The Armed Forces of Baltic and Eastern European States

_ Alexander Yermakov, military analyst, RIAC expert. Moscow, May 5th 2017.

The process of the breakup of the USSR into independent states naturally aggravated tensions between the newly formed countries. Unfortunately, political and economic disputes sometimes erupted into armed conflicts. Most of them resembled civil wars and inter-ethnic confrontations — wounds that take a long time to heal. To this day, a number of conflicts in the region have been merely frozen and not resolved. New hotbeds of tension have appeared, notably the civil war in Ukraine, as well as the Baltic Region, which is rapidly militarizing in the face of aggravated confrontation between Russia and NATO.

In the light of the above, a brief supplement on the state of the armed forces in the CIS would be a useful addition to existing analytical materials. This review draws on publicly available sources, primarily the Military Balance Report of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

The Baltic Region


The modern Latvian National Armed Forces can trace their origin to the National Guard, or Zemessardze, which was established under the law of 23 August 1991. This was followed by the creation of a regular army. The armed forces of the three Baltic republics are engaged in a number of joint military programmes, including the joint peacekeeping Baltic Battalion (BALTBAT) stationed in Latvia. Latvia joined NATO in 2004.

Universal military conscription was abolished in 2007, but the current sharpening of the confrontation between Russia and NATO has triggered discussions on whether it should be brought back.

The Latvian National Armed Forces took part in the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending small contingents as part of the coalition forces. Latvian military instructors are involved in training the Iraqi army during the current international coalition campaign against the Islamic State. Latvian military personnel also make up part of the EU contingent in Mali and are involved in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) missions in Kosovo and Ukraine.

The Latvian National Armed Forces are made up of 5310 soldiers on active duty and 7850 reservists, including:

The Army — 1250; the Navy — 550; the Air Force — 310; Zemessardze — 600; reservists — 7850; other (logistical services, military police, special forces that are considered a separate arm of the special services, etc.) — 2600.

The only combat unit in the Latvian Army is a light infantry brigade consisting of two infantry battalions. The United Kingdom is providing the brigade with second-hand Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) — or CVR(T) — combat vehicles, which raises the level of mechanization and provides the army with armoured vehicles, even if they are outdated. Officially, the army has three Т-55 tanks, but they are not combat capable and are used to train infantry in anti-tank combat.

The main tasks of the navies in all three Baltic countries are to protect the marine border and hunt and disarm mines, including those remaining since the Second World War, for which purpose they have minesweepers and patrol boats. The navies of the Baltic countries are part of the joint Baltic Naval Squadron (BALTRON) programme.

The main objectives of the Air Force are to monitor airspace, ensure tactical air defence using Man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) and sub-calibre air defence artillery, and maintain ground-based infrastructure for the air component of its NATO allies.


The Republic of Lithuania was the first country in the region to set about creating its armed forces. It did this in 1990, with the first call-up to the regular armed forces taking place as early as 1992. Lithuania joined NATO in 2004. It hosts the main NATO air base, “Baltic Air Policing” and the Baltic Air Surveillance Network (BALTNET) inter-Baltic airspace monitoring centre. The Lithuanian Armed Forces are the most powerful of the three countries in the region and are equipped with modern military hardware, unlike the other Baltic countries.

Lithuania has a conscription system. It was cancelled in 2008, but restored in 2016, when relations between Russia and NATO took a turn for the worse. The mandatory term of service in the Army is nine months.

The Lithuanian Armed Forces took part in the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending small contingents as part of the coalition forces. There are plans to send military instructors to Iraq in 2017 to train the Iraqi troops engaged in the war against the Islamic State. Lithuanian peacekeepers and observers are deployed as part of the EU contingent in Mali and are involved in the OSCE missions in Kosovo and Ukraine.

The Lithuanian Armed Forces are made up of 11,550 soldiers on active duty and 9650 reservists, including:

The Army — 6000 + 4800 active reserve personnel; the Navy — 650; the Air Force — 1100; land protection voluntary forces (similar to the National Guard) — 4850 in active reserve; other — 6800.

The core of the Army is the Mechanized Infantry Brigade “Iron Wolf,” which consists of four infantry and one artillery battalions. Modern German hardware — Boxer armoured fighting vehicles and Panzerhaubitze 2000 (PzH 2000) self-propelled gun mounts — are being procured to replace the outdated M113 armoured personnel carriers and towed artillery. The discarded hardware will be used by the Zemaitija 2nd Infantry Brigade, to which conscription has been renewed.


The Republic of Estonia began forming its army in 1991. The Armed Forces of the three Baltic Republics are engaged in a number of joint military programmes. The headquarters of the BALTRON naval mission are located in Estonia, as is the Baltic Defence College. Estonia joined NATO in 2004.

Military conscription in Estonia is for 8 or 11 months, depending on the military specialization.

The Estonian Defence Forces took part in the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending small contingents as part of the coalition forces. Estonian military instructors are involved in training the Iraqi Army during the current international coalition campaign against the Islamic State. In addition, Estonian soldiers are deployed as part of the EU contingent in Mali, UN missions in the Middle East and Lebanon, the NATO mission in Kosovo and the OSCE mission in Ukraine.

The Estonian Defence Forces are made up of 5750 soldiers in active service, and up to 42,000 reservists, including:

The Army — 5300 (including 2500 conscripts); the Navy — 200; the Air Force — 250; the Estonian Defence League (similar to the National Guard) — 12,000 in active reserve and about 30,000 reservists who have served as conscripts.

The land forces of the Estonian Army comprise two infantry brigades, though the second one is engaged in auxiliary, mainly training, activities. The 1st infantry brigade has Finnish wheeled XA-180 APCs and track armoured vehicles of the CV90 family have been bought from Holland and Norway.

The Ämari Air Base in Estonia has been actively used since 2014 as part of NATO’s air patrolling of the Baltic.

Eastern Europe


The Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus began to take shape in 1991 on the basis of the Belorussian Military District of the Soviet Army. In late 1993, Belarus joined the Collective Security Treaty. It also has a special relationship with Russia as part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, including in the security sphere. A small air group of the Russian Aerospace Forces consisting of fighter planes is based in Belarus on a rotational basis, helping the Belarusian Air Force ensure the country’s air defence. Russia and Belarus have an agreement on the joint protection of the external border of the Union State in the air and a joint air defence system.

Belarus still has some operating Soviet-era military-industrial enterprises, which enables it to not only maintain its own military hardware, but also export its products, notably wheel chassis and tank gun sights, in the first place to Russia. In late 2003, the State Military Industrial Committee was formed to optimize the management of the military-industrial complex.

Belarus has a system of universal military conscription for periods between 6 and 18 months, depending on the conscript’s level of education.

The Armed Forces of Belarus have not been engaged in combat operations. Belarussian soldiers were deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and the OSCE mission in Ukraine.

The Armed Forces of Belarus are made up of 48,000 soldiers in active service and 289,500 in reserve, including:

The Army 16,500; the Air Force and Air Defence Forces — 15,000; Special Operations Forces — 6000; other central command forces — 10,500; reservists — 289,500, which is made up of former conscripts.

The main strike force of the Ground Forces of the Republic of Belarus is made up of four mechanized brigades. Despite its relatively small size, the Armed Forces of Belarus has a large quantity of armoured vehicles: main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles number 500 and 1000, respectively. Most of the armoured vehicles are in storage during peacetime. Other armaments include Tochka and Elbrus tactical missiles and Smerch heavy multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). The country is in the process of purchasing heavy Polonez MLRSs that are being developed jointly with China.

The Air Force and Air Defence Forces of the Republic of Belarus are intended above all for the purposes of air defence, but they can also be used to support ground forces. The main combat planes are 24 MiG-29 fighter planes and 12 Su-25 fighter bombers. The planes have been modernized on a limited scale at local enterprises. Until the end of 2012, the Su-27 was the best fighter in the Belarussian Air Force, but they have been withdrawn from active service because of the high maintenance cost. The old training planes will be replaced by Yak-130 planes purchased from Russia. The ground component of air defence is represented by numerous missiles, including S-300s supplied by Russia under a barter scheme.


The Armed Forces of the Republic of Moldova were formed in 1991, partly in response to the military conflict with the breakaway Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Transnistria). The conflict is currently frozen. Under its Constitution, Moldova declares a neutral status and is not planning to join military blocs; however, joint military exercises with NATO countries have been more frequent in recent years.

Moldova has military conscription for 12 months.

The Moldovan Armed Forces took part in the war against the unrecognized Transnistria, which reached its peak in terms of fighting in 1992. The conflict was defused largely due to the intervention of the Russian Armed Forces. Since that time, peacekeeping forces comprising observers from the OSCE and Ukraine, as well as servicemen from Moldova and Russia, including a small operational group of Russian troops, have been deployed in Transnistria. In addition, Moldovan servicemen are deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Africa, Ukraine and the NATO mission contingent in Kosovo.

Moldova established its Armed Forces in response to the conflict in Transnistria. The Armed Forces of the Republic of Moldova is made up of 5350 soldiers in active service and 58,000 in reserve, including:

The Army — 3250 (including 1950 conscripts); the Air Force — 800 (including 250 conscripts); other auxiliary forces — 1300; reservists — 58,000, made up of conscripts who have completed their military service.

Moldova’s ground forces comprise three light infantry brigades. It is notable that they use BMD-1 armoured personnel carriers inherited from the Soviet Airborne Troops. A large proportion of the military personnel, including those who have completed six months of conscription service, serve with the peacekeeping forces on a rotational basis.

