By Paul Goble
April 21, 2014
Latvia may be as prepared as any small country next to a very large one to defend itself against a military invasion. It has a modernized military, albeit one trained for peacekeeping rather than national defense, and it is a member of NATO, on whose Article Five Latvians rely. At least, that is what most analysts in both Riga and the West now say.
But as Vladimir Putin has proved in Ukraine, one can occupy and annex part of a neighboring country and destabilize much of the rest of it without officially sending tanks and troops across the border by using more deniable means of subversion, including the provocation and exploitation of the attitudes of some of the population in the target country.
Given Putin’s past declarations about what he sees as the illegitimacy of NATO’s expansion eastward after 1989 and especially the inclusion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as member states and Russian subversion in Latvia already, it is now an open question whether the Kremlin leader may try to test and weaken NATO by further actions there.
That test would not necessarily take the form of an attempt to seize a portion of Latvia or force Riga to withdraw from the alliance, although some in Moscow might like to do either or both of these things. Instead, it could involve creating the kind of social and political instability that no defense alliance is designed to block and thus call its utility into question among some.
There are at least three reasons for concern on this point. First, Latvia’s demography and economy would seem to provide Moscow with opportunities. More than half of the population is Russian-speaking, a third is ethnically Russian, a slightly smaller share is made up of non-citizens, and there are tens of thousands of retired Soviet officers.
Moreover, the ethnic Russians and non-citizens are concentrated in the largest cities, where they have pluralities or even majorities, and Russian business interests form a disproportionate share of the economy, at least potentially giving Moscow levers it could deploy against the Latvian authorities.
Second, there is the longstanding problem of Latgale, a region in the southeast adjoining the Russian border most of whose population speaks what it believes is a distinct language as well as Russian, is much poorer than other regions of the country, and views itself as neglected.
And third, some Latvians have been expressing concern about the state of Latvia’s defense forces, noting that it has had trouble maintaining troop levels, has had to take many men from Latgale whose loyalty may be divided, and has in recent years lost many of its officers to retirement or resignation.
Concerns about each of these have intensified since the Russian Anschluss of Crimea, especially given Moscow’s actions regarding Latvia itself. Russian television had become so bombastic and anti-Latvian that Riga felt compelled to block Moscow channels lest they mobilize Russian speakers against it.
Worries about Latgale have intensified given Russian surveys there and Russian demonstrations in Moscow whose participants declared “Latgalia is a Russian land.” And when the media suggested that many in Latgale did not even know the name of the Latvian president, he scheduled a visit there.
And nervousness about the state of Latvian defense forces appears to be rising. A Riga lawyer, while saying he was unsure of what Moscow planned to do, called for the restoration of the draft to ensure that the military had enough men to be able to slow a Russian advance until NATO forces could arrive to repulse it.
Such worries are likely to continue to intensify as some Russian speakers and especially non-citizen activists stir the pot. Aleksandr Gaponenko, a leader of the Congress of Non-Citizens, said his group will hold a meeting in Riga this coming weekend to demand change, a meeting he described as “our Maidan”.
These concerns need to be kept in perspective: most Russian speakers in Latvia are loyal to that country, and few earlier Moscow efforts to provoke instability have achieved very much. As a result, Latvian officials and experts are confident that they do not face a Ukrainian scenario or even something short of that.
One Riga analyst argued last week that Latvia’s NATO membership prevents any Russian move like the one in Crimea or elsewhere in southeastern Ukraine because the alliance views any attack on one as an attack on all. And while she conceded that Russia could continue its campaign of subversion, she insisted that in Latvia, “Putin’s influence on ethnic Russians is limited.
That may all be true, but it may not be sufficient. On the one hand, most ethnic Russians in Ukraine opposed Moscow’s intervention, but that opposition did not block Russia from using a minority within a minority to advance its aims. As the ongoing violence in Ukraine shows, armed minorities can play a serious, even decisive role against more passive majorities.
An on the other, while few question that NATO would respond to an overt Russian military move into Latvia or any other NATO member country, the Western defense alliance is not designed to counter the kind of subversion that Moscow has already used in Ukraine and that it could deploy in Latvia to undermine that country’s independence and test the alliance as well.