Baltic defense back on the front burner

  • 2014-03-07
  • From wire reports, RIGA

In an interview on the LNT television channel on March 7, the former head of Latvia’s Constitutional Protection Bureau Janis Kazocins said that Russia is carrying out its aggressive activities in Ukraine at the moment because Russian President Vladimir Putin is afraid of the Ukraine scenario playing out in his country, which could ultimately force him from power, reports LETA.

''Putin sees what is happening in Ukraine as a threat to himself. If this can happen in Ukraine, it can also happen in Russia, thus Putin must thwart the success of the Ukrainian opposition at all costs,'' Kazocins believes.

According to Kazocins, the Western reaction to the events taking place in Ukraine shows that it does not really understand how important Ukraine is to Russia. He said that the Crimea is one of the birthplaces of Russia itself, and there is a reason why Putin says that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, but just in different countries.

Kazocins also believes the West has not taken account how much the events in Kiev's Independence Square was a personal insult to Putin, as the triumph of the demonstrators in Kiev overshadowed the Sochi Olympics.

The former head of the Constitutional Protection Bureau believes that Putin's main goal is to create a Eurasian union, which is not possible without Ukraine. Even a Ukraine that has been split apart is not in Russia's interests, as western Ukraine will most certainly not become a part of such a union, and would be openly hostile towards Russia and could become NATO member, meaning that the military alliance would move closer to Russian borders.

''The situation is very complicated at the moment, as Russia's ambitions means that it does not really have any way back. Furthermore, the West should do everything it can to prevent an military conflict, as it is always easier to start a war than it is to stop one,'' he added.

Asked how safe Latvian can feel in the current situation, Kazocins emphasized that Latvia's membership of many international organizations put it in a completely different situation than Ukraine and Georgia. Speaking about defense capabilities, Kazocins said that in 1938, Latvia's spent 25 percent of its budget on defense, but this still was not enough to counter Russia. ''We must continue to strengthen ties with Western partners, as well as finally increase defense spending to two percent of GDP, so that we demonstrate to our NATO partners that we care about our security,'' he said.

Raising the alarm

As Russian aggression in the Crimea increase, NATO countries review their military preparedness.

U.S. fighter jets go to Lithuania as the crisis in Ukraine deepens. Poland talks about modernizing its military. Latvia calls for more defense spending. Traditionally neutral Sweden calls for a "doctrinal shift" in defence, says Reuters.

After a sense of playing second fiddle for years while NATO's eyes were on wars such as Afghanistan, some European countries near Russia's borders are now planning to spend more money on defense as well as hoping for more NATO resources.

Many government officials in the region have felt for years that their warnings of Russian assertiveness have fallen on deaf ears in Washington and with NATO. Suddenly, as Russia seizes control of Ukraine's Crimea region, they are relishing new-found attention - and with it plans to expand defenses, from fighter jets to missile systems.

Some plans may be small in European terms - Lithuania's total defense budget, for example, is around 280 million euros. But, often accompanied by anti-Russian rhetoric, the moves reflect how the region's security is now back on the agenda.

"After the events in Ukraine, the Russian aggression, the need to increase spending will be better understood by Lithuanian people, and there will be more support for it," Lithuania Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told Reuters.

President Vladimir Putin's justification for intervening in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers there has alarmed many in the Baltics, which have their own ethnic Russian minorities whose rights Moscow says are being undermined.

The Baltics and Poland were all part of the Soviet bloc until just over two decades ago. They have long harbored deep suspicions about Moscow's intentions in the region as they increasingly turn to the West. All are now members of the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

"There has been a concern that U.S. and NATO are focusing on other parts in the world, such as Afghanistan or China, and not giving enough attention to Eastern Europe," said Allan Sikk, a senior lecturer at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London.

After Russia's military intervention in Georgia in 2008, NATO was reported to have organized a Baltic defense contingency plan - something new for the region, but on which the alliance declines to comment.

"My guess is that there is a longer term change now in the cards, and it will be a major change," said Sikk.