The Moldovan Air Force is designed to ensure the defence of the country’s airspace and provide transport. Accordingly, it has a small number of Soviet-made transport planes and one regiment armed with anti-aircraft S-125 missiles.


The Armed Forces of Ukraine were established in August 1991 on the basis of the USSR Armed Forces stationed on the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Because of the high strategic value of the region for the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a large amount of military hardware and an extensive military infrastructure, most of which was turned over to Ukraine. However, disputes with Russia dragged on for several years on a number of issues, most notably on the division of the Black Sea Fleet and the fleet of strategic bombers. After the division of the military hardware, the Armed Forces of Ukraine became one of the largest in Europe on a number of parameters (for example, its air fleet and armoured vehicles); however, by now the bulk of that hardware has been sold or become unfit for combat use.

Ukraine is not a member of any military blocs, but its current political leadership is committed to rapprochement with NATO and seeks to join the European Union which also sticks to the principle of mutual defence. Ukrainian servicemen take part in NATO military exercises and are trained inside the country by NATO instructors.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many defence industry enterprises were concentrated in Ukraine. The country was second only to Russia in that regard. Since then, many of these enterprises have been shut down for economic reasons, but Ukraine is still capable of manufacturing equipment for its ground forces and to service its air fleet. There is potential for restoring expertise in shipbuilding and missile construction, but that requires major financial injections and a consistent development strategy. Ukraine exports military hardware, both repaired Soviet hardware and hardware produced by domestic companies. Armoured vehicles are the leading export item. Ukraine is engaged in a number of innovative international programmes, most notably the development of the An-132D transport aircraft and the Grom tactical ballistic missile with Saudi financial assistance.

Ukraine has the manufacturing capacity to fulfil its requirements with regards to military equipment. The Ukrainian Ground Forces are the country’s main Armed Force, both in terms of numbers and importance. Ukraine has military conscription for periods between 12 and 18 months depending on the conscript’s level of education.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine took part in the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending small contingents as part of the coalition forces. In addition, Ukrainian servicemen are deployed with the UN peacekeeping missions in several African countries, Cyprus and with the NATO mission in Kosovo.

Since 2014 the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been engaged in a conflict in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions with the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Officially, the conflict is interpreted as a Counterterrorist Operation.

The strength of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is hard to assess because it constantly changes as a result of frequent mobilizations and demobilizations of reserve personnel. However, according to Military Balance 2016, the Armed Forces of Ukraine is made up of the following:

— 204,000 in active service and up to 900,000 in reserve, including:

The Army — 153,000; high-mobility airborne troops — 8000; the Navy — 6000; the Air Force — 45,000; and about 900,000 reservists.

In addition, Ukraine has a 52,000-strong National Guard and a number of paramilitary organizations, the size of which is difficult to assess.

The Ukrainian Ground Forces are the main force, both in terms of numbers and importance. Many units took part in military actions in the southeast of the country. The main strike force consists of two armoured and ten motorized brigades, primarily made in the Soviet Union. It has about 800 main battle tanks, mostly T-64s, the maintenance and modernization of which is facilitated by the fact that the tank was originally built at the Kharkiv Locomotive Factory. More than 1300 tanks are in storage and provide the main source used for replenishing its effective combat strength, as the manufacture of new vehicles is going slowly. The conflict in South-Eastern Ukraine involved the active use of artillery, ranging from towed artillery to heavy MLRS. As a result, Ukrainian artillery personnel have considerable combat experience. Instructors from the United States Army and other NATO countries take an active part in training the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

At the time of its creation, the Ukrainian Air Force was the second largest air force in Europe, behind only Russia. The Ukrainian Naval Force was formed after the Black Sea Fleet of the Soviet Union was divided between Ukraine and Russia, a process that lasted until 1997. Most of the assets it received are not combat ready due to underfunding. After Ukraine lost its main naval base at Sevastopol, what remained of the Navy had to move to Odessa. At present, the Navy is only capable of carrying out patrol duty in the coastal zone. The only combat ready ship is the Hetman Sahaydachniy frigate (a patrol ship built during Soviet times under Project 11351). A Project 58250 corvette has been under construction since 2011, but it is unclear when it will be handed over to the Navy.

The Ukrainian Air Force was also made up air units from the Soviet Air Forces that were deployed in Ukraine at the time that the country declared independence. At the time, the Air Force was the second largest in Europe, second only to the Russian Air Force. Subsequently, some aircraft were sold, and most of the remaining aircraft have become unserviceable due to underfinancing. At the start of the Ukrainian crisis, the Air Force had no more than a hundred planes capable of combat. The Air Force was not used extensively in the conflict in the South-Eastern Ukraine; it was used actively only at the initial stage but not later, because of the unjustifiably high losses. Measures are currently being taken to restore repairable aircraft and extend the lifespan of existing planes because, given the high price of modern aircraft and the priority given to financing the ground forces, this is the only way to preserve the country’s Air Force.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *