The upcoming Latvian parliamentary vote to reintroduce conscription will bring the country into line with other Baltic and Nordic countries, which (with the exception of Iceland) now have some form of the draft. This not only redefines the social contract between the state and its citizens, it also marks a fundamental change in defense thinking in Latvia and beyond, where the National Armed Forces have been staffed by professional soldiers, assisted by National Guard volunteers and reservists.

Latvia abolished conscription in 2006, after a unanimous vote in parliament. The country had recently joined both NATO and the European Union (EU), and the collective defense clause of NATO’s founding treaty was particularly reassuring. The National Armed Forces were repurposed from territorial defense to serve primarily in international missions and operations, most notably in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

At the same time, Russia, the only credible military threat, appeared to be on fragile, but cooperative, terms with the West. The Kremlin had positioned itself as a partner in the so-called Global War on Terror, and Vladimir Putin had not yet delivered his belligerent 2007 Munich speech. It wasn’t until 2008 that Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s stand-in as president, ordered the war in Georgia.

Apart from the external context, domestic opinion in Latvia was opposed to compulsory service. It had low prestige and suffered from association with the Soviet system, which was notable for the violence inflicted on conscripts. Many young people saw no value in the draft and, where possible, preferred to dodge it.

Russia’s 2014 war against Ukraine rang loud alarm bells about the state of Latvia’s defenses. The armed forces then consisted of only 4,600 soldiers, backed by defense spending of just €221m ($243m), or 0.94 % of GDP. However, the Latvian defense establishment remained committed to a voluntary system, arguing that the financial and logistical burden of conscription would be disproportionate, and the benefit minimal.

While neighboring Lithuania decided to reinstate conscription in 2015, and Estonia never abolished it, Latvia chose no change. Classes on national defense were introduced in schools, along with summer camps for practical skills.

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Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year offered a clear reason to reconsider recruitment, since an attack on Latvia was now easier to imagine. Before the war, a decision to reinstate conscription would have been politically risky, and opinion on the issue was increasingly polarized. Even in May 2022, three months after the invasion, a nationally representative poll found 45% in favor, but 42% opposed to conscription. Support was lower among younger respondents (only 34% in the 18-24 age group) and Russian speakers (38% in favor, compared to 49% among Latvian speakers.)

The case for conscription was bolstered by a lack of new recruits for the armed forces, whose strength is currently around 6,700 personnel. At the beginning of 2022 there were 838 vacancies, and projections based on the slow rate of growth indicated there would be understaffed units as soon as this year. Conscription became the only viable option to ensure numerical strength, but there’s little doubt the political decision to reintroduce it would have been more difficult, and taken longer, without Putin’s invasion.

The plan to reintroduce conscription was first announced by Defense Minister Artis Pabriks in July, and the draft law passed its first reading in parliament in September, shortly before the parliamentary election which saw Pabriks lose his seat. The outgoing parliament could have completed the legislative process, but placed the law on hold due to criticism of its detail and ambiguity in some of its provisions. Critics included the Legal Office of the Parliament and the Ombudsman.

Despite the criticism, including a petition signed by more than 12,000 people asking that service be made voluntary, the Latvian public has been cautiously supportive. Most discussions haven’t focused on the system as a whole but on issues such as why women are not subject to the new structure, the effect on dual citizens and other Latvians living abroad, and the practicalities of implementation.

The reintroduction of conscription, yet to be formally approved by the parliament, will see the first intake in the summer of around 300 volunteer conscripts. Starting in 2024, two annual rounds of mandatory admission will apply to male citizens aged between 18 and 27. Alternatives will include civilian work, service in the National Guard and military training for students. In the first full year of implementation, around 1,000 conscripts will be drafted for 11 months and the number is scheduled to reach 7,500 in five years. The ongoing debates in the parliament might still bring some changes in the conscription model and implementation timeframe.

Making the state defense service a success will be more challenging than passing the legislation. The National Armed Forces will need to adapt, find instructors with specific knowledge and skills, and build new infrastructure to house and train conscripts.

An even harder task will be embedding a new social contract between the state and a society in which mandatory military service has largely faded from collective memory. Notwithstanding the challenges, Latvia has chosen its path and adopted conscription as the only viable road to security. It must be made to work.

Māris Andžāns is the Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga and an associate professor at Rīga Stradiņš University.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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