The Baltics duck for the long game against Russia

ADAZI, Latvia—The Adazi military base comes alive as soldiers from more than a dozen NATO countries — including Latvia, Canada, Spain, Italy and Poland — rush between barracks ahead of a military exercise in the small Baltic country.

On course to take part in the exercise, dubbed Silver Arrow, is a high-end US artillery system known as HIMARS, which has gained fame as a “game changer” for Ukraine in its months-long battle against the Russian invasion. For Col. Igors Harlapenkovs, director of the base’s joint headquarters, the exercise is about testing the capabilities of NATO forces to rapidly ship and deploy military equipment to NATO’s eastern flank under stress.

“The idea is that we train ourselves to operate as quickly as possible with whatever the US or NATO might send,” Harlapenkovs said.

ADAZI, Latvia—The Adazi military base comes alive as soldiers from more than a dozen NATO countries — including Latvia, Canada, Spain, Italy and Poland — rush between barracks ahead of a military exercise in the small Baltic country.

On course to take part in the exercise, dubbed Silver Arrow, is a high-end US artillery system known as HIMARS, which has gained fame as a “game changer” for Ukraine in its months-long battle against the Russian invasion. For Col. Igors Harlapenkovs, director of the base’s joint headquarters, the exercise is about testing the capabilities of NATO forces to rapidly ship and deploy military equipment to NATO’s eastern flank under stress.

“The idea is that we train ourselves to operate as quickly as possible with whatever the US or NATO might send,” Harlapenkovs said.

His quiet professionalism belies the geopolitical pressures Latvia has found itself in since neighboring Russia launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February.

Many pundits fear that if Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in his brazen land grab in Ukraine, the Baltic states — three small countries bordering Russia and its ally Belarus on NATO’s easternmost flank — could be his next target .

But officials in these vulnerable Baltic states are quick to make it clear they are not sitting around waiting for a Russian invasion. Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO began deploying more forces and military equipment to the Baltic states and stepping up the pace of military exercises to test its forces and Moscow from power games in this narrow strip of NATO territory to hold

Despite its small size and defense budget, Latvia is aggressively bolstering its own military, even as it transports as many spare weapons to Ukraine as possible and prepares to accommodate any NATO military that come through. The idea is to send a message to Putin: a move towards the Baltics will not be worthwhile. Latvia has also enacted plans to end its dependence on Russian energy imports and cut broadcasts from Russian propaganda networks. Latvia, like its neighbors on NATO’s eastern flank, is huddled for a long game against Russia, trying to do as much planning and preparation as possible to show the Kremlin it’s ready for any future military showdown.

“I don’t think this war will weaken Russia enough to stop threatening us,” said Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks foreign policy and a small group of American experts at briefings organized by think tank German Marshall Fund.

Nestled in idyllic forested plains northeast of Riga, Latvia’s capital, the Adazi base has all the hallmarks of an installation preparing for a future state of war. Gravel fields are full of supplies in shipping containers, construction machinery is working on base upgrade projects, and heavy vehicles are chugging in and out of depots ahead of the military exercise.

Latvian leaders have called for increasing national defense spending to 3 percent of the country’s GDP (from around 2.3 percent in 2021 and less than 1 percent in 2014), according to two Latvian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Latvia is planning this reintroduce conscription, which was scrapped in the mid-2000s. It is also building new base infrastructure to accommodate troops from other NATO countries as they pass through for exercises. The government plans to introduce conscription next year with a conscription of around 1,000 Latvians and aims to increase enrollment to 6,000 soldiers by 2028, several Latvian officials said.

Those plans took on new urgency after Putin said on Wednesday a partial mobilization of up to 10 trillion trillion people 300,000 reservists to replenish the severely depleted ranks of its army after nearly seven months of war in Ukraine – a decision that could have both strained Russia’s underfunded and ill-equipped military and triggered a sharp political backlash in Russia. During his speech, Putin warned against further Western support for Ukraine with veiled warnings about Russia’s nuclear arsenal should the West target Russia’s “territorial integrity”.

“Putin is always very dangerous,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz NBC News On Wednesday. “And now he’s desperate and making escalating decisions, but I’m sure that’s not going to help him.”

There is no imminent threat of a Russian attack on the Baltic states, officials in the region have insisted. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia and neighboring countries Estonia and Lithuania are firmly in NATO and thereby protected by the alliance’s collective defense clause, which is backed by the nuclear powers of the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Russia, meanwhile, has withdrawn many of its ground forces near the Nordic-Baltic region to try to stem its own military backlash in Ukraine, giving the region a rare and small sense of respite.

But the Baltic states still see Russia as a long-term threat, regardless of how the war in Ukraine goes. “There is no sense of imminent crisis, but there is a sense of danger,” said Janis Kazocins, Latvia’s current national security adviser and former director of intelligence. “Russia will remain a long-term threat even as its military is dismembered in Ukraine. We will have Russia as our neighbor forever.”

Also in contrast to Ukraine, Latvia is geographically small. It doesn’t have to give up much land to buy time to regroup and counter-attack a possible military invasion – what defense planners call, in military jargon, “strategic depth.” That is, should the worst happen and Russia launches an invasion attempt in the future, Latvia must be ready to quickly pick up all NATO soldiers and weapons in order to get them to the front lines as soon as possible.

“The distance to Russia from here is only 200 kilometers [or 124 miles]’ said Harlapenkovs. “So we don’t have time. We must train to use all resources as soon as they come. Our biggest homework is that in peacetime we build plans and training that we can use for our defense if we need it later.”

Many NATO allies, meanwhile, have joined in the maniacal preparations and deterrence by reinforcing the Alliance’s Baltic presence through a program called “Improved forward presence‘, which includes a Canadian-led combat group in Latvia. After seeing how the Russian military screwed up its attempt at a surprise attack on Ukraine – and the widespread war crimes committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians Bucha, Izyum, and other Ukrainian cities they briefly occupied – NATO is changing its long-held strategy of deterrence against Russia. It’s transitioning to a strategy of trying to deny an attack from the start, rather than simply threatening a massive military response after an invasion or land grab has taken place.

“Punishment as a deterrent is no longer up-to-date. We need to move to deterrence through denial,” Kazocins said, using military jargon for this new NATO approach.

The Adazi Base embodies this new era in defense planner thinking. On the other side of the base, which houses around 3,000 personnel, are Polish tanks, Canadian and Czech artillery systems, Italian tank destroyers and more. At the nearby Lielvarde base, squadrons of US Apache helicopters were stationed alongside Norwegian-made, Spanish-operated surface-to-air missile systems. These allied units shuffle and train from the brigade level to the platoon level for the kind of scenarios everyone in the west prays never come to pass.

“If you’re a small Baltic country, you can never be wary just because Russia isn’t doing well in Ukraine today,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior US Defense Department official who worked on NATO security issues. “We don’t know where Russia will be in 10 years. So now it’s about never being on guard.

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