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In response to Russian aggression, Latvia is bringing back the draft

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Fearing Russian invasion, the Latvian government has proposed bringing back conscription.

“We have made a decision to propose introducing a gradual transition to the National Defense Service,” Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said on Twitter. This “would mean creating a system within five years in which 18- to 27-year-old young people can choose to serve in the armed forces, the National Guard or undergo alternative service in the services of other ministries,” he added.

This reverses a trend that saw many European nations end conscription after the Cold War ended. Latvia – a former involuntary republic of the Soviet Union – abolished the draft in 2007.

Under the Latvian government’s plan, conscripts would serve for 12 months, including one month of vacation. Military service would be mandatory for men and voluntary for women. After completing their service, draftees will go into the reserves.

Latvian soldiers draft independence day parade
Latvian troops during the Latvian Independence Day military parade. The Latvian Independence Day celebrates the restoration of the Latvian Republic in 1990 following the collapse of Soviet rule. (Juris Paiders/Wikimedia Commons)

“In the first recruitment, we want to train 1,000 citizens,” Pabriks said. “We will invite voluntary applications, and we will create a selection system until we are ready to accept everyone, similar to Sweden. The number should be increased every year by at least 2,000, ideally reaching 7,000 conscripts per year within five years.”

Pabriks wants to vastly increase the number of trained personnel available in times of war. The Latvian armed forces currently comprise less than 7,000 active-duty personnel, and about 11,000 reservists. “When we have 30,000 to 40,000 military-trained people and an international brigade, we will be able to hold our own against a so-called zero-warning attack.”

A zero-warning surprise attack would come from Latvia’s neighbor Russia, which already has invaded Ukraine and threatened the small Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Ukraine and the three Baltic States were once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he wants them again under Moscow’s dominion.

“Latvian society must accept and be aware of the most important prerequisite for survival,” Pabriks said. “The greater the military [sic] the number of prepared and trained population, the less likely it will be that Russia will want to direct its military aggression against Latvia.”

However, it seems likelier that Latvia will mostly project deterrence by being a member of NATO, which has stationed almost 2,000 alliance personnel in the country. While not formidable in numbers, that force is a tripwire that presents Russia with the fear that going to war against Latvia would mean going to war against Europe and the United States.

Citizen-soldiers in Europe

Swiss soldiers march during exercise
Swiss soldiers marching during an exercise. Switzerland maintains mandatory military or civilian service for its male population. (Photo by Fcb981/Wikimedia Commons)

Conscription spreading again in Europe is a notable change. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, many European nations had some form of conscription during war and peace. So did the U.S. – which began an unprecedented peacetime draft in 1940, just before World War II began. The U.S. didn’t end conscription until 1973.

France and Germany retained conscription through the Cold War and beyond, only to end it by the 2000s. Others, such as Greece, Sweden, and Switzerland, still have the draft. Israel, famous for conscription and reserve duty that even includes women, may eventually end mandatory military service.  

The question will be how popular will the reintroduction of conscription be. However, in the wake of the Ukraine War, fear of Russian invasion may be greater than discomfort with wearing a uniform.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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