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Thornbush Strategy – Deterrence by Denial in Lithuania

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Thornbush Strategy – Deterrence by Denial in Lithuania

Vylius Leskys

With Russia showing interest in recovering some of the territory that was once part of the Soviet empire, all the Baltic states must think hard about their options for deterrence. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin continues to promise protection for “compatriots” (ethnic Russians) in the Baltic States, displaying a willingness to leverage “all available bilateral and multilateral mechanisms” to do so.

Membership in NATO gives the Baltic states a right to protection through the Treaty’s Article 5, and this surely complicates Russia’s cost-benefit calculation.[1] NATO is a long-standing alliance in which the United States has invested heavily since 1949—not just economically but also in terms of prestige and credibility. But the Baltic states are new NATO members in an exposed location, and recent US policy has had the effect of raising questions about American commitment to NATO in general.[2]

Russian decision-makers might be tempted to gamble that NATO would not react to a land grab or—perhaps more likely—an operation designed to come in under a threshold that would trigger a collective security response. Considering this, Baltic decision-makers should explore a wide array of options to help enhance deterrence; but they must do so with deliberation. The “security dilemma” tells us that the steps one actor takes to enhance its defense can be perceived by others as aggressive or provocative.[3] An overreaction could trigger precisely the response that neither the Baltic states nor NATO wants. There is of course some degree of risk in all options; but the greatest risk of all undoubtedly lies in not exploring options.

This essay will examine the prospects for improving the security situation in one of the three Baltic states – Lithuania, a nation with a strong sense of independence, and a history of resisting Russian attempts at cultural assimilation. Specifically, the essay will explore the option of enhancing deterrence by denial through a strategy of resistance—making the nation “indigestible” in the face of invasion.[4]

Thornbush Strategy

Under the thick canopy of the coniferous forests in Lithuania, a thorny underbrush thrives. On the surface, the thornbush grows low, but its roots run deep and spread wide. Its barbed exterior clearly communicates: “Don’t tread on me.” By employing a method of popular resistance at the core of its national defense plans, Lithuania has the potential to generate a “thornbush strategy”—communicating a prickly façade to be avoided. The well-rooted network will exist principally in the clandestine underbrush. But some must show through to the surface since no deterrence strategy can work if it does not announce itself. An unambiguous message—bright and bold—must be made clear to those who might be tempted to trespass upon the nation’s sovereign territory.[5]

A strategy of resistance would complicate Russian calculations in several ways. It would undermine the idea that a move on Lithuania could be straightforward and painless; it would raise the prospect of arousing international ire (and the detriments to Russia that would come with further international outrage); and it would help buy time for NATO to organize and plan countermoves on behalf of its Baltic ally. Consequently, a whole-of-government resourcing approach centered on resistance holds the potential to counter Russian malign influence and discord in a way that does not engender further Russian indignation over NATO “encroachment.” A thornbush strategy, based on deterrence and resilience, is purely defensive in nature. It is less overtly provocative than other strategy options that have been suggested, and thus it carries a lower risk of provoking the action it seeks to deter.[6]

Any nation contemplating a resistance/resilience strategy must rely principally on its own will and determination. Examples and guidance from other times and places can help provide a way forward, however. And degrees of cooperation among NATO partners may allow for the sharing of ideas, resources, training, and best practices. This work, in turn, may help to establish an unconventional warfare foundation for NATO operations across the domains, and in other regions where deterrence may be enhanced by such means.

Internal and External Resolve

Geographically exposed, Lithuania evolved as a vulnerable nation, enduring annexations by both Germany and Russia multiple times in recent history. Specifically, Russia has occupied Lithuania for more than 150 of the last two hundred years. Geographically, Lithuania shares the border with Kaliningrad, a critical Baltic Sea harbor and strategic naval access point for the Russian Federation.

