Total Defense: How the Baltic States Are Integrating Citizenry Into Their National Security Strategies

Marta Kepe and Jan Osburg

Russian aggression in Ukraine and military exercises at the borders of the Baltic states, as well as a string of information and cyber operations, have raised fears among Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania about their security. Due to their shared borders with Russia, the Baltic states are the NATO members most exposed to Russia’s threats. As small countries with little strategic depth and limited human and economic resources, they are increasingly adopting a “total defense” approach to national security, which includes enabling civilians to be able to protect themselves and to also support their nation’s professional armed forces in case of a conflict. U.S. and NATO forces therefore also need to plan for effective engagement with local civilians as they prepare their forces for deployment to the Baltic states in times of crisis.

Baltic Armed Forces are Outnumbered and Outgunned by Russia’s Military

The total population of the Baltic states is 6.2 million. Their combined territory is only 173,291 km2 (or 107,678 square miles) and a leisurely drive through the widest point between Russia and the Baltic sea would only take around 7 hours. Despite their size, all three Baltic countries have committed to spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense, with Estonia having reached this aim in 2015, and Latvia and Lithuania close to the target in 2017 with 1.7% and 1.8% respectively. However, their small economies and populations, and their past focus on developing expeditionary rather than territorial defense capabilities due to their accession to NATO in 2004 and the economic crisis of 2008, mean that even with the best of efforts there are limits on how much the Baltic states’ militaries can be grown.

Currently, all Baltic armed forces combined comprise around 22,000 troops, with 448 heavy artillery pieces but no tanks or warplanes. The Russian conventional capability in the Western Military District alone is assessed at approximately 300,000 troops, while the total Russian conventional capability is estimated to be around 845,000 troops, 5,436 heavy artillery pieces, 2,550 tanks and 1,389 warplanes. Thus, it is obvious that the Baltic states’ military capabilities are no match for Russia’s forces. While NATO has deployed one battalion to each of the three Baltic states as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) effort and has made additional pledges to support the security in the region, augmenting NATO forces to the degree needed for thwarting a full-scale Russian invasion is likely to encounter opposition due to costs and political reasons.

The Promise of Asymmetric Approaches

Considering the unequal character of the Baltic and Russian forces, an asymmetric strategy that encompasses a whole-of-society approach to national defense holds promise to augment the defensive and deterrent capabilities of the countries under threat. The primary goal of asymmetric defense is to defeat the adversary’s will to engage in – or continue with – aggression by denying benefits, increasing costs and influencing their perception of both costs and benefits. Resistance to invasion and occupation would also send an important political message to Allied governments, namely that the local population does not accept the new rulers and is putting their lives on the line to defend their national sovereignty.

Such “total defense” actions go beyond conventional military activities. They encompass efforts of civilian branches of government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general population, thus enhancing conventional defense and deterrence measures. A total defense approach may be particularly helpful in situations where there is no clear threshold for the ‘start of hostilities’, and, if deterrence should fail, can also help to buy time until sufficient NATO reinforcements can arrive. Civilian engagement in particular can be part of deterrence in the form of raising popular support for the defense of the state, strengthening societal resilience and increasing threat awareness as well as letting civilians contribute their skills, talents and resources or serve as watchful eyes. Including civilians requires strategic alignment and communications between and among defense planners, civilian authorities, NGOs and the general population.

Baltic Steps Towards “Total Defense”

The Baltic states are very aware of the role society plays in their national defense. This is illustrated by the renewed interest in asymmetric approaches, which have been included in strategic-level government documents. The three states also host NATO centers of excellence that contribute analysis and support to NATO’s strategic communications, cyber defense and energy security capabilities. Furthermore, the Baltic states have been encouraging their populations to be involved in national defense and contribute to societal resilience by educating their populations on the role of the armed forces, national defense, and security threats, and by advising civilians on how to act in case of crisis and war. However, beyond those basics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania differ in their approaches to defense policy and capability planning. Likewise, their approaches on working with citizenry as key parts of deterrence and defense also have significant differences.

The Estonian implementation of total defense is an all-inclusive approach that encompasses the participation of all sectors of society, including government institutions, the private sector and civil organizations. Its main goal is to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the country under any circumstance. While doing so, it also aims to increase the confidence of the people in the Estonian government and their will to defend Estonia. A key part of this approach is ensuring a resilient and cohesive society that is the glue that holds together defense, security and foreign policy and related capabilities, and ensures the availability of human resources and their readiness to actively respond if necessary.

