When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant final 12 months for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a Moscow court docket launched a shock counterattack: It ordered the arrest of a 70-year-old retired decide in Lithuania.
The decide, Kornelija Maceviciene, was not related in any solution to the case in opposition to Mr. Putin in The Hague or to investigations into Russian battle crimes in Ukraine.
Her “crime,” because the Moscow court docket sees it, was handing down “unjust” responsible verdicts in opposition to former Soviet officers, practically all Russians, for his or her function in a brutal crackdown in opposition to pro-independence protesters who had gathered at a tv tower in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on Jan. 13, 1991.
In a bloody episode that helped seal the demise of Soviet energy, 14 protesters — considered one of them a younger lady crushed by a tank — have been killed and a whole bunch of others have been injured when Soviet forces stormed the tower in an abortive last-ditch try to forestall Lithuania from escaping Moscow’s grip.
After inspecting copious proof exhibiting who in 1991 gave the orders to make use of lethal power and who carried them out, Ms. Maceviciene and two fellow judges dominated in 2019 that scores of Russians, together with just a few Ukrainians and Belarusians, have been responsible of crimes in opposition to humanity, battle crimes and different offenses.
That has put her within the sights of Russian authorities beholden to Mr. Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union introduced concerning the unjust “disintegration of historical Russia” — a preoccupation that lies on the coronary heart of his navy assault on Ukraine.
Setting the historic report straight — as Mr. Putin sees it — hinges on reframing the demise of Soviet energy as a tragic injustice by which Russians have been harmless victims, by no means perpetrators, of violent crimes in protection of Moscow’s empire.
And doing that requires overturning, or at the very least discrediting, responsible verdicts handed down by Ms. Maceviciene in Lithuania in opposition to the previous Soviet navy and safety officers.
Ms. Maceviciene’s verdict was “clearly unjust,” in line with an August ruling by the Basmanny District Court in Moscow that ordered her speedy arrest. Two fellow judges and the lead Lithuanian prosecutor within the Vilnius tv tower case have additionally been declared criminals and positioned on Russia’s needed listing for “persecuting” Russians.
In an interview in Vilnius, Ms. Maceviciene voiced disbelief and alarm that, greater than three many years after the bloodshed on the tv tower, Russia was now making an attempt to edit out uncomfortable info and punish her for adjudicating on the occasions of 1991.
“I really can’t figure out their logic,” she mentioned. “The facts of the case are clear.”
Saulius Guzevicius, a former particular forces commander and an skilled on hybrid threats, mentioned Russia’s pursuit in current months of judges and prosecutors had sharply escalated a yearslong marketing campaign “to rewrite the history of 1991 and discredit us as fascists.”
“They are sending us a message: ‘We never forget those who went against us,’” Mr. Guzevicius mentioned. During the Vilnius showdown in 1991, he was a part of a safety element assembled by pro-independence activists to guard the Lithuanian legislature.
Under Mr. Putin, Russia has gone to extraordinary lengths to current itself as a guilt-free sufferer of Western powers and international “fascists,” rewriting historical past textbooks and punishing historians who delve into Moscow’s previous crimes.
Yuri Dmitriev, an novice historian in northwestern Russia who discovered a mass grave containing a whole bunch of individuals killed by Stalin’s secret police, was jailed for 13 years in 2020 on what his household dismissed as trumped-up pedophilia fees. Pro-Kremlin historians claimed, in opposition to all proof, that the our bodies embody many Soviet troopers killed by Finnish fascists.
Lithuania, dragooned into the Soviet Union in 1940, was the primary Soviet Republic to declare independence from Moscow, setting an instance in March 1990 that was later adopted by Ukraine and 13 others.
For Mr. Putin, that course of, which resulted within the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
Lithuania’s efforts to carry accountable those that took half within the 1991 killings in Vilnius started with a trial in 1996 of six Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Soviet navy.
The case expanded quickly after a 2010 change in Lithuanian legislation to permit defendants to be tried in absentia. That opened the way in which for scores of former Soviet navy and Ok.G.B. officers sheltering in Russia to be charged and judged by a Lithuanian court docket.
