by Connor Wahrman
On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite announced plans to reinstate limited military conscription in her country. This move would reverse Lithuania’s 2008 decision to end the draft and rely solely on its professional army. Conscription is estimated to include between 3,000 and 3,500 men every year for the next five years. Although the draft requires approval from Lithuania’s parliament, its proposal by President Grybauskaite is indicative of the fraught security situation in Eastern Europe.
Lithuania—along with Estonia and Latvia—is one of the Baltic States, which have been increasingly concerned over recent Russian interference in neighboring Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. Like Crimea and Ukraine, the Baltic States are former territories of the Soviet Union and worry they might be next in Moscow’s shortlist of targets. As Putin has framed the recent impingements of Ukrainian sovereignty as protecting ethnic Russians, the Baltic States fear Russia might take action vis-à-vis their own Russian minorities. These concerns have been made tangible by last September’s detainment of an Estonian security official by Russia, as well as last December’s military drills in the neighboring Russian province of Kaliningrad.
Lithuania is not alone in responding to this potential threat. For example, since the Crimean crisis in March 2014, Latvia has increased its professional military from 2,000 to 8,000 soldiers. Since all three Baltic States have been members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 2004, the alliance has stepped up its regional activity as well, increasing the number of fighter planes patrolling the region and intensifying military drills. NATO has also agreed to set up command centers in the Baltic States and coordinate local militaries in rapid-response teams. Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine had also agreed to form plans for military cooperation against possible Russian action back in Sept. 2014.
At this point the only viable strategy for the Baltic States is to deter Russia by increasing the potential costs of aggression. Even though these states are part of NATO, they cannot rely on the United States for full military support, given the superpower’s current focus on the so-called Islamic State. Also, it is unlikely the U.S. would be willing to commit to protracted military engagement, which here would mean direct war with Russia. Additionally, the three states shouldn’t think they are enough of a security linchpin for the U.S. to credibly threaten global annihilation through nuclear war. The only strategic asset the Baltic States really have, then, is regional cooperation.
In the end, though, that will probably be enough. As opposed to Ukraine, which was internally divided over whether to associate with eastern Russia or the Western European Union, the Baltic States are decidedly in the West’s camp, already members of both the E.U. and NATO. Also, their Russian populations are markedly less demographically significant than Ukraine’s, giving Putin less of an incentive—and less of a justification—to interfere in their region. Furthermore, it isn’t clear if Russian movements last December in Kaliningrad were meant to prepare for an offensive or, instead, to warn against any NATO attempt to intervene in Ukraine.
Even if Putin decided to intervene in the Baltic States, NATO would be prepared for any moves Russia begins to make. The Russian military cannot expect to make the same moves it did in Ukraine, as Putin no longer has the element of surprise. Any Russian forward engagement, then, would be much more costly. International responses would also be much harsher than they would be for Ukraine. Finally, as there are no effective Russian allies in the Baltic States, Putin will be unable to rally domestic support. As such, although it is wise for Lithuania to increase its defensive capabilities, the newly conscripted soldiers should be glad to know that although they have sacrificed their time, they won’t have to sacrifice their lives.