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Latvia is growing its military as Russia becomes increasingly aggressive

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Latvia today to reassure the Baltic country that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies. Latvia, which shares a border with Russia, says its military is not big enough to fend off its increasingly aggressive neighbor, and that is why it plans to bring back compulsory military service. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

(CROSSTALK)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: In a lush pine and birch forest outside the Latvian capital of Riga, two dozen men dressed in camouflage cheer each other on as, one by one, they sweat through an obstacle course, running with 50-pound sandbags on their shoulders.

ANDRIS ZEPS: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Andris Zeps (ph) cheers them, on stopwatch in hand. He's training these recruits of Latvia's National Guard, and he's tweaking his unit's regimen of military exercises based on how Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine.

ZEPS: Since the Ukraine, we see how Russians are fighting, their tactics. We watch how they fight, and we learn from that.

SCHMITZ: Keeping a wary eye on Moscow is almost second nature in Latvia, a country that shares a 180-mile border with Russia and was occupied by both the Russian Empire and, more recently, the Soviet Union until it gained independence in 1991. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks says it's clear Russia still has imperial ambitions.

ARTIS PABRIKS: And the way - how they use force in Ukraine is a way how they neglect the population basically makes us to think that we need to strengthen our defense.

SCHMITZ: That's why Pabriks is leading the charge to reinstate compulsory military service for all Latvians. The country had scrapped military conscription 15 years ago after joining NATO and the European Union. But Pabriks says Russia's war in Ukraine means that Latvia needs to be prepared to fend an invader off long enough for NATO forces to fully engage.

PABRIKS: Which means if somebody invades us, we understand that they might overwhelm us with might. But we want to be like a small hedgehog, which is with many needles. So if you touch us, you will bleed a lot as well.

SCHMITZ: Latvia, which has a population of around 2 million, has just 7,500 active-duty soldiers in its professional military, backed by 1,500 NATO troops. Twenty thousand people are in Latvia's military reserves.

MARIS ANDZANS: It's simply not enough when you have not one but two aggressive neighbors. I mean Russia and Belarus.

SCHMITZ: Maris Andzans, director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga, says compulsory service will strengthen Latvia's military-ready forces to more than 50,000. But doing so has raised concerns about the loyalty of conscripts in the event of a conflict with Russia. A quarter of Latvia's population are ethnic Russians who consider Russian to be their mother tongue and, for some, an identity linked to Russia.

ANDZANS: There have been different attempts, you know, to foster the integration, but it hasn't been enough. The conscription might be another way in how to foster the integration.

SCHMITZ: Andzans says young Latvian Russian speakers are less susceptible to Russian propaganda than the older generation and have shown they aren't interested in being part of Putin's Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

SCHMITZ: Neither is Oscars Vanas (ph), who just graduated from high school. The 19-year-old is finishing a set of chin-ups at a local park in Riga. Vanas is exactly the age of those who would have to serve in the military, and he says he's more than willing to do so given the threat.

OSCARS VANAS: My father once told me that it would take Russia 48 hours to completely take over Latvia.

SCHMITZ: But that estimate is based on Latvia's current military capabilities. Pretty soon, all men the age of Vanas will learn to become military ready and, in the words of the country's defense minister, learn the art of being a hedgehog.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Riga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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