Home / Articles / Spotlight on Europe and Defense of the West—Riga Conference 2019
Another year, another Riga Conference, where leading experts in security and international affairs join with ministers and civil servants to reflect on a wide array of topics ranging from Baltic defense to Russia and the West. This year, the most interesting discussions pertained to Europe and its role in the defense and security of the West.
In the opening session, Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš set the tone by noting that although the world has always been changing, this never made navigating and adapting to present changes any easier. He emphasized the multiplicity of threats that states and societies face, highlighting the dangers of money laundering and how it inevitably damages the victim countries. When successful, money laundering corrupts politicians and institutions, particularly banks; when unsuccessful, it undermines public trust in those same politicians and institutions. Kariņš also discussed Latvia’s move toward a comprehensive defense system, to be implemented down to the individual household level, complete with guidelines for food stocks a household should always have in case of an emergency that disrupts the relevant logistics on a national scale.
Three prominent ministers of defense—Artis Pabriks of Latvia representing the Baltic NATO perspective; Peter Hultquist of Sweden representing the neutral Baltic perspective; and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer representing the German and more broadly a Western European perspective—discussed the foundations of NATO’s future defense. Pabriks noted how the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 spurred an increase in volunteers joining the Latvian National Guard and how approximately 25% of the National Guard participated in military exercises more than 30 days in a year. Regarding Russian economic influence, Pabriks argued that Russian gas does not have an economic price—only a political one. He concluded with a lesson from Latvian and Baltic history, that merely declaring neutrality is not the same as being accepted as neutral by everyone else. Kramp-Karrenbauer reassured the audience of Germany’s rock-solid commitment to NATO and Article 5, but admitted that the German public was unaccustomed to Germany providing international military and political leadership and that the Germans had a quite different, and more benign, understanding of Russia than the Baltic States. Hultquist emphasized that although not a member of NATO, Sweden was ramping up its defense in cooperation with others, particularly NATO countries, and that there was no debate in Sweden about whether conscription was a good policy, but only about how many should be conscripted.
A panel on whether rising powers are shaping only their regions or the world more broadly provided a fascinating discussion on Russia. Russia specialist Brian Whitmore depicted the new confrontation with Russia as just like the Cold War—a systemic conflict between two incompatible systems: Western rule of law versus arbitrary rule. However, a key difference is that whereas during the Cold War the West-Russia border was fairly impermeable, it is currently very permeable and open to Russian influence. This led to an in-depth discussion on the problem of Belarus, where it was suggested that Europe must support Alexander Lukashenka’s regime, as the only alternative will be a Russian military presence in Belarus just across the Suwalki Corridor, which is the only land connection between Poland and Lithuania, from the Russian exclave Kaliningrad on the southeastern Baltic coat. A Russian military presence in western Belarus would further complicate NATO defense planning for eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Finally, the reminder was voiced that every Russian imperial project begins in Ukraine—but that these imperial projects rarely end there.
One of the night owl sessions featured a discussion on EU strategic autonomy versus EU strategic responsibility, and as always for the Riga Conference the night owl session was held under Chatham House rules. Here, the discussion focused on what strategic autonomy means. There was a broad consensus that three elements are indispensible: autonomy of intelligence gathering and analysis; autonomy of decision-making; and autonomy of action, i.e. the basis for decision-making, decision-making itself, and then subsequent implementation. Another perspective was that strategic autonomy was about doing big things. One very big thing could be nuclear deterrence to be practiced by the EU, yet the United Kingdom would not be willing, nor would France. Germany would be broadly considered unacceptable as a real nuclear weapon state. Nonetheless, nuclear deterrence is becoming increasingly relevant again in the context of rising great power competition and conflict. Collective defense of Europeans by Europeans against Russia also counts as a very big thing. It, too, is currently completely out of the reach of Europeans. Never mind NATO’s 2% of GDP to be spent on defense, which most of Europe is still not even approaching. Goals like European collective defense would require closer to 4% of GDP, sustained for years on end, to develop the necessary capabilities.
Russia was the primary topic of the conference’s second day. Lilia Shevtsova noted the numerous paradoxes in Russia. It was glad about the apparent end of the liberal order, but afraid that a new international regime of “might makes right” privileges the United States and China at Russia’s expense. The Russian presidency is concentrating power, but still cannot deliver important outcomes in national development, statecraft, and other issues. Vladimir Putin’s so-called 19th century mentality has become arguably quite peaceful, especially in relations with Europe in comparison to the years immediately following the Russian invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea, ironically making it far more effective at undermining the coherence of the West than his previous adventurism. And that Russians both desire change and reform, but fear a collapse of the state as they experienced in the 1990s.
Alexander Vershbow and Keir Giles were both highly critical of Russia. Vershbow asserted that a reset with Russia is a delusion, given that Russia has not changed its behavior at all. Giles asked why Russia would change its policy when individual Western nations are repeatedly sending encouraging signals about resets and warming relations without actually dealing with the fundamental conflictual issues between the West and Russia. There were fears that key countries in the West were beginning to move toward yet another appeasement of Russia. Russian historian Valeriy Solovey emphasized the importance of Putin to current Russian behavior—he determines how Russia behaves internationally, but does not pursue idiosyncratic objectives, instead consistently following longstanding Russian goals that would endure regardless of whether or not Putin is in power—and particularly of Putin’s messianic complex, stemming from his role in supposedly saving Russia from the lawlessness of the 1990s and now expanded to changing the world. Solovey also made the provocative suggestion that the West’s strongest allies in Russia are not the liberal protesters, but the ruling elite, which is growing tired of Putin’s adventurism. Nonetheless Putin remains willing to resolve the crises in which Russia is involved—most of which it directly instigated—only on his own terms.
The Riga Conference is an annual health check-up for the Baltic states, for NATO and the EU, and for the West as a whole. The conclusion from this year’s discussion is that Russia remains hale and hearty, buoyed by its strategic culture in which political patience is a virtue. By contrast, the West’s health is weakening, particularly due to the renewed rise of illusions and delusions of reset with Russia, particularly but not only in certain countries in Europe, all of which are a reasonably safe distance away from the closest Russian border.