Earlier this month, a Russian warship entered Latvia’s exclusive economic zone, some nine nautical miles from the country’s territorial waters. Considering that Russian warships have already approached Latvian waters some 50 times this year, according to figures from Latvia’s Ministry of Defence, it was not an altogether unsurprising visit. Russian military planes, meanwhile, have come close to Latvian airspace some 200 times this year. Latvia’s defence minister Raimonds Vejonis tells Newsweek at his office in Riga, that his country is prepared should its mighty neighbour to the east decide to invade: “We have special plans of action. Working with the Ministry of Interior, we conduct exercises to train our troops and policemen for different scenarios. But of course we need more co-operation with our neighbours and our Nato allies as well.”
Indeed, the Baltic states, long accused of exaggerating Russian threats, now see themselves proven right. “We Estonians didn’t think that the history ended two decades ago”, says Sven Sakkov, Estonia’s undersecretary of defence. “The 2008 war in Georgia was a wakeup call but most of Europe hit the snooze button.” Sakkov calls the current situation in Europe “climate change, not a case of bad weather”, and says Estonia had already responded to the Russian threat by fast-tracking military procurement and asking Nato to permanently base both troops and equipment in its soil. Ordinary Estonians are responding to the situation, too, with the number of new recruits to the voluntary Defence League doubling this year compared to last year. The Defence League now has 14,545 part-time soldiers, equalling 1% of the country’s population.
Lithuania, for its part, recently launched a high-readiness combat response force comprising some 1,600 troops that can react to hostile actions within 2-24 hours. And Latvia, which is considered particularly vulnerable due to its 26% Russian minority and its strong Russia-leaning party, has requested Nato troops on permanent rotation. (Estonia has 25% ethnic Russians; Lithuania, 6%.) Currently 150 Nato troops are stationed in Latvia and, Vejonis argues, their presence alone constitutes a deterrent. “Who wants to start a war against the US?” he asks. “That’s what Russia would do if it attacked Latvia. Putin is not that stupid.” Still, 150 Nato troops could hardly stop an invasion, and though the prospect of one currently seems unlikely, Latvia is beefing up defence spending, which will reach 1% next year and the Nato standard of 2% in 2020. “Russia is showing that it still has geopolitical interests in Latvia and the region, and showing us and Nato how strong they are”, says Vejonis. “The warships they’re sending have the latest technology – OK, it’s Russian technology, but they’re sending the best ships they have.” In a further sign of escalating tensions between the two countries, Nato and Russia have been conducting war games in the region.
In the early 2000s, Sweden did conclude that history had ended and dramatically reduced its impressive Cold War military. “It was decided that threats were so far off in the future that we could take a strategic time-out and focus on developing high-tech defence”, explains Bo Hugemark, a Swedish military historian and retired colonel. In 2009, having decided to end conscription it further cut military levels, to 6,000 full-time and 6,000 part-time troops. “Just focusing on threats facing us rather than the region allowed is to take it easy behind the Baltic-Finnish shield”, notes Hugemark. As a result, the Baltic states’ larger sister is now finding itself short of potentially thousands of soldiers and sailors. “We know how to execute small tasks, not fight a major enemy”, complains one young officer. Though catching an alien submarine is rare, the fact that the suspected Russian sub spotted this autumn managed to escape was an embarrassment to the Swedish military. In an ironic twist, the development of a new anti-submarine grenade launcher system was cancelled in 2007 following budget cuts. Earlier this month, the Swedish military confirmed that a submarine “violated Swedish territorial waters”, a fact Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén called “completely unacceptable”. The Prime Minister has now initiated a security council that will advise him on threats to Sweden.
Finland has taken a less rose-tinted view of its eastern neighbour. “Finnish policy-makers who’ve been interested in engaging with Russia are surprised by Russia’s escalating aggression, but the military isn’t very surprised”, notes Jyri Raitasalo, a lecturer in strategy and security policy in the Finnish National Defence University. “As a result, the military adjustments it needs to make now are smaller than those Sweden needs to make.” And Russia has been attempting to intimidate Finland, too, violating Finnish airspace five times this year. In a string of somewhat bizarre incidents this August and September, Russian warships and helicopters tried to force a Finnish marine research vessel in the Baltic Sea away from international waters.
Another interpretation is, of course, that hawks are overdramatising Russia’s actions, labelling it aggression when it may be more harmless arrogance. “Without this crisis those advocating defence cuts would have more power”, says Raitasalo. And as far as Ivars Zarins, a leading MP for Harmony, Latvia’s Russia-leaning party, is concerned, “all the other parties talk about is Russia as a way of diverting attention from their inability to deal with basic internal issues.” In the October parliamentary election, largely fought over national security issues, Harmony lost seven of its 31 seats in the Saeima but remains the country’s largest party.
Added Zarins during an interview at the Saeima: “Latvia belongs to Nato and is member of euro zone. Saying that we face the same fate as Ukraine is like saying that we face World War Three.” But, he warns, like Ukraine Latvia is divided, and like other Harmony politicians he accuses other parties of alienating ethnic Russians and warning of Russian threats instead of focusing on Latvia’s “real issues”. The ethnic Latvian Harmony legislator likens his country’s treatment of its Russian minority to a husband neglecting his wife: “After a while she takes a lover. Who’s to blame, the husband or the lover?” Instead, argues Zarins, Latvia should focus on “poverty, social inequality and education. We’re not investing enough in science and innovation to make our economy more productive and jobs better paid, so people are leaving the country for better opportunities elsewhere.”Russian Latvians and Estonians do, in fact, watch pro-Russian. Earlier this month the Russian channel Sputnik – named after the Soviet Union’s satellite that seemed to prove the country’s superiority over the United States – was launched, broadcasting in 30 languages including Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Finnish. According to the Latvian government, Russian propaganda amounts to information warfare, which it considers as serious as military threats. The country has just allocated €800,000 to expand Latvian state television’s small Russian service, and it plans to go farther, pushing for restrictions on Russian “propaganda channels” operating from EU countries. “It’s not intervening with free speech”, insists Vejonis. “It’s tackling propaganda, and this is a matter for all EU countries since the propaganda is destabilising Europe.”
If the Baltic states appear increasingly alarmed over the prospect of Russian aggression it’s because they have some experience of being subjected to it. Today, however, Western-leaning neighbours of Russia face better odds than in the past. “If Estonia is attacked, we’ll fight like hell”, promises Sakkov. “The lessons we’ve learned from 1939 and 1940 are that you have to fight whatever the odds, that you need allies, and that you have to be a democracy.”