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A nation must think before it acts.
The shock wave of the Russian attack against Ukraine is sensed worldwide, yet the closer one stands to the epicenter of tragedy, the stronger one feels the trembling of the ground. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is situated less than 1,000 km from both Kyiv and Moscow, and the Russian war against its neighbor has shaken Latvian society to its deepest core. It is not only the geographical proximity with both aggressor and victim that had made so many Latvians feel a wide range of emotions from anger to fear, from compassion to rage; it’s also the realization that by attacking Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s regime has launched an attack on the European post-Cold War order, an order in which Latvia, as well as the two other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia, have prospered and flourished since 1991. This article offers a brief overview of the first responses to the war at societal and governmental levels, tracing Latvian outreach to its Euroatlanatic partners and Ukraine. It argues that while Russia’s war against Ukraine could potentially cause divisions in the Latvian multiethnic society, so far the political elites have delivered a strong message of unity while actively advocating for Ukraine at the international level. Meanwhile, the public space, just like in many other European countries, has been dominated by an unprecedented effort of solidarity toward Ukraine.
On Feb. 23, 2022, the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states arrived in Ukraine for a two-day visit. In the early hours of Feb. 24, when the first Russian missiles hit Kyiv Oblast, they were still in the city and issued a strong statement pledging to do “everything possible” to help Ukrainians. In the coming days, Baltic diplomatic efforts were focused upon pressuring their European partners to cut Russian from SWIFT, imposing other sanctions, and granting EU candidate status to Ukraine. During the first weeks of February, both Latvia and Lithuania had delivered Stringer anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, while Estonia had sent anti-tank Javelin weapons. After the Russian attack, the Baltic states continued to provide Ukraine with ammunition, medication, personal equipment, and other supplies.
Europe’s collective move to impose unprecedented strong sanctions against Russia and its oligarch elites, as well as member states’ individual decisions to break with previous policies and send lethal aid to Ukraine have felt like a victory in the Baltic states. At the governmental level, Baltic states had insisted upon the need for the strongest possible response toward Russia’s aggressive policies since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and orchestrated, backed and fueled armed conflicts in Ukraine’s Eastern regions. In the West, this Baltic insistence has often been perceived as the outcome of Baltic anti-Russia sentiments rising from 50 years long Soviet domination over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Historical memory and perceived lessons from the past do play a role in Baltic foreign policy: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have often felt uneasy about Russian-Western rapprochement in the past and joint East-West projects such as Nord Stream, fearing that a great power deal and agreements could be made at their expense.
At the same time, Baltic relations with Moscow have been much more pragmatic than they might seem from afar: For many years, Russia has been an important Baltic trade partner and Baltic attempts to limit their dependency on Russian gas have been unevenly successful. The Baltic foreign policy goals are not very different from those of other small states: They want to preserve a rule-based international order as their security is rooted in norms and institutions. From this perspective, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian insistence upon a robust Western response after the annexation of Crimea originated from the simple understanding that if international law is not enforced through punishment, it loses its protective capacity. What differs the Baltic situation from that of for example Belgium is the fact that geography and history has made Putin’s regime their direct neighbor and thus Baltic states are more vigilant regarding the actions of this particular state.
Germany’s decision to finally halt the Nord Stream 2 approval process and the unexpected European push for strong sanctions toward Russia were not just a moment of triumph for Baltic foreign policy establishments but also a meaningful moment for Baltic societies at large. As Estonian scholar Maria Mälksoo has noted, the Baltic quests for NATO and EU membership were fueled by their desire to exit the state of liminality: a no man’s land between being European but not European enough. The realist discourse emerging from certain parts of European political elites and certain academic circles about the need to respect Russia’s security interests at the expense of the security of other European states such as Ukraine have revived these sentiments. Academic and political debates about NATO 2004 expansion as a mistake that alienated Russia often omits the agency of the new member states, treating them as objects and not subjects of international relations. In this context, Europe’s resolute reaction to the Russian war had a special significance for the Baltic societies. It was seen as a strong pushback against Russian claims of a “special interest zone” in the former Soviet space and the consequent perception of Eastern European as a zone of limited sovereignty.
The Baltic and Ukrainian situations are of course different: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO and EU member states. In the Russian imperial imagination, Ukraine is a core land of the empire, while the Baltic countries have always been seen and the odd ones out: Illegally annexed only in 1940, these non-Slavic non-orthodox countries were perceived as the Soviet West and the most European of the Soviet republics. While the Baltic accession to NATO in 2004 was upsetting for Putin, it did not cause severe resistance from the Kremlin; meanwhile Ukraine’s interest in potential EU and NATO membership was one of the multiple factors that threw Putin into his current meltdown. Despite these differences, Russia’s attack on Ukraine raised deep anxieties in the Baltics. Moscow’s unprecedented escalation of violence seems to put in doubt the premise that Putin is a rational actor who engages in the traditional cost-benefit calculation. Over the past weeks, the numbers of National Guard volunteers (both male and female) have risen to unprecedented numbers, and almost every Latvian family has, at least to some extent, contemplated the inevitable “what if …” question.
