Latvia on high alert

This article originally appeared in Defence & Security Systems International magazine

As President Putin flexes Russia’s military muscles, Latvia and its Baltic neighbours are bolstering defensive capabilities and readjusting to what is increasingly the new norm in eastern Europe. Oliver Hotham spoke to President of Latvia and former Defence Minister Raimonds Vejonis at the start of the year about how his country was adapting to the increasingly troubled situation in the Baltics and the new types of warfare being waged.

Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Kremlin has often sounded a bit like a broken record. In response to a deluge of headlines reporting Russia’s seemingly constant obfuscation of the situation, users of the social network and news site Reddit created a forum called Russia Denies, the only condition for submission being that the headline begin with those two words, for example “Russia denies threatening US spy plane in Baltic sea,” or “Russia denies hit list of Russian politicians and journalists.” The page is still updated regularly, with new denials added every couple of weeks.

When Defence & Security Systems International spoke to Latvian then-Defence Minister, now President, Raimonds Vejonis, the Kremlin was in full denial mode. Latvia and its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania were on high alert after a range of incidents in which Russian jet fighters and warships came worryingly close to entering the NATO-protected Baltic Sea, and Vejonis was sceptical of Moscow’s excuses.

“From the Russian side, the explanation is always that it’s technical problems, that aircraft equipment doesn’t show exactly the border, and so on,” he said. “From our side, we can see that they are testing our reaction time to such border crossings.

“In December we had another case, when Russia flew more than 40 aircraft – including strategic bombers – over the Baltic Sea.”

Point of no return

April 2014 saw the crisis in Ukraine reach the point of no return. After the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and his replacement by a more pro-European government – a change many felt was illegitimate – the country was in turmoil. The state of Crimea had voted in a disputed referendum to join the Russian Federation, and the roots of the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region were being set in motion, with armed separatists seizing government buildings and demanding plebiscites of their own.

NATO and its allies placed the blame squarely on Moscow. Russia, they argued, had exploited anti-Kiev sentiments, long-present among Ukraine’s Russian speaking minority, to undermine the new government and push the country into chaos. Vladimir Putin thought differently, claiming there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and that NATO was acting aggressively to pull Kiev into its sphere of influence.

Nowhere was there more cause for concern than in Latvia, where many still harbour bitter memories of half a century of occupation by the Red Army, only gaining independence in the wake of the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Echoing this feeling, Vejonis spoke to Reuters, expressing serious concerns that the Kremlin could be trying Ukraine-style tactics in his country.

“There are risks that Russia might try to destabilise the situation in the region,” he told reporters. “They are trying to increase negative sentiment in society through certain specially trained, professional provocateurs.”

He still believes that this is true, and since we spoke, Vejonis has been elected president of Latvia by the country’s parliament, pledging to make national security the priority of his government. His tenure began on 8 July.

“I would like to improve relations with Russia… but while Russian rockets and heavy weapons remain in Ukraine, that’s not really possible,” he told the country’s legislature, the Saeima, in his acceptance speech. His election came a month after the Baltic trio, as it is known, officially requested that NATO deploy “several thousand” troops to the region as a further deterrent against Russia – a request that, at the time of going to print, has not had a response.

Little green men

Of course, it’s very unlikely we’ll see the infamous “little green men” (the unmarked soldiers who appeared in Crimea during the crisis, widely believed to be Russian special operations) near Riga any time soon – for one, Vejonis has told press that if they were to show up in Latvian territory, these soldiers would be immediately shot. Latvia’s membership of NATO and the European Union, too, would mean that such an intervention by Moscow would require the US and its allies to respond with military force, launching a catastrophic international conflict Putin can ill afford.

But Russia would not necessarily need boots on the ground to destabilise its neighbours. The Ukraine crisis has shown that new, more covert types of conflict can create unrest, and has demonstrated the importance that “information warfare” can play. The power of Moscow-funded mass media in influencing opinion domestically and abroad among Russian speakers certainly contributed to the unrest in Donbass and Crimea, and Vejonis and many of his contemporaries have argued that harnessing strategic communications and developing counter-propaganda measures will be essential to weathering the storm.

