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A nation must think before it acts.
In early June, Latvia published the 2020 iteration of its State Defense Concept (Valsts Aizsardzības Koncepcija) to replace the 2016 version. The Concept is a political planning document which will guide the details of defense policy and planning for the next four years or so; later it will be followed by relevant new or reworked national security laws as well as a classified defense plan. It is worth summarizing some of the key features of the Concept for an English-speaking audience.
As such documents always do, to contextualize itself, the Concept begins with a geopolitical appreciation of the world. It emphasizes three considerations: general global trends, Russia, and the comparative value of military versus non-military power for maintaining peace and stability. The Concept paints a picture of a fracturing global order, the result of a multidimensional crisis encompassing such challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects, the ultimately catastrophic potential of climate change, and other non-military dangers to security. Among these challenges are rising revisionist powers, among which Russia is specifically highlighted for clear geopolitical reasons—Russia and Latvia will ever remain neighbors. Russia is described as increasingly authoritarian but economically stagnant, buoyed primarily by the regime’s nurture among the Russian population of a besieged fortress mentality and glorification of its part in the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. In this context, the Concept mentions concern about the endurance required of democratic countries in confronting Russia—a fear that weariness regarding that confrontation has or may set in, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.
In this unstable international political environment, the Concept suggests that maintaining international peace and stability through diplomacy and economic power is becoming more complicated. The Concept clearly makes this point—military power still matters, even if many of the largest dangers today are non-military phenomena such as the pandemic or climate change. Consequently, it also regrets continued European military weakness, which prevents Europe from reacting sufficiently even to direct threats to itself, let alone to act militarily beyond Europe, and results in reliance on the United States in both defensive and intervention capacities.
The Concept moves from this international perspective to the defense of Latvia by invoking deterrence as the preferred way of maintaining Latvia’s political and territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Concept asserts the natural expectation that Latvia be capable of and willing to defend itself; lacking such will, no one else will do so. Although not mentioned in the Concept, such statements bring to mind the specter of 1939-1940 when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied all three Baltic states with no resistance. The form of deterrence articulated in the Concept is close to deterrence by denial—that is, deterring the potential adversary by strengthening oneself to the point where the enemy cannot achieve his goals. Clearly, Latvia cannot achieve full denial relative to Russia; it does not have the military, economic, demographic, etc. wherewithal to do so. The Latvian vision is to raise the costs of a potential Russian invasion, conquest, and occupation to the point that those costs would exceed any gain.
A crucial dimension of the theory of applied deterrence is that it must rely on more than just military power. It necessarily has social dimensions as well. Consequently, Latvia has enunciated four pillars of national defense: its armed forces; total defense (which comprises the societal dimension of defense); NATO collective defense; international cooperation (including alliance cooperation within NATO or the EU); bilateral military cooperation (especially with the United States); and working with non-NATO partners (such as Georgia and Ukraine). Although the pillars are introduced early in the Concept, they are expanded later.
Defense scenarios are a crucial consideration in the Concept—for what potential scenarios should Latvia prepare itself? The threat of a global, general war between Russia and NATO is discounted, largely due to Russia’s fiscal weakness. Instead, the Concept refers to two basic threats from Russia: 1) hybrid threats or general subversion, and 2) a sudden Russian coup de main simply to grab territory, combined with the threat of lower-yield nuclear weapons to keep NATO at bay. It is precisely this latter appreciation of the Russian threat that will drive the next round of Latvian defense policies and procurements.
Latvia’s defense procurements will therefore be guided by two factors: first, by its intention to preclude a surprise attack; second, by the budgetary limits of a small state. This latter factor means that high-value, high-cost items, such as medium-range anti-air capability or long-range indirect fires, may be possible to procure only in the long term. Others, such as long-range anti-air capability, may be altogether unrealistic—for both budgetary and manpower reasons. The Concept prioritizes early warning systems to strengthen Latvia’s capabilities to detect and resist surprise attack; command and control systems that are resilient against electronic warfare; and overall military readiness, including for the Zemessardze, Latvia’s National Guard. The core of the ready forces would be a mechanized infantry brigade together with the Zemessardze brigades, the latter still needing to be fully equipped with combat support elements, such as indirect fires, anti-tank and anti-air capabilities, etc. Regular exercises are also emphasized, including all-Latvian military exercises, joint Baltic and joint NATO exercises, and military-policymaker exercises. The importance of ensuring allied military mobility through Latvian sea and airports is also recognized. Although Latvia has discounted war scenarios beyond a sudden surprise attack, clearly the highlighted procurements and improvements will serve and strengthen Latvia if such a discounted scenario actually occurs; there is no inherent contradiction between the accepted and discounted scenarios in terms of relevant military capabilities.
Societal dimensions of defense are aimed against both subversion and invasion; without society, total defense cannot exist. Within this sphere, the Concept stresses considerations such as ensuring continuity of government functioning at all levels in any crisis situation; protection of Latvia’s information space and cyber defense; nonviolent civil resistance against occupation forces; and the importance of education.
The Concept’s discussion of the NATO collective defense pillar emphasizes the crucial allied presence in the Baltic for establishing deterrence; the particular value of a U.S. military presence, even if achieved bilaterally rather than through NATO mechanisms; an awareness of what Latvia can and should do to facilitate allied support, particularly in the realm of infrastructure to enable more robust logistics; and the question of military readiness in allied forces deployed to Latvia.
The final pillar, international cooperation, emphasizes relations outside the North Atlantic alliance context. The U.S. is identified most prominently for improved bilateral relations, although European regional partners, such as Poland and the other Baltic states, and major countries, such as Britain, France, and Germany, are also explicitly mentioned. Military cooperation with the U.S. is emphasized, particularly the strong relationship between the Latvian armed forces and the Michigan National Guard, which has, for the past 30 years, worked with and supported the development of the Latvian Armed Forces.
This rough and selective summary of Latvia’s State Defense Concept boils 27 pages down to about 1,300 words, with a focus on the military defense aspects. It presents a coherent sense, first, of why defense is still relevant in the current context of global non-military threats; and second, of how to defend Latvia, which involves judgments about what is and is not reasonably within Latvia’s capabilities, along with what it should prioritize and focus on. With policy guidance in place, it will now remain to be seen what new laws are passed; what new capabilities are actually procured, in what quantities, and when; what international relationships will be strengthened; whether Latvian and allied military readiness in Latvia will improve; and ultimately, whether deterrence will be strengthened or not.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.