In 2015, with the security environment on NATO‘s eastern frontiers deteriorating as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Lithuania made a rather sudden and dramatic decision to resume the mandatory military draft and thus return to the two-tier (mixed conscript and contract military personnel) force format for the Lithuanian Armed Forces. Hailed as a sign of the state and society finally rising to meet the potential of Russia’s military challenge, this decision went against a well-established post-Cold War trend in Europe and drew the attention of those studying the factors behind the defence policy decision to change the format of the armed forces.
This article aims to explore the drivers – and also inhibitors – of Lithuania’s decision, mainly from the perspective of defence policymaking and societal debate. It gives an overview of the overall trend in Europe and establishes how Lithuania’s decision to suspend conscription in 2008 aligned with it. The article goes on to more closely examine the consequences and problems created by this change in Lithuania, followed by a closer look at how the country arrived at the decision to reinstate conscription and how society responded. It closes with an attempt to draw some more conceptual lessons from this interesting case, which still stands as one of very few contemporary examples – some others being Georgia and, more recently, Sweden – of bringing society back into a tight embrace with defence, and vice versa.
The end of the Cold War brought a “peace dividend” to the West, which included, among many other aspects, the decline of conscription. During the Cold War, the military draft was ended in only two nations – the UK and USA. During the 1990s and 2000s, the trend clearly accelerated, with much of the EU and NATO adopting an all-volunteer force (AVF) format, or a format that relies mostly on full-time professionals, with the addition of reservists, defence civilians and private sector contractors. By the mid-2010s, only stalwarts like Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Norway and Turkey continued to practice some form of conscription among NATO and EU members (as well as Israel and Switzerland outside NATO and the EU). Even there, with some exceptions, the duration of service, the ratio of the conscripted force in the total military personnel and other indicators were nowhere close to those of the Cold War era.
This collapse of conscription occurred as a result of a combination of factors. First, of course, was the change in the geopolitical situation which removed the threat of a massive military conflict in the European continent. Such a conflict would have required large amounts of military manpower, and conscription was the only means to deliver it. Parallel to this, a new focus of NATO and the EU on peace support, crisis management and expeditionary “out-of-area” operations emerged. The prevailing military consensus was that within the short period of time allocated to their mandatory service, conscripts could not be properly trained in all the intricacies and subtleties of being a “constabulary military.” Similarly, the growing technological sophistication of the armed forces meant that it took considerable time to learn how to introduce, maintain and operate very complex and expensive weapon systems. Again, conscripted manpower came to be seen as not fully fit for purpose in this regard.
Political decision-makers also came to view conscription as a risk in such operations: the phenomenon of a “strategic corporal” meant that the politics of conflict management and the skills of individual soldiers to handle complex situations became closely intertwined. Young and inexperienced conscripts could not be depended upon to produce the required political and military outcome – supposedly a job that only professionals could handle. Thus, the value of conscription as an instrument in delivering effective military force became rather questionable. The functionalist school of thought did not waver in handing down a verdict that in a new political, strategic, military and technological context, conscription had to go. And so, it withered away.
It is quite notable that the trend spread from the West eastwards, which can be understood from the perspective of the so-called “alliance socialization.” As NATO became obsessed with “out-of-area” operations and many of its members chose the AVF format, the newer allies started accepting this as a standard, or at least as an indicator showing that they have adopted the same “strategic lenses” and thus become fully integrated. In many cases, this did not represent any deep strategic thought or analysis but was rather an expression of “strategic mimicry” in order to be better accepted and fit in with the rest. This particular trend which emerged throughout the 2000s is yet to be thoroughly researched and understood, but it seems to have played a significant role in the decision-making of many newer members of NATO.
However, the functionalists could not explain why conscription survived in places such as Finland, Estonia, Austria, Denmark or, for that matter, Germany until 2011. This is mainly because they also overlooked the other set of factors which led to its decline across the rest of Europe – various societal trends and resulting attitudes. As a result of the end of the Cold War, several subsequent generations developed in relatively “threat-free” and “warless,” or in Martin Shaw’s term, “post-military” societies. These societies were characterized by declining nationalism, rising diversity and consumerism, the elevation of individual self-fulfilment, critical thinking and creativity as well as an aversion to what is often termed “military values” such as discipline, collectivism, uniformity, austerity and unquestioning obedience to a higher authority. Members of such societies found it increasingly hard to stomach the need to spend part of their productive lives in organisations – armed forces – the nature of which was seen as too different, even alien to the rest of the society.
