Latvia is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its armed forces. For this reason, Defence Minister Artis Pabriks visited Spain, where he opened an exhibition at the Spanish Army Museum. Spain is one of the NATO countries sending troops (350) to Latvia for the Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group led by Canadian forces. After the wars in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), Pabriks sees the Russian challenge as an “existential threat”, although “Latvia would be the first country to improve relations with the Russian government, but we cannot afford to live under an illusion”.
ESD: What is the picture of the regional security in the Baltic States right now?
Pabriks: This is a regional security picture shared by our northern neighbours, namely Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Poland. When I talk about security, I want to mention climate change and the environment, but of course one of our challenges is our Russian neighbourhood, because Russia has developed and deployed its military power very close to our borders over the last fifteen years. At the same time, most European countries have reduced their investments in military and defence because they believe that peace and democracy are granted by God, the USA, or someone else. That is a dangerous feeling, because at this moment, the Baltic Sea region is in a very great asymmetry: there are much larger Russian armed forces that train very often in offensive exercises. And there are small capacities on our side.
ESD: How important is the NATO deployment for Latvia?
Pabriks: I have no hesitation in saying that Latvia is a borderland of European civilisation. Border countries always face certain challenges. In our case it is the asymmetric military power that surrounds us. We understand that every citizen of the EU or NATO should enjoy the same level of security. From this perspective, we are therefore very grateful to NATO for its efforts in our country. The NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group, led by Canadian troops along with eight other countries, signals that we are all allies. This is a solidarity mission.
ESD: Is this deployment guaranteed for the next coming years?
Pabriks: We would like this mission to last as long as possible, as the environment around us does not seem to have changed recently. Our Russian neighbour shows no sign of understanding his previous mistakes. This essentially means that confidence between Europe and Russia has been severely damaged by the war in Georgia (2008), the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea (2014), by falsified news and cyber-attacks, and by attempts to influence different types of elections and referenda in other European countries.
ESD: Do you believe that a Russian invasion of your country is a realistic threat?
Pabriks: No, we are not afraid of an invasion because we are strong enough and we do not expect NATO soldiers to die instead of Latvian soldiers. We are ready to fight and we are ready to die for our country. But we send the right signals to every hypothetical opponent at our borders: There will be a unified and rapid NATO response. From this perspective, the Baltic countries can be described as West Berlin during the Cold War. It is not our aim to wage war with Russia. We want a very good relationship with Russia that benefits both sides. But we want a good deterrent. So the presence of our NATO friends shows that we are not alone. And that shows in a very visual way.
ESD: You are referring to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.
Pabriks: Yes, but Article 5 should be perceived not only as a paper but as a reality. I think the presence of the United States, Germany, Canada, Spain and other NATO countries simply tells that Article 5 is not a joke; it is reality. But even with that NATO presence asymmetry is still there.
ESD: How often is Latvia hit by a cyber-attack?
Pabriks: At this very moment it is very likely that a cyber-attack or a fake message attack will be carried out. We’ve been talking about this kind of threat for 10 years. Back then, some of our friends told us: “Don’t overdo it”. Now it is a common reality, remember that fake news stories about German soldiers with Lithuanian girls…. Cyber-attacks can be very disturbing. One of the first cyber-attacks on the West occurred in 2007 in Estonia. Also in Latvia we were attacked by various media campaigns, which is why we have the Nato Excellence Center for Strategic Communication.
ESD: European Union, NATO or United States – which do you trust more in case of a war?
Pabriks: We don’t like division between Europeans and Americans. First, we are Europeans, so we trust ourselves. Secondly, the Americans are our allies and after the Second World War Europe would be quite different without them, let us not forget that. There are some issues that divide our politicians, but the question is not always “trust”, it is also about ” capability”. At this moment, the European armed forces are lagging far behind the American armed forces. That is why we are interested in developing capabilities.
ESD: Let us talk about the 2% budgetary commitment for defence. There is no doubt that it will be one of the main topics at the next NATO summit in London from 3 to 4 December.
Pabriks: Latvia spends 2% of its budget on defence, not because Trump asks for it. We really think it is important to have powerful forces. Not to increase spending would be irresponsible for Latvia, the Baltic Sea and also for Europe, because we can no longer trust our neighbour and that means we have to increase our military spending further.
ESD: Could you give us a picture of the Latvian Armed Forces?
Pabriks: We have a professional army of only 6,500 soldiers, but we plan to bring it up to 7,500. On the second level we have a National Guard system, for example patriotic volunteers who go to military exercise to train with weapons: We have 8,500 members and plan to increase it to 12,000. The third level is the reserve (former soldiers), which has 5,000 members that we can call up very quickly. In addition, we are now planning a comprehensive defence system that includes civil society, business, enterprises and military institutions. We want our society to be mentally ready for any kind of attack, just like Finland, Sweden or Switzerland. That is why we are introducing military courses in our schools.
The interview was conducted by Esteban Villarejo.