Latvia is gearing up to defend itself in the event of a Russian invasion through Belarus, Politico reports.
As tensions with Russia ratchet up, the small Baltic country of Latvia also feels threatened. In addition to the 100,000 Russian troops at the border with Ukraine, Russian soldiers and arms are also moving through Belarus, which borders Latvia.
Latvians fear that Russia will come for them as well, and that those European governments further west of Russia underestimate the threat Russia poses to countries like Latvia that are not only in its close proximity but are also former Soviet satellites.
“If war starts, they will come here first,” one Latvian living in a town near the border predicted to Politico.
Like other Balkans states that are NATO members, Latvia has been calling for increased NATO presence in its country. Four permanent multinational NATO battalions are already stationed in Poland and the Baltics. But more are needed right now, they argue.
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks spoke out to the Financial Times about NATO, and particularly German, naivete in the face of Russia’s saber rattling. According to Pabriks, western Europe has the luxury of focusing on “gas, exports, and cooperation” with Russia, but for Latvia and other countries deep in eastern Europe, relations with Russia are “existential.”
“Our past doesn’t give us much chance of trusting Russia. It would be death for us,” Pabriks said.
Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has no nostalgia for the Soviet era.
Baltic states, many of which were swallowed by Soviet Russia during World War II, have criticized Germany for refusing to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, and for preventing Estonia from sending old German howitzers.
“Germans have already forgotten that Americans were granting their security in the Cold War,” Pabriks told the Financial Times. “They should [remember]. It’s their moral duty.”
He also called on Germany to step up its leadership role in NATO and in European defense. He accused the European economic powerhouse of dividing Europe by its economic alliance with the oppressive regimes Russia and China. Some in the German government are eager to open the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which would bring natural gas directly from Russia to Germany; former Chancellor Angela Merkel had fostered closer economic ties to China during her long tenure.
“How are you acting yourself when it comes to Lithuania, Russia, China? It’s immoral and hypocritical. It’s driving a division line between west and east in Europe,” Pabriks said.
Lithuania, another Baltic state that borders Belarus and had been part of the Soviet Union, incurred the anger of China by allowing Taiwan to open a diplomatic office in the country. The European Union has filed a case against China with the World Trade Organization for blocking Lithuanian imports and pressuring European companies to take Lithuanian goods out of their export stocks. However, German companies had threatened to leave Lithuania because of its relations with Taiwan.
But Latvia isn’t waiting with its fingers crossed for Germany and NATO to change its defense strategy or negotiate a peace with Russia.
Latvian President Egils Levits has called on Latvians to join in protecting their country. The volunteer National Guard is welcoming new recruits and putting them through basic training near its border with Belarus, according to Politico. The hope is to grow the National Guard from its current membership of some 8,300 soldiers to 12,000.
Additionally, Latvia’s defense strategy includes better monitoring its border with Belarus to safeguard against a stealth Russian invasion, much like the one that happened in Ukraine in 2014 when the first Russian soldiers in the country arrived covertly, clad in masks and without military insignia.
Pabriks has also proposed raising defense spending from 2.3% of the GDP to 2.5%.
Latvia is prepared to do everything it can to maintain its independence from Russia, little though it may seem, compared to the fire power that could come from the East.“We will fight,” Lieutenant Colonel Oskars Omuls told Politico. “That is what the Latvian taxpayers pay us to do and that is what they expect. We should be and we will be ready.”