By Beata Patasova
I still remember the two weeks spent in the Lithuanian Military Academy as part of the university exchange programme. I also remember the ill-fitting military uniform, worn-out boots as well as the curious and slightly confused fellow students eager to taste the military lifestyle. What I do not recall is being overwhelmed with a feeling of love for my country. I consider myself a patriot and a loyal citizen; however, wearing a military uniform did not contribute to that. I volunteered to participate in the exchange programme with the Military Academy and indeed enjoyed my two-week-long experience as a cadet. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how nine months torn out of civilian life and involuntarily spent in the barracks could make me or any other Lithuanian feel proud of her or his nation and physically as well as morally ready to defend it.
In late February the Lithuanian National Defense Council proposed the reintroduction of compulsory military service for men between ages of 19 and 26. The decision is motivated by the changed geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe and calls for conscription to be reinstated for five years during which 16 000 soldiers will join the military reserve. Each year about 3 500 men will be called for a nine-month-long military training.
Nine months is an arbitrary period. It is just enough to deliver a baby that for a while will not be able to walk, talk or do many other things on its own. In a similar fashion, nine months are apparently supposed to be sufficient enough to train a soldier capable of carrying a gun and killing a person – when it truly is not. The Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated that when it comes to fighting separatists, conscripts that received superficial military training are hardly the most effective force. On the other hand, highly trained professional military could achieve far better results.
Currently, none of the Lithuanian military battalions are fully filled. Conscription would help complete the battalions, but it cannot guarantee a capable and effective military force. It is more likely that the decision to bring back the military draft will instead deteriorate Lithuanian armed forces. The calculation should be simple: more soldiers require more equipment and infrastructure. However, enlistment will be financed from the existing defense budget with no additional funding designated for the facilitation of the process. Thus, it is clear that the Ministry of Defense will reallocate its own resources to call and train conscripts, which means inevitable cuts of spending on equipment, professional forces, command and control.
Ironically enough, the Ministry of Defense is currently led by the same Minister, Juozas Olekas, who was in office in 2008 when Lithuania decided to abandon conscription. Olekas, a very active supporter of professional military seven years ago, currently advocates for so-called mixed military forces composed of both conscripts and professional soldiers. There is no doubt that the security situation in the region has changed considerably during the past year and that the government has to take action to deter the Russian threat and signal NATO Allies its commitment to bear its share of the burden. Former Minister of Defense Rasa Juknevičienė argues that the reintroduction of conscription is an effective deterrent against Russia, as it demonstrates that Lithuanian society is prepared to defend the country.
On the other hand, the reinstatement of military draft sends a worrisome signal: Lithuania does not believe that NATO and its Spearhead Force introduced at the Wales Summit are capable of providing a timely response to the crisis. Once implemented, the Spearhead Force will be ready to be deployed to the territory of any Ally on a very short notice. However, the reintroduction of conscription shows that Lithuania is not convinced that the Spearhead Force will be rapid enough to respond, and national military might need to hold the line before the Allied forces are deployed. If anything, the reintroduction of the military draft signals the lack of trust among NATO members. Moreover, the Alliance’s image could be further damaged if Latvia follows the example of its neighbor. The emphasis on individual defense efforts that do not contribute to the collective defense and burden-sharing (conscripts cannot be deployed on NATO missions and operations) will not deter Russia, but would demonstrate the lack of unity and trust in the Alliance.
On 19 March the Lithuanian Parliament decided to reinstate conscription with only three parliamentarians voting against. Such overwhelming support demonstrates that the government knows it has to react to the changing geopolitical environment; however, its reaction is desperate, inappropriate and thoughtless. Compulsory enlistment brings about unrealistic goals and will not deter Russia.Featured Image Credit: chengang1029, Flickr CC. License available here.