Furthermore, legal coercion by the state to serve in the military encountered the serious problem of societal legitimacy in a relatively benign security environment. First, it is one thing for the state to demand sacrifice for homeland defence against a clear, present and overwhelming threat of conventional military aggression, it is quite another for it to insist on supplying military manpower to pursue ambiguous, complex and often contested interventionist political and security agendas in distant theatres of operations. Second, the ever-shrinking size of the armed forces meant that the required number of conscripts was also decreasing. Universal in theory, mandatory military draft became very selective in practice, raising questions about the equal treatment and fair distribution of the burden. The “post-military society” and an accompanying implosion of societal legitimacy of the coercive military draft became one of the key drivers that eroded conscription as an institution.
Conversely, and again with some exceptions, conscription standing out as a societal institution rather than just as a military instrument was the main reason why it endured even in some “warless” societies. In such countries, military service was a long-standing tradition which commanded a high degree of respect and proved its societal utility as a vehicle for the integration of different groups, nation-building, social mobility and society’s involvement in military affairs to exercise democratic control. Even then, however, governments found it necessary to adapt conscription to the way society thinks about itself and its relationship to the state. In Norway, for instance, it became mandatory for female citizens. In Denmark, its duration was shortened to an absolute minimum so that it was not regarded as a waste of time, and a principle of lottery in selection was applied to avoid charges of bias in selectively drafting conscripts.
The appeal of conscription as an institution to the older generation did not prevent Sweden from abolishing it from 2010: both a steady erosion of the social compact underpinning it, or värnplikt, and a strong instrumental reasoning due to the focus on expeditionary operations provided enough political ground to suspend it. Yet, in countries such as Estonia or Finland, lingering concerns about the possible resurgence of Russia and a broad societal support to conscription as an institution sustained military draft. It is necessary to combine the functionalist and institutionalist pictures in order to see a full set of factors which lead to the decisions to abolish, sustain or reinstate the military draft. While one set of arguments – either functionalist or institutionalist – might be sufficiently pressing to move in one direction or another, without understanding and addressing the second set of arguments might put into question the sustainability of the chosen format of the armed forces in the long-term. This is a lesson that Lithuania has been, and is still, learning from in its transition back to two- tier (a mix of professionals and conscripts) force format.
The debate on conscription’s military utility and societal legitimacy began in Lithuania in the early 2000s or so. Some political parties – mostly centre-right liberals – advocated for the abolition of the military draft on ideological grounds. Their arguments focused on conscription as unacceptable coercion against free citizens of a free society. Military advice on the issue was rather muted, although some discussions in military-academic circles did take place. In 2003, for instance, the Lithuanian Military Academy hosted an international conference focusing on the issue. In private, some military commanders were more candid: one battalion commander acknowledged to the author of this article that he preferred working with full-time professionals since they were far more motivated to do a good job. “Conscripts only care about showing up on time at the right place, but do not care about performing what they actually do,” he complained. Some senior military officials also privately echoed this sentiment in the context of defence acquisition: one of those officials promised in a conversation with this author that after Lithuania took the first delivery of “Javelin” anti-tank systems in 2004, he would not let conscripts anywhere near these new expensive weapons. Both of these episodes reveal that officers at different levels had certain expectations regarding the professionalism – knowledge, skills, attitude, behaviours – of their troops but did not consider that conscription was delivering upon them well enough.
It is also important that Lithuania, in its drive to integrate into NATO, wholeheartedly embraced the Alliance’s “out-of-area” posture, which also included targets for a pool of deployable and sustainable national forces, or the so-called Istanbul Capabilities Initiative and Prague Capability Commitment. Inevitably, the AVF format, which was a prevalent force format across the Alliance, became the unofficial standard to aspire to. This was reinforced by the comments of various senior NATO officials: for instance, the then Chairman of Military Committee Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, during his visit to Vilnius in 2009, supported Lithuania’s decision to suspend conscription on the grounds that it made the country better prepared to contribute to the Alliance’s “power projection” to combat terrorism and other non-conventional threats globally.
