The concerns expressed by Latvian politician Martins Bondars during a visit to D.C. differ from U.S. optimism on Moscow.

December 8, 2016
By Paul D. Shinkman

Despite kind words exchanged by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, relations between Moscow and the West will never improve while the Russian president remains in office or even immediately following his departure, according to one politician from the Baltics, the region considered by many observers to be Russia’s next target for meddling.

“I don’t see that there will be changing relations with the West and Russia, either under Putin” or the next Russian president, said Latvian politician Martins Bondars, who visited D.C. this week with other delegates from the Baltic states to meet with senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill about how the U.S. during Trump’s administration will help defend Europe and its NATO partners.

NATO is “in a long period of aggressive behavior by Russia,” said Bondars, the leader of the Latvia Association of Regions political bloc and former chief-of-staff to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. He believes that the Cold War-era military alliance should prepare itself for “a very, very long period of instability.”

His visit comes at a critical time for his homeland and its neighbors, which many experts believe would be Russia’s primary target in an attempt to undermine NATO’s commitment to protecting its neighbors, and following the election of Donald Trump, who has openly questioned how involved the U.S. should remain in the alliance.

Bondars’ assessment of Russia differs from the kind of rhetoric espoused by American political and military leaders, who routinely blast Russia for its aggressive activities but also offer hope for reconciliation.

“Let me be clear, the United States does not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We don’t seek an enemy in Russia,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter routinely says in prepared remarks, most recently over the weekend at The Reagan Defense Forum in California. “But also make no mistake – we will defend our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords all of us.”

But even after Putin cedes power, Bondars says the former KGB officer will ensure whoever succeeds him will carry on his approaches to military deployments and foreign policy, and what have become alternative Russian systems of law, democracy and economics which are incompatible with others in Europe.

“What it will take to change it? Very long time,” Bondars said while speaking with a small group of reporters on Thursday. “It cannot be changed with [the] stroke of [a] pen, one law or another law, once decision or a different decision.”

He was among the delegates from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who traveled to Washington earlier this week to learn more about the intentions of the president-elect and his likely policies on working with European partners. The group met with members of the House Baltic Caucus, and on Thursday they consulted senior senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee.

McCain said in a statement he reaffirmed to the visitors the U.S. commitment to NATO and its obligations under Article 5 of its treaty to come to the assistance of any partner country that is attacked – a provision that has only been invoked once, by the U.S. in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“This effort reinforces America’s dedication to a strong transatlantic relationship,” McCain said, also referencing the NATO plan to deploy 1,000 troops to each of the Baltic States and to Poland early next year.

The Senate was scheduled to vote later Thursday on a defense bill that would also authorize $3.4 billion in military assistance to Europe called the European Deterrence Initiative, which the Pentagon announced earlier this year to offset what it considers provocative Russian activity along its western border.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and has since then continued to support separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. It also employs “hybrid warfare,” or tactics that cannot be immediately traced back to Moscow, such as deploying plainclothes soldiers into foreign conflict zones like Ukraine, and accusations it hacked the email server for the Democratic National Committee.

Officials within the Latvian defense ministry tell U.S. News privately the ministry is training its military in how to conduct insurgent warfare and raise guerilla militia were Russia to invade. The New York Times reported in November that troops in neighboring Estonia are training in to use the kind of improvised explosive devices employed by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If you want peace, get ready for war. This applies to Latvia right now, and Estonia and Lithuania,” Bondars said, when asked about the guerilla training. “We are not panicking about potential incidents with [a] third party, but we are doing our homework, very intensively, by training troops, raising awareness, by identifying the risks and trying to lower them, if there are some.”