NATO soldiers attached to the Lithuanian Army's Iron Wolf Brigade seek to bring support as well as defence to Lithuania.
On a Saturday evening around 30 cheerful NATO soldiers are drinking beer in a bar in the Lithuanian village of Rukla. The bar, unofficially known as ʻDeutsche Eckeʼ or German Corner, is the only one in town and the people who work here enjoy serving the polite foreigners. By midnight more than a dozen taxis are waiting outside in a dark narrow street in the shadow of a cluster of dilapidated apartment blocks dating from the Soviet period. The soldiers are moving on to continue their night elsewhere after the bar closes. They can easily afford the 40km taxi ride to Kaunas, Lithuaniaʼs second city where bars and clubs stay open through the early hours of the morning.
Around sunrise the next day, several elderly women wearing orange jackets appear on the main street where the snow has recently melted. They are there to clean up. A local middle-aged woman called Olga Navickienė is in charge. “Around 130 villagers receive social benefits and have to work for the local eldership [an eldership is what Lithuanians call a small municipality] in order to receive it,” she explains. “Theyʼre often difficult to deal with, but theyʼre all weʼve got.”
Rukla’s civilian population numbers less than 2,000. Since 2017, NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup (EFP) consisting of 1,200 soldiers has been deployed in the village. Troops from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Croatia, and France are attached to Lithuanian Army’s Iron Wolf Brigade, which is based here. Combined with local conscripts, there are around 5,000 troops.
Rukla is one of four locations in the Baltics hosting NATO battlegroups deployed as a deterrent to neighbouring Russia, a situation that’s dramatically increased the region’s geopolitical significance. However, this doesn’t help solve the village’s long-lasting local problems.
During the period of Soviet occupation, Rukla was part of a self-contained paratrooper base. In 1993 the Soviets pulled out, leaving around 20 apartment blocks containing some 1,000 flats empty. Today, about one-third of the buildings have fallen into disrepair.
Most of their residents live below the poverty line. Some stay because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Others have come more recently, attracted by the low cost of living. The cost of a small apartment 10 years ago was €1,000. Today, the market price is around €5,000.
Gintas Jasiulionis, Rukla’s elder or mayor, has been in charge of the village’s affairs for the last 20 years. Although many improvements have been made under his watch, he still has to fight poverty every day.
Sitting behind a large desk in a cramped room inside an old Soviet-era office building, Jasiulionis shares his mixed feelings about the military presence.
“The eldershipʼs budget is based on the size of the population, around €40,000 per year for everything, including street lighting,” he notes.
Pointing in the direction of the military base he complains: “We fix the roads and the army vehicles break them. We use our budget to serve at least four times as many people as we should.”
The military base occupies around 80% of the municipality. Jasiulionis believes that his village should have a special status, but despite the everyday hardships heʼs proud of EFPʼs presence in the village. His office is filled with military badges, decorative knives, and swords and he enjoys hosting the various high-ranking officials who come to visit the base.
Putting something back
Every April Ina Čekauskienė, a local businesswoman and the founder of a local charity initiative called Red Noses, wanders Ruklaʼs streets with a team of local Cultural Centre volunteers dressed as clowns collecting money for those in need.
In 2017 the Nato battlegroup used Red Noses to help fund the renovation of a children’s ENT clinic ward in a nearby district hospital in the town of Jonava. In January 2018 during the wardʼs opening ceremony, the soldiers’ team presented the hospital with an additional €2,000.
To Čekauskienė, the experience of working with the army is precious. “Weʼve approached the Lithuanian brigade before, but they declined to help several times. In 2017 the EFP agreed to donate and promised to become our permanent partner,” says Čekauskienė. This year, soldiers joined the clowns visiting local schools.
The partnership with NATO has inspired the locals to do more of the same. During a recent public event in the village, the same volunteer team used several thousand euros of donations from the soldiers to build a new sports field.
A visit to a local branch of the international Catholic charity Caritas casts more light on the relationship between the people of Rukla and their heavily-armed neighbours. Caritas’ local director, a pensioner by the name of Virginija Noreikienė, is glad to show us around her threadbare charity canteen. The army just donated to renovate of one of its rooms where some 50 children and 120 adults are fed every day. Most of the diners are the descendants of Soviet Army soldiers that once served in the village.
The Lithuanian Army has been an occasional food donor for the past ten years. Since the multinational force arrived, itʼs been donating its leftover food every day. Today at 11 am, Noreikienė and four volunteers distributed military meatballs with boiled potatoes and mushroom soup to their so called ʻclientsʼ.
None of the volunteers are paid. Noreikienė collects €1 every month from each ʻclientʼ to cover the basic running costs of the kitchen. Introducing each recipient by name, she shares her worries. “Their numbers increase, and they get younger. That’s what frightens me”. There isnʼt enough space to feed everyone, so takeaway is allowed. Late recipients queue outside for their plastic containers to be filled with food.
At last Christmas, the EFP invited their local hosts, the Lithuanian Army’s Iron Wolf Brigade, and local dignitaries to a concert by a German military orchestra and Dutch pop band. €6,000 raised during the event were subsequently donated to Ruklaʼs secondary school. Its director, Darius Mockus, plans to use the cash to commission a leisure zone inside the school. He also welcomed a permanent exhibition from the Lithuanian Army that highlights its history.
Thirty years ago the same school was a very different place. Established in 1968, during the Soviet period it was used by the children of the military personnel stationed in Rukla and was predominantly Russian.
Today, thousands of former students meet online. One such group on Russiaʼs ok.ru social media platform, Ruklinska Shkola (Rukla School), is managed by Tamara Matvejeva, a 74-year-old former biology teacher who lives near the NATO base. Every day starting at six am she shares up to ten posts by former and present Russian paratroopers to around 500 followers. Her shares include old black and white photographs of Soviet Rukla, congratulatory posts dedicated to soldiers whoʼve recently been promoted and miscellaneous videos praising todayʼs modern Russian army, all of it sprinkled with recipes from her own kitchen and the occasional words of wisdom. Another closed nostalgia-driven group, called simply ʻRuklaʼ, has 6,000 members and is openly anti-NATO. Plenty of smaller Rukla groups are also active on other Russian social media networks.
Matvejeva responds sharply to questions about the benefits of Rukla’s transformation into a NATO base: “All Lithuanians yell that Russians are invaders and that is what we get for saving them from the fascism plague. In USSR they lived better than us. We built many factories for them and now they are chopping them all down for scrap metal”. Within minutes she is tapping away on her keyboard, warning her followers not to respond to anyone asking for information on Rukla or its people. “It could be a provocation or virus“, she explains in the public post to her group.
On the other side of the barricade, most Rukla-based institutions maintain Facebook pages. The school, the eldership, the church, local NGOs, the Cultural Centre and at least five Lithuanian Army battalions and regiments based here share messages praising EFP online.
But the contributions the visiting soldiers make sometimes only serve to highlight the daily problems endured by village residents.