By Charles D. Kelley
May 25, 2014
I recently spoke with my Latvian-born mother about the danger her native land faces due to Putin’s aggression. My mother was 8 years old in 1940 when her homeland was brutally occupied by Russia for one year. Latvians call those days the “Year of Terror”. Ironically, Stalin used a bogus Latvian request for protection as a pretext for invasion. Putin uses the same pretext today to annex Crimea and threaten Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltics.
When Mom was 9, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, pushing the Russian army out of Latvia. The Nazi occupation lasted more than three years. She was 12 when the Russians drove the Germans out and began a 47-year reign of terror. How she rejoiced, in 1991, when Latvians tore down Lenin’s statue and declared her independence to a jubilant world. Yeltsin’s Russia recognized it as a fait accompli.
But this is 2014. Will Russia invade Latvia for the third time in her lifetime? Does Mom have reason for worry? The historical and political similarities connecting Stalin to Putin, Latvia and the Crimea, and Latvia and Russia are remarkable.
Putin has announced his intent to restore the borders of the Old Russian Empire of Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). He reasons that since Crimea was historically part of Russia it should be included in Modern Russia. Of course Putin doesn’t acknowledge that the powerful Peter couldn’t defeat the fiercely resistant Tatars. It was only after decades of aggression that Crimea was first conquered and occupied by Russia in 1783. In the ensuing decades Crimea was Russified as hundreds of thousands from Russia were sent there to live, work and neutralize the indigenous culture.
Latvia was forcibly annexed into Peter the Great’s Russia in 1710. Since that time Latvia has been free from Russia’s grip for only 48 years: (1) from 1918-1940 – when Latvia was independent for the first time; (2) from 1941-1944 – when the Nazis were the occupiers; and (3) from 1991 until the present. In total, Latvia has been occupied by Russia for 256 out of the last 304 years. This is longer than the entire existence of the United States. Latvia was also Russified during the Soviet years so that today, in the capital city of Riga, only 40% are ethnic Latvian.
For Putin, it stands to reason that if Crimea historically belongs to Russia, why not Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? Incredibly, a recent poll indicated that one in three in Latvia agree with his agenda. These are mostly Russians who get their daily news from Moscow.
But that which gives Crimea her greatest value transcends history. It is about location, location, location. Crimea’s great ports on the Black Sea are highly desirable, militarily, politically and economically. Likewise, Latvia’s location on the Baltic Sea and her three major port cities are coveted by Putin for the same reasons. During Latvia’s most recent Soviet occupation there were dozens of Russian military bases throughout the land. If Russia can re-establish Liepaja as the home of a new powerful naval base, Putin would have an ideal place for nuclear submarines…just like in the good old days.
Latvians understand Russia’s aggressive history and Putin’s twisted mentality. They have cause to be anxious. Most doubt NATO will protect them from Russia. As World War II ended, the Yalta Conference (in Crimea) decided the fate of Eastern Europe. Stalin promised help, free elections and independence. Roosevelt believed him and Churchill was helpless to stop him. As a result, millions were enslaved for almost 50 years.
Similar things are happening in the same places right now. As Putin exploits Western (especially European) timidity, once again Crimea is on center stage. Russia continues to multiple forces on the borders of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Latvia and Estonia, creating pretexts for occupation while cloaking its real intent. Putin is executing his plan with the precision of a chess master.
Latvians have felt betrayed for decades. Their cynicism toward the West is not unfounded. I hope this time they will be proven to be wrong.
Reason for Hope
I hate military build up and war. Yet, apart from serious NATO intervention, Russian Special Forces will keep advancing until the occupation of the Baltics becomes a fait accompli. NATO forces must be positioned in the Baltics. A few weeks ago, I thought this is something that NATO would not risk. But I might be wrong.
The US has sent six F-16s to patrol the skies over the Baltic nations. This summer US Marines will conduct military exercises alongside Latvians. The Mayor of Liepaja, Uldis Sesks, announced his city’s decision to officially invite NATO to establish a base in the Port of Liepaja, near the border of Lithuania. The Mayor pointed out that the Port of Liepaja is already the headquarters of the Latvian Navy, and has more than enough free territory. He also added that the city’s economy would also benefit from the stationing of NATO ships.
Will this, plus the array of political and economic sanctions, force Putin to retreat (or at least quit advancing)? One can never be sure, but now is the time to demonstrate grit by applying pressure on Russia in every category. If not, my mother may see her homeland succumb to the same aggressor for the third time in her lifetime.
Charles D. Kelley is a Latvian-American with dual citizenship. He is the president of Bridge Builders International.