By Tom Squitieri
Red Snow News
RIGA, Latvia — No one forgets. It is rule one in the often trampled lands of eastern and southern Europe.
And so, when Americans ponder why Latvians and others immediately recoil when a once angry bear growls again — and then ask for more, more, more support and military fortitude, just look at bruised history, geographic proximity, and ingrained memories of brutality and despotism that are deeper than the creases in the streets of old town Riga.
Today, the teasing summer wind from the Baltic Sea blows west to east across Latvia, somewhat pleasantly. That, however, is not how the winds of history have blown. They come from east to west, sometimes south to north. They are calm for the moment, after a derecho this spring.
“We are a relatively small country…with a border (with Belarus and Russia),” Latvian defense minister Artis Pabriks said Wednesday, summing up the reality. “Our military capacity is small.”
Riga, the capital of Latvia where Pabriks made his remarks, is about 630 miles from Kyiv and 572 miles from Moscow. The Russian and Belarus borders are about a two-hour drive.
“From our intelligence perspective, the border is of very high importance,” Pabriks said. “We pay attention all the time.”
He said from Latvia’s military perspective, “Belarus is not an independent country….and it will be integrated into Russia” at some point in time when Russia decides the time has come. “The Russian border and Belarus border and the Belarus and Russian border is one and the same,” he said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, visiting Latvia for two days of meetings, said his counterpart is sharply keyed on the realpolitik of Latvia’s location. “In terms of Latvia security, I can tell you your minister is absolutely focused on that,” Austin said. “I feel pretty good that he is focused on that.”
This is Austin’s first trip to Latvia and the first by a U.S. defense secretary since William Perry came here in 1995. “I’m visiting at a critical time for Europe and for the world,” Austin said.
Austin, who turned 69 on Monday, praised Latvia for its early support of Ukraine. “From the very beginning, Latvia … stepped up to the plate,” Austin said, adding that it quickly provided some weapons that “were very effective in the early days of the fight.”
A senior defense official said that Russia has pulled a significant number of its elite troops from its border with Latvia and other Baltic nations because of the need for reinforcement in Ukraine. Yet to presume those troops will not reconstitute and return would be folly, the official said – one reason why longer-term U.S. and NATO support for Latvia is critical, the official said.
These bad days were supposed to be over for Latvia, its Baltic neighbors and, in a larger sense, most of Central Europe when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991.
The United States established diplomatic relations with Latvia on July 28, 1922. The U.S. legation in Riga was officially opened on November 13, 1922. The United States never recognized the Soviet Union’s occupation of Latvia that started in 1940.
In the eyes of Latvians, by attacking Ukraine, Russian leader Putin has launched a thrust against the European post-Cold War order to which Latvia and others have enjoyed a new birth of freedom and democracy. Latvia’s population is about 30 percent ethnic Russian; the war has once again resuscitated the issue of tearing down the Monument for Liberators in Riga, constructed in 1985 to celebrate Soviet victory in WWII and perceived by many Latvians as a site that glorifies the Soviet occupation of Latvia.
For the moment, the summer evening breeze gives many a chance to pause, ponder, plan, and prepare.
Austin said Russia has committed a significant portion of its most capable forces to its Ukraine invasion. “As a result, they have lost quite a bit of important equipment, tanks, and mechanized vehicles,” Austin said. “They’ve also lost (an) enormous amount of people killed and wounded.”
Yet he cautioned that Russia still has a significant military capability — especially in the air and sea domains. ”We don’t ever want to lose sight of that. But, again, you know, Russia would endeavor … to regenerate capability going forward,” he said. “The sanctions and some of the trade restrictions will make that a bit more difficult.”
Thus Pabrik’s laser focus on the winds of war still blowing in the east.
“The outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine must have only one result, which means Russia must lose and Ukraine must win,” Pabriks said.
“If Ukraine is not winning this war with our assistance then earlier or later these threats will come…and the war might come (to our borders),” he said, “And we don’t want that.”