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Russia and NATO in the Baltics

NATO Protest
Russia and NATO in the Baltics SMALL PROMO IMAGE

“How can we not be afraid of Russia if we turn on our televisions…and see politicians suggesting Russia could come for us next?”

—Raimonds Barins, Latvian citizen, June 14, 2015


2.1 The Issue

Latvia, which has a population and territory the size of West Virginia, is one of three small states wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. The other two are Estonia, to Latvia’s immediate north, and Lithuania, to its south. Together these countries are generally referred to as the Baltic states.

At first glance, security of the Baltic states can seem beyond question. They are enthusiastic members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU), the two multinational institutions that anchor the Western order in North America and Europe. Yet despite the protection and solidarity that NATO and EU membership provide, the Baltic states feel a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. They are territorially small and militarily weak. Their economies, though prosperous, are tiny relative to those of other NATO and EU members. Part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) for decades until its 1991 collapse, the countries also include significant ethnic Russian populations.

In 2014, Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Shortly afterward, its military began covertly supporting pro-Russian insurgencies in eastern Ukraine. Like the Baltic states, Ukraine is a former Soviet territory and home to ethnic Russian populations. Western governments have worried Russia could similarly exploit the vulnerabilities of the Baltic states. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, commits its members to come to the defense of any member that is attacked. Pressure on the Baltics would thus bring into play the most basic of U.S. diplomatic commitments—to defend a treaty ally. In such a confrontation, U.S. choices would be complicated not only by Russia’s military might and the weakness of its tiny neighbors but also by the intricate interethnic relations of post-Soviet states.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting


Ethnic relations in Latvia have worsened in recent months. An insurgent Russian nationalist group calling itself Rodina (meaning motherland in Russian) has emerged and is gaining support among ethnic Russians, particularly those living near the Russian border. Recently, strikes at several factories in Russian-majority towns turned unexpectedly violent. Rodina and local groups rushed to support the strikers and appeared to invite confrontations with the police. Subsequently, Latvian intelligence services discovered that a Russian special operations unit had crossed the border and established a command center in one of the striking factories. In response, the Latvian prime minister declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law in areas along the Russian border.

Soon after the declaration, U.S. intelligence agencies detected Russian military units gathering on the Russian side of the border. This information soon appeared on Latvian television and social media, heightening the national alarm. NATO governments responded with immediate expressions of concern and support for their ally Latvia. Russian spokespeople downplayed the information, insisting the massing of forces was a routine exercise.

As this crisis unfolds, the United States faces a seeming repetition of Russian actions in Ukraine—the exploitation of a neighbor’s internal divisions, the infiltration of special operations forces, a buildup of regular units on the border, and a potential Russian seizure of neighboring territory. The stakes for the United States and its allies are considerably higher when these moves occur in a country that, unlike Ukraine, is a NATO member. As National Security Council members meet to determine a response, they will need to consider how to send a strong signal of Western determination to Russia without escalating the conflict and how to pursue diplomatic initiatives, with military measures to defend Latvia as backstop against failed diplomacy.

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