Americans should expect to hear about Latvia. Why? Several reasons, offering insight into the battle of ideas on the world stage. Are democracy and freedom resurgent, or slipping? Is Russia about to play a larger role in Europe? Is China? Is Latvia the bell weather? It may be.
Sitting in Riga, Latvia right now, the impression is strong that lessons can be learned.
For starters, Latvia is traditional, respects the power of history, and has a lot of it – from old churches and medieval statues (which it has not taken down) through the scars left by Nazi and Soviet occupations. Today, Western influences are many, diverse, and hopeful.
One of the former Soviet Baltics, Latvia is a blend of pre-Soviet, pre-Nazi values – ranging from cultural conservatism, arts, faith, and freedom to self-determination. They are still shedding the bitter pill of Soviet dominance. Thirty years later, old Soviet buildings, statues, and rubble exist.
Historically, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Russia, Sweden, Poland, and Germany help define Latvian culture. Latvia’s modern history began in 1905, with revolution against Germany and Russia, followed by independence in 1918, “League of Nations” in 1921, Constitution in 1922.
But life has not been easy for Latvians. Soviet occupation in 1940 was followed by Nazi occupation in 1941, then return of the Soviets in 1944 – triggering 45 years of Soviet hell. In 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, internal fighting dissolved into fresh independence in 1991.
Latvia’s biggest recent year was 2004. That year, Latvia entered NATO and the European Union, along with six others, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Russia’s war on Ukraine reinforces NATO membership. Latvia is hoping for 5000 permanent NATO troops, admission of Finland and Sweden (despite Turkey’s concern), plus new weapons. Latvia doubled its NATO contribution from 2013 to 2018, is a strong supporter of NATO.
“Bordered by Russia, including its Kaliningrad [troops] exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia see NATO membership as vital to their security strategies,” say experts. On the flip side, they are all the “key…to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battalion deployments,” to deter Russia.
Latvia is stepping up, “plans purchase of combat vehicles and M109 self-propelled howitzers,” while seeking medium range air defense systems – such as the HIMARS military artillery system – all to deter a Russian attack.
From a distance – as conversations on this casual trip confirm – Latvia is concerned about Russia, highly sympathetic with Ukraine (Ukrainian flags everywhere), yet maintains ties to Russia, evidenced by many Orthodox churches, shared language, arts, and trade.
Like it or not, Latvia is 90 percent dependent on Russia for oil and gas, exceeded only by Bosnia & Herzegovina, Moldova, and Macedonia, causing tension as Latvia tips West. Until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, bilateral trade was strong. Now Latvia – with the EU – has sanctions on Russia, deems it “unfriendly.” Latvia is soon reinstating military conscription – having dropped it in 2007.
Compounding the ideological contest for Latvia – and other nations – is China. Cross-cutting Latvia’s pro-Western instincts and pro-Russian dependence are fresh ties with China, Latvia’s largest trading partner in the Far East, up 59 percent since 2016. Chain trade tops $1.15 billion. Nor is China letting up, visiting in May 2022. China is looking for an edge.
Net-net, Latvia represents the modern ideological battle in a complex, increasingly dangerous world. The global battle of ideas is hot. We must fight to win. Latvia is emblematic, what it means to be on “front lines.” For Latvia, the balance is delicate. Americans must appreciate this. But we must help strength the alliance. As Latvia goes, in many ways, so goes freedom’s future. To win the future, we must believe in ourselves, understand history, appreciate the special nature of democracy. We must not underestimate our foes, or their plans. Needed are alliances that last, with Latvia and others. Alliances turn on mutual commitments, recognizing freedom’s fragility, need for security, economic interdependence, preserving shared values. If we do it right, Latvia and the world will be with us. If we do it wrong, we lose. We cannot afford to lose.
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