November 21, 2008

New defence leadership in Lithuania: pitfalls and opportunities

Politoloog, Tartu Ülikooli Riigiteaduste Instituudi doktorant

Ameerika rahvas on oma sõna öelnud ja nende tahte kohaselt vannutatakse järgmise aasta 20. jaanuaril ametisse Ameerika Ühendriikide 44. president, mustanahalise Keenia kodaniku luo hõimust ning Kansasest pärit valge ameeriklanna poeg Barack Hussein Obama. Kaheksa aastat presidenditoolil istunud George Walker Bush on kadumas ajalukku ja siiralt võib õnnitleda ameeriklaste kodusõja eelset 15. presidenti James Buchanani, keda on siiani peetud Ühendriikide nõrgimaks presidendiks. Nüüd on ta loodetavasti kurvast kuulsusest vabanemas ja tema rolli on üle võtmas uus nimi, G.W.Bush. Bushi teened Obama võidus pole mitte väikesed: ta on vähendanud USA usaldatavust teiste riikide seas kriitilise piirini, tekitanud Iraagi näol maailma uue kriisikolde, juhtinud USA majanduse läbi aegade katastroofilisemasse seisu peale 1930-te alguse Suurt Depressiooni ning ideologiseerinud ja polariseerinud Ameerika ühiskonna. Sellise pärandatava koorma juures kuulunuks vabariiklaste järjekordne valimisvõit kurioosumite kilda.

Politoloog, Tartu Ülikooli Riigiteaduste Instituudi doktorant

Ameerika rahvas on oma sõna öelnud ja nende tahte kohaselt vannutatakse järgmise aasta 20. jaanuaril ametisse Ameerika Ühendriikide 44. president, mustanahalise Keenia kodaniku luo hõimust ning Kansasest pärit valge ameeriklanna poeg Barack Hussein Obama. Kaheksa aastat presidenditoolil istunud George Walker Bush on kadumas ajalukku ja siiralt võib õnnitleda ameeriklaste kodusõja eelset 15. presidenti James Buchanani, keda on siiani peetud Ühendriikide nõrgimaks presidendiks. Nüüd on ta loodetavasti kurvast kuulsusest vabanemas ja tema rolli on üle võtmas uus nimi, G.W.Bush. Bushi teened Obama võidus pole mitte väikesed: ta on vähendanud USA usaldatavust teiste riikide seas kriitilise piirini, tekitanud Iraagi näol maailma uue kriisikolde, juhtinud USA majanduse läbi aegade katastroofilisemasse seisu peale 1930-te alguse Suurt Depressiooni ning ideologiseerinud ja polariseerinud Ameerika ühiskonna. Sellise pärandatava koorma juures kuulunuks vabariiklaste järjekordne valimisvõit kurioosumite kilda.

It is certain that the most urgent priority of the new government is dealing with the financial and economic crisis. Although the ominous signs of gradual descent into it have been visible for some time by now, it is expected that the country will take the main hit at the start of 2009. However, no matter how preoccupied with stabilising the country’s finances the new administration will be in a short term, its initiatives and views in different sectors of national policy also merit serious attention. Defence is among them.

So, what kind of change is “the coalition of change” likely to bring to defence? For one, Lithuania may get its first female defence minister, Rasa Juknevičienė of the HU/LCD, who is a long-serving MP and member of the Parliament‘s National Security and Defence Committee as well as a deputy of the HU/LCD leader and the new Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. But, change in the leadership style at the top of the defence organisation aside, there are some important implications of a shift to the right, particularly when it comes to defence policy and civil-military relations.

With regard to defence policy, the HU/LCD has never tried to conceal that its main thrusts stem from its deep-running suspicion of Russia, which was both vindicated and reinforced by Moscow‘s agression against Georgia in August 2008. While in opposition, the party even crafted the strategy of Russia’s containment, obviously not minding at all its Cold War connotations so unpalatable to some Lithuania’s allies farther to the West. In this context, the HU/LCD interpreted the defence policy of the LSDP as highly risky at best.

The first bone of contention has rightly been the level of defence expenditures. Despite the “2% of GDP for defence” religious mantra of NATO being so dutifully repeated by the Lithuanian politicians – there is even a formal commitment of all parliamentary parties to gradually fulfil it — and despite some impressive economic growth over the last few years, the country’s defence spending stood at embarrassing 1.16% of GDP in 2008, placing Lithuania at the bottom of the league among NATO Allies.

The inadequacy of this level to ensure development and maintenance of defence capabilities was duly pointed out by the HU/LCD on a number of occasions, such as in the wake of the incident in 2005, when a Russian fighter jet strayed into the Lithuanian airspace and crashed near Kaunas. The incident exposed serious gaps and lack of modernisation in the country’s air surveillance system, also casting doubts on some procurement decisions such as opting out from the joint project with Latvia and Estonia of purchasing long range Lockheed Martin radars.

The conservatives, who saw the LSDP’s reticence to increase defence budget as negligent if not subversive, pledged to end the financial diet of the defence system once elected and bring the defence expenditures to the magic level of 2% of GDP. Commendable as it may be, this promise will be seriously tested by the looming crisis in the public finances and by the determination of the HU/LCD-led coalition to make painful cuts in public spending. The defence minister-in-waiting, Rasa Juknevičienė, has already urged the outgoing leadership of the defence ministry to obstain from making expensive acquisition commitments until the new government takes office.

However, there are some indications that defence, although not entirely being turned into a “sacred cow” and dodging the knife of the spending cuts, may escape the fate of 2000. Back then, the very same conservatives under the very same Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius were wrestling with the impact of the Russian financial crisis and delivered quite a financial shock to the defence system by pushing it to the bottom of recipients of funds from the national budget. This time around, the talk is about retaining the budget at the same level for 2009 or reducing it by a relatively small amount in the area of some 12 million Euro.

It remains to be seen if the reality is going to bite more than the “hawks” of the HU/LCD may wish, especially when the financial crisis will produce the inevitable tensions between the coalition partners regarding spending priorities and further cuts. However, at least the armed forces are going to have some ardent and influential advocates in the forthcoming appropriations’ battles, thus standing a good chance of having the financial shock mitigated by the ideological cushion of the conservatives and their fears of assertive authoritarian Russia.

Another issue at the heart of ideological tensions surrounding defence is related to the strategic choice between a focus on homeland defence (preference of the HU/LCD) and enhancing the contribution to NATO-led operations (policy under the LSDP). The conservatives, consumed by their anxiety about the resurgent Russia, have long argued that “country comes first” in a sense that the emphasis should be placed on developing credible self-defence capability.

In this philosophy, NATO Allies will be as much willing to honour their Article 5 commitment of collective defence as the individual country, subjected to military aggression, is willing and able to defend itself. Militarily, such a focus on self-defence capability should also be able to buy time for the allied reinforcements to deploy in the event of a sudden military crisis. There are also some hardliners in the ranks of the HU/LCD who harbour doubts about the reliability of Article 5 commitment altogether and would gladly see return to the concept of total defence as the only way to hedge the bets.

Under the tutelage of the LSDP, Lithuania’s defence policy and strategy has been evolving in another direction – that of maximising the ability to contribute to the collective undertakings of NATO, with the attendant emphasis on developing deployable capabilities and increasing involvement in international operations. It was during the LSDP administration that Lithuania decided, for instance, to take the lead of one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan – an initiative which has kicked the military system into high gear, prompting it to streamline its planning, force generation, logistical, procurement, command and other processes and procedures.

Apart from being beneficial in terms of organisational effectiveness and professionalism of the military, the LSDP emphasis on contributing to international operations also represented a “strategy of solidarity”. Contrary to the conservative’s philosophy of ensuring viability of Article 5 through credible self-defence capability, the social democrats (inspired in large measure by the expert community), saw it as a function of solidarity with the security concerns and political-military efforts of other Allies. In this logic, the Allies will find it morally challenging to abandon, in the hour of clear and direct danger, those members of NATO which have been doing their utmost to support the Alliance’s missions.

Which philosophy is just a wishful thinking rather than sensible management of risks, we will hopefully not have a chance to learn. But it was the social democrats that had had the opportunity to put many of the measures stemming from their approach into practice. The one which has rubbed the conservatives the wrong way and is likely to come under intense, although probably eventually inconclusive, scrutiny by the new administration is a rather sudden decision, formalised merely by the order of the defence minister on September 15th, to suspend conscription and move to the all-volunteer force from mid-2009, when the last conscripts end their service.

Transition from a two-tier (full-time volunteers plus conscripts) to an all-volunteer force is always a momentous decision in any country’s defence policy. It carries a broad range of political, societal, economic, legal, financial, strategic and organisational implications. And it rarely takes place without an extensive public debate as well as practical preparations.

The debate was somewhat lacking in Lithuania, if not counting recurring statements by the decision-makers about moving to the all-volunteer force as part of the broader military transformation agenda, tantamount more to public relations offensive rather than a proper debate. The social democrats also did their best to win cross-party support to this policy: they secured a Parliamentary decision authorising such a transition by 2014 by means of gradually reducing the number of conscripts drafted each year and their portion in the personnel structure, which already stood at mere 1,600 in 2008, out of a total strength of more than 16,000 personnel (including the active reserve). This tendency went largely unchallenged, except of some occasional critical comments by the conservatives or some media commentators.

Practical preparations, however, have been well under way for some time already. For instance, Conscription Administration Service is being reorganised into the agency which will be dealing with personnel recruitment for the all-volunteer force. Along the same lines, Training Regiment – the unit for the basic military drill of the conscripts – is being turned into the unit to provide initial military training for the contracted military personnel. So, in many ways, the transition to the all-volunteer force has been a well-declared and ongoing, if not properly debated, process congruent with the adopted defence strategy as well as goals of military transformation.

It was rather the timing and form of completing this transition, which caught everyone – even the military – somewhat off guard. It was single-handedly ordered by the now outgoing defence minister in the midst of the election campaign. It is therefore fair that some see it as pure electioneering aimed at winning the votes of those opposing military draft, be it on ideological or pragmatic grounds. And it was done in the immediate wake of the Georgia-Russia war, as if nothing has happened in the strategic environment of Lithuania which would merit some discussion with the concerned public.

It is not surprising then that the conservatives, who also hold conscription dear for ideological reasons as an instrument to stimulate patriotic feelings, will be questioning this decision. Hints have been made that even its constitutionality will be challenged by seeking a verdict of the Constitutional Court. Is the defence system about to experience a complete reversal of the long-established policy and trend because of a short-sighted political move by the party which lost the elections? For a variety of reasons, I would say: hardly so.

Firstly, the HU/LCD is likely to hear some serious arguments from the defence experts’ community, which were the main conceptual brains behind the defence transformation. Secondly, the room of manoeuvre of the conservatives will be constrained by the presence of two liberal parties in the coalition, which reject conscription on ideological grounds. In this sense, the conscription issue would become part of the broader friction between the conservative and liberal values, which is pre-programmed in the coalition’s composition and, although eclipsed by the economic concerns, may yet destabilise the government in the medium term.

And, finally, the conservatives realise very well that they have been stakeholders in the process of defence transformation all along: defence policy just as foreign policy has always been marked by a great degree of continuity as well as cross-party consensus. For sure, the President’s office, which wields significant authority and influence in the matters of national security, will also lean heavily on the new government to maintain this continuity. Rocking the boat now, with the election victory in the HU/LCD pocket, may produce more disadvantages than gains. The conservatives seem to appreciate this quite well and have been softening their stance by saying, for instance, that the country still needs to give more thought on how to bolster active reserve forces as a pool of mobilisation in the event of military crisis, rather than insisting that this can be done only by a means of conscription.

Thus, there will be some tinkering here and there with the defence policy and the defence transformation agenda under the new administration, but we should not expect a wholesale revision. The transformation is likely to continue, just as the current commitments to the international operations are likely to be maintained (even though their increase in the near future should not be expected, given the financial constraints and due to a probably greater attention to military infrastructure at home such as that dedicated for Host Nation Support or for air space control). The real pitfalls lie elsewhere and are associated with the politics of civil-military relations.

The ascendancy of the HU/LCD to the helm of the defence organisation, after a prolonged rule by their ex-communist opponents, carries the risk of opening an old rift in the officers’ corps between the officers with their professional background stretching back to the Soviet army and those officers who joined the re-created Lithuanian Armed Forces in 1990-91 from the civilian professions. The antagonism between these two groups of officers ran deep during the 1990s, when it was exploited and indeed stimulated by the political forces – the conservatives and the ex-communists alike.

The HU/LCD, for reasons right or wrong, may think that the ex-communists unashamedly packed the high command with their loyalists, officers with the Soviet background. If the historical record of this party is anything to go by, they will try to undo this by promoting careers of officers with the nationalist background, who have been the conservative’s support base in the armed forces during the 1990s. In the extreme case, we may expect a string of accusations and resignations from the armed forces.

That the conservatives are prone to vicious “witch-hunting” was amply demonstrated by their all-out assault on the State Security Department, the agency in charge of foreign intelligence as well as counter-intelligence and domestic security, during the last couple of years, with quite damaging consequences to the reputation of the agency and morale of its personnel. If such “clean-up”, only this time from the position of authority, were launched in the armed forces, the consequences would be truly devastating and would reverberate for years to come, sowing distrust among officers and damaging the reputation of the armed forces as a politically impartial organisation.

On the other hand, the conservatives may exploit their stint in power to reintroduce some positive practices which characterised their earlier term in 1996-2000, only modernised and reflecting the imperatives of a force where many officers joined it as an interesting profession rather than a higher calling and who were educated by Lithuania’s own military education system. These practices used to focus on servicemen and servicewomen as the main asset of the armed forces, through the emphasis on their welfare, quality of life and service.

These days, a lot of truly professional and committed officers and NCOs of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, who are not interested at all in being caught in any political power battles, are frustrated enough by the prevalent command atmosphere and organisational culture as well as by the shortcomings of personnel administration, lack of transparency and predictability in their career management and similar aspects of their professional lives. Many leave in despair or often consider doing so.

The HU/LCD would do well by reconnecting with their positive instincts in managing defence and by focusing on attending to the real needs, aspirations and concerns of the members of the armed forces, instead of waging wars against the ghosts of the past. The first indication of their true intentions and test of their leadership in civil-military relations will come with their choice of the next Chief of Defence, to be made by summer 2009, who will replace the current CHOD, Lieutenant General Valdas Tutkus.

The list of potential candidates – highly competent, professional, apolitical and respected by the members of the armed forces – is probably quite short in such small armed forces. But if the conservatives make the right choice — in a transparent, consultative and sensible manner, as it befits the selection of a person for such a high public office – and give the required professional autonomy as well as resources to this person, they will go a long way to solidify and advance positive changes in the armed forces, while giving hope that many deficiencies will be rectified without returning to the divisive dynamics of civil-military relations and organisational politics which marked the 1990s.

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