However, “strategic mimicry” aside, practical military and broader societal considerations flowing from the “out-of-area” posture also played a role. Lithuania – a veteran of peace support operations in the Balkans during the 1990s – also became an active contributor to the campaign in Afghanistan as well as to the US-led Second Gulf War and occupation of Iraq. Eventually, this produced a decision in 2005 to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan, which increased the operational and personnel tempo and put high pressure on the armed forces to keep generating sufficient numbers of well-trained and equipped troops. Mandatory military draft, with its short service period, administrative burden and propensity to tie up precious human resources – both sergeants and non-commissioned officers – became a drag on the ability of the armed forces to focus on such operations. There was also lack of popular support for deploying conscripts to the dangerous theatres of operations – especially Afghanistan, with the echoes of the terrible human cost suffered by many young Lithuanian men forced into the Soviet army and then deployed to that country as part of the Soviet invasion and occupation forces during the 1980s.
Thus, by the time of parliamentary elections in 2008, Lithuania appeared to be ripe for abandoning conscription, even though there had been no extensive political or societal debate or any publicly visible push from the military. It is hardly surprising then that the social-democrats, a centre- left party leading the governing coalition at the time, sought to capitalize on the underlying sentiment. Just before the parliamentary elections, Defence Minister Juozas Olekas issued a decree suspending conscription and thereby switching the Lithuanian Armed Forces to the AVF format. Even the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 did not make the political decision-makers pause and consider the strategic and military implications of what is often termed “a wake-up call” to Europe about Russia’s grand strategic designs in its neighbourhood.
The decision did not deliver electoral victory to the social-democrats. Yet, in the subsequent parliamentary term of 2008-2012, the new coalition led by the conservatives did next to nothing to reverse it. Instead, various modest measures were introduced to mitigate some of the more immediate consequences overlooked by the social-democrats – namely that, with conscription suspended, the military lost its easiest way to access the labour market and recruit new soldiers to the ranks of full- time professionals. One of such measures created a 12-week long basic military training course – an entry course for the new voluntary recruits, which gave lip service to the duty of military service still inscribed in the constitution.10 It provided a vehicle for the voluntary performance of duty and, upon completion, for joining the armed forces as a full-time private or as a reservist. In this regard, while having some very limited functional utility, this kind of “pseudo-conscription” represented a tacit acknowledgement by the conservative-led coalition government that the societal and political conditions for reinstating universal obligatory military service simply did not exist.
Such measures, however, proved too little and too late to sustain the required troop levels in the armed forces. They could not overcome the woeful lack of preparation for a switch to a new format and the dearth of financial resources in the midst of the “global recession,” when the defence budget was below 1% of GDP. The resources and capabilities necessary for the promotion of the military profession and recruitment, training and retention of qualified personnel were not available, and therefore the suspension of conscription laid the ground for a massive problem a few years down the road. The Lithuanian Armed Forces, starved of finances and denied their privileged access to the labour market through conscription as a recruitment tool, began encountering severe shortages of personnel at the lower ranks – especially privates, but also sergeants and NCOs. By the end of 2014, even the most capable land force units were only 70% manned and those of lesser priority had dropped to around 25%.
It would not have mattered in the short or even medium-term if Lithuania’s security environment remained benign, but this had not been the case since Russia-Georgia war and, particularly, since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The poor state of the Lithuanian Armed Forces was increasingly out of tune with the country’s effort to mobilise its NATO Allies to confront the security challenge posed by Moscow, an issue that clearly required some political intervention to rectify the situation domestically.
In Lithuania, which is a parliamentary republic, the ultimate authority to settle key issues of defence, such as authorising staffing levels and approving the defence budget, rests with the parliament, Seimas. However, the executive branch – the government and the president – wields significant power in shaping Lithuania’s defence policy. After all, it is the president who, together with the government, implements the nation’s foreign and security policy. The president is the commander-in-chief who, upon submission of the defence minister, appoints and dismisses Commander of the Armed Forces (chief of defence) and also convenes and chairs the State Defence Council, a constitutional body comprised of the speaker of Seimas, prime minister, defence minister and chief of defence. The role of the council is to deliberate and coordinate national defence issues, effectively making it a key format where consensus between the legislative and executive branches can be built and sustained.
