June 21, 2016
Courtesy of World Affairs

NATO’s member states have agreed to base 4,000 troops in the Baltic states and Poland. That is extremely welcome news in these Baltic Sea countries, whose governments have long been lobbying for exactly such a presence.

But, while NATO allies regularly conduct naval exercises in this tiny ocean, the alliance doesn’t have a permanent naval presence there. Now Latvia is proposing a novel arrangement: a NATO presence in an old Soviet port.

Until Latvia‘s occupation ended in 1991, its port city of Liepaja housed an immense Soviet naval base. Large parts of the Soviet Union’s Baltic fleet including submarines were based there, as was nuclear weapons storage. With 26,000 military staff working for the naval base, which took up one third of the city, it was perhaps not surprising that the Soviet authorities designated the port area a closed city that did not appear on any maps.

Today the Port of Liepaja is very much present on maps, operating a thriving cargo business and even welcoming the occasional yacht. But the military part of the old Soviet port, which has been cleaned up since the Soviet navy departed in a huff, has not found new use. That has prompted a new idea among Latvian politicians and defense officials: the military port could host NATO navies. “Since the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s incursion into Eastern Ukraine, NATO has been expanding its forward presence in its northeast territory, primarily through an increased presence of ground troops and enhanced air policing,” notes Ojars Kalnins, chairman of the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “What has not been addressed is maritime security. Liepaja offers NATO a dedicated port for developing a Baltic Sea maritime strategy. It’s ice-free, easily accessible and ideally suited for infrastructure development that would serve NATO needs.” Latvia’s naval diving training center is located at the port, and Latvian officials say the military port’s surrounding area simply needs some infrastructure investment in order to become operational.

Kalnins, a member of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, has already hosted visits to the port by a number of fellow Parliamentary Assembly members. And even though N ATO ships in Liepaja would certainly benefit Latvia in particular, the Latvians have hit upon a crucial point. Given that the Baltic Sea is the center of an increasingly close standoff between NATO members and Russia – NATO, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian navy vessels sail in the tiny ocean, where Russian jets have buzzed US ships there several times — establishing a steady NATO presence at a Baltic Sea port would be a logical step. The Baltic Sea is also an extremely busy commercial shipping route, with both Russia and its regional neighbors depending on it for exports and imports.

Like the 4,000 planned NATO ground troops in the region, it would also serve as a form of deterrence.  “Apart from the historical irony, Liepaja is obviously of considerable military logistic utility and could be part of a more serious practical deterrent strategy if properly characterized,” says Vice Admiral Sir Anthony Dymock, a former British navy officer and UK military representative to NATO. “But it’s also capable of dividing the US from Europe, European nations between themselves and some – particularly Germany – within themselves. Key elites’ economic self-interest in countries like Germany routinely masquerades as constructive engagement and there is fear of provoking Russia.” Indeed, NATO staff and vessels on permanent rotation at the port of Liepaja could be interpreted as an escalation of tensions with Russia.

So far, allies’ response to the Latvian proposal has been to wait and see. “We were hoping the US European Reassurance Initiative’s $3.4 billion could be used here, but I’ve been told the US is focusing on ground troops and has no plans for investment in naval capabilities,” Kalnins reports. “Although NATO had neglected Baltic Sea security until now, there’s growing recognition of its importance. Allies response to the Liepaja proposal has been positive in principle. At least there appears to be an agreement that theoretically Liepaja is ideally suitable.”

Over the weeks leading up to NATO’s Warsaw Summit, the alliance is likely to focus on the accession of Montenegro as well as the small but symbolic move the 4,000 ground troops represent. But the Latvians will keep lobbying for Liepaja. They seem to have an attractive proposition.