For the tiny Baltic countries once ruled by Moscow, the threat of a Russian invasion is not just Ukraine’s problem. It’s an ever-present menace on their doorstep.
Take Latvia, for instance.
Last year, the country’s Ministry of Defence distributed a crisis response manual for its 1.9 million people that devoted six pages to what to do if the country “is threatened by an external enemy.”
The manual appeals to Latvians to avoid collaborating with “occupation forces” and vows that their government would not capitulate in the event of an invasion – so any propaganda to the contrary should be ignored. “Latvia will be protected!” the brochure says in capital letters. “Any information about surrender or non-resistance is fake news! Together with NATO allies we will protect each and every one of you!”
Even if control over some Latvian territory is “lost as a result of military operations,” the fight will continue, the government document says. It also provides a handy map that includes the location of Camp Adazi, where a Canadian-led NATO battle group is stationed.
This kind of government outreach in a Western democracy may seem alien to most people in Canada, which shares the responsibility to defend North America with the United States, a superpower.
It is second nature, however, in a region that spent 50 years under Moscow’s heel as part of the Soviet Union. Russia’s heavily fortified Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad lies southwest of Lithuania, which separates it from the rest of Russia, while Latvia and Estonia border the Russian Armed Forces’ Western Military District.
Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview last week that he doesn’t see an imminent threat – but explained the Baltic states fear they are next on the menu should Russia move on Ukraine. Moscow has long complained of feeling encircled, as countries once affiliated with the Soviet Union have joined the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.
It was only last year that a haunting new monument was completed in downtown Riga, the most populous city in the Baltics. It is dedicated to the Latvians who were shipped to Soviet labour camps – a period that people here simply call “the Occupation.” Part of the monument, complete with sound effects, evokes the hellish journey that carried thousands to inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union.
Janis Garisons, Latvia’s State Secretary for the Ministry of Defence, said his father-in-law’s parents were deported to a Soviet gulag. They returned eight years later, “psychologically broken,” said Mr. Garisons, who lived under Soviet rule himself until he was a young adult.
He said Latvians fear that, “if Ukraine falls, we will be next.”
“I know what it means to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I would never want my kids to experience the same,” he said. “We will not be dragged back to the other side of the curtain.”
NATO bolstered its presence in the Baltics and Poland after Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and to counter Moscow’s continuing efforts to destabilize Kyiv by backing militants in eastern Ukraine. Since 2017 Canada has led a NATO battle group posted near Riga that includes 540 Canadian soldiers – part of the alliance’s deterrence campaign.
The Article 5 collective defence provision of NATO’s founding pact says an armed attack on one member would be considered an attack on all.
But the likely speed of a Russian invasion would leave the Baltics to initially fend for themselves – which is why they practise for all sorts of scenarios unimaginable in many other Western countries.
“We understand that in any scenario we will be the first responders,” Mr. Garisons said.
Last September, Latvian government ministries and municipalities staged elaborate training exercises that included responding to the sabotage of critical infrastructure, which the government expects would occur in the first phase of any invasion.
Mr. Garisons said Latvia has worked closely with banks to plan for an attack that includes severing vital communication and internet cables under the Baltic Sea. “Let’s say a cable is cut: Do all the banks store their data here? What if power is cut?” he said.
In 2021, the national guard also took part in a downtown Riga exercise that practised how to respond to the takeover of a government ministry by armed insurgents.
Lithuania’s vice-minister of national defence, Margiris Abukevicius, said that while NATO’s protection is reassuring, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a wild card. “Nobody in the Kremlin accepted our NATO membership” when the Baltic states joined the alliance in 2004, he said in an interview.
“We are confident in NATO, in Article 5 commitments, but we are living by a neighbour who is unpredictable, and so you have to be prepared for every scenario.”
His biggest concern right now is a buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, an extremely close ally of Moscow that borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The BBC reported last week that an estimated 30,000 Russian soldiers are in Belarus for what Minsk and Moscow say are military exercises.
“It doesn’t look like a military exercise,” Mr. Abukevicius said.
Belarus, which is increasingly considered to be under Russia’s control, offers Moscow a rapid staging ground from which to move on the Baltics or seize a land corridor to join Belarusian territory with Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The strip of land in question is called the Suwalki Corridor or Suwalki Gap.
The Suwalki Gap is a major concern for NATO. If Russia were to take it, the Baltics’ land connection with mainland Europe would be severed. If that were to happen, Mr. Abukevicius said, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would “become West Berlin” – a reference to the Cold War-era free enclave surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany.
He said a permanent Russian troop buildup in Belarus would be a “game changer” for NATO, because it would give Baltic countries even less time to respond to a military offensive.
“If we treat Belarus as a de facto part of Russia’s Western Military District, it should change NATO calculations completely.”
Like his Baltic allies, Mr. Abukevicius is asking NATO members for more troops and air defence assets – airplanes, rocket launchers and even Patriot surface-to-air missile systems – to boost deterrence capabilities.
“It’s important to send this signal before Russia does something, not after.”
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