Latvia, on the other hand, has started integrating total defense into its national security strategy. The strategy focuses on resilience – increasing Latvia’s ability to resist hybrid threats that may be economic, political and technological in nature, to counter information warfare and, like Estonia, to increase social cohesion. As outlined in the 2016 State Defence Concept, civil-military cooperation is part of the national security approach and brings together state administrative institutions, the general public and the National Armed Forces. According to the Latvian Constitution, the ability of the population to engage in individual and collective resistance is regarded as an indivisible part of the national identity and civic confidence, forming the foundation of state defense against any aggressor.

Lithuania’s total defence approach has been in place since the early 1990s and has been inspired by the examples of the Nordic countries and Switzerland. Here, total defense is understood as an approach to national defense that includes not just the National Armed Forces and Allied forces, but also the mobilization of all national resources towards defeating an invader, along with active resistance by every citizen that is in any way legitimate under international law. Lithuania has also used the concept of ‘comprehensive security’, which stands for the cooperation of military and civilian institutions and interoperability of military and civilian capabilities. Moreover, Lithuanian strategic documents specifically allude to the concept of civil resistance, which is understood as the citizens of Lithuania, either as individuals or formed into small units, engaging in activities against aggression and occupation. The Ministry of National Defense (MOND) has supported this effort by publishing extensive practical recommendations on how to prepare for and act in emergencies and war, issuing a brochure with focus on resilience in 2015, and issuing a third volume focusing on resistance in 2016.

Public’s Readiness to Engage in National Defense

Each of the Baltic states has a proud history of civilian participation in armed and unarmed resistance. However, popular engagement in civic activities and NGOs is generally low. The passivity of the post-liberal societies and a potential lack of understanding within the society that citizens’ action can make a difference may be contributing to this relatively low level of civil engagement. Participation is also hampered by the divided information space between Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and local Russian-speaking populations, with differing attitudes towards history, and dissimilar cultural and political identities. Likewise, the differences in regional development and the consequent social and economic inequality, and a perceived detachment of the society from policy-making processes, adds difficulties to engaging with society, specifically in times of crises.

Nevertheless, a substantial amount of the Baltic populations is willing to actively defend their countries. For example, armed resistance is regarded as necessary by 77% of the respondents to an Estonian Ministry of Defence opinion poll, with 56% of the respondents willing to take an active part in the defense of Estonia. The number of those ready to actively engage in defense is reported at 39% in Lithuania and 33% in Latvia. Based on the Baltic states’ current population levels, this would amount to more than 2.5 million people across the three countries ready to take up arms to defend the independence and sovereignty of their countries – a number twice the order of magnitude larger than the active-duty military.

Conscription and Training of Civilians

Increased civilian participation in defense can be fostered through engagement with existing social and professional organizations, and with individuals at all levels of society.  Conscription, in addition to its role in generating active-duty military forces, may also be regarded as part of civilian engagement and training for defense. It increases the human resources available for mobilization, boosts general preparedness for emergency situations, and can increase appreciation of one’s country and its armed forces. Estonia has continued conscription since the early 1990s and Lithuania reinstituted a form of conscription in 2016, only eight years after it was abolished it in 2008.

Conscription in Estonia is for a term of 8 to 11 months and aims to provide the conscript with the knowledge needed to contribute to the military in wartime. While only men face compulsory military service, since 2013 women are also allowed to serve in the program. Similarly, Lithuania has a nine month long conscription program, with a large percentage of the around 3,000 conscripts a year participating in the program as volunteers. Latvia is the only Baltic state that does not currently have any form of conscription as it was suspended in 2006.

The most recent development in the Baltic states aimed at increasing the ability of civilians to respond to crisis, protect themselves, and help support national defense is the effort of the Latvian government towards the reintroduction of national defense and civil defense courses in schools. If implemented, this initiative will increase the population’s knowledge on how to recognize threats and respond to them. Furthermore, it may increase Latvian youth’s interest in serving in the professional and voluntary forces and elevate the general level of support for civilian resistance in case of conflict. Currently, only 13 schools in Latvia offer national defense courses on a voluntary basis. If implemented, the new national defense courses would be offered to high schoolers (grades 10–12) and would include learning about the national defense strategy, the armed forces, individual security and survival, international humanitarian law and acquiring various practical skills, for example mastering obstacle courses or identifying and avoiding mines. The program may also involve marksmanship training, individual combat skills and improving general fitness levels. Civil defense classes would provide students with knowledge on how to act in dangerous situations and teach first aid skills.

