Baltic countries on edge as Russia threatens Ukraine

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Tanks are seen during the annual NATO military exercise Winter Shield 2021 in Adazi, Latvia, November 29, 2021.GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP/Getty Images

For the small Baltic states once ruled by Moscow, the threat of a Russian invasion is not just Ukraine’s problem. It is an ever-present threat at their doorstep.

Take Latvia, for example.

Last year, the country’s defense ministry distributed a crisis response manual for its 1.9 million people that devoted six pages to what to do if the country “is threatened by an enemy outside”.

The manual calls on Latvians to avoid collaborating with the “occupying forces” and promises that their government will not capitulate in the event of an invasion – any propaganda to the contrary must therefore be ignored. “Latvia will be protected! says the pamphlet in capitals. “Any information about surrender or non-resistance is fake news! Together with NATO allies, we will protect each of you!

Even if control of part of Latvian territory is “lost as a result of military operations“, the struggle will continue, the government document says. It also provides a handy map that shows the location of Camp Adazi, where a Canadian-led NATO battlegroup is stationed.

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This kind of government outreach in a Western democracy may seem foreign to most people in Canada, which shares responsibility for defending North America with the United States, a superpower.

It’s second nature, however, in a region that spent 50 years under Moscow’s boot as part of the Soviet Union. The heavily fortified Russian port of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea lies southwest of Lithuania, separating it from the rest of Russia, while Latvia and Estonia border the Western Military District of the Russian Armed Forces.

Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview last week that he saw no imminent threat – but explained that the Baltic states feared they could be next on the menu if the Russia was acting on Ukraine. Moscow has long complained of feeling surrounded, as countries formerly affiliated with the Soviet Union have joined the US-led NATO military alliance.

It was only last year that a haunting new monument was completed in downtown Riga, the most populous city in the Baltics. It is dedicated to Latvians who were sent to Soviet labor camps – a period people here simply refer to as “The Occupation”. Part of the monument, complete with sound effects, evokes the hellish journey that transported thousands of people to inhospitable regions of the Soviet Union.

Janis Garisons, Latvian State Secretary in the Defense Ministry, said her father-in-law’s parents were deported to a Soviet gulag. They returned eight years later, “psychologically broken”, said Mr Garisons, who himself lived under Soviet rule until he was a young adult.

He said Latvians fear that “if Ukraine falls, we will be next”.

“I know what it means to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I would never want my children to go through the same thing,” he said. “We will not be brought back to the other side of the curtain.”

NATO increased its presence in the Baltics and Poland following Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and to counter Moscow’s continued efforts to destabilize Kyiv by supporting militants in the eastern Ukraine. Since 2017, Canada has led a NATO battlegroup stationed near Riga that includes 540 Canadian soldiers – as part of the alliance’s deterrence campaign.

The collective defense provision of Article 5 of NATO’s founding pact states that an armed attack on one member would be considered an attack on all.

But the likely speed of a Russian invasion would leave the Baltics to fend for themselves at first – which is why they practice all sorts of scenarios unimaginable in many other Western countries.

“We understand that in any scenario, we will be the first responders,” Garisons said.

Last September, Latvian government ministries and municipalities held elaborate training exercises that included responding to sabotage of critical infrastructure, which the government said would occur in the first phase of any invasion.

Mr Garisons said Latvia worked closely with banks to plan an attack that includes cutting vital communication and internet cables under the Baltic Sea. “Let’s say a cable is cut: Do all the banks store their data here?” What if the power goes out? he said.

In 2021, the National Guard also took part in an exercise in downtown Riga which trained to react to the takeover of a ministry by armed insurgents.

Lithuanian Deputy Minister of National Defense Margiris Abukevicius said that while NATO protection is reassuring, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a wild card. “No one in the Kremlin accepted our NATO membership” when the Baltic states joined the alliance in 2004, he said in an interview.

“We have faith in NATO, in the commitments of Article 5, but we live with a neighbor who is unpredictable, and so you have to be prepared for every scenario.”

His biggest concern right now is a buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, an extremely close ally of Moscow that borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The BBC reported last week that around 30,000 Russian troops were in Belarus for what Minsk and Moscow say were military exercises.

“It doesn’t look like a military exercise,” Abukevicius said.

Belarus, increasingly considered to be under Russian control, offers Moscow a rapid relay to move on the Baltic or to seize a land corridor to join Belarusian territory with Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The strip of land in question is called Suwalki Corridor or Suwalki Gap.

The Suwalki Gap is a major concern for NATO. If Russia were to take it, the land connection of the Baltic countries with mainland Europe would be severed. If that were to happen, Mr Abukevicius said, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would “become West Berlin” – a reference to the free Cold War-era enclave surrounded by Germany. ‘Is controlled by the Soviets.

He said a permanent build-up of Russian troops in Belarus would be a game-changer for NATO, as it would give the Baltic countries even less time to respond to a military offensive.

“If we treat Belarus as a de facto part of Russia’s Western Military District, that should completely change NATO’s calculations.”

Like his Baltic allies, Mr Abukevicius is asking NATO members for more troops and air defense assets – aircraft, rocket launchers and even Patriot surface-to-air missile systems – to bolster deterrence capabilities.

“It’s important to send that signal before Russia does something, not after.”

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