Latvians keep calm but also keep allies, weapons close | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 30.11.2016
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Latvians keep calm but also keep allies, weapons close

Latvian defense spending has been rising for years and its latest boost comes not a moment too soon. Riga sees a need for all the mettle - and metal - it can muster as it watches for shifts in US and Russian policies.

Latvia is paying close attention to potential geopolitical developments, as US President-elect Donald Trump has suggested he may scale back US support to the NATO military alliance while Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to test the new leader's position.

The Latvian parliament passed a budget that will see the country's spending on defense rise from 1.4 percent of GDP this year to 1.7 percent next year and then up to the magic NATO number of 2 percent in 2018. Defense spending is one of the major factors Trump said he'd be looking at while gauging his enthusiasm for NATO's Article 5 obligation, which calls for the entire alliance to respond to attacks on a single member.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics doesn't appear too concerned yet. He's been repeatedly asked in recent weeks whether his country will be the scene of "World War Three," as so many headlines claim.

"Everyone outside Latvia should calm down," he said with a smile. "This is not going to be another Ukraine. It's not going to be another kind of 'hotspot' or problem spot for Europe."

Rinkevics had just taken a break from the parliament's budget talks for this interview, sharing the fact that there was only one category of spending that would be approved without debate: defense.

The foreign minister noted that increases in Latvian defense spending started long before any of Trump's threats about downsizing NATO. "We take our commitment [to NATO] seriously," he said, "and we don't have any reason to doubt" the United States will too, in case of what he calls a "contingency."

1,000 reasons to feel confident

He has multiple reasons to feel confident, 1,000 or so of them in the form of international troops to be stationed in Latvia early next year as NATO stands up a new battlegroup in each of the Baltic states and Poland. Latvian Defense Ministry State Secretary Janis Garisons said the new Canadian-led battlegroup makes clear to any potential attackers "our troops are here and if needed, more will come."

In addition, hundreds of members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team have been deployed in each of the buffer-zone countries since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea.

US Fallschirmjäger in Lettland (DW/T. Schultz)

US paratroopers are stationed in Latvia in part to reassure people in the country

First Sergeant Christopher Riley said he and the other paratroopers stationed in the Baltics were sent to both "provide reassurance" for the Latvians and to learn from them as they participate in joint exercises and NATO operations. Riley is among those practicing at a shooting range at Adazi Training Area, the largest in the Baltics, which used to be a valuable Soviet practice ground. Riley won't speculate on what kind of "enemy" the Americans may be preparing to fight, but he says it doesn't matter. "We can unleash the fury, the hammer of justice against any adversary that we might come up against," he said.

That's well appreciated by their counterparts in Latvia, which shares a 214-kilometer (133-mile) border with Russia. Major Uldis Gutmanis, chief of the military's mechanization training section, didn't mince words when addressing the bitter history of Latvia in the last world war.

"Now it feels like it was just a few days ago," Gutmanis said emotionally, watching his troops drill with their newly purchased combat vehicles. "We still have this feeling that we don't want to have Russian occupation here."

Gutmanis explained how the war split Latvia - even "father fought against son" - with roughly half fighting with the Soviets and half with the Nazi German side. "We lost up to a third of our population," he said sadly. Now roughly a third of Latvia's population is ethnically Russian, which Putin mentions at strategic moments as a potential excuse for his "intervention," as he did in statements on why Russia had annexed Crimea. Gutmanis said he has full confidence in NATO solidarity, but noted that Latvia is also "doing its homework" to provide maximum self-defense.

Watching what the big countries do

That's a theme reiterated by Latvians DW spoke with in downtown Riga. Laima Ziedina said she and friends watched the US elections and wondered if Russia would be empowered by a Trump victory. "As a smaller country," she said, "we are concerned about our future and our destiny. You watch and see" what bigger countries do. "Latvians still believe that being in NATO and being in the European Union mean something," she added.

At the same time, Ziedina said after Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014, some of her friends joined Latvia's National Guard, a voluntary force based loosely on the American version of standing military reinforcements. She said people had asked themselves what they would do if Latvia was among the Kremlin's next targets and decided they needed to be ready to fight back.

Garisons said he too is among the roughly 8,000 members of the rear guard force and added that soon the Defense Ministry will even have its own weapons depot for guard members. Most civilian recruits keep their firearms at home. But Garisons said he doesn't think it's overdoing it for him and his ministry colleagues to have armaments closer at hand during working hours.

"I think it says that we are ready and you know we have to be ready," he said.

Despite the foreign minister offering reassurances that Latvia won't be "another Ukraine," Garisons said he wants to make doubly sure of that.

"We don't want to be facing situations like in Crimea or in Donbas when you are surprised by something," he added. "We are living in a situation where you can't exclude anything."

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