Will Putin target Latvia next?

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The Spectator 18 August 2016

The Baltic states do not feel like a front line. I did not see a police officer in more than a week in Latvia, let alone a soldier. Somewhere out there were three NATO battalions, deployed to deter Putin from crossing the border. But if it wasn’t for the seediness that lingers like a bad smell – the occasional Brezhnev brutalist building and the memorials to the murdered Jews – I could think myself in a European country that had never experienced the twin curses of Nazism and communism.

The art nouveau architecture is as fine as any you will see in Paris or Barcelona, and covers many more streets. There are Italian restaurants everywhere. People looked a little bewildered when I said I wanted to try Latvian dishes. What were they? Lentils? Sausages? Why don’t you eat what everyone else eats?

Admittedly, there is plenty of vodka and a sweet and bitter liqueur called Riga Black Balsam, which at 45 per cent ABV tastes as if you can use it as a paint stripper. On the whole, however, people here drink what everyone else in Europe drinks just as they eat and dress like every other European.

Even the Russian minority does not seem to have grievances Putin can exploit. The real division in Latvian politics is ethnic, everything else is detail. Does a Russian resident take Latvian citizenship, does he or she describe Soviet rule as ‘the occupation’. Symbols stagger under crushing political loads because Russians make up at least a quarter of the population (half the population of Riga). Putin exploited ethnic Russian grievances as a pretext to invade Ukraine. NATO’s forces are small and the generals admit they are woefully short of air cover. If they put their mind to it, Russian troops could get from the border to Riga in four hours.

You only have to look at Western societies to see how easy it is for the unscrupulous to profit from manipulating identity politics. But Nils Ušakovs, the mayor of Riga and leader of Harmony, the dominant Russian party, is not a Putin stooge. He has never criticised the Kremlin. But he played the game of symbolic politics when he posed for a smiling selfie with a US tank at Riga’s docks.

‘I was born here,’ he said last year. ‘It was my considered decision to take a Latvian passport. I’m a Latvian national; a Russian-speaking Latvian who is a patriot of my country.’ I guess this is about as far as a Latvian Russian politician can go without risking a backlash from his supporters.

Academic studies of ethnic Russians show they are happy to enjoy the freedoms that come with Latvia’s EU membership, and the young are happiest of all. Whatever their justifiable complaints about the downplaying of the Russian language, or the effects of Putin’s propaganda on them, Latvian Russians do not look like anyone’s idea of a fifth column.

Walk the streets, talk to people, look in the Western shops and at the beautiful townhouses, and it is impossible to imagine Latvia’s peace being broken. But then the belief that the status quo will never change is our most powerful cognitive bias. The one thing you can say for certain about any status quo is that it will always break.

In May, Richard Shirreff published 2017: War With Russia. His breathless thriller has a demonic Putin gloating as he prepares to eat up the rest of Ukraine and take over the Baltics. The guilt-ridden Germans believe his propaganda and think the best of those who mean them the worst. Greece’s leftish government is his to play with, while the British are sunk in selfish isolationism and think only of themselves. The novel ends with a lone brave Tommy and a plucky band of Latvian partisans defeating the Russians, a scenario which is silly even by the standards of silly thrillers. You would chuck it out in a box for the charity shop were not Richard Shirreff, Sir Richard Shirreff, who until two years ago was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the most senior European officer in Nato. ‘This is based on what I know as high level military insider,’ he says. The story may be fiction. But the account of Nato governments’ feebleness in the face of Russian ruthlessness is ‘fact based’.

In a forthcoming piece in the New York Review of Books, Robert Cottrell, the Russia expert, who divides his time between London and Latvia, comes close to accusing the old soldier of treason for revealing to Moscow how willing the West would be to abandon its allies. But Cottrell does not think Shirreff is wrong.

Like so many dictators before him Putin needs patriotic foreign wars to distract the Russians from the poverty and corruption his rule has brought. Shirreff is hardly alone in saying NATO is unprepared and unwilling to defend its members. If anything, he is guilty of understatement. He wrote before Britain voted to leave the EU, which broke the unity of the West. Right-wing readers who say Brexit does not threaten national security should look at how eagerly Russia propagandists suck up to Nigel Farage, and indeed how vigorously he sucks back.

Meanwhile, and to the astonishment of those of us old enough to remember the red-baiting right of the Cold War, the American Republicans have a candidate in Donald Trump, who is in Russia’s pocket. The Washington Post and New York Times have gone through the deals. As Edward Lucas of the Economist, says their reporting ‘is not the fevered or paranoid speculation of a Hollywood scriptwriter trying to imagine a sequel to The Manchurian Candidate; none other than former CIA boss Michael Morell said that he had ‘no doubt’ Putin viewed Trump as an ‘unwitting agent’. Trump’s tax returns could dispel suspicions that he is in hock to Kremlin-friendly gangsters and money-launderers but, in a scandalous breach of normal political practice, he refuses to publish them.’

Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian troops fought for America in Afghanistan, and accepted dangerous postings without complaint. America, or at least America’s ‘alt-right’, now provides comfort to their enemies to such a degree that Newt Gingrich can dismiss Estonia as a suburb of St Petersburg.

Pauls Raudswps, one of Latvia’s best journalists, put it to me like this. Maybe NATO troops will act as a barrier. They clearly could not stop a Russian invasion but their presence may be deterrent enough. Whether under Catherine the Great, Stalin or Putin, Russia has been an opportunist imperialist. It sniffs for weakness and advances its frontiers when it knows it can get away with it. If Trump wins or the EU decides to appease, it will think it can get away with it, and the consequences for Europe will be enormous. Whatever you think and however you voted, incidentally, Europe still includes us.

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