At the same time, however, Lithuanians have defied persistent Russian attempts to infiltrate their culture and instill a Russian brand of nationalism. Additionally, Lithuanian determination repelled attempts to replace its native language and religion. Although the Russians attempted to colonize Lithuania in the wake of World War II, they found it rather more hostile than the other Baltic states. Over a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Lithuania currently enjoys its longest successive period of independence since 1795. With a population of 2.8 million, democracy prevails and the economy is among the freest in the world.[7] Among Baltic nations, Lithuania maintains the lowest percentage of ethnic Russians, at 5.8 percent.[8] A new generation of Lithuanians has lived with unquestioned freedom and this is, perhaps, a strength and a liability at once. A taste of freedom whets the appetite for more and builds resentment against those who would take it away. But a younger generation has largely forgotten the years of struggle, sacrifice and resistance that preserved cultural life in Lithuania prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under Article 5 of its treaty, NATO maintains a principle of collective defense: an attack against any ally is construed as an attack against all. It is incumbent upon all NATO members, therefore, to prepare for and maintain the political resolve to abide by this obligation, especially in light of increasingly assertive Russian behavior.[9] Any NATO decision to enact Article 5 in the face of a Russian incursion might not be instantaneous, however; NATO is a body of 29 members with disparate interests and vulnerabilities.

Additionally, the definition of “attack” that would activate Article 5 could be deliberately blurred by Russia as it seeks to cope asymmetrically with U.S. and NATO advantages, largely through cyber and gray zone mechanisms. Russian Federation Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov, has brought to light the need for “nonmilitary methods in the resolution of interstate conflicts”—a declaration that lately has compelled NATO to look more intensively at competition short of armed conflict.[10] In the ambiguity of Article 5, the Russians readily exploit the seams of the political, economic, and cyber realms. Fueled by anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiment, and a desire for increased (or, in their eyes “restored”) influence, the Russians seek opportunities to discredit, weaken, and humiliate the alliance.

Further complicating the picture is the present-day resolve of NATO member states. Years of relative peace with Russia has led to a weakening and thinning of the bonds that once tied NATO nations together. A Pew Research Center Poll published in the summer of 2018 indicated that several NATO nations might not have the will to defend collectively against the Russian Federation in an Article 5 situation. Less than half of citizens polled from Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Hungary claimed they would be willing to defend an ally should the Russia Federation get into “a serious military conflict” with a fellow alliance member.[11]

NATO exercises and independent studies continue to explore probabilities for invasion and defense in the Baltics; they reveal at best a limited ability to react promptly to a Russian incursion. In a 2014-2015 wargame, the RAND Arroyo Center concluded that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”[12] The results of the wargame opened the eyes of many, as it concluded that the Russian Federation would reach the outskirts of Riga and Tallinn within less than 60 hours—a pace that “would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad.”[13] The study suggested that the Baltic States, even with a limited persistent NATO presence, must plan for an inevitable occupation should the Russian Federation decide to pursue one.

The 2016 Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania, supplementing NATO commitments, requires the development and maintenance of “individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”[14] The document argues that in the case of an armed attack, “the Lithuanian Armed Forces must be ready for individual defence until reinforcement from the Allies has been provided.”[15] Lithuania is thus quite alert to the fact that some degree of self-reliance is required, and the implications should be clear: the nation must pursue additional deterrence mechanisms to supplement NATO.[16]

Lithuania, though, faces some non-trivial challenges. The land is flat and forested; it does not possess the varied topography of other nations that have relied on resistance movements as strategies, including Spain, Yugoslavia, and Switzerland. During World War II, the “Forest Brothers” -- Lithuanian freedom fighters -- did the best they could to leverage the land to their advantage. In a small state under the oppression of an overwhelming Soviet force, the forest provided limited space for concealment in a mostly rural landscape. However, the Forest Brothers generated a protracted war of eight years from 1944-1953 and, arguably, instilled enough fear to limit Russian colonization.[17] In this effort the Forest Brothers helped preserve cultural homogeneity in Lithuania, allowing the nation to maintain a sense of national identity until its freedom was restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While terrain can surely aid a resistance movement, it is not so determining as the will and mindset of the people. The threat of a protracted fight demands that a potential invader consider its costs and benefits carefully. Even if the land is not readily suited to insurgency, a skillful use of resources, determination and persistence can help to overcome the deficit. As a modern example, Ukraine remains an independent country despite all the “little green man” efforts the Russians have made within its borders.[18] Persistence can truly pay off for a defender.

Deterrence by Denial

The theory of deterrence by denial prevents an aggressor from assuming that a land grab will be quick, easy, or without cost.[19] The theory “applies to any capability that can deny an enemy success in achieving his objectives.”[20] More specifically, political scientist Karl P. Mueller believes “deterrence does not simply depend on making war look bad—it depends on making war look worse than the alternative.”[21] In the case of Lithuania, a developed strategy of deterrence by denial, through the mechanism of resistance, may help to shift the Russian cost-benefit calculation by instilling the concern that the potential risks and costs of infiltration/incursion outweigh the possible benefits.

