Volunteer guns: Latvia’s first crop of military conscripts ready for war

Volunteer guns: Latvia’s first crop of military conscripts ready for war

It was the never-ending stream of news content on Edvards Puharts’ iPhone that propelled him to sign up for military conscription in Latvia.

“I was panicked,” the 20-year-old told Euronews. “I would open my phone and read what was going on in Ukraine and I was stressed thinking that they were going to blow past Ukraine and come into our land.”

Puharts registered for Latvia’s newly re-introduced voluntary military conscription in November 2022, thinking it would calm him “about everything that is going on.”

Eleven months on, he says it’s worked.

“You start to understand how the army works, what the personnel does. You understand the dynamics of war,” he explained. “That helped me understand that it’s not as easy as invading one country through another.”

(L-R) Edvards Puharts, Orests Rullis, Gus Pētersons.
(L-R) Edvards Puharts, Orests Rullis, Gus Pētersons. - Supplied

‘Most important pre-requisite for survival’

Puharts is one of around 250 National Armed Forces volunteers who will complete their training on 31 May at the forest-studded Ādaži camp north of the Latvian capital, Riga.

Latvia has an on-and-off again relationship with military conscription but recently reimposed the policy due to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The small Baltic country was annexed by the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, and now many in Latvia fear a revisionist Russia. 

In July 2022, Latvian lawmakers announced plans to make all men aged 18 to 27 complete 11 months of military training.

Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said on X that Latvia must accept the proposal, likening it to the country’s “most important pre-requisite for survival.”

“The greater the number of military prepared and trained, the less likely it will be that Russia will want to direct its military aggression against Latvia,” he wrote in 2022.

Latvia scrapped its decades-old military conscription policy in 2006 after it joined NATO.

One researcher at the Centre for European Policy Analysis argued Riga ditched the policy as membership of the US-led military alliance was “particularly reassuring”, with NATO's treaty obliging all members to defend one another if attacked.

Things changed with Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which prompted politicians to rethink reimposing the service as a defensive strategy.

Support from the public was also growing. One study found that 60% of respondents found conscription crucial for Latvian defence as the country shares a 200-kilometre border with Russia.

The National Defence Service Act was signed into law by Latvian president Egils Levits in April 2023. It states that male Latvian citizens must be “prepared to perform national defence tasks” and are “liable” to complete national defence service. Men and women can also volunteer.

FILE - Latvian President Egils Levits speaks to Latvian troops during his visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, on March. 8, 2022.
FILE - Latvian President Egils Levits speaks to Latvian troops during his visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, on March. 8, 2022. - Roman Koksarov/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Toms Rostoks, an associate professor in international relations at the University of Latvia, said that following the renewal of the conscription policy, “an influx of volunteers” joined the National Guard.

This meant that the government did not need to conscript eligible males, with a "few thousand people joining its ranks", according to him.

Although Rostoks said training recruits has been relatively problem-free, he claimed “real challenges” will materialise later.

Rostoks suggested that infrastructure needs to be built to accommodate the increasing number of conscripts — several hundred each year — and that there may also be an attitude problem as individuals won’t be volunteering.

“This is a challenge that every country that has adopted conscription has been dealing with,” the expert told Euronews. “Each year the military will be calling out a couple of thousand young people, and then the challenge will be that we need to provide quality infrastructure, quality training to make sure that they learn something useful.”

According to Rostoks, only a third of the volunteers will stay on after 31 May and sign five-year contracts. Orests Rullis is one of them.

‘We go through all the hard days together’

Twenty-one-year-old Rullis wants to climb the military ladder because of the discipline it offers.

“Leadership was new to me, and the army really gave it to me,” he told Euronews.

The Riga local — who likes going for runs, lifting weights and raising his heart rate to 200 BPM — said the possibility of Russia invading his home country played a large part in his decision to volunteer.

Although he is still worried, Rullis said the early mornings, strategic exercises and gruelling obstacle courses have calmed his nerves.

“When I'm here, I see that everything is planned out,” he told Euronews. “I feel confident that we can defend [Latvia]”

In April, the Latvian parliament approved spending €1.1 billion on its military in 2024, with a target of reaching € 1.4bn in 2027.

Some of this money will go towards ensuring a “full” state defence service and an “improvement” of the National Armed Forces Reservist System, according to budgetary documents.

FILE Latvian Army armoured personnel carriers parade during a military parade on Latvian Independence Day, in Riga, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.
FILE Latvian Army armoured personnel carriers parade during a military parade on Latvian Independence Day, in Riga, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. - AP

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence confirmed these numbers but added that an additional €1bn would be pumped into an air defence programme as a separate budget item.

But spending isn’t the only target in mind. The government wants to boost recruiting figures, too.

Estimates from the Latvian Ministry of Defence suggest roughly 1,040 persons will be conscripted next year, with 210 in January and 830 in July. They aim to increase this year-on-year, recruiting 1,580 people in 2026 and 2,800 in 2027.

“Our preparedness is the most effective deterrence,” the spokesperson told Euronews.

Recent reports that Russia was mulling redrawing territorial water borders have strengthened Latvia's military’s resolve.

“Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has erupted Euro-Atlantic security and peace, reinforcing NATO to ensure that its deterrence and defence posture remains credible and effective,” the defence ministry spokesperson said.

“NATO, the Baltic States and Latvia are preparing for a wide range of scenarios ensuring our ability to address possible threats most effectively.”

According to the spokesperson, the nation’s military might hinge on two pillars: beefing up defence infrastructure and strengthening “societal will”.

‘I felt I had to do something about it’

An example Latvian authorities may wish for more of is former pacifist Gus Pētersons.

Convinced to join up after watching the news in 2022, the economics graduate told Euronews Moscow's “obscene” offensive made it hard for him to do “regular things”.

“I realised that this [enlisting] would be the best way to calm my fear,” he said.

Even though the "peace-loving" man says his family is not supportive of his military career, Pētersons now proudly shares his best National Guard achievement: the Beret March.

As part of this annual gruelling exercise, he and the other recruits traversed 50 kilometres of regional terrain in 24 hours and performed tactical tasks. It felt like a “movie” to Petersons.

At the end of May, he will ditch the fatigues and pursue a civilian job.

Violence is a tool to achieve certain outcomes, Pētersons explained, but it is not the path he saw for himself.

Pētersons did say, however, that the training has eased his anxiety.

“I feel very good," he told Euronews.