The Problem with Lithuania’s Crying Hipster Soldiers: There Aren’t Enough of Them

A new conscription law doesn't go far enough.

Life in Lithuania isn’t bad. Citizens of the small Baltic nation enjoy high life expectancies, near-universal literacy, relatively low corruption, a decent economy and a wide range of political freedoms. If those freedoms are violated, Article 30 of their constitution guarantees the right to appeal to a court. If they don’t like their government, Article 34 of their constitution guarantees their right to participate in elections and to throw their government out.

All those benefits and all those rights come with one caveat, one that is not written down in their constitution or anywhere else: they may be revoked, and on only a few hours’ notice, at Moscow’s whim. Lithuania is tiny. Russia is not. An invasion force could come in from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on Lithuania’s southwestern border, through Russia’s sometime-friend Belarus, or directly from Russia (via a short Schlieffen-style detour through Latvia). Lithuania’s military, with fewer than fifteen thousand personnel, would be no match for the enormous Russian military, which boasts at least a quarter of a million men in its Western Military District alone. (Indeed, if the Russians felt like it, they could send in one tank for each and every Lithuanian soldier, and they’d have hundreds of tanks to spare; the Lithuanians, in turn, have no tanks at all.)

Lithuania’s a NATO member, so in theory it has most of the free world at its back—in theory. While Russian invaders would likely have to draw some NATO blood in taking Lithuania, the country could be in Russian hands long before NATO’s leaders have convened. Lithuania’s pitiful military gives Moscow the power to present NATO with a fait accompli: “Lithuania is ours, anyone who disagrees can talk to our army and our nuclear arsenal.” Those NATO leaders will then face an ugly calculation: Are they willing to risk the very existence of London, Paris, Berlin, and New York for the freedom of a country most of their citizens can’t even find on a map? Are they ready to trade the lives of hundreds of millions of their own citizens for the liberty of a handful of foreigners in a far corner of Europe?

Lithuania’s leaders seem comfortable staking their country’s freedom on that calculation going their way. Sure, they offer dire warnings about the Russian threat—as Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite told the BBC in March, “We are already under attack....Will it be extended to conventional confrontation? Nobody knows.” And that’s not just a message for foreign audiences—they published a lengthy manual for civilian survival and civil disobedience after a foreign invasion in January. (Actual quote: “Gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world.”) Yet just two years ago, they were spending only 0.8 percent of gross domestic product on defense. They’ve boosted that slightly, but they’re still far below their NATO commitment to spend at least 2 percent, and they don’t expect to reach even that low bar for as many as five years. Grybauskaite told the BBC that her nation “need[s] to invest into our defense as much as we can” so that its military can hold out for “at least...seventy-two hours” while waiting for NATO’s rapid-reaction forces—a force which, she noted, does not yet exist. When that rapid-reaction force does exist, it’ll be just five thousand men strong—and the history of rapid-reaction forces suggests that they’re not very reliable. Lithuania’s leaders are quite calm in the face of danger—one might even think they’re asleep.