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Published: Sunday, 5/18/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

COMMENTARY

Look out, Latvia! Putin could be heading your way

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST
Sigov. Sigov.
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When I took advantage of the Soviet Union collapse and moved to the United States more than 20 years ago, my best friend stayed behind to start his own business.

My friend may soon regret it even though his automotive business is thriving right now and has branched out in the real estate.

Unimpressed with nominal support by the United States and its NATO allies, many in his native Latvia are fretting that Russian President Vladimir Putin may extend his efforts to undermine pro-Western governments in the neighboring former Soviet territories from Ukraine to Latvia. Of Latvia's population of about 2 million, nearly half are Russian speakers and about 300,000 are noncitizens, mainly of Russian descent.

The tiny Baltic state bordered by Russia used to be a part of the Soviet Union, annexed by it as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939 to coordinate their territorial ambitions.

Mr. Putin, who has described the crumbling of the U.S.S.R. as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century,” lacks the military power to bring back the late Soviet empire, but he has enough to restore the former Soviet Union to its western borders to include Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic states, and Moldova.

The former KGB officer is bent on undermining the democratic countries on Russia's western borders. With his increased paranoia, he sees them as a threat to his own autocracy. In his effort to undermine the government in Ukraine, he has used his expertise in misinformation and subterfuge to instigate, organize, and coordinate ethnic Russian insurgency there, annexed the Crimean peninsula, and concentrated an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

The fear is that he will try that so-far successful-tactic in Latvia, a tiny country on the Baltic Sea, across from Sweden.

Unlike Ukraine, Latvia along with the other two Baltic states — Estonia and Lithuania both of which also have sizable if smaller Russian-speaking minorities — is a member of NATO, a 28-nation U.S.-led common-security military alliance created during the early years of the Cold War to ward off Soviet aggression.

Some in Latvia are fairly confident that the United States and other NATO members will honor their commitment and defend their country should push come to shove. Others keep doubting it despite the recent statement U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made in Washington last month.

Having admitted that “today Russia seeks to change the security landscape of Eastern and Central Europe,” he said in reference to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the threat it posed to eastern Ukraine that “the United States and our allies will stand together in support of Ukraine. ... And most important, together we have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every single piece of it.”

However, Russia’s continuing military presence on the Ukrainian borders and Russia’s continuing propaganda that calls the Ukrainian government “fascist,” attests to the opposite. It appears that Mr. Putin is unimpressed by both the words — and the deeds by his Western opponents, including the limited economic sanctions against a number of Russian individuals and companies.

Moreover, the recent blame game in the U.S. media focused on finding those responsible for “losing Russia” can further him in that belief.

Some authors blame Mr. Putin’s revanchism on NATO’s expansion.

True, since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, NATO membership has extended to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Croatia, feeding into Mr. Putin’s paranoia.

But those countries sought a membership in the defensive military alliance as they understandably wanted guarantees that Russia will not reclaim them as subjects or vassals ever again. One could argue that had they not been admitted by NATO, at least some of them would now be in Ukraine’s situation — on the brink of civil war.

Ukraine and Georgia also sought NATO membership, but Russia headed them off by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine earlier this year.

Despite Mr. Kerry’s honorable statement, one can easily imagine Mr. Putin’s tactics of subversive propaganda, provocation, and creeping military infiltration with a threat of an all-out military aggression applied to Latvia the way it was done in Ukraine. And without outright military aggression — with tanks and aircraft crossing the border en masse and creating an impressive TV footage — NATO is unlikely to defend it with the risk of the start of World War III.

So unless Mr. Putin also stays out of Latvia if only not to risk the chance that the situation gets out of control triggering the doomsday scenario, the day may come when I will be trying hard not to say to my friend, “I told you so.”

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact Mike Sigov at: sigov@theblade.com, 419-724-6089, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.



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