The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania focuses on “credible deterrence” whereby the aim is “to convince a potential aggressor that its military actions against Lithuania will fail and result in heavy losses.”[22] Strategy depends in part on Lithuania’s ability to persuade an aggressor that it is “willing and able to defend itself with the combined efforts of its Armed Forces and citizens, as well as the Allies.”[23] A thornbush strategy anchored in resistance has the potential to enhance deterrence by complicating the adversary’s cost calculations. Steeped in a deep historical tradition of defiance, Lithuania already possesses the roots of an ideological mindset for resistance; it thus has the capacity to develop a holistic resistance plan to generate this coercive effect. The development of an integrated clandestine network with appropriate defense preparations would set the foundation for the effort.

When elements of a population are prepared to resist, they not only complicate an attacker’s plans, but also send a persistent message central to the informational component of strategy: the people do not and will not accept the state of affairs imposed upon them.[24] A persistent government-led program to develop resilience within the population and a resistance-oriented mindset provides the backbone for auxiliary support and sustainment to the clandestine network, enabling the prospect of a prolonged resistance capability. Wes Mitchell refers to this type of resistance effort as a “bitter pill” strategy, suggesting that a resistance plan could be a suitable deterrent, as it would make occupation “prolonged and costly” and, in turn, “harder to keep.”[25] Ultimately, the increased perceived cost by the threat of a protracted insurgency fueled by a sophisticated resistance network with a resilient culture prepared to support it helps to generate deterrence by denial, via the message that Lithuanian culture will not be assimilated, and that Lithuania will be “indigestible” to those with an appetite for conquest.[26]

A deterrence by denial strategy must appropriately align ends (goals), ways (methods), and means (resources).[27] Within its Constitution and National Security Strategy, Lithuania aligns its political aims, including its national purpose and vital interests, with a deterrence strategy. Article 3 of the Lithuanian Constitution defines the national purpose in terms of a persistent need to preserve freedom: “The Nation and each citizen shall have the right to resist anyone who encroaches on the independence, territorial integrity, and constitutional order of the State of Lithuania by force.”[28] The recognition that every citizen has responsibility for national defense generates a requirement for an evolving strategy to preserve freedom.

Further, the Lithuanian National Security Strategy of 2017 defines “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” as two of the vital interests for the national security of Lithuania and argues that all lawful means may be used to safeguard them.[29] The wording of the Constitution sets a framework for popular resistance. The thornbush concept increases the likelihood that the Constitutional aim of territorial integrity and independence can be maintained, even in the shadow of a revanchist Russian Federation.

Observations, Recommendations and Guidance from the Past

Both Carl von Clausewitz and Mao Tse-Tung perceived insurgency as a natural extension of national politics. War is, according to Clausewitz, an “act of policy” and an insurgency is “simply another means of war.”[30] Similarly, Mao argued “[t]here is no reason to consider guerilla warfare separately from national policy.”[31] Equally important for an insurgency, however, is connecting the policy aim to an ideology. In this regard, the two theorists tended to agree, but Mao emphasized it. Indeed, Mao placed a premium on the significance of ideology in politics, using terms to describe conviction as “ever-present,” “deep-rooted,” and part of a “national consciousness.”[32]

For the Lithuanian thornbush strategy, the political aim is evident—preservation of sovereignty by preparing for emancipation from an oppressive regime—an objective that parallels Mao’s revolutionary efforts in the early decades of the 20th century. More specifically, the principal objectives of the national security policy under the Lithuanian National Security Strategy center on government and citizen efforts “to deter any potential aggressor and to defend the independence, territorial integrity and constitutional order of the Republic of Lithuania.”[33] The ideology is organic to these aims, and it maintains relevance today in the mounting tensions with the Russian Federation, as a passion for independence can help to generate the support of the masses, engender the necessary resolve to fight, and help sway the uncommitted in the face of a potential occupation.

In Lithuania, an ideology can be amplified by strategically communicating the proud historical tradition of defiance, echoing and emphasizing the spirit and sentiment of the Forest Brothers.[34] This effort to link past and present is crucial since it is no small feat to cultivate a culture of sacrifice during a time of relative peace and prosperity. Scarcely more than a generation has passed since the Baltic nations achieved their independence from the Soviet Union, but the passage of time buffers and mutes painful memories. The Lithuanians cannot allow themselves to lose sight of the past or to grow complacent regarding the future.

Some 2016-2017 polls demonstrate that even in a nation with a strong heritage of resistance, time can erode urgency and passion. When asked about their willingness to actively contribute to defense, respondents expressed predictable ambivalence. Lithuania’s citizens, at 39 percent, were more willing than Latvia’s citizens (33 percent), but less willing that Estonia’s (56 percent).[35] To shift these numbers over time, the media and the education system must be vigilant in emphasizing cultural pride, cultivating an understanding of the resistance movements of the past, and sowing a deeply-held appreciation for the rewards of freedom.

During the Cold War, Switzerland exemplified an attitude of resistance—a mindset that fostered self-reliance and confidence. As part of the approach, John McPhee in La Place de la Concorde Suisse highlighted rifle marksmanship as a “compulsory” sport, promoted through the development of ranges in every town and incentivized through national shooting competitions.[36] McPhee quoted one observer who stated, “there is no difference between the Swiss people and the Swiss Army. There is no difference in will.”[37] The interweaving of the military and civilian population in Switzerland permeated all realms of society, to include economic life: “To be turned down by the army is a financial liability if not a complete shame” McPhee explained, specifying that non-service could mean being denied access to the Swiss financial world.[38] By incentivizing military service through social status and broader opportunities for later success, the Swiss created a unique cultural model which fostered self-reliance and national confidence. The Lithuanians could adapt and emulate portions of this model to cultivate and extend the bristly branches of the thornbush.

Clausewitz and Mao argued that methods of resistance must cater to relative strengths. Clausewitz perceived an insurgency as “nebulous and elusive,” looking across time and space to isolate strikes in the flanks and the enemy’s rear, while maneuver units “nibble at the shell and around the edges” where enemy vulnerabilities exist.[39] During the wars following the French Revolution, the Spanish partisans (“partidas”) initially created a notorious ulcer in the belly of Napoleon. But as they “grew bigger and more permanent, they presented the French with an easier target, and what is more, one on which it was easy to inflict terrible damage.”[40]

Mao also emphasized time and space as factors, but he formulated a more prescriptive approach in describing his methods, highlighting “alertness, mobility, and attack.” Alertness was required to seize the initiative; determination would aid in the eventual movement towards a conventional war effort; and opportunism would guide attacks on terrain and the enemy.[41] Additionally, Mao suggested that efforts be “directed towards the goal of protracted war” to gain victory.[42] Both Clausewitz and Mao understood the importance of relative combat analysis to decide how best to leverage distinct advantages.

These general methods can apply to the Lithuanian thornbush scenario as well, but the concepts might be better understood by the population through lessons learned from past resistance efforts in the Baltic nations. The Lithuanian Forest Brothers partisan movement illustrated one such lesson: after the second Soviet annexation of Lithuania during World War II, the Lithuanian partisan movement adapted too slowly to Soviet counterinsurgency initiatives; indeed, the Forest Brother partisans fought an agonizing traditional war for nearly two years. By late 1945, massive casualties and a Soviet-offered amnesty culled the active partisan force to less than 15 percent of its original size.[43] Shifting to true guerrilla warfare by that point, the diminished force attempted to adapt but failed because they waited too long to be effective.[44] As a small state with limited resources, Lithuania must recall lessons learned from the past regarding conventional warfare and growth beyond decentralized partisan efforts; the size and weight of a Russian Federation force would demand an asymmetric response that was well-prepared, determined, and opportunistic.

The Strategic Options: Why a Thornbush Strategy is the Best Course

In light of the prospect of an overwhelmingly superior force, Lithuania maintains several options for strategic defense: 1) continuation of its current defensive strategy; 2) build-up of its conventional force capabilities; or 3) a focused thornbush strategy—a whole of government approach towards the development of a resistance network supported by a resilient population. This network, armed with citizens who are ready to resist in gray zone scenarios, is also further primed to support a prolonged and costly fight in the event of war.

Continuation of the current defense strategy focuses on the broad spectrum of military defensive capabilities, principally conventional forces that could not prevail against a Russian Federation invasion given the relative combat capabilities of the two sides. An overt build-up of conventional force capabilities runs a greater risk of provocation than the development of a clandestine network, and the supporting framework of a motivated, determined, and educated population. Such a population would be, in addition to its defiance of the Russian threat, far better prepared for other kinds of shocks that can—and sometimes do—unsettle nations.

