NewsLithuania reinstates conscription amid growing Russian threat

Lithuania reinstates conscription amid growing Russian threat

Entire age groups to conscription. The draft returns in Lithuania
Entire age groups to conscription. The draft returns in Lithuania
Images source: © East News | PETRAS MALUKAS
Mateusz Czmiel

26 June 2024 12:18

Lithuania aims to redirect entire annual cohorts to military commissions and again summon young people to serve in the army. This Baltic republic sees it as a logical response to Russia's war with Ukraine.

Maksym from Vilnius will soon turn 22. He is a Lithuanian citizen from a Russian-speaking family. Last year, he was called up for nine months of military service.

Universal conscription is back in favour

– We had a guy in our unit who took a shower at most every other day – which was in the summer. Can you imagine the stench?! I showered even twice a day. After a few weeks, together with the commander, we reprimanded him – recalls Maksym. During his service, he met people he probably would never have encountered outside the army. His infantry brigade was stationed in Tauragė – a town in southwestern Lithuania near the border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Many Lithuanian citizens aged 18 to 22 could have similar experiences in two years. The decision passed by the Lithuanian parliament – Seimas – on 13 June to restore universal conscription was unsurprising. The debate on this topic began in February 2022, immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine. Four years after joining NATO in 2008, Lithuania abolished compulsory military service and transitioned to a professional army.

Draft by lottery

However, after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, Lithuania was the first country in Europe in 2015 to essentially reinstate compulsory military service. Only those who, by chance, ended up on a computer-generated list had to supplement the army ranks. This was the case with Maksym. The new parliamentary resolution maintains the nine-month service duration but extends alternative service from ten months to a year. In the future, it will be impossible to study at a university without prior military service. The first cohorts are expected to report to military commissions in 2025, and drafts will occur in 2026.

Many people in Lithuania fear that Russia may attack the Baltic states after Ukraine. Due to these concerns, NATO wants to strengthen its eastern flank. For this purpose, a Bundeswehr brigade is to be stationed in Lithuania. Consequently, Lithuania's entire defence policy has been reviewed. Universal compulsory military service is now to demonstrate to NATO allies that the country's political leadership takes the defence of its territory and sovereignty seriously.

Lithuania regularly spends over two percent of its gross domestic product on defence, thus meeting NATO requirements. Nevertheless, the country, currently with only 18,000 professional soldiers, is considered a military dwarf.

A new political-military reality

A few years ago, some of our politicians declared that NATO would always protect us. As a small country, it was assumed that Lithuania could forgo significant investments in defence – recalls Vaidotas Malinionis, chairman of the Association of Retired Lithuanian Officers. – He emphasises that everything has changed today, as evidenced by the decision to restore universal compulsory military service.

According to him, the Lithuanian parliament's resolution will be fully implemented by 2028: – Further investments in infrastructure are necessary, including the construction of barracks. But it's more a matter of time than political will – adds Malinionis, a retired colonel. Lithuania still relies on NATO's assistance. A combat brigade of the Alliance, based on the Bundeswehr, is to be permanently stationed in the country. The brigade's soldiers regularly participate in manoeuvres with units of other allies, which are only temporarily stationed there.

– When the call to the army came, I did not want to serve at all. But today I realise that the army has changed me. I am more responsible and organised, I communicate better with people and understand them better – says Maksym. His mother, 47-year-old Irina, adds: – It may sound strange, but since serving in the army, my son is kinder and appreciates his family more. The time he was away from home, although short, I had an effect. Irina supports compulsory military service: – It's good for the country, and the boys become more mature.

Problems with fitness for military service

43-year-old Valentinas, the father of a son who will soon be subject to military service, views it differently. – I was a contract soldier in the communications units for four years. If a real war were to break out, nine months of drills, shooting, and grenade throwing would not be enough to stop a real enemy. The full burden of the fight will have to be borne by professional soldiers, not these boys – he says.

Valentinas believes it would be better if young men completed courses in volunteer formations, from which personnel for civilian defence, patrols, and police support in case of martial law are to be recruited in Lithuania. He thinks the army is not prepared for the new problems of the present time: – Many children sit in front of a computer and live in a virtual world. Moreover, many children are physically underdeveloped and sometimes also ill. Finally, many students today have no idea what responsibilities mean.

Retired Colonel Malinionis from the officers' association also acknowledges problems with the fitness of conscripts for military service. However, he does not consider the situation critical: – Up to 50 per cent of conscripts are now deemed unfit for military service. But firstly, some of these criteria are outdated and should be changed. Secondly, fans of computer games do not have to run around the forest with a machine gun. The most capable of them should deal with communications, cyber warfare, and drones. The requirements for fitness for service are not as stringent in these areas. Malinionis believes that in this way, the percentage of conscripts considered unfit for service in the modern Lithuanian army could be significantly reduced.

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