However, having a body of conscripts and networks of civilians with defense-related skills is not enough. These skills and networks need to be exercised.  Accordingly, the “Siil” integrated national defense concept exercise, held in 2015 in Estonia, was the largest exercise in Estonia’s history. It involved 13,000 reservists, members of the Estonian national voluntary defense organization (“Defence League”), conscripts, professional military and Allied forces. More recently, Lithuania integrated a partial mobilization exercise, Lightning Strike 2017, with participation of reserve troops. In addition, some training and exercises for senior government officials, politicians, representatives of educational institutions, NGOs and journalists have been held in the Baltics states, with the objective of informing them about and training them for various civil crisis situations. Such training also contributes to building the interpersonal and interorganizational networks needed for the effective implementation of a total defense system. This means giving people from different backgrounds and professional networks the opportunity to connect with each other and thus create both formal and informal social and communication networks. One example of such training is the Estonian National Defence Course that has been held since 1999. It brings together a wide variety of participants, including Estonian politicians, military, government and local government representatives as well as individuals working in the private sector and NGOs. Nationwide emergency response capabilities are also regularly tested in exercises such as the Estonian Contingency Employment Exercise (CONEX). This exercise was used to explore the options for legal measures in resolving crisis situations (e.g. large scale cyber incidents, mass poisoning, disruption of electricity supply, mass disturbances or attacks on key infrastructure) and involved NGO and private sector representatives. Held in 2015 in conjunction with the Siil exercise, it helped review strategic level response procedures and identify potential shortcomings in legislation.


The Baltic states’ thinking about national defense increasingly encompasses civil society, starting from the leveraging of civilian infrastructure to the participation of civilians in national defense. The Latvian Minister of Defence illustrated this by saying:  ‘We suggest changing the paradigm of state defense from the idea that a fighter is only a soldier with a weapon in his hands and the support of Allied soldiers, to the conviction that every patriot of this country may give an invaluable contribution to state defense.’ If done correctly, this promises to provide a sustainable addition to defense and deterrence, and thus help prevent further aggression in this region. Furthermore, any small-unit warfare that may take place in the Baltic states in the case of invasion would require local society support regarding logistics, information and other resources. It is therefore paramount that the citizenry understands their role in defense and are ready to support their own as well as allied troops.

Notwithstanding the differences between the Baltic states, below are some recommendations for Allied activities that can help the Baltic states in their approach to strengthening the national defense of the countries that form the Eastern border of the Alliance:

  • Support national efforts to educate their citizens on national security issues, thus increasing their willingness and interest to participate. Facilitating open discussions about national defense that involve the government sector, armed forces, the private sector, NGOs and members of the society will increase awareness of defense and security among the general public.
  • Augment national efforts to educate their citizens on what to do in time of crisis or war, by providing support to publications, television and radio programs disseminating such information.
  • Advise the Baltic states on best practice regarding how to increase interagency cooperation between their ministries of defense and armed forces cooperation, and their ministries of interior, NGOs and general society.
  • Participate in the design and execution of multi-institutional defense and resilience exercises that include the participation of civil society.

These recommendations are aligned with recent developments within NATO. Resilience, civil preparedness and civil-military readiness were all discussed during the last NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016. Furthermore, NATO has increased its interest in the state of civil defense and civil resilience measures.

When implemented correctly, these combined, whole-of-government efforts promise to enable a sustainable defense to and deterrence against aggression directed at NATO’s easternmost members.

By Marta Kepe and Jan Osburg, for Small Wars Journal

Marta Kepe is an analyst at RAND Europe working on defence, security and infrastructure; specifically, she focuses on a range of European and transatlantic defence and security issues. She specialises on European conventional and unconventional defence, European and transatlantic defence policies and planning, European defence industry and technology as well as NATO, EU and Nordic-Baltic security issues. Prior to joining RAND, she worked for the Latvian Ministry of Defence. Kepe’s previous experience also includes working on defence sector reform processes in the Western Balkans, security sector reform processes, international armaments and defence sector accountability respectively at the NATO Advisory Team in Kosovo, the United Nations and the National War College. She received her M.A. in security studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Jan Osburg is a Senior Engineer at the RAND Corporation. Most of his work is in the areas of defense, aerospace engineering, emergency preparedness, and homeland security. Recent projects involved assessing the potential of unconventional warfare and resistance-based defense, the use of gaming environments for testing new operational concepts, and planetary defense. He has spent significant time as an embedded RAND analyst in Iraq and Afghanistan — six months with MNF-I in Baghdad in 2009, three months with CFSOCC-A in Kabul in 2010, and two months with the Asymmetric Warfare Group in Bagram in 2013. Osburg previously worked as a research engineer at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, Georgia Institute of Technology, where he led research projects that applied probabilistic methods and tools to the conceptual design of aerospace systems.