Lithuania plans to restore compulsory military service for young men amid mounting fears of Russian assertiveness in the Baltic region.
President Dalia Grybauskaite said Tuesday the measure was necessary because of "growing aggression" in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels have claimed a huge swath of territory over the past 11 months.
"Today's geopolitical environment requires us to strengthen the Army, and do it as fast as possible," Ms. Grybauskaite said after a meeting of her defense council, according to Reuters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s endgame for Ukraine remains anyone’s guess. While one possibility is ultimately a Russian-controlled region in the country’s east, the big concern for NATO is the prospect of Russia actively attempting to destabilize a member country like Lithuania.
Under NATO's Article 5, an attack on any member is considered an attack on all members. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s previous secretary-general, said in January that there was a “high probability” Mr. Putin would test the article, though “he will be defeated” if he does.
Experts warn that if the Kremlin wants to further prod the West, Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors – Latvia and Estonia – could be of particular interest. The three countries were occupied for five decades by the Soviet Union before regaining independence in 1991, and Latvia and Estonia have large Russian-speaking minorities.
“The Baltic states have, since regaining independence always considered Russia to be the major existential threat to their independence,” Martin Hurt, deputy director at Estonia’s International Centre for Defense and Security, told Newsweek. “This is the logic result of our historic experience. Thus, our armed forces have had to assume that the most likely enemy they will have to face is Russia and its armed forces.”
Snap Russian military exercises close to NATO’s northern and eastern borders have put the Baltic countries on heightened alert for most of the past year. So too has an uptick in the number of close encounters with Russian aircraft. As the Economist reports:
Last year NATO planes carried out more than 400 intercepts of Russian aircraft. More than 150 were by the alliance’s beefed-up Baltic air-policing mission – four times as many as in 2013. In the first nine months of the year, 68 “hot” identifications and interdictions occurred along the Lithuanian border alone. Latvia recorded more than 150 incidents of Russian planes entering its airspace.
Lithuania’s proximity to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad makes it especially vulnerable. The BBC reports that Russia carried out a military drill there in December that featured 9,000 soldiers and more than 55 naval vessels.
Gen. Jonas Vytautas, Lithuania’s defense chief, said a lack of ready soldiers posed a "real threat" to national security, The Associated Press reports.
Having abolished conscription in 2008, the country plans to reinstate it for five years starting in September. Each year the military will enlist up to 3,500 men, ages 19 to 26, who will serve for nine months. Lithuania's parliament still needs to approve the plan.
Lithuania currently has 15,000 troops, down from the nearly 39,000 it had before joining NATO in 2004, AP reports.
Ukraine is the only other country to have reestablished compulsory military service in response to the growing threat posed by Russia. Most NATO members have phased out conscription in recent decades, including Latvia in 2006.
Latvia's defense minister has suggested increasing its Army numbers by 2,000 to 7,000 men, but there are no plans to introduce the draft. As for Estonia, it still requires young men to serve for eight or 11 months. It's also one of only five NATO members whose defense budget exceeds 2 percent of GDP, the target set by NATO member nations, according to Mr. Hurt.