The clandestine nature of resistance network development must be balanced against the need to communicate its existence to generate the desired deterrent effect. While this communication must be further balanced against concern for the threshold of provocation, the clandestine network has a good deal of control in this realm, thus mitigating risk.

The whole of government thornbush approach centered on resistance deters, strikes balance, and lessens the prospect of provocation. It is thus cost effective as a long-term strategy. The Cold War Swiss approach provides one example for possible execution, representing a hierarchical network of three levels: a top tier of senior military leaders, a second (core) level of a “secretive and well-trained nucleus of the resistance underground” distributed among decentralized clandestine cells, and a third level yet to be recruited upon invasion.[45] Such a resistance infrastructure can be emulated in Lithuania currently, representing the roots of the strategy, while resilience training can foster the development of third tier and auxiliary forces—the thorns, spikes and spines.

RAND analyst Jan Osberg suggests that an insurgency “should consist mainly of surviving members of the regular armed forces operating under decentralized leadership.”[46] Much can be developed in advance, though, to generate the human and physical infrastructure prepared to conduct resistance. The precarious balance in this initiative exists in the determination of the pre-war relationship between resistance leaders and the populace—the civilian-military nexus that must balance broad resilience with clandestine requirements. Beyond an organized network, a resilient civilian population transitioning to war feeds decentralized recruitment and augmentation requirements with prior conscripts, reservists, paramilitary forces, and those patriots willing to sacrifice for independence.

Further, a resilient population prepared for wartime recruitment is also groomed for passive resistance in a protracted war. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 highlights the value of the passive tactic: “[a]s a result of this resistance the Soviet invasion stretched to months instead of days as was initially planned. Czechs and Slovaks denied the aggressor services, food, water, shelter, and information.”[47] The idea of passive resistance buys valuable time which further raises costs, and if inculcated within the Lithuanian culture now helps to generate deterrence.

The developed foundation for a resistance network in peacetime is critical. Uniformed forces postured to lead a pre-planned and well-trained network in the event of an attack represent the planted roots of the thornbush to grow, spread, and inflict damage through the extension of its spines. This concept, in turn, would enable offensive operations to cater to relative strengths (as proposed by Mao and Clausewitz), generating instability and improving survivability in a protracted war, while presenting the threat of greater cost—and thus greater deterrent effect—for the Russian Federation.

Further, the methods of a thornbush strategy are underpinned by the ideological conflict of freedom versus slavery, as understood by any Lithuanian who lived under Soviet oppression. Looking to the Lithuanian Constitution, this strategy embraces the values that define the culture, and the notion of a free society is precisely what Lithuanians and NATO nations must defend. Mao stated that “[b]ecause guerilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.”[48] A resistance is a war of ideology, and it is destined to fail unless the population can be emboldened by a cause that is worth dying for, like liberty. Now that the Russian Federation continues to threaten inalienable freedoms within the Baltic states, the Lithuanian population must harden and sharpen their culture to ensure future independence. Lastly, given the fact of recent Russian Federation history reflecting sovereign state encroachment, the Lithuanian populace has been alerted to the need for a stronger strategy for deterrence.

Both Mao and Clausewitz understood the need to blend regular military forces with civilians. Clausewitz stated, “[w]ithout these regular troops to provide encouragement, the local inhabitants will usually lack the confidence and initiative to take to arms.”[49] Mao provided prescriptive guidance for forming, organizing, and equipping guerilla bands through a combination of civilians and regular army units that would undertake political and military training to fight the insurgency.[50]

A trained and ideologically inculcated populace must augment the military as the principal core of resistance. Resilience education provides one mechanism to instill ideology, conscription provides another. Continued conscription will aid in building the necessary force and will dramatically increase a reserve population that is trained for effective resistance. Lithuania recognized this essential need in 2015, in the wake of the Russian occupation of Crimea, and reinitiated conscription after nearly a decade without it. However, unlike Israeli conscription which requires all Jewish men and women without criminal records to serve for 2 to 3 years, only 3,500-4,000 Lithuanians—selected from a pool of 25,000 eligible draftees—serve a term for 9 months.[51] To generate a long term deterrence strategy with a military-capable population, the conscription numbers should be progressively increased over time.

