Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 March 2024


Baltic leaders call on Europe to adopt cold war stance

Latvia and Estonia urge higher defence spending and possible conscription to deter Russia


European countries should do more to prepare for a possible armed confrontation with Russia by looking at everything from conscription and a special defence tax to greatly increasing military spending, two Baltic presidents say.

Latvia’s Edgars Rinkēvičs said Europe needed to return to “cold war era spending” levels and should discuss the return of compulsory military service to boost defence forces’ manpower.

“There is a need for serious discussion about conscription,” Rinkēvičs insisted.

Western officials have warned in recent months that Moscow might challenge the military alliance’s mutual defence clause with hybrid or military attacks on Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, the Baltic states on Nato’s eastern flank, in the coming years, following Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Rinkēvičs acknowledged that military chiefs preferred to have fully professional forces and that compulsory service might prove unpopular. But armed forces across Europe faced recruitment difficulties and conscription would help build up more capable reserve forces to deter Russia, he added.

“Nobody wants to fight,” Rinkēvičs said. “The problem is, nobody wants to be invaded as well. And nobody wants to see Ukraine happening here.”

Estonian President Alar Karis said that a special tax to fund military purchases was worth considering, while Europe should aim to match US defence spending at a minimum; implying a more than doubling of current levels.

The three Baltic nations have rapidly boosted their own defence spending in recent years, after repeatedly warning the rest of the west about Russian aggression for the past two decades. All three countries spend more than the Nato target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and are aiming to reach 3 per cent.

Rinkēvičs said: “Here in this part of Europe and the world, we understand that we need to get to 3 per cent . . . For most Nato allies, we must be honest: we have to go back to the cold war-era spending. And that was for many more than 2 per cent.”

Karis pointed out that the US accounted for 68 per cent of all defence expenditure within Nato, spending $860bn last year versus $404bn for European members and Canada.

“We have to do something. At least have it 50:50 [between Europe and the US]. It would be better for us,” he said.

The Estonian government has floated the idea of a hypothecated “defence tax” fund an increase in military spending to 3 per cent of GDP, although it is unlikely to come into effect before 2026.

“It’s one way to directly put money to defence, and people understand where this money goes,” Karis explained.

He added that former US president Donald Trump was right to call for Europe to spend more. “It is our defence, and we should do it for ourselves,” he said.

Conscription is returning in Europe: Latvia restarted it last year and Lithuania and Sweden did so recently. Estonia, Finland and Norway have not stopped imposing compulsory military service since the cold war, while Denmark proposed last month to extend it to women along with men.

In the UK, General Patrick Sanders, chief of general staff, in January called for a “citizen army”, although the British government said there were no plans to bring back the draft.

Of Latvia’s own return to military service, Rinkēvičs said: “It was for two reasons: one, trying to train more people was really important as we entered this kind of geopolitical turbulence; two, there is a huge issue of demography in many of our countries.”

Baltic leaders have been strong proponents of tougher sanctions against Russia, but they are also facing scrutiny over their enforcement of EU-agreed trade curbs.

Exports from the three states to central Asian countries have drastically increased since the Ukraine war, amid suspicions the goods are in fact destined for Russia.

Rinkēvičs said more action was needed at an EU level to ban certain goods and enforce sanctions, rather than at a national level. “I would say that a more centralised EU supervisory mechanism would be very much welcome,” he added.

He also went on to point out that the bloc should consider imposing so-called secondary sanctions on third countries or their businesses that refused to comply with current EU bans on exports to Russia.

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