War games begin on both sides of border

  • 2001-09-06
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Amber Hope 2001, the largest-scale international war games ever held in the Baltic states, are taking place in Lithuania on Aug. 29 to Sept. 6. At the same time, on the other side of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, President Alexander Lukashenko is staging his own mock battles.

Soldiers from 14 countries have converged on Lithuania for Amber Hope 2001. Nine are NATO countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic.

NATO candidates Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and two neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, are also taking part. The total sum of troops is 2,800. Some 1,800 are Lithuanians.

The two international peacekeeping units LITPOLBAT, a Lithuanian-Polish battalion, and BALTBAT, a Lithuanian-Latvian-Estonian battalion, are cooperating for the first time. The games were planned solely by Lithuanian officers.

On Aug. 29, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and the entire Lithuanian Cabinet visited Rukla, where most of the games are being held. Dressed up in military garb, they showed off their shooting skills at a firing range. Brazauskas won this particular game.

Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite, a black belt karate master, asserted that physical strength is not enough for the modern soldier. "I see many fine weapons here,"she said. "But we need to spend more money and buy more modern weapons."

The official opening of the war games got itself an English-language theme song. Lithuanian rock veteran Povilas Meskela wrote a stirring melody consisting of military-style chants for peace.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Belarusian army is busy staging war games on a much larger scale. Some 9,000 Belarusian soldiers are taking part in the Neman games in the Grodno region, just a few miles from the borders with Poland and Lithuania.

Belarusian officials deny the exercise is a reaction against Amber Hope. Lithuanian military observers, invited by official Minsk, are present there.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus' authoritarian president and chief commander of its armed forces, opened the war games on his 47th birthday, Aug. 30.

The scenario at Neman is gloomily predictable: foreign enemies attack Belarus. Serhei Ostroucou, reporter for the Belarusian-language program of Prague-based Radio Freedom, reports that maps of Neman show that enemy forces cross from Poland and Lithuania as several dozen rockets are blasted from military vessels in the Baltic Sea. On top of all that, ethnic minorities start a partisan war.

"We all know who these minorities living near the border are,"Ostroucou told Radio Freedom referring to ethnic Lithuanians and Poles.

The Belarusian opposition alleges that Lukashenka wants to get his army prepared for any disturbances during the presidential elections on Sept. 9. Vladimir Goncharik, the opposition candidate for democrats, nationalists and communists alike, urged that both Neman and Amber Hope be stopped, according to the Interfax news agency.

The entire territory of the Neman war games is reported to be decorated with huge posters with the words, "Our choice is our chief commander."

On Sept. 1, Lukashenka, dressed in battle fatigues, attended further army games, the scenario for which was even more alarming than Neman. Belarusian soldiers received training in how to fight against civilians in case of a civil uprising and how to block government buildings from protesters.

Amber Hope 2001 is conducted in "peacekeeping conditions."The troops study individual peacekeeping skills in the field: working with mines, patrolling observation and control posts, providing first aid, and so on.

The idea is that Western allies land on territory similar to that of the former Yugoslavia, with the aim of implementing a ceasefire agreement between two countries, "Southland"and "Northland."

The tension mounts until finally the warlord of one of the units of the fighting countries, the Wolves, refuses to keep to the ceasefire agreement. The Wolves attack the peacekeeping forces. After the safety of local residents is threatened, a fighting battalion is brought to the separation zone to restore the peace.

Some 300 soldiers of the Lithuanian battalion Vytautas the Great are acting as the Wolves in these games.

As the cooperation of civilians and the military in peacekeeping operations becomes increasingly important, the International Red Cross, Lithuanian Red Cross, United Nations High Commission on Refugees, International Migration Organization, and Lithuanian police and Interior Ministry troops are all taking part.

Amber Hope was held for the first time in 1995, with the participation of Lithuania, Poland and Denmark. Since then it has been held in Lithuania every other year. Military observers from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia are here for this year's event.

Russia and Belarus are the only two countries of the CIS that are against the wishes of the Baltic states to join NATO. Georgia would like to join NATO at some undetermined point in the future.

Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius invited his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov to Amber Hope 2001, but Ivanov replied that he was too busy.