Latvian political leaders are pitching a plan to boost defence spending to better deter Russian expansionism, and are asking Canada and Western allies for military assistance to bolster the NATO alliance’s eastern flank.
Rising tensions between NATO and Moscow over the future of Ukraine have added fresh anxiety to long-standing fears among Latvia and its two Baltic state neighbours, Lithuania and Estonia, that they might be next if Kyiv falls under Russian control.
Latvia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Artis Pabriks and Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins are pitching the country’s parliament on raising military spending to 2.5 per cent of annual economic output from a 2.3-per-cent target. Latvia, with a population of 1.9 million, is spending about $1-billon on defence in 2022.
Mr. Pabriks said Latvia can’t properly equip itself alone so he’s been calling U.S. politicians. He said he would also like help from Canada, among others, if possible.
Appeals for military aid came as Canada announced it’s extending a training mission in Ukraine and sending non-lethal defence gear, but opted against sending any offensive weapons as Kyiv had asked.
Latvia is already Canada’s biggest military deployment: about 540 soldiers. Since 2017, Canada has led a NATO battle group in the country in an effort to counter Russian aggression after Moscow’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and its continuing destabilization of Eastern Ukraine.
“We are very grateful to Canadians for their presence here. We hope this presence will be extended as long as it’s needed for us,” Mr. Pabriks said in an interview Thursday in Riga.
“If the Canadian government, if Canadian society, would consider that they could grant us any kind of financial assistance, we would be very happy about that because we really need money for our security.”
Mr. Pabriks argued it’s in Canada’s national interest to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, saying that one day Moscow may try to press its advantage in the Arctic. Russia is Canada’s northern neighbour and countries have filed overlapping claims for the Arctic seabed and the riches it holds.
The Latvian government will have a chance to raise the matter of increased military support directly with Canada’s Defence Minister, Anita Anand, next week when she is expected to visit the Canadian military deployment. The same trip will also take her to Ukraine, where 200 soldiers are training their Ukrainian counterparts in skills from sniper shooting to artillery shelling.
The Latvian politician said Baltic states deserve to live with the same sense of security that Western European countries far from the Russian border enjoy. He said allies must recognize the perils and costs that come with neighbouring Russia.
“It’s time for Baltic countries and Poland to receive larger military assistance because we need to equip our troops and we need to provide our citizens the same [security] guarantees as the citizens of Spain, France, Italy or Germany,” he said.
Ukraine is not the only potential trouble spot for Mr. Pabriks.
Russia has massed as many as 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine in recent weeks, but Baltic states have also kept a close eye on the number of soldiers Moscow has been deploying to Belarus, which flanks Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The BBC on Wednesday reported an estimated 30,000 Russian troops are in Belarus for what both Minsk and Moscow say are military exercises.
Mr. Pabriks 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 establish a land corridor to connect Belarus with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
“Belarus has ceased to exist as an independent country,” he said. “Which means a surprise attack to the borders of all Baltic countries and Poland can happen much faster now because Belarus is now controlled by Russian troops.”
He said Latvia feels safe as long as Ukraine remains independent and resists the kind of subordinate relationship that Belarus has with Moscow. Russia has asked for guarantees that NATO will not expand membership to include Ukraine and other former Soviet states – a request that has been refused.
The Latvian politician considers Russia’s broader target in the Ukraine crisis to be sowing division among NATO members. Germany, for instance, under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has declined to take the harder line on Russia that major allies such as Britain or United States have.
“The target is only partly Ukraine. The larger target is beyond Ukraine, the unity of NATO,” Mr. Pabriks said of Russia. “Because if we fail in correctly answering to Putin in Ukraine, then that will definitely be interpreted in the Kremlin as weakness, as appeasement and will only encourage further aggression.”
He said Latvia believes the Baltics are next if Ukraine ends up like Belarus, bending to Russia’s will.
“If Ukraine falls to Russia … then we are next in line, that is very clear.”
In an interview this week, Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, played down the suggestion his country might pose a threat to Latvia or other Baltic states.
He suggested Canadian troops are only in Latvia “because at some point you [Canada] and Western allies decided that you needed to look tough.”
Mr. Stepanov said Russia understands that the Baltic states “have historic fears and … grievances against the former Soviet Union – but Russia is not the Soviet Union.”
The Russian envoy said the three Baltic states have created an “anti-Russia faction inside NATO,” blocking efforts at a more stable relationship between the alliance and Moscow.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Latvia’s Mr. Karins spoke Thursday. The Prime Minister’s Office said the two leaders “shared their concerns about Russia’s aggressive and destabilizing actions in and around Ukraine, and underlined the need for Russia to engage constructively in diplomacy.”
With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa
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