Yet a strong argument has been made by the political leaders in all three countries that the Baltic states are much safer now than at any point in their history: Having an aggressive neighbor is nothing new for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, but being part of a defense alliance such as NATO is a first-time experience. Furthermore, already in 2014 Russian actions prompted NATO to increase its contributions to Baltic security and this trend is likely to continue. Since the outbreak of the war, the allies of the Baltic states have indeed multiplied their efforts to show solidarity and reaffirm their intention to defend the Baltic countries, if need be. Both the US and Canada have already announced an increase of their military presence in Latvia. In the space of two days between March 7 and March 8, Riga was visited by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. These visits are both welcomed and much needed, in order to both reassure the local populations and send a strong signal to Moscow. While Latvia and the two other Baltic states do not face any immediate danger at this time, their security environment has been radically altered since Feb. 24. As Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs recently pointed out, a new iron curtain is once again descending upon Europe, and while Latvia this time finds itself on the safe side, it does stand on the front line.
One of the key tasks of the Latvian state and its society in this new situation will be to maintain unity across the ethnic lines. In 2014, the fact that 25.2% of Latvia’s inhabitants are ethnic Russians made many western journalists question whether Latvia would be the next European hotbed of ethnic conflicts fueled by Russia. At the time, Harmony, the political party primarily geared toward Latvia’s Russian speakers, failed to rally behind the national position and to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Now in 2022, the situation is very different. On Feb. 24, the party leader Jānis Urbanovičs issued a strong statement calling upon Russians in Russia to stop “the arsonist of war in Moscow.” The former party leader and former mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs, whose popularity among Latvian Russian speakers has been the key to the party’s success, joined his colleague and used social networks to actively condemn Russian aggression. All key Ukraine-related legislation over the recent days (support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and EU membership, authorization for Latvian citizens to volunteer in the Ukrainian army) was passed unanimously by the Latvian parliament with the full backing of Harmony. The Orthodox Church of Latvia, which operates under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, has been more evasive: While it strongly condemns the war, it has constantly avoided naming Vladimir Putin as its instigator.
The opinion poll conducted by Public Opinion Research Center SKDS and commissioned by the Latvian television program “Kas notiek Latvijā?” shows that: 90% of ethnic Latvians support Ukraine, 1% Russia, and 7% are neutral. Meanwhile, most of the Russian speaking respondents (46%) do not support either side, 22% support Ukraine, 21% support Russia, and 11% found it difficult to answer. As Mārtiņš Kaprāns, a leading researcher at the University of Latvia, has pointed out, if these results are compared with similar opinion polls from 2015 and 2019, a decrease in Latvia’s Russian speakers support for Russia becomes visible: In 2015 65% of Russian speaking respondents saw Ukraine as the guilty party, in 2019 that number had shrunk to 35%.
At the same time, it must be noted that many prominent members of the Russian-speaking community, as well as ordinary citizens, have publicly opposed both Putin’s regime and the war, and young Latvian Russians have used social media to channel their frustration over discussions with older Putin-supporting family members. In other words, while a minority of Latvian Russian speakers do support Putin’s war, the public space has been strongly dominated by those who condemn it.
At the same time the war has once again resuscitated the issue of the Monument for Liberators in Riga. Constructed in the ’80s to celebrate Soviet victory in WWII, it is perceived by many Latvians as a site that glorifies the beginning of the Soviet occupation of Latvia. In the context of the current crisis, the calls to dismantle it, which have been discussed before, have emerged again but have not received any substantial support from the governing coalition. Another potentially polarizing initiative was proposed by the right-wing National Alliance party: It suggested stripping Russian citizens from permanent resident status in Latvia (with several exceptions, including residence status obtained on humanitarian grounds). The party submitted the draft law to the parliament but facing the discontent of other political parties quickly removed it even before it was put up for a vote. Latvia’s key officials from the prime minister to the mayor of Riga have called for national unity and insisted that Latvia’s Russian-speaking citizens should not be held responsible for the actions of Vladimir Putin. The two key national rallies — a concert in front of the Russian embassy and a march through the city center (the latter assembled 30,000 participants) included Russian-speaking artists and speakers.
All in all, Latvia’s societal response to the Russian aggression has been marked by outpouring support and solidarity toward Ukraine. Since the invasion, the public has donated almost 6 million EUR and several companies have contributed with both funds and goods. Private citizens have engaged in a wide range of support activities, including making caltrops that Ukrainian forces can use to slow down the advance of the Russian army and funding the work of Latvian doctors in Ukraine. While in 2015 the Latvian state did the bare minimum for the Syrian refugees relocated from other European countries, and the weight of care was carried by activists and NGOs, this time the Latvian government and city of Riga have done their utmost to welcome Ukrainians in the best possible conditions. Meanwhile, important numbers of Latvian citizens have volunteered to drive the refugees from the Ukrainian-Polish border to Riga, many have offered to host them, and various Latvian civil society organizations have worked around the clock to facilitate the reception and integration of Ukrainians.
For now, with very few individual and marginal exceptions, political parties have shown a remarkable restraint and have avoided hijacking the Ukrainian cause for domestic political gains. With the approaching fall 2022 parliamentary elections, these dynamics could change. Yet, it is essential for both Latvian political elites and the public to preserve the unity that they have shown during the first weeks and overcome petty internal divides by focusing on how to best assist Ukraine. Living next to an isolated and aggressive Russia will most probably turn into a long-term demanding enterprise. It will of course require military readiness and the support of transatlantic allies. But it will also demand continuous, never-ending commitment to values that distinguish Latvia and the two other Baltic states from their Eastern neighbor: democracy, human rights and freedom of press. As US diplomat George Kennan put it almost 70 years ago: “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”
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.