In line with the Swiss model, Lithuania must incentivize responsible weapon ownership in households, and generate opportunities and places for civilians to hone marksmanship. Wes Mitchell suggests that weaponry provided by an allied great power could “enable an otherwise indefensible state to be capable of waging guerilla war against an attacker and outlasting occupation.”[52] NATO resources and training present feasible and available options for bolstering a thornbush resistance plan.

A resilience plan requires a whole-of-government approach to supplement the anchored resistance element. The U.S. National Security Strategy states, “[a] democracy is only as resilient as its people. An informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation.”[53] In the same vein, the Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania calls for the establishment of credible deterrence by “preparing citizens for state defence and nonviolent resistance.”[54] The Strategy further suggests that this can be accomplished by engaging in “a total resistance to an aggressor by enabling the citizens to acquire and improve skills for armed state defence and nonviolent resistance.”[55] Additionally, the Strategy argues that citizens who are “motivated and prepared to defend the state will make a potential aggressor understand that in case of an attack, it will face the resistance of the whole nation.”[56] The Lithuanian Strategy clearly sends a message that an enemy will face the prickly surface of the thornbush if attacked, but preparation for state defense through resistance and resilience must be exercised regularly to be credible and persuasive.

The Swiss Cold War defense model presents a whole-of-society resilience approach that may also be of value for Lithuania to consider with regard to resilience. In evaluating the model’s relevance to the Baltic states, Dr. Kevin Stringer suggests that the Swiss “went far beyond the armed forces and included the economic and psychological mobilization of the population.”[57] He explains that, “[t]he entire population was subject to call-up for both military and nonmilitary functions, and the national infrastructure and industrial production base were co-opted and tooled for possible defense usage.”[58] With NATO’s help, Lithuania could stockpile resources that would help her survive and push back against a Russian Federation assault.

Critical to this holistic integration is the mindset. In describing the “Swiss Approach,” Jan Osberg observes, “[c]ivilian resisters and those joining the ranks of the military must have a powerful will to endure hardship so that their children, friends, and country may remain free; they must believe in the justness of their cause; and they must have faith that they will ultimately prevail. The general population must understand that it has a duty to at least passively support the resisters.”[59] Given the need to truly understand the potential sacrifice, Lithuanians must not forget past Russian practices. It is not farfetched to believe that some of these practices might be revived, to include disproportionate reprisals, deportations to work camps, collectivization of property, and deceitful amnesty practices to encourage desertion on false assurances. Refreshing the memory of occupation is crucial to the development of a popular will to resist.

A Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on countering gray zone activity contrasted sluggish U.S. activities to those of its agile competitors.[60] In attempts to arrive at useful recommendations for the United States, the forum prioritized better integration with allies and partners.[61] The U.S. could leverage training and/or physical infrastructure development to help harden the will of the Lithuanian people.

As to feasibility, the thornbush concept provides ideal strategic solutions where funding and resource constraints prevail. The development of a sizeable resistance network is considerably more cost effective than a conventional force. To further enhance these funding requirements, the two percent defense budget standard for NATO should be reevaluated to enable flexible options for resiliency expenses. Political scientist Ulrich Kuhn recommends that NATO resilience expenditures be included within the expected two percent standard.[62] A collective shift of defense funding towards the development of a resistance network, and physical infrastructure to support it, will pay significant dividends towards deterrence. It will do so in a resource-constrained environment, and with less chance of provocation than other possible options.


Just as the Cold War NSC-68 strategy suggested that U.S. citizens “will be asked to give up some of the benefits which they have come to associate with their freedoms,” a thornbush strategy will test the resolve of the populace in Lithuania.[63] To mitigate this, the government must communicate the relevance of the strategy, and win commitment to it and appreciation for it. It demands sacrifice, and a liberal society could push back against requirements such as increased conscription. To head off popular resentment and prevent demoralization, the Lithuanians must strategically message and methodically reinforce information through a well-crafted campaign focused on the gravity of the potential threat, the ideology of the past, and the need for preserve liberty.

The will of the Lithuanian people is critical; they must be willing to sustain their effort and to sacrifice in order to implement the strategy and uphold it over time. Ideologically, they must sustain their vigilance and unquenchable thirst to retain independence. The government, for its part, must avoid any tendency towards authoritarianism in implementing resilience preparation within a free society.


Clausewitz and Mao generated theories to align goals, methods, and resources which can be applied to Lithuanian strategy in order to attain the aim of deterrence by denial.[64] The objective of continued independence, in particular, must be constantly emphasized in Lithuania to ensure that ideology fuels immediate resilience and long-term resistance. Mao illustrated this when he stated, “[w]ithout a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance cannot be gained.”[65] With careful planning, education, and balance (to maintain a prospering culture while developing civilian resilience), a resistance plan imbued with the observations and knowledge of Clausewitz and Mao can help to generate deterrence against the Russian Federation by complicating their political and military calculations.

The thornbush strategy reflects a long-term deterrence strategy by design. The Russian Federation maintains an inherent advantage in action, since Kremlin decision-making is driven by an authoritarian regime. By contrast, a democracy requires slower and more methodical representative mechanisms. To counter this disadvantage, the thornbush strategy proposes a progressive shift in Lithuanian culture to improve resilience. In addition, it calls for a reasonable military funding reallocation towards resistance network development expenditures.

Facing a revanchist Russian Federation dangling an ever-present sword of Damocles, Lithuania must more aggressively pursue a robust deterrence initiative. The surprise Kremlin-supported attacks in other peripheral states should serve as a convincing catalyst to deepen the roots of resistance now. With ‘thornbush’ implementation, the Lithuanian people will be emboldened to counter the malign influence and preserve their independence in an approach that deters invasion, mitigates provocation, and is cost effective.

End Notes

[1] The Baltics nations—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—joined NATO on 29 March 2004; NATO Article 5 defines the idea of collective defense within the alliance—an attack against one nation is construed as an attack against all. See The North Atlantic Treaty (Washington, DC, April 4, 1949), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[2] The ‘America First’ strategy downplays the international institutions the U.S. has—since WWII—put at the heart of its foreign policy.

[3] Joseph Nye and David Welch, Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation, 8th ed. (New York: Longman, 2011), 17-18.

[4] A. Wes Mitchell, “The Case for Deterrence by Denial,” The American Interest (August 12, 2015), 4, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[5] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 36.

[6] A 2015 RAND Corporation research report suggests a force of seven brigades (including three armored) with adequate air & artillery postured within the Baltics would be required to effectively deter a Russian Federation advance—at an expected cost of roughly $2.7 billion per year. See David A. Shlapek and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RAND Corporation (August 2016), 10-11, (accessed March 19, 2019).

[7] James Gwartney et al, “Economic Freedom of the World: 2018 Annual Report,” Fraser Institute (September 25, 2018), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[8] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook (page last updated on March 04, 2019), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[9] Michael S. Gerson, “Conventional Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age,” Parameters (39, no. 3, Autumn 2009), 33, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[10] Translated by Robert Coalson, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” Military Review (January-February 2016), 28, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[11] Moira Fagan, “NATO is seen favorably in many member countries, but almost half of Americans say it does too little,” Pew Research Center (July 9, 2018), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[12] Shlapek, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This requirement within the Lithuanian Military Strategy nests with NATO Article 3 expectations for developing self-sufficiency to “resist armed attack.” See The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania (17 March 2016), 8, (accessed March 19, 2019); The North Atlantic Treaty (Washington, DC: April 4, 1949), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[15] Details left ambiguous with regard to timeline expectations for NATO response. See The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania (17 March 2016), 8, (accessed March 19, 2019).

[16] Ibid.

[17] In codifying seven objectives in the resistance movement within Lithuania, the Forest Brothers appeared to succeed in at least one—reducing Russian colonization, as reflected by the current ethnic Russian population in Lithuania. See Joseph Pajaujis-Javis, Soviet Genocide in Lithuania (New York: Maryland Books Inc., 1980), 95.

[18] In addition to economic reform, Ukrainian military efforts in the Donbas and global pressures appear to prevent the Russian Federation from additional escalation. See Steven Pifer, “Ukraine Four Years After the Maiden,” Brookings Institution (February 22, 2018), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[19] Glenn H. Snyder, Deterrence & Defense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 15.

[20] David S. Yost, “Debating Security Strategies,” NATO Review (Winter 2003), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[21] Karl P. Mueller, “Conventional Deterrence Redux: Avoiding Great Power Conflict in the 21st Century,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Winter 2018), 78, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[22] The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania, 7. 

[23] Ibid. 

[24] Marta Kepe and Jan Osburg, “Total Defense: How the Baltic States are Integrating Citizenry into Their National Security Strategies,” Small Wars Journal (October 2017), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[25] Mitchell, “The Case for Deterrence by Denial,” 4.

[26] Ibid.

[27] W.T. Johnsen, (Course Director), “Theory of War and Strategy Directive,” U.S. Army War College Academic Year 2019 Core Curriculum (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2018), 3.

[28] The Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania (adopted by citizens of the Republic of Lithuania in the Referendum of 25 October 1992), (accessed March 19, 2019).

[29] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania, 3. 

[30] Carl Von Clausewitz (trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret), On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87, 479.

[31] Mao Tse-tung (trans. Samuel B. Griffith), On Guerilla Warfare (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961), 43.

[32] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 88.

[33] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania, 7.

[34] As an example of ideological fusion within a society, the Norwegian resistance to German occupation in World War II truly congealed with the removal of their King from power.  The proud history of the Forest Brothers generates a foundation for such fusion. See Tore Gjelsvik, Norwegian Resistance 1940-1945 (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1979), 7.

[35] Marta Kepe, “Total Defense: How the Baltic States are Integrating Citizenry into Their National Security Strategies,” Small Wars Journal (September 2017), (accessed March 30, 2019).

[36] John McPhee, La Place de la Concorde Suisse (New York, 1983 Collins Publishers, Toronto), 93.

[37] Ibid.,13.

[38] Ibid., 65.

[39] Clausewitz, On War, 481.

[40] Charles J. Esdaile, Fighting Napoleon; Guerillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain 1808-1814 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 38.

[41] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 46.

[42] Ibid., 69.

[43] Dalia Kuodyte and Rokas Tracevskis, The Unknown War (Vilnius: Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, 2006), 35.

[44] Vylius M. Leskys, “’Forest Brothers’ 1945: The Culmination of the Lithuanian Partisan Movement,” Baltic Security & Defence Review (Volume 11, 2009), 74, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[45] Kevin D. Stringer, “Building a Stay-Behind Resistance Organization: The Case of Cold War Switzerland Against the Soviet Union,” Joint Forces Quarterly (85, 2nd Quarter, 2017), 112, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[46] Jan Osberg, “Unconventional Options for the Defense of the Baltic States: The Swiss Approach,” RAND Corporation (January 2016), 5, (accessed March 19, 2019).

[47] Maciej Bartkowski, “Nonviolent Civilian Defense to Counter Russian Hybrid Warfare,” The Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies (March 2015), 12, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[48] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 44.

[49] Clausewitz, On War, 482.

[50] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 71.

[51] “Israel Defense Forces, Military Organization, Israel,” Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., August 30, 2018), (accessed March 19, 2019); Military Service, Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence; Lithuanian Armed Forces (updated 12 April 2017), (accessed March 19, 2019).           

[52] Mitchell, “The Case for Deterrence by Denial,” 4.

[53] Donald J. Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, December 2017), 14, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[54] The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania, 7.

[55] Ibid. 

[56] Ibid.

[57] Stringer, “Building a Stay-Behind Resistance Organization: The Case of Cold War Switzerland Against the Soviet Union,” 110.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Jan Osberg, “Unconventional Options for the Defense of the Baltic States: The Swiss Approach,” 3.

[60] Kathleen Hicks, John Schaus, and Michael Matlaga, “Zone Defense: Countering Competition Between the Space Between War and Peace,”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, (Report of the 2018 Global Security Forum Experts Workshop, November 2018) 4, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[61] Ibid., 9.

[62] Ulrich Kuhn, “Preventing Escalation in the Baltics: A NATO Playbook,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (March, 2018), 62, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[63] The Executive Secretary, “NSC-68: A Report to the National Security Council,” Naval War College (27, no. 6, May-June 1975), 81, (accessed March 30, 2019).

[64] W.T. Johnsen, “Theory of War and Strategy Directive,” 3.

[65] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 43.


Categories: Lithuania - NATO - Baltic States

About the Author(s)

Colonel Vylius Leskys is a Special Forces officer who has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the 82nd Infantry Division (Airborne), 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the Joint Staff, and Special Operations Command Europe.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Northridge, a Juris Doctor from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, and a Master of Military Studies (Distinguished Graduate) from Marine Corps University. He is also a recent Distinguished Graduate of the Army War College with a Master of Strategic Studies. His publications include articles in Military Review, Army Reserve Magazine, and the Baltic Security and Defense Review. He is a fluent Lithuanian speaker and a member in the bar associations of Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.