How Latvia Accomplishes Comprehensive Defence

Courtesy of US 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command.

Can all crises and conflicts be predicted and fully averted? Unfortunately, no. Can we be better prepared for crises and conflicts that may arise? Indeed, we can.

For Latvia, military preparedness is of a particular importance, given its geopolitical location. Imagine what would happen if a country’s essential assets and infrastructure like the electricity grid, water supply systems, telecommunications or hospitals were targeted: how can a country possibly defend against such threats? The complex dynamics of today’s security environment call for a deep-rooted comprehension of existing threats and robust preparation to ensure an effective response when a crisis hits. This is exactly where the concept of comprehensive defence comes in.

Seeing comprehensive defence as the appropriate response to the evolving number of security threats and challenges, Latvia made its approach on comprehensive defence a defence policy priority in 2019. Efforts to adopt a whole-of-government approach and hasten societal preparedness for crises started as early as 2016.        

As a part of these efforts, the Ministry of Defence of Latvia, in a close cooperation with a civil services and NGOs, published guidelines earlier this month entitled ‘72 hours: What to do in case of crisis’. This handbook covers a broad range of crises, from natural or man-made disasters to military threats and war.

Why exactly 72 hours, one may ask? During the first three days of a crisis, the emergency services are putting maximum effort in to restoring essential services and providing the necessary assistance. Therefore, it is critical for the public to be ready to survive and get through this time period on their own without assistance from either the authorities or emergency services.

Why Comprehensive Guidelines?

Analysis done by defence experts has made it clear that raising the public’s resilience and preparedness for military threats and war prepares them for dealing with all sorts of other emergency situations. Covering a broad range of crises, ‘72 hours’ therefore prepares society for catastrophes we cannot specifically predict, like the coronavirus pandemic that the world is facing right now, and includes instructions on actions to take, details on the civil defence warning system and information channels, as well as information on water and food reserves and primary health care. It has to be emphasised though, that preparedness cannot avert crises; what it can do is reduce the extent of possible negative consequences.

The guidelines are only a part of the Latvian Ministry of Defence’s extensive efforts to raising public awareness in order to enhance preparedness and resilience. The Ministry has also launched the first Baltic military news portal, which serves as a platform for a specially designated ‘72 hours’ section. In it, the public can find a number of tips for enhancing preparedness, for example, compiling an emergency evacuation bag and first aid kit, and interviews with survival experts.

The Development of ‘72 Hours’

The crisis handbook was developed in a cross-sector fashion which is an essential part of our comprehensive approach. There are three main areas covered in the ‘72 hours’ handbook  – civil defence, health and safety, and military threats – which makes it a joint product of close cooperation between the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Health. Those three government branches, being the main stakeholders and first-responders in a case of catastrophe, cannot cover all eventualities, as the economy and wider society has to survive harsh conditions.

Therefore, the Ministry of Defence has conducted a significant number of consultations with other government branches, NGOs, academics, and businesses, to take into account a broader spectrum of considerations. Reactions of the public to the guidelines were also tested in a series of focus group discussions to tailor the contents of the handbook. This was to avoid dilemmas such as making the handbook’s content too vague and risking a failure to enhance preparedness or making it too explicit and generating social panic. Other countries’ experiences, especially Sweden’s, were taken into account and analysed to identify best practices and to avoid potential mistakes.

Having taken into account Latvia’s historical experience, the handbook covers actions citizens are expected to perform in wartime. This upholds the narrative that Latvia, if required, will be defended with all possible measures and that our national security lies rests on our armed forces, Latvia’s allies, and each and every member of society. The brochure also covers civil resistance and disobedience in a case of occupation in order to facilitate the restoration of independence and integrity. In modern warfare the public has a greater role than ever in strengthening national security.

Means of Distribution and Involvement

Publishing the ‘72 hours’ handbook has not been an isolated act, doomed to disappear in the modern information flow. The Latvian Ministry of Defence has made a great effort to address the target audiences in advance, producing a series of useful stickers and a card game to be played in schools to raise awareness among young people, organising discussions and table top exercises with NGOs and religious leaders to highlight their important role as opinion leaders during a time of crisis.

Our aim is to distribute the handbook to as many members of society as possible, and it has been published online in Latvian, English, and Russian, the most widely spoken languages in Latvia.

We have also received supportive responses from the business community, with the private sector actively becoming ‘Ambassadors of Comprehensive Defence’, by sharing the handbook over their social media platforms in order to raise awareness and highlight their critical role for the continuity of the state. Latvia is on the right track, and it society is eager to actively defend itself and its state in time of a crisis.

There are plans to develop separate materials aimed for the Latvian diaspora to raise their awareness about actions they could take in a case of large scale catastrophes or war in Latvia to support Latvian national defence. As Latvian nationals engaged in the comprehensive defence organisation, diaspora organisations have already shown eagerness to do their part in ensuring the security of Latvia and its public.

There is a saying in Latvian, which roughly translates into English as ‘If I knew where I was going to fall, I would put a pillow in due time’. Although we cannot fully avert each and every fall, we can certainly lay the pillows that could help us reduce the impact of the fall. A society in which each and every individual knows his or her specific role during a crisis is a resilient society which understands that it is not how many times you get knocked down that counts – it is how many times you get back up.    

Artis Pabriks is Minister of Defence of the Republic of Latvia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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