Latvia, one of the three tiny Baltic States bordering Russia, has joined the other two and adopted conscription. Latvia had abolished conscription in 2006, believing that their NATO membership would prevent Russia (the main threat in the region) from attacking them. The Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 and invasion a year ago proved that was a mistake. Latvia and Ukraine do not have a common border, but both border Belarus and Russia and that is a reminder of how vulnerable Latvia is, even with NATO’s mutual defense grantee. Before 2023 Latvian voters would not support reviving conscription. That did not mean Latvia was ignoring the Russian threat. Like the other two Baltic States, Latvia was not just spending more money on defense but also implementing many reforms in an effort to deal with the return of the Russian military threat and the fact that the three Baltic States are tiny compared to Russia and in need of new thinking on how to keep the Russians out.
In light of this most Latvians accepted the 2017 “total mobilization” policy, which provides more opportunities for all citizens to participate. The voters would not revive conscription in 2017 and since then there has been insufficient willingness by military age men (and many women) to join or otherwise support the largely part-time military. There were voluntary programs in high schools where students could receive basic military training. Other countries have found that programs like this enable many potential recruits to see if they have any aptitude and interest in this sort of thing. Many find that they do and those who are not really good at it discover that as well. The military also established a Summer Training program in which students could volunteer for several weeks (or more) of full time training. There was also more money for National Guard units to conduct training that can get expensive. This included items like lumber and other materials needed to build roadblocks and other obstacles, plus more money for part-time soldiers to practice their marksmanship and use of other weapons (mostly things that go bang).
Like the other two Baltic States Latvia is tiny (population two million) and 0nly 61 percent of that is ethnic Latvian while 25 percent is ethnic Russian. Defense spending was only half a billion dollars a year (1.7 percent of GDP). Latvia, like the other Baltic States, planned to increase defense spending to two percent of GDP by the end of the decade but even then that is not a lot. The growing Russian threat changed those plans and Latvian defense spending kept increasing. At the time of the Ukraine invasion, it was 2.3 percent of GDP and that has not changed. The attitude towards conscription did and that means a lot more young (18-27 year old) men will receive military training.
Existing training programs for volunteers will be expanded to handle the conscripts but it will take five years to conscript and train all those now eligible for conscription. Conscripts serve for one year and that is largely devoted to learning essential military skills. Most conscripts then become reservists although some choose to continue on active duty soldiers. By 202y8 Latvia expects to have 14,000 active duty troops. 16,000 in the semi-active National Guard and 20,000 in the reserves where there is still some refresher training but reservists are always ready to be mobilized in an emergency.
Before the revival of conscription, the Latvian armed forces were quite small. There were 4,600 active duty troops and 8,400 in the National Guard. Many of the troops who complete a term of active service join the 12,000 strong reserve force and many also join the National Guard. The Latvian military is very similar to what Sweden, Switzerland and Israel have used. The small number of full time troops are there mainly to train and support the 20,000 part time personnel.
The Latvian National Guard is more like the American National Guard in that it devotes a lot of its training and organization to dealing with natural or other emergencies in a specific part of the country. But the Latvian Guard personnel are armed and enthusiastically improve their military skills, often on their own time. It’s all about the Russian threat, which has been around for a long time.
Since Latvia joined NATO in 2004 they have had ample opportunity to test their system by mobilizing reserve and National Guard units more frequently for training, often with other NATO troops. Because Latvia went all-volunteer in 2005 they had no problem getting troops to go overseas on peacekeeping duty. Meanwhile Estonia and Lithuania revived conscription and Latvia monitored how that operated in case Latvia might have to reinstate conscription.
There was also more sharing of ideas with the other Baltic States. For example, in late 2016 neighbor Lithuania issued a 75 page “how to survive another Russian occupation” manual for its citizens called; "Prepare to survive emergencies and war." All three Baltic States have plenty of experience with being invaded and occupied by Russia, and remind their citizens what works, especially now that the Baltic States have a mutual defense treaty with the United States and all other NATO members. Latvia had a Mobilization Law which covered all this but it was constantly revised and upgraded. There was a lot more revision after conscription was revived.
The “prepare to survive” guide provides tips that resonate with most Russian neighbors. The guide describes how to behave when dealing with the invader while also spying on the occupation force. The manual provides illustrations and description of most Russian weapons and details of how the Russians use secret police, local informants and special operations troops to try and control an occupied population. The manual also points out that Russia will send in agents (or activate ones it has already recruited) before an invasion and provides tips on how to detect the presence of these agents, especially in preparation for an imminent invasion.
Latvia is not alone in doing this sort of thing. Since the Soviet Union fell apart many Russian neighbors have feared a revival of traditional Russian aggression. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO, putting parts of the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) within NATO and on Russia’s border. Many Russians criticized this, for Russian policy since 1945 has been to establish a "buffer" of subservient countries between Russian territory and the rest of Western Europe (especially Germany). This attitude is obsolete in a practical sense but old habits die hard and Russia prefers to have subservient neighbors.
These adjacent states were called the “near abroad” and few were willing to submit and become Russian buffer states. Many joined NATO, an organization created over 70 years ago to jointly resist Russian threats or an actual Russian invasion. One Russian justification for invading Ukraine was the many Ukrainians backing NATO membership for Ukraine. The vigorous and successful Ukrainian resistance to the invading Russians impressed NATO members and resulted in massive deliveries of weapons, munitions and other military aid to Ukraine. All this continues as NATO states treat Ukraine like a NATO member and openly back NATO and EU (European Union, an economic link) membership once the Russians have been defeated. Latvia and other NATO states bordering Russia got a vivid glimpse of the damage done to a country invaded by Russia.
Before the 2022 invasion Russia said it was willing to work with NATO in areas of mutual benefit but did not. Since 2014 there has been a state of undeclared war between Russia and NATO. New NATO members were more worried about the renewed Russian aggression than the original NATO members (the U.S. and Western Europe). The nations of “east NATO'' constantly requested more presence by troops from “west NATO.” Some of the eastern members, especially Poland and the Baltic States, called for the permanent basing of U.S. troops on their territory. The smaller states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania believe Russia could overrun them in two days and senior NATO military commanders openly agreed. Russia considers such talk more evidence of NATO aggression against Russia. Lithuanians have heard this kind of talk from Russia before and want to avoid the usual outcome.
One reason for Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was their expectation of a swift and total victory which would intimidate nearby NATO members to be more compliant with Russian demands. There was no victory, swift or otherwise and Russia is suffering heavy personnel and economic losses because of their failure in Ukraine. Russia, or at least their aggressive leader Vladimir Putin, insists the war in Ukraine will continue until Russia prevails. That sort of irrational and destructive Russian behavior reinforces the usefulness of NATO membership. The regulations governing NATO operations forbid a nation at war from joining NATO. But once that fighting is over, Ukraine becomes a member.