Why Latvia Matters (Part II)

  • 2010-09-02
  • By Monika Hanley

RIGA - In looking at all the ways that Latvia and the Baltics ‘matter’ in the first part of this series, we will now look more closely at the military situation and address the oft-mentioned, but rarely deeply analyzed scenario of “what if Russia re-invaded.” A seemingly provocative question to be sure, but unlikely? This piece will attempt to bring together regional political analysis as well as the government’s views on this very issue.

Let us just examine, for the sake of argument, the benefits of Russia regaining former territories in the Baltics. From an economic standpoint, the ports and industry would be a large gain, an expansion of Kaliningrad so to speak, bringing the Russian border into wider contact with the European Union as well.

The disadvantages, besides the obvious breaches of law and an international outcry, one could argue, would outweigh the advantages. Militarily speaking, should the Russian Federation regain Baltic territories, the new land border with Poland and sea border with Sweden would be much stronger than the current weak Baltic border. With a larger military force, Poland and Sweden would be contentious nations with which to handle border business and trade.

Putting all these hypothetical situations aside, one can still see the tangible threat from the Baltic’s eastern neighbor, but is this fear necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps it keeps a region alert and aware of an all-too-likely re-occurrence.
In speaking to The Baltic Times, political analyst and head of the Lithuanian Special Mission to Afghanistan, Aleksandras Matonis, admits that a massive military invasion from Russia (1940s style) is difficult to imagine, but on the other hand, the all too recent Russian and Belarusian joint military exercises (such as ZAPAD in 2009) do simulate the very scenario that many say would never occur.

“Personally, I concur with those who say that military confrontation between the Baltic States and Russia could have a limited military action style, similar to the Georgian-Russian conflict in 2008,” he said.
“I could imagine that Russia could inspire a domestic conflict involving the Russian speaking minority, or use civil disturbance (or riots) caused by economic or political reasons,” Matonis continued, citing the examples of the Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn and riots following unpopular economic measures in both Riga and Vilnius. 

“Such events could hypothetically lead to Russia’s decision to protect its compatriots abroad, as the Moscow official line declares, by military means, for example, sending a ‘peacekeeping force’ and imposing maritime or air space blockades. Obviously, such measures would have grave international consequences, therefore I consider them possible only in case of a deepening split in NATO’s unity and continuous debate over the consistency of Article 5,” stated Matonis.
While the image of tanks rolling onto the cobbled streets of the Baltic capitals is something that many imagine when picturing a theoretical re-invasion, a more serious threat may not be in terms of military intervention. Matonis emphasized three areas: Russian investment in strategic objects and further pressure using energy levers, Russian influence in national politics and widespread information operations. These processes already began years ago.

In the event of a Russian military invasion, there are two possible responses that may be expected, according to defense analysts. Despite the fact that the Baltics are members of the EU and NATO, Matonis argues on one side that the Baltic States would not be able to be defended, and are able to be occupied rather quickly.

“One could say that NATO would not implement Article 5 obligations, the Baltic States are undefendable, as “nothing could withstand the military might of Russia; it would take Russians just hours to overwhelm us,” said Matonis, adding that the argument is akin to one between atheists and believers, with each side having its case and arguments.
Even with NATO patrolling Baltic airspace, it is unreasonable to assume that a split-second reaction would take place in the event of an invasion. Latvia, with its mighty air force consisting of a grand total of three helicopters would understandably be instantly overwhelmed and unable to do much in the way of defense.

Lithuania, for example, reduced the volunteer forces by half, stemming from what Matonis calls an “unbalanced development of the Armed Forces.”
“This led to an increase of expeditionary capabilities and a decrease in domestic defense capabilities,” he said. “I tend to blame the politicians, who despite multi-party consensus on NATO and defense goals and pre-crises growth of the economy, failed to increase the GDP share for defense [comparing the approx 1.5 -1.6 percent of GDP 6-7 years ago and less than 1 percent of GDP in 2010],” Matonis continued.

Latvia’s Minister of Defense, Imants Liegis, also mentioned the effect of the crisis on the military. “We’ve taken the opportunity of the crisis to carry out reforms. We’ve reduced the number of headquarters as well as the number of colonels and generals,” said Liegis. By cutting from the top, however, the military may be at an unbalanced disadvantage and bottom heavy and is seeing a similar situation as with the Lithuanian neighbors.

In addition to extreme budget and personnel cuts, the region’s fears were stirred again with the Russian negotiations of purchasing four French warships. Liegis, along with much of the Eastern European population voices his concern. “Russia has been in discussions with France, the Netherlands and Spain. A Russian general said that if he had had this equipment at the time of the attack on Georgia, it could have been done in 40 minutes and not 24 hours.”

Despite cuts, a military imbalance and a whole slew of other defense issues, there is one thing that has remained stable (though not always visible), and that is the cooperation and solidarity between the three Baltic nations. Though one could argue that another “Baltic Way,” with singing and hand holding stretching across 370 miles is far from the solidarity and kinship that most Balts feel today, the governments and militaries have become more intertwined and cooperative than ever before.

Minister Liegis also pointed this out, saying “There is no closer form of cooperation in NATO than between the three Baltic countries.”

In fact, it may be difficult to name another region whose diaspora and citizens shed literal tears of joy at being accepted into the military alliance in 2004. And why? Because to them it represented a huge turning point of acceptance and, as 82 year-old Anna Birnbaume put it at the time: “It means that Russia can never hurt us again.”

Joining the EU in the same year, it may be said that perhaps one alliance has proven to be more useful and effective than the other, though that is another story all together.

So, is there reason to worry? Perhaps it is nothing to lose sleep over, however, the scenario as we have seen is not impossible. Many thought that what happened in Georgia (though neither an EU nor NATO member) was not possible, either. In either case, it is best to remain aware of the current political, military and economic climate. And indeed, should the Russian bear growl and show its teeth, the (currently less potent) Baltic tigers will certainly be the first to show their claws.