Latvia 101: How the Baltic Republic Fits into the Tension Between the Russian Federation and the West

Written by: Jared Lang

The Republic of Latvia lies sandwiched between the Baltic Sea and the Russian  Federation, and though it is not often discussed when tensions flare in Eastern Europe, it holds a critical position and offers insight into the ongoing frictions between Russia and the United States. In the post-World War II division of Europe between the Allies, Latvia was occupied and later incorporated into the Soviet Union until the summer of 1991. Those forty-seven years of Soviet governance, coupled with the centuries of rule by the Russian Czars, help explain how as of last year, 25.4% of the republic’s population were ethnically Russian. Of those 495,528 ethnic Russians, an estimated 185,741 ethnic Russians were non-citizens. This discrepancy was a thorny issue; after the fall of the Soviet Union, some Russians outside of what is currently the Russian Federation were not granted citizenship of the country they were located in. An explanation for this situation can be found in international law, under which occupied countries are not required to confer citizenship to persons moved into the territory by the occupying power. In this circumstance, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Therefore, the argument continues, Latvia is not required to provide the ethnic Russians with citizenship, even though they have begun offering it to the non-citizen population. 

The continued existence of these ethnically Russian non-citizens fuels calls among some pro-Russia groups in Latvia, as well as in Russia proper, for the Russian government to do something about the unjust and unfair treatment of ethnic Russians. Most of the accusations of unfair treatment revolve around the minimization of Russian language and culture in schools, the lack of citizenship of the ethnic Russians, and the language component of the citizenship requirements. However, when interviewed by Pravda, a Russian news agency, the leader of a pro-Russian group in Latvia went so far as to describe the situation regarding ethnic Russians in the Baltic republic as a form of “apartheid.” From within Russia, Putin himself has on occasion stated that some form of Russian intervention could be necessary to “protect their interests.”

In light of Russia’s foray into Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula under the auspices of assisting the local ethnic Russian population and helping them rejoin the motherland, this paints a rather grim picture for the Republic of Latvia. Much like Crimea, the regions of Latvia that directly border Russia are largely ethnically Russian, and in 2015 a pro-Russian group attempted to establish a pro-Russian republic there – similar to what happened in Ukraine. Additionally, any move further west by the Russian military would likely involve some movement toward or through Latvia, due to its significant population of ethnic Russians and the fact that it is one of the states that separates the Russian territorial enclave of Kaliningrad from mainland Russia. In this post-Cold War era, Russia continues to attempt to regain influence and territory from its former satellites including Ukraine and Latvia. As early as 2014, Latvia’s defense minister revealed that Russia had already deployed trained agents to destabilize the country. Just a year later in 2015, the chairman of the Latvian parliament’s security committee noted that the tactics and operations Russia is conducting in Latvia are very similar to those used in Georgia and Ukraine prior to the Russian invasions. In fact, some sources with intelligence connections say that the attempt to establish a pro-Russian republic in 2015 has been linked to Russian agitators.

While the effects of previous Russian rule and the ethnic Russian population are deeply embedded in Latvia’s past and present, many Latvians and NATO members see Latvia’s way forward as being more closely allied with the West. As a member of NATO, Latvia is not only allied with the other NATO members, but also qualifies it for Article 5 protections, otherwise known as collective defense, in which if one NATO member is attacked, it is considered an attack on all members – something both Ukraine and Georgia did not have to protect them from Russian invasion.

Given the Russian incursions into Ukraine, the Latvian government and military have reaffirmed their commitment to NATO and working with the other members to ensure Russia is deterred from attempting to regain some of its former empire. In early 2017, while watching the soldiers under his command run exercises with newly purchased British combat vehicles, Major Uldis Gutmanis was quoted as saying, “Crimea changed all our thinking about our future. Crimea showed we need a stronger army, more money. We should invest into these capabilities and we should work together with all NATO forces.” This change in Latvian thinking and defense policies are most aptly revealed by the increase in military expenditures by the Latvian government. Since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation, Latvian defense spending has more than doubled, from $279.6 million USD in 2014 to just over $713 million USD being declared as their defense budget for 2018. Looking to the future, the Latvian government’s budgetary framework anticipates defense spending to rise to $784.5 million USD by 2020.

Budget size aside, the Latvian government is warily eyeing the Russian threat on their eastern border. The National Security Concept, released by the Latvian government in 2015, lays out the threats to Latvian security, and is unsurprisingly focused primarily on Russia, listing Russian aggression in Ukraine as well as its hybrid warfare operations and grey zone actions in the Baltics as the main developing threats. It also provides outlines for plans to increase the readiness, proficiency, and operational capacity of not just the Latvian military, but the State Border Guard and its cyber-warfare and domestic police units.

Latvia’s memberships in both the European Union and NATO provide the country with significant protection from full-scale Russian aggression. However, calls from certain members of the American government to reexamine the utility of NATO and the Article 5 obligation that follows, pose risks to the level of protection Latvia has from Russian imperial designs. If any part of Latvia falls under the control of pro-Russian or legitimate Russian forces, then not only has NATO failed in its mandate to protect and defend its members, but the other Baltic countries with large populations of ethnic Russians like Estonia and Lithuania could be next.