The above is the legal framework flowing from the constitution and laws governing national defence, while in practice much depends on the alignment of personalities and circumstances in a particular period of time. More often than not, the defence minister is a principal agent of change, who sometimes can ride roughshod over the due strategic analysis, consensus-building or even lengthy parliamentary deliberation if he or she desires to enact smaller or bigger changes in the defence organisation. This was amply demonstrated by the decision to abolish conscription in 2008, which did not encounter much opposition from either the parliament or the president, nor was it subject to any extensive public or parliamentary debate. The ministerial political will, supported by senior military advice at the time, prevailed. Coincidentally, the very same defence minister, Juozas Olekas, after a stint on the opposition benches, was in charge again in 2014, when the security situation was calling for serious homework to reinforce national defence. This time, however, the inter-institutional and political dynamics were aligned against his desire to continue the all-volunteer format of the armed forces.
The genesis of the decision to revert back to conscription is simple: in early 2015, President Dalia Grybauskaitė summoned the Commander of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Jonas Vytautas Žukas, to discuss the situation within and the needs of the military. The most senior military official of the nation gave a frank and honest picture about the consequences of financial austerity – earlier supported by President Grybauskaitė herself who claimed that the defence funding at that time was perfectly sufficient in 2008-2009 – and subsequent manning issues, which prompted the president’s enquiry into what could be done to resolve those issues. According to the officials interviewed by this author, the chief of defence mentioned the resumption of conscription in order to replenish the depleted manpower reserves and the ranks of active duty personnel, among various possible solutions. Never to miss a good opportunity to seize political initiative and appear decisive, President Grybauskaitė immediately announced the intent to reinstate conscription, which caught everyone – including the defence minister and the chief of defence himself off guard.
Shortly after the initial announcement, the president convened the State Defence Council which, in a meeting that lasted less than an hour, approved the initiative to go ahead with a temporary reinstatement of compulsory military draft to last five or six years. The defence minister appeared totally isolated and, according to interviewed officials, even offered to tender his resignation in case he wished to oppose this initiative (he had not, although he remained sceptical, even in public). In the matter of a few months, a raft of legislative measures to modify the laws governing mandatory military service was passed through the Seimas. In a pivotal vote – in which 112 out of the 141 members of the Seimas cast their votes in favour, 3 against and 5 abstained – the parliament established that all male citizens in the age cohort of 19-26 years were, once again, obliged to do mandatory military service lasting 9 months. During the preceding debate, only some members of the Seimas voiced their reservations that conscription did not really suit the needs of modern armed forces and that it could be too disruptive to society.
The option that quickly became the solution evidently derived from functionalist thinking about the change of armed forces format: the nature of the threat and the needs of the armed forces became its primary drivers. In addition, two important contextual factors specific to the time of the decision played a significant role in determining its scope and speed. One was the importance of sending a strong signal to the NATO Allies that Lithuania took its own defence seriously. A monumental decision like reinstating conscription, combined with the dramatic hike in defence spending in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, served to convey the sense of a nation mobilizing itself to confront an existential threat and thus not only a security consumer within NATO. Another factor was Russia’s potential ability to interfere in getting the decision to its final form and to the implementation stage. Russia’s hostile propaganda and political influence-peddling campaign to discredit and possibly halt the change was almost inevitable. The speedy process to enact the decision – even at the expense of a deeper analysis, preparation and strategic communication – was essential in preventing the effects of such a campaign on public opinion and the emergent political consensus. The significance of public opinion and the readiness of society to accept the change in the armed forces’ format thus, once again, reasserted the importance of the societal imperatives in implementing those changes. Conscription had to be returned as an institution, not merely as a functional instrument.
It is understandable that the sudden public announcement of the intent to resume conscription had all the ingredients of a shock to the public. The defence ministry itself was left scrambling to explain the modalities and implications, with little more for reference than just a set of dated laws which have not been applied for six years. To a certain degree, the decision captured the mood of resurgent patriotism and voluntarism in the country, as the paramilitary Riflemen Union and National Defence Volunteer Forces (part of the Lithuanian Armed Forces) witnessed a significant upsurge of membership in the wake of Crimea‘s annexation. On the other hand, the “public square” of debate became steadily filled with voices raising serious objections to the decision.
