Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Baltics Hunker Down for the Long Game Against Russia

The Kremlin is down but not out in Ukraine, and the Baltic states want to make sure they’re not next.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Soldiers take part in a military exercise at the Adazi military base, north east of Riga, Latvia, on March 8, 2022.
Soldiers take part in a military exercise at the Adazi military base, north east of Riga, Latvia, on March 8, 2022.
Soldiers take part in a military exercise at the Adazi military base, north east of Riga, Latvia, on March 8, 2022. Toms Norde/AFP/Getty Images

ADAZI, Latvia—The Adazi military base is buzzing with activity as soldiers from more than a dozen NATO countries—including Latvia, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Poland—rush among barracks ahead of a military training exercise in the small Baltic country. 

On its way to join the exercise, dubbed Silver Arrow, is a high-end U.S. artillery system, known as HIMARS, that has garnered fame as a “game-changer” for Ukraine in its monthslong fight against Russia’s invasion. For Col. Igors Harlapenkovs, director of joint headquarters at the base, the exercise is all about stress-testing NATO troops’ skills on swiftly shipping and deploying military hardware to NATO’s eastern flank. 

“The idea is we will train ourselves to operate with anything the U.S. or NATO could send as rapidly as possible,” Harlapenkovs said. 

ADAZI, Latvia—The Adazi military base is buzzing with activity as soldiers from more than a dozen NATO countries—including Latvia, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Poland—rush among barracks ahead of a military training exercise in the small Baltic country. 

On its way to join the exercise, dubbed Silver Arrow, is a high-end U.S. artillery system, known as HIMARS, that has garnered fame as a “game-changer” for Ukraine in its monthslong fight against Russia’s invasion. For Col. Igors Harlapenkovs, director of joint headquarters at the base, the exercise is all about stress-testing NATO troops’ skills on swiftly shipping and deploying military hardware to NATO’s eastern flank. 

“The idea is we will train ourselves to operate with anything the U.S. or NATO could send as rapidly as possible,” Harlapenkovs said. 

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

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

But officials in those vulnerable Baltic states are quick to make clear they aren’t sitting around waiting for a Russian incursion. Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO began stacking more forces and military hardware in the Baltic states and increasing its tempo of military drills to test their militaries and deter Moscow from any power plays on this narrow strip of NATO territory.

Despite its small size and defense budget, Latvia is aggressively bolstering its own military, even as it ferries as many spare weapons to Ukraine as it can muster and is preparing to host any and all NATO militaries that come through. The idea is to send a message to Putin: Any move on the Baltic states won’t be worth it. Latvia has also enacted plans to end its reliance on Russian energy imports and cut broadcasts from Russian propaganda networks. Latvia, like its neighbors on NATO’s eastern flank, are hunkering down for a long game against Russia, trying to do as much planning and preparation as possible to show the Kremlin it would be ready for any future military showdown.

“I don’t think this war will weaken Russia so much that it would stop being a threat to us,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told Foreign Policy and a small group of American experts during briefings organized by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

The Adazi base, nestled in bucolic forested flatlands northeast of Riga, Latvia’s capital, has all the hallmarks of an installation preparing for a wartime footing in the future. Gravel fields are full of supplies in shipping containers, construction equipment toils away on upgrade projects for the base, and heavy vehicles chug in and out of depots ahead of the military exercise.

Latvian leaders have called to increase national defense spending to 3 percent of the country’s GDP (up 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 rolling out plans to reintroduce conscription, which was scrapped in the mid-2000s. It is also constructing new basing infrastructure to host troops from other NATO countries as they cycle through for exercises. The government’s plan is to roll out conscription with a call-up of around 1,000 Latvians next year, and it aims to increase the intake to 6,000 soldiers by 2028, several Latvian officials said. 

Those plans took on a new urgency after Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to replenish his army’s badly depleted ranks after nearly seven months of war in Ukraine—a decision that could have both strained Russia’s under-resourced and poorly equipped military as well as sparked sharp political blowback 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,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told NBC News on Wednesday. “And now he is desperate and taking decisions that are escalating, but I’m sure this will not help him.”

There’s no immediate threat of an attack from Russia to the Baltic countries, officials in the region repeatedly stress. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia and neighboring Estonia and Lithuania are firmly inside NATO, thereby protected by the alliance’s collective defense clause that is backed by the nuclear powers of the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Russia, meanwhile, has peeled away many of its ground forces near the Nordic-Baltic region to try and stanch its own military setbacks in Ukraine, giving the region a rare and small sense of reprieve. 

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

Also unlike Ukraine, Latvia is geographically small. It doesn’t have a lot of land to give up to buy time for a regroup and counterattack against any possible military invasion—what the defense planners call “strategic depth” in military jargon. That means should the worst happen and Russia launches an attempted invasion in the future, Latvia needs to be ready to quickly take in any NATO soldiers and weapons to rush them to the front lines as fast as possible.

“The distance to Russia from here is only 200 kilometers [or 124 miles],” Harlapenkovs said. “So we don’t have any time. We have to train to deploy any assets immediately as they come. Our biggest homework is for us to build up plans and training in peacetime that we can utilize for our defense should we need it later.” 

Many NATO allies, meanwhile, have joined the frenzied preparations and deterrence-posturing by expanding the alliance Baltic footprint through a program called “Enhanced Forward Presence,” which includes a Canadian-led battle group in Latvia. After seeing how Russia’s military bungled its attempt at a surprise attack on Ukraine—and the widespread war crimes that Russian troops have committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, Izyum, and other Ukrainian cities they briefly occupied—NATO is altering its long-held strategy of deterrence against Russia. It is moving to a strategy of trying to deny an attack from the outset rather than simply threatening a massive military response after any invasion or land grab takes place. 

“Deterrence by punishment is no longer viable. We have to move to deterrence by denial,” Kazocins said, using military parlance for this new approach from NATO.

The Adazi base personifies this new era in defense planners’ thinking. Across the base, which houses some 3,000 personnel, there are Polish tanks, Canadian and Czech artillery systems, Italian tank destroyers, and more. At the nearby Lielvarde base, squadrons of U.S. Apache helicopters have been deployed alongside Norwegian-made, Spanish-operated surface-to-air missile systems. These allied units mix and train from the brigade level down to the platoon level for the kinds of scenarios everyone in the West prays never comes. 

“If you’re a small Baltic country, you can never let down your guard just because Russia is not performing well today in Ukraine,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official who worked on NATO security issues. “We don’t know where Russia will be in 10 years. So the point is now to never let your guard down.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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