“New things are coming, such as hybrid warfare, and informational campaigns against Baltic countries, the EU and NATO,” he warned. “If for a long time you send information to any part of society, eventually it will start believing this information. This means we need countermeasures against such information flow.”

Similarities and differences

Many of Riga’s concerns, and the comparisons being drawn by Western media, lie in the marked ethnographic similarities between Latvia and Ukraine. Both countries have significant Russian minorities (25% and 17% respectively) who do not always share many of their fellow citizens’ dislike of Moscow or bitter memories of communism. Vejonis said he understood the logic, but pointed to significant differences between the situation in Latvia and in Ukraine – Latvia enjoys high standards of living and transparent democratic institutions.

“The majority of Russian-speaking people fully support the Latvian state, our independence and sovereignty,” he argued, saying that while there are radicals among the Russian population in Latvia – a few of whom have travelled abroad to fight the government in volunteer brigades in east Ukraine – the country’s political system and democratic institutions are resilient enough to survive.

“Of course we have some cases,” he conceded. “But we are controlling these persons with special institutions, and everything is under control.”

The key to the Latvian Government’s new commitment to national security will be to increase military spending. While NATO member states are expected to spend up to 2% of their GDP on defence to keep the alliance fighting fresh, few do. Despite the supposedly critical nature of the Ukraine conflict, tightening fiscal belts among European partners mean that the US is the only member exceeding its commitments.

Baltic states are the exception, and they increasingly recognise the necessity to bolster defence spending. After a marked drop in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, investments in military personnel, the air forces and new technology are back on the agenda. Estonia, for one, has acted to meet the NATO target, committing €412 million to its armed forces and defence in the 2015 budget.

“In 2009, the financial crisis forced us to adapt strict austerity measures, including 38% cuts in defence spending, which suspended further increases in defence spending and envisioned development plans,” said Vejonis. “The current economic situation allows us to address some of the immediate investment priorities.

“All independent countries like Latvia are increasing their defence budget because they need to invest in the development of their armed forces, and they must be ready for self-defence first and foremost.”

Investments and infrastructure

This isn’t driven only by worries about Russian aggression, but also by a sense of obligation towards NATO allies, as well as the need to provide the critical military infrastructure required by the alliance, meaning there will also be significant investments in air power, according to Vejonis. Since joining NATO in 2004, allies have been responsible for monitoring the Baltic Sea, as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia simply don’t have the capability.

“Another reason why we need to increase the defence budget, of course, is that host-nation support is very important for us,” Vejonis said. “We need to improve infrastructure because the number of exercises in the Baltic region is increasing, and having more soldiers on our soil means we have to improve infrastructure, and for that we need a bigger budget.”

Latvia currently spends close to 1% of its GDP on defence, and aims to meet the target of 2% by 2020. The number of regular infantry in the National Armed Forces is set to increase, with more emphasis on military exercises and improving military education. And while Vejonis spoke of the need to promote “patriotism and national pride” among the country’s young people, there’s no indication as yet that Latvia will follow its neighbour Estonia and reintroduce compulsory military service.

This year is a historic one for Latvia. On 1 January, the country took over presidency of the European Union for the first time, elevating it to the international stage and giving it a bigger voice. But the fraught situation seems unlikely to deescalate any time soon. In June more than 6,000 NATO troops conducted drills in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, taking part in the US Army-led Saber Strike 2015 military drill, and Russia continues to carry out military exercises along the borders with its former territories.

Back in April, the Alliance launched its first exercises for the new rapid response unit. Comprised of 5,000 land troops across eastern Europe, the Spearhead Force, or Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, is designed to be able to deploy in 48 hours. The alliance’s command said the group was set up “in response to the changed security environment in Europe”, and it’s not hard to guess what they might have in mind.

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