Naturally, the arguments put forward in public debate against switching back to conscription represented the “post-military” segments of the society rather than those deeply affected by Russia’s military threat. The arguments could be clustered into the following:
- The move represented an illegitimate act of state coercion in relation to the citizens who already fulfilled their duty by paying taxes. (There was also a corollary argument specific to Lithuania: that the state was not giving back enough for those taxes anyway, so it could not demand more from its citizens either).
- Conscription would severely impair economic opportunities for those drafted into the military, as this would delay career and/ or educational advancement or deprive them of work-related income.
- Conscription forces young people into a culturally alien military environment which is harmful to their self-fulfilment (one of the most vivid examples capturing this mood was a photographic art project portraying young men crying about being drafted into the military).
- Conscription would reinforce societal inequality as it would only target those who could not evade it or who did not hold some privileged positions in the society.
- Conscription was futile when faced with a far more numerically superior adversary, so conscripts would become just a “cannon fodder” in the event of war. Thus, society should focus on and practice civil disobedience and other non-military means of resistance rather than militarize itself.
Needless to say, many such arguments about “post-military society” drew ire, ridicule and condemnation from more patriotically-minded and threat-conscious circles of the society. From this side of the debate let us call it the “military society” – reinstatement of conscription was a long-overdue undoing of an unwise choice which left national defence weakened and exposed to the threat of Russia’s military power. However, while they often correctly countered some of the misconceptions about impact or functional utility of conscription, the discussion sometimes swerved towards accusations that opponents of conscription were, willfully or not, acting as Russia’s influence agents. In this narrative, abolishing the all-volunteer force format was the only right course of action, and anyone opposing it – including the defence minister of the time – were consigned in the social media space to the category of “saboteurs.”
In terms of building societal acceptance of the legitimacy of reintroducing conscription, there has been a string of errors that led to further confusion over and criticism of the decision from various parts of the public. At one point in the parliamentary debate, while addressing concerns about the risk to conscripts’ economic opportunities, some members of the Seimas mused that conscription could target the youth from poor and unemployed backgrounds, or at least those who have not yet settled in their lives by starting their careers or studies. While this could have been intended to convey the message that conscription would not delay career advancement and could indeed promote social mobility or act as a gateway to the labour market, such argument did not go down well with those seeing the risk of selective military draft as just reinforcing the socio- economic divide between the “haves” (who could evade it) and “have- nots.”
The male-centric model of the reinstated military draft, whereby it is only mandatory for male citizens of a certain age while remaining voluntary to female citizens, also drew criticism. The notion that only men are suited to be soldiers had been declining steadily, especially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The model of mandatory draft confined to male citizens also stemmed from the obsolete and long-ago discarded view that only men were entitled to full political participation, i.e. citizenship rights and duties such as voting (hence “one man, one vote, one gun”). With the rise of the full-fledged political, economic and societal participation of women, the view of military professions and conscription as male domains, where only occasionally some women were welcome, became unacceptable from the societal legitimacy point of view.
Some countries, such as Estonia and Finland, remain wedded to the conservative model of mandatory military draft only for male citizens. However, Israel, Norway, Sweden (which is in the process of reinstating draft) and Czech Republic (which retains the right to resume mandatory military service) see women as equally liable for military service. In Lithuania, where the current commander-in-chief and the initiator of the resumption of conscription is a woman, and where the constitution is gender-blind when it comes to the citizens’ rights and duties (including to defend the country), the refusal to include all female citizens of the applicable age-cohort in the mandatory call-up lists seems to go against the constitutional framework and principles of gender equality. This line of argument has been picked up by some feminist groups, not to object to the re-introduction of conscription per se, but rather the limited inclusion of women in it as an institution. They insisted on it being made a mandatory duty, not just a right to be exercised voluntarily, an argument that did not find broader political support or military’s endorsement, however.