Of the 67 defendants convicted in 2019 by Ms. Maceviciene and fellow judges, solely two appeared within the dock: Yuri Mel, a Russian tank commander; and Gennady Ivanov, one other Russian officer within the Soviet navy.
The others, together with the previous Soviet protection minister Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, have been discovered responsible in absentia of utilizing “military acts against civilians prohibited by international humanitarian law” and sentenced to years in jail. Marshal Yazov died in Moscow just a few months later aged 95.
Vilmantas Vitkauskas, director of the National Crisis Management Center in Lithuania, mentioned that Moscow had no actual expectation of getting its fingers on Lithuanian judges and prosecutors and was engaged in a “psychological operation aimed at spreading fear and caution” to discourage others from making an attempt to carry Russian residents to account.
Among these Russia needs to frighten off, he mentioned, are Lithuanian prosecutors and law enforcement officials energetic in worldwide investigations into battle crimes in Ukraine. “They are sending a signal: Don’t mess with Russia,” he mentioned.
Russia has additionally opened felony instances in opposition to three judges and the chief prosecutor in The Hague concerned within the case in opposition to Mr. Putin.
For Lithuania, a Baltic nation that shares a border with the Russian area of Kaliningrad, getting the info straight about 1991 is a matter not solely of defending the nation’s origin story of heroic, peaceable resistance but in addition of nationwide safety.
Like different previously Soviet lands, Lithuania has at all times had just a few residents who lament the top of Moscow’s rule. But the battle in Ukraine has turned what was once seen as a principally innocent fringe right into a supply of great concern.
Russia’s full-scale invasion, justified on the pretext that Moscow had an obligation to guard Ukrainians from fascism, has stoked deep alarm in Baltic States that pro-Kremlin teams, regardless of how small, might name for assist from Moscow. That is what occurred in 1991 when a so-called Citizens’ Committee, made up of Soviet loyalists in Lithuania, pleaded for Moscow to intervene to crush “fascists” pushing for independence.
A Vilnius court docket final 12 months ordered the liquidation on safety grounds of the Good Neighbors Forum, a tiny grouping of principally leftist activists searching for good relations with Moscow and the departure of NATO troops.
Erika Svencioniene, a member of the discussion board, was charged in December with endangering nationwide safety by “helping Russia and Belarus and their organizations to act against the Republic of Lithuania.” In an interview in her hometown, Jieznas, in southern Lithuania, she denied working in opposition to her nation and accused the West of luring it into useless confrontation with Russia.
“We were given Western sweets but they turned out to be very bitter,” Ms. Svencioniene mentioned. “I know there is no democracy in my country,” she added.
Algirdas Paleckis, co-founder of the discussion board, is a former leftist member of Parliament whose grandfather served because the puppet chief of Soviet-occupied Lithuania within the Nineteen Forties.
Before being discovered responsible in 2021 of spying for Russia, the grandson was on the forefront of a Russia-orchestrated marketing campaign to disclaim that Soviet navy personnel have been chargeable for the 1991 bloodshed. He insisted that Lithuanian nationalists had secretly despatched snipers to the tv tower to shoot their very own supporters.
As Mr. Putin took an more and more authoritarian and nationalistic flip over the previous decade, Moscow moved past defensive denials and went on the offensive, with Russia’s intelligence service amassing confidential details about Lithuanian prosecutors and judges concerned within the tv tower case.
Among its helpers on the bottom was Mr. Paleckis, who was jailed for 5 and a half years for espionage after he was discovered to have collected data on the behest of Russian intelligence about the place prosecutors lived and different private information. He denied working for Russia and mentioned that he had been amassing data for a ebook.
Simonas Slapsinskas, one of many prosecutors focused by Russian intelligence, mentioned that he was unnerved by an announcement in September by the Russian news company Tass that he was needed by Moscow to face felony fees over his “persecution” of these concerned in storming the tv tower.
He has stopped touring overseas, he mentioned, and confined household holidays to the territory of Lithuania. “The whole family has had to restrict its movements,” he mentioned.
Ms. Maceviciene, the retired decide, has additionally curtailed her travels.
She mentioned she was dismayed that Russia would attempt to overturn well-established info. Of her personal place as a goal for Russian revenge, she added, “I don’t know whether to cry or be proud.”
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting.