The Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF) are starting the year with a new commander. After having his appointment approved by the Latvian parliament in December 22, 2016, Major General Leonīds Kalniņš officially took over the position of chief of defense (CHOD) of the LNAF on January 27. “In this moment, undertaking this post, I have only one goal—to maintain high operational capability that we have built together and keep up our unbreakable army spirit,” the new CHOD declared on the day of his inauguration (Leta.lv, January 27).
Major General Kalniņš was born on February 13, 1957, in Tomsk Oblast, Pervomayskij District, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Looking back at his educational and career background, he studied Automatic Control Systems engineering at the Vilnius USSR Army Higher Air Defense Military Academy (1975–1979) and later at the Kharkov USSR Army Military Engineering Academy (1987–1990). Kalniņš joined the Latvian National Guard in 1997. From 2010 to 2011, he took part in the Command and General Staff Officer Course at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. In October 2011, he became Commander of the Latvian National Guard. In 2013, he participated in the Higher Command Studies Course at the Baltic Defense College and was appointed chief of staff in the Joint Staff Headquarters of the (LNAF) in August 2016 (Mil.lv, accessed February 5).
“My task now is not to be revolutionary, but rather evolutionary—I will continue to work on the projects that had been initiated and those that should be developed. Thus, the Armed Forces will work on combat-readiness assurance measures and on social security packages in the preparation of highly motivated Latvian soldiers,” Major General Kalniņš underlined in his first interview with Latvian media. In addition, he referred to important infrastructure projects Latvia is undertaking to fulfill its Host Nation Support responsibilities. In line with pledges agreed to at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 2016 summit in Warsaw, Latvia will be hosting a Canadian-led multinational battalion, and so it needs to construct barracks and other accommodations-related infrastructure (Tvnet.lv, January 27).
Talking about the formation of new Armed Forces units in Latgale (Eastern part of Latvia), Kalniņš informed that the purpose of these actions is to reduce the combat and defense response time along the border with Russia and enhance Latvia’s military capabilities in the eastern direction, thus strengthening national security. In the future, such subdivisions may be created in other directions, too, he noted (Mod.gov.lv, accessed February 5).
As a former commander of the National Guard, the current Chief of Defense Kalniņš underlines that the role of the National Guard for the Latvian defense will remain crucially important in the nearest future. “I have always said that the Latvian national defense is based on the voluntary involvement of its citizens. Since we have decided to found a state, [we now have to] take the next step—we must be able to defend it. Our task is to organize the involvement of Latvian citizens in the defense system to the greatest extent as possible” (Mod.gov.lv, accessed February 5).
The Latvian National Guard is a light infantry force composed of over 8,000 citizen-soldier volunteers. It is fully integrated with and supports the regular professional elements of the LNAF. Kalniņš has admitted that equipment, especially individual gear, for the National Guard is still insufficient. Between 2014 and 2016, provisions of equipment for the National Guard increased by 60 percent. “But still this is not 100 percent,” he declared. “The National Guard is fully provided with uniforms, necessary winter equipment and small arms; but there are other aspects [that are necessary for the National Guard] to carry out its tasks completely,” Major General Kalniņš noted, adding, “we still are missing accoutrement, backpacks, sleeping bags etc.” (Tvnet.lv, January 27).
The new LNAF commander is already repeatedly being asked about the country’s potential return to conscription—a political “hot potato” that has engendered a passionate debate in Latvian society since last year. For now, however, Kalniņš is not ready to embrace this issue: “We [the Ministry of Defense and the LNAF] have chosen a voluntary way to strengthen national defense. At the same time we feel a degree of pressure from the public, which wants to see a lot more involvement, especially for younger people. The restoration of military training for high school seniors are among the options we are discussing now. After this period of training, young people should be able to choose to stay in the reserves, become members of the National Guard, or undertake full-time service in the [regular] Armed Forces” (Delfi.lv, January 28).
Strengthening military cooperation among the three Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—is also among the new LNAF commander’s key priorities. Currently, this cooperation is mainly limited to common exercises and some joint procurement projects. “Joint military purchases is an old idea, but its implementation, particularly now, is not going very well, because each Baltic country is at a different place in terms of areas of defense development. For example the Baltic countries jointly acquired ammunition, but large items, like armor, each of us purchased separately,” Major General Kalniņš told the Baltic News Service (BNS, January 30).
Such assertions are echoed on this side of the Atlantic as well. The Baltic States do not utilize their cooperation effectively enough to curb the threat of outside aggression in the region, according to Jorge Benítez, a senior analyst with the Washington, DC–based Atlantic Council think tank. “The Baltic countries are increasing their defense spending even more than previously planned, and that is good. However, increases in expenditures alone do not carry the benefits that could be made. Often we hear that the Baltic States would like to see more allies involved in ensuring the security of the region, but they themselves do not show the initiative to work more closely with each other and coordinate their activities,” Benítez argued (Leta.lv, February 2).
Strengthening their countries’ national defense amidst growing threats from the East and strains on the transatlantic relationship coming from the West will be a challenging task for the top brass of all three Baltic States. But all in all, the new Latvian chief of defense presents a clear vision for the future development of his military.