Another issue of societal perception emerged from the proposals that the mandatory military draft is to be reinstated for a limited period of time (5 years). This could be interpreted in many ways – for instance, as a measure to ease the burden of society’s acceptance and secure political consensus. However, one of the effects was to prompt speculation that this would accelerate the already catastrophic rates of emigration, particularly of the age group liable to do military service. The underlying assumption was that living outside the country would somehow shield citizens from their legal obligation or prevent the government from handing in the call- up notices, and one needed to only evade the draft only for the next few years. It did not help that the then prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius argued that the reinstatement of military draft – temporary or not – was already driving up the emigration rates.16 Eventually, the government realized that the 5-year limit established by parliament when reinstating conscription was unreasonable on very practical grounds: given how much effort and resources had to be put into preparing for the resumption of conscription (e.g. creating system to administer conscription, restoring medical examination commissions, adapting infrastructure, etc.), it was difficult to justify such time constraints. Through later legislative changes, this time limit was abolished, re-establishing conscription indefinitely.
More fundamentally, however, the decision has to be placed in the context of society’s chronic disengagement on defence issues: for years preceding it, there was a lack of profound and continuous public debate as to what sort of defence is necessary for the nation and, consequently, what role society should play in delivering it. At the time of the decision, neither a new iteration of the military strategy, last updated in 2012, nor a new military doctrine were ready and thus could not be used as tools to engage the public in such a debate, while military defence plans which could cast more light on the utility of conscription in a bigger picture of things were classified. Given that the Lithuanian Armed Forces have long been one of the most trusted institutions in Lithuania, this conceptual void in their ability to thoroughly explain the strategic rationale behind the military draft and showing how it fits with all other elements of national defence was not as damaging as it could have been. However, this is not free of risk in a society where there is pervasive scepticism and distrust of the political and administrative elites and which continuously questions their decisions.
The change in the format of the armed forces presented the opportunity to engage society in a deeper, more meaningful and enriching debate about national defence and the need for whole- society approach to it. In the short- term, the chief of defence – whose frequent media appearances and high social media visibility during the transition period went some way to reassure society – could only make a limited impact on the aforementioned societal context. Nevertheless, the decision to reinstate conscription triggered the most significant period of societal reflection by far about the need for, and the value of national defence in general, as well as the role of members of society in it. From high profile celebrities volunteering to do military service or, conversely, criticizing it – and media outlets stepping up their efforts to provide more in-depth coverage, even to art projects, Lithuania’s defence has been more in the public eye than ever before.
Broad societal acceptance was facilitated by a raft of measures to make the conscription process more transparent and increase the attractiveness of mandatory military service:
- The selection of draftees was based on a computerized lottery principle, thus assuaging concerns about any potential bias and/or corruption in the conscription administration system.
- Conditions that could qualify for exemption from or deferment of military service have been reviewed and updated, including those related to the parenting of young children, guardianship or care of dependents (e.g. family members with disabilities), etc.
- A 10-month long alternative civilian service option remained in place to those who could not perform military service due to religious or pacifist considerations, just as under the legal framework of conscription prior to 2008.
- Legal provisions were added providing, with certain conditions, those who performed military service extra points during the competitive tests to enter the civil service or for state-funded student slots at the universities.
- A financial compensation and motivation package was put together for conscripts, which included performance-linked pay-outs upon the completion of their service that also depended on whether a conscript volunteered for the service or was drafted through lottery.
- Issues related to providing good conditions for those serving – down to such mundane but important aspects as establishing vegan options in food catering – were addressed.
As a result, at the higher end, best performing conscripts who volunteered to do the military service could leave it with a one-off payout of close to 1,800 euros, and, at the other end of the range, those with just satisfactory performance and drafted in through lottery would end up receiving close to 700 euros; all this does not include a monthly allowance of 140 euros to every conscript throughout the duration of service. See “Informacija apie šaukimą į privalomąją karo tarnybą” (“Information on Drafting to the Mandatory Military Service”), Karys.lt, http://www.karys. lt/saukimai-duk.html.
he state made financial subsidies available to employers who employ conscripts within 3 months after their completion of military service, or who retain job positions for their employees drafted into the military service until their return to the civilian life.
