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Lithuanian extends term of military conscription

Konstantin Eggert
June 25, 2024

Lithuania's parliament has extended the terms for compulsory military service. The move comes as NATO scrambles to strengthen partners along its eastern border.

Lithuanian soldiers in training stand in formation as they hold automatic weapons
Lithuania has tightened conscription regulations.Image: Alfredas Pliadis/Verteidigungsministerium Litauen/picture alliance / dpa

Maxim from Vilnius is soon to be 22. He's Lithuanian, from a Russian-speaking family. Last year, he was conscripted for nine months of military service.

"There was a man in our unit who showered every other day at best — in the summer," Maxim recounted "Can you imagine the smell? I showered twice a day. After a few weeks, we and the commanders gave him a serious talking to."

Stationed with an infantry brigade in Taurage, a small city in southwestern Lithuania near the Russian enclave Kaliningrad, he said in his service he was confronted with people he hardly would have met outside of the armed forces.

Two years from now, many Lithuanian citizens between 18 and 22 will be likely to have had similar encounters. On June 13, the Seimas, Lithuania's parliament, reformed compulsory military service regulations.

The reform has left the nine months of mandatory service unchanged but has extended the duration of alternative service from 10 months to 12. Those who wish to study at a university will be unable to do so without having previously served. The first physical examinations are expected in 2025, followed by a call-up in 2026.

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The move followed years of public debate, sparked by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In 2008, four years after joining NATO, Lithuania had suspended compulsory military service and had transitioned to keeping a professional army.

Then, in 2015, one year after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Lithuania became the first European country to return to general conscription. The original system was based on a lottery basis with computer-generated lists. That's how Maxim was drafted.

Now, many in Lithuania fear that Russia could next turn its aggression toward Baltic countries. NATO has moved to assuage these fears by undertaking efforts to strengthen its presence along what many refer to as its eastern flank.

Part of these efforts included stationing a German brigade in Lithuania, which has brought heightened attention to the country's overall defense policy. Its latest decision to expand mandatory military service was therefore also meant to signal to NATO allies that Lithuania's political leadership was serious about doing everything in its power to protect the country's territory and sovereignty.

Lithuania regularly meets NATO's defense spending target of 2% of national GDP. But with only an estimated 18,000 professional soldiers, the country has a small standing army.

New military and political reality

"A few years ago, several of our politicians declared that NATO would always protect us," said Vaidotas Malinionis, head of Lithuania's colonels' association. "Being a small country, we assumed we could do without heavily investing in defense."

"Now, everything has changed, as the decision on compulsory military service has shown," the retired colonel added.

He believes the Seimas' decision should be fully implemented by 2028. "It will require more investment in infrastructure, as well as the construction of more barracks," Malinionis said. "but that's more a question of time than of political will."

He explained that Lithuania would continue to rely on NATO support. The aliance's combat brigade constituted of Bundeswehr soldiers is based in the country on a long-term basis. It regularly conducts military exercises with other allied nations that are only stationed temporarily.

Defending NATO borders in Eastern Europe

Maxim recalled that he was initially reluctant to joined the armed forces when he was called up. "But now I understand that the troop has changed me. I'm more responsible, better organized, I communicate with others more effectively and I understand them better," he said.

His mother Irina, 47, agreed. "It might sound strange, but since serving in the army, my son has become more friendly and appreciates his family better," she said. "The time he spent away from home, even if it was short, has had an effect."

Irina is in favor of conscription. "It's good for the country, and the boys are becoming more mature," she said.

Fit for service?

Valentinas, 43, is the father of a young man about to be conscripted. Having served the signal corps for four years, he is more skeptical than Irina.

"If a real war erupts, nine months of training — all that shooting and tossing grenades — will not be enough to face a real enemy, " he said. "Professional soldiers would have to shoulder the entire burden of fighting, not these boys."

Instead, Valentinas believes young men should be completing courses in volunteer associations that Lithuania uses to recruit personnel for public security under martial law. He's not convinced that Lithuania's army is prepared to face today's problems.

Young Lithuanian recruits stand at attention
While some believe conscription prepares young people for adulthood, others believe it leaves Lithuania's army unprepared to face an enemy on the battlefield.Image: Alfredas Pliadis/Verteidigungsministerium Litauen/dpa/picture alliance

"Many kids just sit in front of the computer and live in a virtual world," he argued. "Besides, there are many physically weak and sometimes even sick children. Many students don't know what responsibility means."

Retired colonel Malinionis agreed there were difficulties with current conscripts' fitness for service, but he didn't think the situation was critical. "These days, about 50% are deemed unfit for service," he said.

"But first of all, some of these criteria are outdated and should be changed. And secondly, fans of computer games don't need to go running through the forest with an automatic weapon. The most skilled among them can deal with communications, cyber warfare and drones, where the physical demands aren't as high."

Malinionis believes that shifts like these could drastically reduce the rate of conscripts being exempted from military service.

This article was originally written in Russian.