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A nation must think before it acts.
A year has passed since Russia escalated its war against Ukraine to a full-scale invasion. When writing about the first Latvian reactions to the Russian attack, we noted the geographical proximity with both aggressor and victim made Latvians feel emotionally invested in the conflict. Latvia also realized that, by attacking Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s regime has launched an attack on the European post-Cold War order—an order in which Latvia and two other Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, have prospered and flourished since 1991. The brutality of the Russian war and occupation in Ukraine has reinforced this impression: Russia is an unpredictable actor that does not care about international law neither in war nor in peace. How has this past year affected Latvian society? We list seven lessons from Latvia after a year of Russian full-scale war in Ukraine.
While the Baltic states have been strong supporters of Ukraine since the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Baltic support for Ukraine has reached unprecedented levels after the full-scale invasion. Since February 24, Latvia and Estonia have sent 1% of their GDP as military aid to Ukraine. All three Baltic states have become leading advocates for the Ukrainian cause in both EU and NATO frameworks. The strong backing of Ukraine has been fueled by the irrationality and cruelty of Russia’s war. The images from Bucha and Mariupol, the genocidal discourse coming from the Kremlin, and the kidnappings of Ukrainian children have strengthened the Baltic resolve to help Ukraine at all costs—to benefit Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Europe.
The endless debate regarding the NATO enlargement in the 1990s and 2000s has often been conducted considering the big power of the US and Russian perspectives and omitting the views of the countries that actually joined the North Atlantic Alliance. Russian aggression against Ukraine confirms, once again, that Russia harbors aggressive plans against its neighbors, and the Baltic states were right to seek NATO’s protection early when Putin’s regime was still weak. Swedish and Finnish decisions to apply for NATO membership contribute to Baltic understanding that neutrality is not an option at the Russian borders.
From the first days of the war, Latvian NGOs and their umbrella organization, the Civic Alliance, rushed to support Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. The level of mobilization was unprecedented in the history of Latvia. Already established relief NGOs, such as the Latvian key refugee support organization Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem, Latvian Red Cross, or the Samaritan Association of Latvia, were joined by NGOs like Riga TechGirls that previously had worked in other fields. These pre-existing NGOs and associations were followed by new initiatives, such as Entrepreneurs for Peace or Twitter Convoy—a group that acquires vehicles through donations and delivers them to Ukrainian armed forces. Their support and that of other groups has been crucial all through the year, but it was especially important during the first weeks of the war when they showed speed and flexibility that state institutions sometimes lacked. For example, the association Tavi draugi has organized refugee relief and coordination points at the borders and public transportation hubs. Individual volunteers stepped in and joined NGOs in welcoming refugees, offering them homes, knitting socks for Ukrainian soldiers, and making trench candles. All in all, Latvia has shown efficiency, generosity, and compassion, which is different from larger societal and even state attitudes during the Syrian refugee crisis when the support to the refugees was mostly delivered by small groups of activists, such as Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem. As explained by Oxford-based Latvian anthropologist Dace Dzenovska, these dynamics are rooted in the sense of familial, racial, and political kinship with Ukrainians—kinship that unfortunately lacked in the case with Syrian refugees despite the fact that their suffering was largely caused by the Russian brutal intervention in the Syrian civil war.
The beginning of the full-scale invasion has highlighted and accelerated the ongoing internal fragmentation among Latvian Russian speakers. While Latvian Russians and Russian speakers actively supporting Ukraine have been visible in the public space since the first days of the war, a number of pro-Putin, Russia-supporting individuals have been active at the margins. However, as the most recent opinion polls show, 93% of ethnic Latvians support Ukraine’s fight for “independence and freedom,” while among Latvian Russians that number is 63%. The October 2022 parliamentary elections brought a complete defeat of Latvia’s largest Russian speakers’ party Harmony. While part of its electorate might have been unhappy with Harmony’s strong stand against the war and thus turned to a new populist party with an ambiguous attitude toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine, young Russian speakers seem to have cast their votes for Progressives—a left-wing green party that has been active in its support to Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s war. As noted by Latvian scholar Mārtiņš Kaprāns, these internal fragmentations would make any potential attempts of the Russian Federation to instrumentalize Latvia’s Russian-speaking population a much harder task.
One of the direct results of the Russian full-scale invasion was the dismantlement of Soviet-era monument in Riga, built in 1985 to celebrate Soviet victory in the Second World War. Over the years, the monument had become controversial. First, USSR had always used its victory over Nazi Germany to legitimize occupation and repression in the Baltic states. Second, since the rise of Vladimir Putin, the events of May 9 around the monument have been instrumentalized to praise the current Russian power. While there have been voices calling for toppling the monument since the early nineties, they never gained any considerable support from the political elites or larger part of society. This, however, drastically changed after February 24, when Latvian public opinion massively moved toward a strong demand to remove what was seen as a symbol of Russian imperialism. In other words, the monument was dismantled, not because the Russian aggression in Ukraine would have suddenly changed Latvian attitude toward the defeat of Nazi Germany, but because Soviet, Russian, and local actors have made the monument a place for celebrating Russia’s imperial might. After February 24, any vestiges of that might in Latvian public space became unbearable for a large part of the population.
On December 6, 2021, the Latvian broadcasting regulator canceled the broadcasting license of Russian opposition TV channel Dozhd, pointing at several violations of Latvian national laws. As previously discussed, this incident shows two important trends in the relationship between Baltic countries and Russian opposition. First, Baltic support for the Russian opposition has its limits: when the strategies used to undermine Putin’s regime risk harming either Baltic countries or Ukraine, Baltic national interests and those of Ukraine prevail. Second, these relations are shaped by imperial legacies: those who have been marginalized and dominated by empires are often hyper-vigilant to all manifestations of imperial practices; meanwhile, those who come from imperial centers are often unwilling and unable to see imperialistic patterns in their own attitudes.
Latvia’s biggest challenge over the last year has been the refugee crisis on the Latvian border that has been artificially created by the Lukashenko regime. Latvian state institutions have responded to this challenge by pushbacks and criminal proceedings against two Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem activists. Violation of human rights and proceedings against civil society are not the right response to the crisis, yet it has to be recognized that Latvia faces an unprecedented challenge: nine years after Russia started its hybrid attack against Ukraine by sending unmarked soldiers across its Eastern border, an unfriendly regime is using human suffering to build pressure on Latvia’s borders. The crisis, from the human rights perspective and the Latvian state security perspective, will have to be assessed and dealt with at the European level. Belarusian action at the Latvian border is not an isolated incident; similar tactics have been used against Lithuania and Poland.
All in all, Latvia, just like the two other Baltic countries, has spent a difficult year facing a war in its close neighborhood. Latvian state and society have responded to this new reality by throwing all possible support behind Ukraine. For now, there are no signs of war fatigue in Latvia. Opinion polls conducted in December 2022 show that Latvian support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees has decreased by only 1% (73% in December, 74% in March), while the overall support for Ukraine has increased from 76% to 82%.
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.