The effect of such measures, combined with an overall upsurge of patriotic sentiment and increased public relations efforts by the defence organisation, as well as the visibility and positive experience of the first intake of conscripts, meant that there was no need for the state to resort to coercive enforcement of the mandatory military draft. The annual quota of 3,000-3,500 conscripts was fulfilled by those who volunteered to do military service, with about 20% of those completing mandatory service expressing the wish to become full time-professionals. This continues to be the case today (despite some incidents leading to negative publicity), thus defusing the potential for backlash on the basis of arguments that conscription is socially unfair, economically damaging or even illegitimately coercive. Indeed, the current policy succeeds at combining the functional benefits to the military with societal legitimacy and involvement in national defence in a “win-win” situation that was not seen in Lithuania before abolishing conscription in 2008.
Lithuania’s experience in resuming a mandatory military draft showed that securing societal “buy-in” and participation in the defence model requires a significant adaptation of conscription as an institution to contemporary societal realities. This adaptation makes many of its aspects rather indistinguishable from the all-volunteer force format in terms of principles, policies and daily pressures. The defence organization has to address a variety of societal concerns and aspire to align its practices with societal trends in order to maintain legitimacy. It has to reach out, through strong public relations, to explain military service and advertise its benefits. It also has to do its utmost to ensure that military service is a positive and rewarding experience if it is to attract and retain suitable and motivated manpower. Conscription or not, Lithuania’s defence organization quite simply had to become better at managing people and managing societal expectations, and the switch back to conscription provided an opportunity for growth in this regard – an opportunity which, to a certain degree, is being seized and exploited. Compared to Finland or Estonia, where conscripts comprise over a half of the manpower of the standing force, the conscript ratio of the total force structure is and will remain relatively small in Lithuania: even after increasing the numbers to around 4,000-5,000 in 2017-2022, conscripts will constitute just around one quarter of the entire defence manpower in what could be considered “conscription-lite,” similar to Denmark’s system. What the country learns by promoting and motivating voluntary conscription will be as useful in motivating and retaining the rest of the workforce – professionals, active reserve members, defence civilians – and vice versa.
Equally important is that a country needs a coherent and effective strategy that is well-understood and accepted by society and that explains the need for conscription in broader conceptual terms, not just with the narrow focus on force structure manning requirements. A broad, deep and meaningful defence debate elaborating upon the fundamental strategic and political aspects of the relationship between the state, society and the military is a staple of a mature democracy. Yet the quality of Lithuania’s defence debate – despite its greater intensity in the wake of the conscription decision – leaves much to be desired: neither the political elites nor the rest of society understand defence well enough to be able to read the fine print of defence reforms and judge how those reforms align with societal and strategic imperatives in the present and future. When even serving and former defence ministers make statements in public discussions about the modalities of conscription that contradict, or do not accurately reflect, the provisions of the constitution related to defence, one cannot have high expectations about the general public’s degree of knowledge.
During the parliamentary debate, defence minister Juozas Olekas suggested that those doing mandatory military service could still be members of local councils – something which is explicitly prohibited by Article 141 of the Constitution; during a radio talk-show, a former
Conscription as an institution is impaired without a solid understanding of its added value as a functional instrument, just as its functional effectiveness can be undermined by weak institutional foundations. Hostile information campaigns conducted by an adversarial power – in this case Russia – can target both aspects, but these campaigns cannot succeed if there is a clear understanding of a threat, a political and societal consensus regarding a strategy on how to deal with it and an increase in society’s support for that strategy. Lithuania’s success in reinstating conscription and “immunizing” it from Russia’s efforts to undermine its legitimacy show that many of the strategic, societal, political and organisational ingredients necessary for this success were broadly aligned and available in sufficient amounts to make it work. But it was a narrow call, as the success of this decision and its implementation were not guaranteed from the start. Indeed, it could have been stymied by bureaucratic inertia, narrow political interests or a stronger backlash from society.
Herein lies another important lesson of Lithuania’s transition back to conscription – leadership truly matters. The need for political leadership in triggering change, building consensus and removing obstacles, as well as military leadership in preparing the defence organization, explaining military service to the public and handling the inevitable incidents is obvious. Less obvious but just as important has been leadership demonstrated by members of the society from different walks of life – media, academia, the entertainment industry, the business community, the civil service, cultural entities – often leading by example and enlisting voluntarily as conscripts or defence volunteers. This helped to alleviate all those (often misguided) concerns about the possible socio-economic bias in selection, poor service conditions or treatment of conscripts, or the negative impact of the military draft on future economic prospects of the conscripts. When society is not prepared to fully trust and follow the political and administrative elite, the exercise of such broad “grassroots” societal leadership becomes essential.
