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.
Yet they did manage to get one thing after punching the snooze button with another low defense budget: they’ve reinstated conscription. It’s a small start: just three thousand or so men a year (and only men), with the goal of boosting the military’s strength into the sixteen- to twenty-one-thousand range. Last month, the conscription rolls were released. Some of the affected men took to social media to complain. The negative reaction this generated bothered Lithuanian actress and TV host Beata Tiskevic-Hasanova and Lithuanian photographer and political science student Neringa Rekasiute. Wrote Rekasiute: “The most disturbing thing was the very harsh and unforgiving public opinion of men who didn’t want to go to the army. They were called ‘unmanly,’ ‘cowardly,’ ‘disgraceful,’ etc.” So Rekasiute and Tiskevic-Hasanova “gathered 14 random men, aged 17-28, and took their portraits. The men are portrayed crying in military uniforms,” and offer their thoughts on mandatory military service. The two artists said they hoped to “show how dangerous gender expectations are: a man is expected to be rational, emotionless and aggressive. It is very important that we, as a society, teach men to express their emotions and not force a stereotypical archaic role onto them.” One longhair tells them, “a gun in your hands doesn’t define your manliness.” A fellow with a waxed handlebar mustache notes how happy he’d been when conscription was removed. A guy with an undercut and gauged ears says that “the real strength is the ability to make your own mind.” Another young man, tears streaming down his face, says that “in today’s free society there is no space for coercion. Compulsory things should be the ones you choose with your free will.” An Elijah Wood lookalike adds, “Only when fighting you lose.”
They’re easy to mock, but the real problem with Lithuania’s crying hipster soldiers is that there aren’t enough of them. The Russian juggernaut can crush a few thousand extra men with ease and then impose that same fait accompli on NATO. It is the leaders who will not build an adequate military, not the young men who must fill it, who are the real cowards. For Lithuania absolutely possesses the ability to defend itself, to deter a Russian invasion and render NATO intervention almost unnecessary. It’s estimated that there are just under seven hundred thousand Lithuanian men fit for military service, and, lest poststructuralist artists clutch their pearls about imbalanced gender expectations, let’s add in the more than seven hundred thousand Lithuanian women who are also able to serve. When mobilized, such an army would dwarf Russia’s; when entrenched, Lithuania’s army would present the Russians with their own fait accompli: “Lithuania is ours. You can’t dig us out of here without a full nuclear escalation.” The nuclear tables are now turned: would Putin really trade Moscow and St. Petersburg for a chance to take Klaipeda and Siauliai?
Of course, keeping such a massive army in the field would be enormously expensive and disrupt the Lithuanian economy. But there are other small countries that field large militaries while still prospering. Israel is a prime example. Israeli men and women serve three and two years, respectively, and then remain in the country’s reserves into their forties. The world’s ninety-seventh-largest country can thus field the world’s twenty-first-largest military. Despite its small size, Israel is not only safe from invasion, but a major regional power. If Lithuania had a similar service rate and force structure as Israel, it’d have a total strength of around three hundred thousand soldiers, with perhaps eighty-five thousand of those on active duty. Israel’s mandatory service laws have a lot of exemptions, at least some of which stem from circumstances peculiar to Israel, so Lithuania should be able to hit a higher rate if necessary. (Given that a strong Lithuania would make NATO’s job easier, the West would be wise to support such restructuring with aid, equipment and training.)
There are other ways to make Lithuania a less attractive target. The invasion-survival manual Lithuania’s government put out is a good start—it encourages inefficient work, strikes, demonstrations, and so forth to resist an occupier. But other forms of resistance are possible. Teaching the general public how to conduct and support armed resistance has its risks, and Lithuania’s leaders would have to weigh this option carefully. But a philosophy of popular resistance would be able to appeal both to Lithuania’s history (the “Forest Brothers” harassed the Soviet occupier into the 1950s) and to Lithuania’s laws (Article 3 of Lithuania’s constitution proclaims that “The Nation and each citizen shall have the right to resist anyone who encroaches on the independence, territorial integrity, and constitutional order of the State of Lithuania by force.”).
Whatever path they choose, it is clear that little Lithuania has the power to stand up to mighty Russia, to take its fate into its own hands rather than gambling on NATO’s reliability. The story is the same with the other Baltic states, too—and if all three exceeded their NATO spending targets and built large, reserve-based militaries, their security would be mutually reinforced. The Baltic states’ freedom is theirs to lose—if their leaders are up to the task of defending it. So chin up, crying hipster soldiers: if there are enough of you, you won’t need to fight.
John Allen Gay, an associate managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.