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Commentary | 8 April 2015

The Russian threat to the Baltics: scaremongering or reality?

Latvia’s presidency of the Council of the European Union has come at a time when some European foreign ministers, and a former NATO Secretary General, are issuing increasingly serious warnings about the potential for Russia’s aggression to turn next towards Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of whom are NATO member states.
Within Latvia these warnings are closely followed and often discussed. But is this discourse of a potential threat to NATO just scaremongering? And if not, what should our response be?

What is clear is that the security environment facing the EU and NATO has fundamentally changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin has undermined international norms and agreements, unravelling the post-Cold War order, in part through his use of hybrid warfare tactics to attack Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s reintroduction of the concept of the “right to intervene” in a foreign sovereign state to protect ethnic nationals abroad, a variation on policy that prevailed in Nazi Germany in 1930s, further challenges Europe’s contemporary security architecture.
Russia’s bullying of its smaller and less powerful neighbours is taking place in an Orwellian fashion, with Kremlin propaganda convincing Russians that they are the victims of Western intimidation. The tentacles of an elaborate and well-funded campaign of disinformation, blatant mistruths and propaganda stretch within and well beyond Russia’s borders. Animosity against Russians who oppose the current regime has been increasing over a number of years, with the labelling of opposition leaders, including the recently assassinated Boris Nemtsov, as part of a ‘fifth column’.

Latvia has been long been aware of the propaganda campaign conducted by Russia, with several publications being published on the subject. This expertise helped Latvia gain the backing of NATO to establish the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence in 2014. In addition, Latvia’s presidency of the EU has given Riga the opportunity to encourage the EU to focus on how best to deal with the Russian propaganda.
But is Latvia and its fellow neighbours under threat of attack? Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, both military and political, has increased mistrust and the perception of unpredictability. This is compounded by the sense that Moscow’s actions emanate from a position of weakness and with a leader who, in the words of former UK spy chief Sir John Sawyers, “feels his own security is at stake.” The Russian government makes increasing reference to a “nuclear option”, flies its nuclear bombers close to NATO and EU airspace and continually requires NATO to scramble its jets in response to unannounced military flights. These incidents send disturbing signals.
Scaremongering in Latvia and across Europe is not without foundation, and it should be clear to both NATO and the EU that relations with Russia, regrettably, cannot go on as business as usual.

Just as Russian actions have led to sanctions, they also require additional preparations for our collective defence against these mounting threats to European security. Warnings of potential attacks against NATO members must be heeded, as a failure to do so would cast doubt on the credibility of the Alliance.
United we must prevail. Unity has been successfully maintained since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, and a cautious but increasingly active lead being taken by Germany contibutes to the ranks of the Western states not being broken. But this unity faces continuing challenges from Russia friendly governments in certain European states, as well as from extremist political forces in Europe supported by Russia.

The need for deterrence “with teeth” should be addressed urgently, especially in view of the heightened awareness of the threat Russia poses. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, has said that President Obama “should consider a new move on the chessboard – to station permanently a stronger NATO ground and air contingent in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to shield those three allies from Putin.” In fact, air policing by allies has already increased, there are now American boots and arms on the ground, new NATO regional command structures are in the process of being established and decisions vis-à-vis the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) are moving ahead. Nevertheless, there are reasons for NATO to commit a more enduring defence force to deter gravest challenges to our principle of collective defence, namely incursions into allied territory.

Improvements to Latvia’s own defence capabilities are also being urgently made. They are taking place at a time when society acknowledges the need to devote more resources to defence, but without the need to reinstate military conscription. Enrolment in Latvia’s National Guard is increasing. Furthermore, there is a determination to resist any form of hybrid attack Latvia may face. Just as in other European states, some extremist groups appear to be funded from outside. The vast majority of Latvia’s ethnic Russians no doubt feel insulted by unfounded perceptions that they are not loyal members of Latvian society and can in some way be manipulated by Moscow. In reality many ethnic Russians in Latvia hold high political office and polls show that they regard themselves as some of the least discriminated against minority ethnic groups in Europe. At the same time, Latvia remains vigilant to outside attempts to undermine stability, a phenomenon threatening many European countries.

The need to maintain a strong and united stand within the EU and NATO over the Ukraine crisis is crucial. Failure to do so could help Russia exploit the situation and create confusion within the Euro-Atlantic community.

It is important to be aware of a potential threat from an increasingly aggressive and revisionist Russia, even though it may not appear imminent and seems unlikely that Putin could want a war with NATO. Recent years have shown our dogged determination to maintain a dialogue with Russia. This approach, along with seeking ways to restore confidence must continue, but with constant realization that Russia’s words often do not match the actions. It remains in our mutual interest that Russia’s behaviour again becomes more constructive and reverts to a respect for international law. Until then, there would be grounds for “scaremongering” and we should continue with our actions to strengthen deterrence.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.