The Yorkshire Post was given exclusive inside access as over 100 members of the 3 Rifles Battalion, which is Edinburgh-based but recruits heavily from Yorkshire and the North East and is due to be located at Catterick in North Yorkshire from 2021, joined more than 4,000 other soldiers from across Europe in participating for almost three weeks in Exercise Iron Wolf in Lithuania near the border of Belarus, who are a close ally of Russia.
Lieutenant Colonel Eugenijus Lastauskas, commander of the Vaidotas battalion, said the presence of the British soldiers and other NATO allies to deter the Russian threat to the former Soviet state would dissuade a possible invasion which would be likely to result in a global conflict.
“If things start to escalate, there is a big chance that escalation will go much wider than the Baltic region. By being here, the British troops are doing a great thing for the region and for Britain also - they are preventing a big war, a potential third World War,” he said.
In Lithuania, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1990, fears of Russia have been stoked by the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.
Since 2017, NATO allies have continually stationed forces in the former Soviet states of Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Latvia - with Germany, the UK, the US and Canada taking responsibility in each respective country.
At the time the move was announced, the then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC that the deployment was necessary “because of the increased Russian aggression that we’ve seen and the need to reassure our allies on the eastern side of NATO”.
Escalating recent tensions in the Baltic region saw RAF Typhoon fighter jets launched twice on Tuesday to intercept Russian military aircraft flying close to Estonian airspace. Typhoons first intercepted a Russian military transport aircraft before later intercepting two Russian Flanker fighters and another military transport aircraft. It follows RAF jets being scrambled twice in two days earlier this month to intercept Russian fighter aircraft flying to the north of the country.
According to NATO, Exercise Iron Wolf, carried out in the huge 85km2 Padrabe Training Area which is in the process of being more than doubled in size, was designed to show it is ready to defend its allies and their “solidarity, determination and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression”.
Major Ben Moorhouse, company commander of 3 Rifles, did not wish to be drawn on the extent of the Russian threat but said the exercise had been a productive one.
“The absolute focus is on NATO’s capability. It is not all about the British Army’s going out to the Baltic states, it is about bringing together NATO nations to demonstrate our capability and the resources we hold and the commitment to partner states and their protection.”
Lt Colonel Lastauskas added that 3 Rifles had been “outstanding” during the exercise. “Yorkshire should be very proud of them,” he said.
A Military of Defence spokesperson said: “The UK is clear in its commitment to NATO, not only through meeting the NATO spending target but also through our contribution to NATO-led exercises, such as Iron Wolf.
“These exercises represent an excellent opportunity for our troops to develop their skills as well as demonstrating our commitment to allies at specific risk from Russia, including those in the Baltic Sea Region such as Lithuania.”
The Russian Embassy did not respond to request for comment.
Russia invasion fears 'are baseless'
Lithuanian fears of a Russian invasion of their country are “baseless” - partly because NATO membership is an effective deterrent against direct military action, an expert in Russian politics has said.
Dr Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer at Leeds University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Societies and author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World, said he did not accept Lt Colonel Lastauskas’s contention that Russia poses a realistic threat to Lithuania and other Baltic states.
“These fears and panics of the Russian invasion in the Baltics are baseless, in my humble opinion,” he said.
“They are rooted in the memory of the Soviet past when Stalin invaded these countries and annexed them after 1945. If one knows well the history of the last days of the USSR, then it is easy to make a conclusion that the Baltic states have never been that important for the Soviet authorities. The Soviet authorities have never made an attempt to prevent their separation in 1991.
“The rights of the Russians have been used very often as an argument of the far right politicians in the 1990s and the Kremlin adopted this card in the 2000s. Yet, there have never been any serious developments that could support the idea that Russia plans to annex any of the Baltic states.”
He said it was “utterly wrong” to compare events in Ukraine with the Baltic states, given the latter nations’ NATO membership. “Russia will never get into war with NATO. Russia is strong, but far from the demonised imperialistic bear that dreams to occupy half of Europe again.”
The Yorkshire Post is running a special series of features, videos and photographs next week on Exercise Iron Wolf and the involvement of 3 Rifles. Buy the newspaper and visit the website on Monday and Tuesday for more.