Going back to the more general explanation of conscription’s decline or defence minister Rasa Juknevičienė insisted that conscription as an obligation only for men was written into the Constitution, which is not the case per gender-neutral Article 139. return, there are several other important takeaways from Lithuania’s case.
First,thecaseitlendsweighttothethesisthataperceivedexistentialmilitary threat to the homeland seems to necessitate and sustain conscription, even regardless of the state’s membership in a collective defence alliance and assured access to far greater generic power resources than a small state can generate itself. Second, many of the arguments about the decline of conscription’s functional utility in a technologically and operationally sophisticated environment can be turned around: it can be shown that the military’s ability to reach a broader skill-base in a small country’s society is functionally beneficial, but this requires careful work by the defence organization to ensure that the military draft entices and properly uses all those who have the motivation, relevant technical skills and abilities to manage such complexity. Third, it is important to demonstrate that the benefits of conscription flow back to society, not only in the form of greater security but also through improvements to the human and social capital of the nation. This capital is formed by imparting new skills and abilities of members of society that are later highly valued in the nation’s economic and public life; by improving socio-economic mobility; by enhancing cohesion, mutual support networks and the collective problem-solving skills of society, and by providing a fresh impetus to “grassroots” leadership development. These are all pillars of national resilience which small nations need in order to prosper in a turbulent and uncertain environment, and both the functionalist and societal schools of thought about conscription omit this paramount aspect from their debate.
Last, but not least, it is obvious from Lithuania’s case that a post- modern, or “post-military” society, and a “military society” can exist simultaneously and side-by-side in the same country. The success of reinstating conscription therefore rests, to a significant degree, on those two societies having a dialogue and seeking compromises rather than engaging in a polarising and divisive conflict. There have been signs of such polarisation in Lithuania, especially at the beginning of the transition back to conscription, with each side labelling and trying to stifle the other. In the end, unity prevailed, but the country’s leadership must tread carefully, so as not to allow the darker and uglier sides of both societies – on the one hand, ignorance to threats, egocentrism, chronic distrust of institutions and the lack of a sense of individual duty and responsibility for the polity, and on the other hand morbid nationalism, militarism and “McCarthysim” – come to dominate the relationship between the state, society and defence in the future. There is currently a budding discussion about expanding conscription to all citizens who reach the age of 19 in Lithuania rather than enlisting just a small portion of the entire age cohort, meaning that the temptation to appeal to and invoke those dark sides will be strong, but the country cannot afford to become polarized on the vital matters of national security and defence.
Will Lithuania’s case inspire others in the region to follow suit? As Pauli Järvenpää noted, conscription seems to be back in vogue in the wider Nordic-Baltic region. With Sweden in the process of reintroducing conscription, there is only Latvia, Poland and Germany in the Baltic area of NATO and the EU who remain convinced that conscription is unnecessary. Germany and Poland are populous and rich enough to be able to attract sufficient numbers of professionals to man their force structures (which are even growing in the case of Poland). However, it remains to be seen whether Latvia’s defence recruitment and personnel management system, the current surge of voluntarism, overall demographic trends and dynamics of the labour market will continue providing enough manpower to satisfy the current and, especially, future military requirements that might emerge if security environment continues deteriorating. Should Latvia deem it necessary to reinstate mandatory military draft at some point, Lithuania’s experience supplies many valuable lessons and insights. However, baring a major military conflict on the continent, Latvia would probably be one of the last countries to switch back to a two-tier force format and resume conscription, faced with the overall preference across the West for an all-volunteer force format.
The original publication was published in the book “Security in the Baltic Sea Region: Realities and Prospects: The Rīga Conference Papers 2017”, eds. Andris Sprūds, Māris Andžāns (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2017), mention pages, link to the publication This project is managed by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, supported by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NATO Public Diplomacy Division, and carried out in cooperation with the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation. The Rīga Conference is co-organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia.