense spending, begged NATO for troops, proposed building a fence along its border, and distributed detailed manuals briefing its three million citizens on what to do if Russia invades. The country has also reinstated military conscription, which was abolished in 2008. Men between the ages of 19 and 26 must now complete nine months of compulsory military service. So far, though, the move has proven premature: So many citizens have volunteered for duty that the government hasn’t needed to implement the draft.
Lithuania has a long history with Russian aggression. After Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius in 1944, resistance fighters battled the Red Army for nearly a decade from rickety hideaways in the country’s vast forests. Twenty thousand died, and Lithuania remained under Soviet control for nearly half a century. Today, Putin is stoking fears of another invasion: In 2014, he dispatched 9,000 soldiers and 55 ships for war games in Kaliningrad, a small Russian territory on the Lithuanian border.
As Lithuania gears up for war, Italian photographer Mattia Vacca traveled to the Rukla forest to document basic training exercises for the country’s new recruits. Lithuania’s swelling military ranks, Vacca says, reflect the upsurge in patriotic fervor stoked by Russian hostility. “We are ready to fight for our freedom,” Defense Minister Juozas Olekas declared recently, “for every centimeter of our land.”
Cadets are shown a video of a recent bombing and ground assault in which pro-Russian rebels fought Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass, Ukraine.
The first week of training is spent on a military base located near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Cadets are required to carry their own stools everywhere, even between classes. In January, NATO began to deploy 1,200 troops to Lithuania, with soldiers from Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and other member countries.
On weekends, reservists and cadets participate in army training sessions. Here, a female reservist and a male soldier in the Lithuanian infantry take a break before boarding armored personnel carriers to return to their base.
During nighttime war games, cadets in the forest study a topographic map to plan an attack on another platoon.
A soldier plays dead during the war games in the forest.
Cadets listen to speeches before receiving their diplomas. Besides the army, Lithuanian police officers and firefighters are also required to complete a month of military training as reservists. The goal is to create a deterrence force against Russia, with combined Lithuanian forces reinforced by NATO troops.