This year Lithuania will allocate 873 million euros for defence. The sum will be slightly greater than two per cent of the national GDP, thus Lithuania will join the relatively small number of NATO members that are fulfilling their commitment to the alliance. As recently as 2013 Lithuania was a notorious free-rider, spending less than one per cent of GDP on defence, one of the lowest percentages within NATO. In the last five years, defence spending has increased more than three-fold. For many Lithuanian politicians this isn’t enough, and they’re calling for further increases, some suggesting that 2.5 per cent is a better figure. Although a final decision is yet to be been made, further substantial increases seem inevitable.
Defence isn’t just about spending money to arm the Lithuanian military with sophisticated equipment. A no less important aim is to involve a greater share of the population in the country’s defence. In 2015 Lithuania reintroduced military conscription, which it had abandoned seven years earlier. The draft was selective, and applied only to males, 3,000 of whom were called up that year. Military service isn’t mandatory for women, but they can join as volunteers. An ever-increasing number of politicians call for universal conscription for men and a smaller number have suggested that women should also be subject to the draft. Several weeks ago, Vytautas Bakas, the chairman of the Seimas’ National Security and Defence Committee, stated that although Lithuania lacks the infrastructure for universal conscription, the Seimas should decide about universal conscription before its mandate expires in the autumn of 2020. Other responsible officials have voiced similar sentiments.
Lithuania’s Minister of Defence Raimondas Karoblis has stated that Lithuania won’t be ready for universal male conscription until 2024. Preparations would require annual outlays of €105 million, or €280 million if women were to be drafted in 2026. Subsequently, €80 million would be needed each year to support conscription, and €220 million if both men and women were subject to universal service. The sums are foreboding, particularly for a country where the average monthly salary before tax is about €850, less than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. The outlays would place a great strain on the state budget and would sharply reduce the amount of money available to increase pensions and fight poverty and social injustice. Surveys show that most Lithuanians believe that the greatest threats the country faces are an ageing population, emigration and relative deprivation rather than Russian aggression, the major driving force behind the conscription debate.
Lithuania realises that its security is tied to NATO and that its membership within the alliance is its most effective deterrent. But reliance on others isn’t enough. At the minimum, Lithuania must be capable of holding out until its NATO allies have a chance to intervene and to engage in armed resistance or embark on a campaign of civil disobedience if Lithuania were to be occupied. Universal conscription isn’t an aim in itself, rather it’s intended to be part of a comprehensive future system of national defence that should model itself on that of Finland.
According to surveys conducted at the start of 2017, almost 90 per cent of Lithuanians believe they have a duty to defend their country, 64 per cent that Lithuania should defend their country with arms in case of an invasion and 52 per cent that Lithuanian society is capable of organising universal resistance either by military or civic means. The figures are impressive, but should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some respondents might be giving the answer in the belief that it’s the correct response for a patriotically-minded citizen. Others might be sincere in their responses, but it’s one thing to intend to participate in resistance and quite another to actually do so in the face of the dangers involved. The experience of European countries in the Second World War showed that resistance against Nazi rule was a minority option until victory by the Allies was assured. There’s broad support for both universal male conscription (90 per cent) and for mandatory military training in schools (72 per cent are in favour of required training, whilst another 13 per cent are in favour of voluntary training).
Female conscription remains an unpopular option, with three out of five Lithuanians opposed to the move. But the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Equal rights require equal duties. Hybrid and information wars are fought not just with howitzers and machine guns, but with ideas and computers, fields in which superior male upper-body strength isn’t a decisive factor. Currently women are the weak link in collective defence. Proportionally more women intend to emigrate if war breaks out or hide in case of invasion, more are susceptible to Russian propaganda and fewer intend to participate in civil disobedience or believe that it would be successful. The exact reasons for these attitudes haven’t been fully identified, but it seems that many women still believe that national defence and politics are matters for men to decide. Mandatory conscription would quickly change such beliefs.
A substantial increase in defence spending makes sense in the face of real and permanent threats. That Russia is an extremely nasty neighbour is beyond question. Whether it is a genuine threat to Lithuanian independence is a more complicated matter. NATO’s commitment to defend Lithuania is beyond doubt, for the alliance fully realises that failure to do so would completely undermine its credibility and hasten its demise. Putin is a rational political actor who won’t risk a confrontation with NATO in circumstances in which the alliance is unlikely to blink. By 2026, Putin is unlikely to still be Russia’s president, and whilst his successor won’t be a peacenik over-eager to please the West, the possibilities of dialogue will have increased.
Lithuania faces a difficult choice. Substantially increasing defence spending will lead to a moderate increase in security. But it’ll also be a huge drain on the budget, and will substantially increase the possibility that in the future empty barracks will join empty schools and empty hospitals as fixtures of the Lithuanian landscape.