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Shoring up defenses in the Baltic

Gederts Gelzis, Riga, LatviaMarch 28, 2014

In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Baltic States are engaged in intense talks with NATO to step up security in the region. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia welcome plans for more NATO troops.

Lithuanian soldier on NATO manuvers.
Image: Gatis Dieziņš

Russia's annexation of Crimea has prompted a radical shake-up of how the Baltic States are thinking about their defense needs. Events in Ukraine are bringing back memories of the 50-year-long Soviet Union occupation of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and it's making some feel nervous.

"Well, I feel strange because you never know what will happen. There is sort of a feeling of security because we're in the EU and NATO," said Sandra Gudrite, a 25-year-old woman from Salaspils. "So nothing really should happen, but anyway, you don't really know what Putin could come up with next."

Gudrite expresses the fears of many. It would seem the countries' governments and military leaders take these fears seriously too because they are in the midst of intensive talks with their allies in NATO to strengthen security across the whole Baltic region.

"We will now take immediate steps to increase the intensity of NATO drills here. We want to have a larger presence of NATO's forces as soon as we can," said Janis Sarts, state secretary of the ministry of defense in Latvia.

Sarts says that Russia has been busy investing in its military capabilities over recent years.

Russia's periphery: Who's next?:Putin# has made evident his interest in the Baltic States too by establishing an airbase for helicopters in Ostrov, Pskov Oblast near the borders of Latvia and Estonia. The airbase is intended for such military helicopters as Ka-52, Mi-34, Mi-28 and others.

"That is a recent development," Sarts explained to DW. "[and it] of course, raises the question of why there is a need for such a base, especially given its geographic location. The base has an offensive capability [too]," he clarifies.

Boots on the ground

There were 37 registered cases last year of NATO fighter jets, which patrol the airspace above the Baltic States, intercepting Russian military planes flying near the Latvian borders.

Lithuanian fighter jets patrol the skies for NATO
Last year there were 37 cases of NATO jets intercepting Russian planes flying near Baltic borders.Image: Normunds Mežiņš

"I welcome the decisions of the US, the UK and also France to send additional planes to support air policing in the Baltic skies," said Urmas Reinsalu, the Estonian Minister of Defense. "For us it is a very important issue that NATO is capable of acting." He goes on to explain that even when ISAF (the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan) has ended, the Baltics need to know that NATO will uphold its collective self-defense commitments. Reinsalu adds that, in his opinion, what would act as a strong deterrent would be a permanent NATO presence right across the Baltic region.

"I would welcome, particularly American troops," he stated, adding that they, above all, would be essential for providing additional security in the region. "If their permanent presence is not possible, then rotating army units would be good [instead]."

Estonia is the only country in the Baltic States which already spends two percent of its GDP on defense -the minimum amount each NATO country is expected to invest in its military. Latvia now spends 0.9 percent of its GDP and plans to gradually achieve the two percent threshold by 2020. Lithuania's current commitments are 0.8 percent of GDP in Lithuania.

"The current plan is that we will have an increase of 0.1 as a percentage of GDP next year," says Vaidotas Urbelis, Political Director of the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defense. "We will continue with this increase, proportionate to supply, going up 0.1 per cent of GDP every year at least until we reach our two per cent benchmark."

A 'love-hate' relationship with Russia

While Latvian politicians might pledge to spend more on defense, the country's economy is hugely dependent on Russia. That's why the country is reluctant to annoy its neighbor too much.

Lithuanian street scene in the capital Riga.
There is slight unease on the streets of Riga at what Putin could do next.Image: Ģederts Ģelzis

"Estonians and Lithuanians are in a better position than Latvians," says Zaneta Ozolioa, professor of politics at the University of Latvia. "We have been repeating the mantra in our economy that Russia is a big market and that we have to cooperate with Russia."

"The fact is [though] that we have actually shot ourselves in the foot," adds Ozolioa. "It was just a myth that Russia and the Central Asian countries are predictable states."

There's another factor too, which puts Latvia in a riskier position than Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia has a Russian speaking minority of around 550 thousand - the largest in the Baltic States. And it would provide a good pretext for Putin to bring in his army should he feel the need to "protect" the Russian speakers there.

No ethnic tensions?

Despite the fears, Latvians and Russians are generally on good terms. But it was only back in 2012 when the last lot of tensions arose between the two. That was because of a referendum held to decide if Russian should be considered as a second official language in Latvia. When the referendum eventually failed, the tensions faded.

People lay flowers at the freedom memorial in Riga, Lithuania.
The recent Soviet past may be gone but not forgotten. Freedom is important to the Baltics.Image: Ģederts Ģelzis

"Latvians are simply more willing to give in and they usually switch to Russian," explained Gudrite to DW. She thinks that there shouldn't be any objections from the Russians about their life in Latvia.

"They have all the rights and freedoms. They are mostly served in Russian and there shouldn't be any problems at all with them living here."

One ethnic Russian, Aleksandrs Sanatovs, a 49 year old family man would seem to bear out her analysis. He smilingly spoke to DW, explaining, "you know, I think that people are quite nervous at the moment, but there's no reason for it," He has lived happily in Riga for many years.

"The situation [between Russia and Latvia] is normal and I think that nothing will happen," says Sanatovs and adds that there's actually no need to think about it at all.

But despite his positivity, the governments of the Baltic States will continue to keep a nervous eye on their Russian neighbor. Most said they would continue to be open to NATO moves to shore up their defenses rather than risk leaving windows of opportunity for a situation like Crimea to unfold on their territory in the future. For the moment, the promise of more "boots on the ground" would appear to be a reassuring prospect to some of NATO's newest members.