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Latvia in focus: National security options for the Baltic States

Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine raised well founded fears among the Eastern-European members of the NATO alliance, especially the Baltic States. The Baltic States are the most exposed to Russia’s threat and largely count on the NATO for their security. The Baltic States know that their military capabilities will not stand against Russia’s aggression as the NATO response might arrive too late. Baltic defense forces combined, comprise around 22 000 troops, 448 heavy artillery pieces, no tanks or warplanes. At the same time total Russian conventional capability consist of 845 000 troops, 5436 heavy artillery pieces, 2550 tanks and 1389 warplanes.

September 15, 2015 - Olevs Nikers - Articles and Commentary

Photo Kosmogenez / Shutterstock

Latvia is the most vulnerable part and the most important chain-component of the whole Baltic defense. If the territory of Latvia is occupied by the Russian army, there is a are small chances for Estonia and Lithuania to survive. If Latvia is occupied, NATO and  the U.S. can do a little to change the situation by military means,  without being involved in a full scale military confrontation with Russia. This is why conventional deterrence has such a vital importance for the three Baltic States, and particularly for Latvia. Looking for realistic security options for Latvia, and the Baltic states as a whole, I will outline five realistic security options for Latvia and the Baltic States.  Those options should be implemented simultaneously and do not exclude each other. First – Latvia must achieve several goals as a NATO member; Second – boost its own military capabilities; Third – as much as possible, merge defenses of the three Baltic States and strengthen relations with other Eastern European countries and Nordic countries. Fourth – continue and improve integration of the Russian ethnic minority into Latvian society. Fifth – closely align EU security concerns with the NATO security concerns.

1. NATO should have a more effective strategy to defend Baltics

Currently NATO is a massive “paper tiger”, while the most credible factor of collective security are existing agreement between NATO members, its Article V specifically. Indeed, behind this agreement, there are certain military capabilities of the largest NATO countries – U.S, Germany, Canada, France and Great Britain. But these capabilities can’t be immediately transferred to Latvia. In fact, Article V alone does not guaranty military help to anybody. Speed of the NATO reaction will be is slowed down by the decision making process between NATO allies and the capability to quickly exercise deployment of the troops and equipment to the war zone. Latvia and all the Baltic States should ask to update the Article V in order to make it more effective. Also they should ask to station more NATO troops in the Baltics in order to deter Russia.

All participants of the international community should believe in Article V.  First, it must be credible in the eyes of the potential offender.  Additional protocols between NATO allies, in reference to Article V of the NATO agreement, might help.  A preliminary minimum agreement between NATO members should secure certain capabilities in case of aggression towards Latvia and the Baltic States.  The Russian military force is a thousand times larger than Latvia’s, and 400 times larger than all the Baltic States’ armies combined.  In terms of troops, Russia outnumbers the current manpower of the Baltic States 5 to 1.  So, NATO should permanently station not less than 20,000 troops in Latvia and Estonia each, and not less than 5,000 troops in Lithuania..

2. Boost Latvian military capabilities

By the time of joining NATO, Latvia abandoned its compulsory military service and moved towards the very small professional armed force of not more than 5000 troops (the size of one brigade). This was done at the time, when NATO did not consider Russia as a threat, but treated it as a partner. Also, by joining NATO Latvia committed to allocate for defense expenses not less than 2% of its GDP. Due to the global financial crisis of 2008, this commitment was “unofficially” abandoned. Now it is clear, that Latvia should stay with this commitment, and increase defense spending to the appropriate level within the next coming years. Latvia should increase its troops at least 3-4 times (from 5 000 to at least 15 000) in order to counter at least 64 000 troops of invaders (Size of the Western military district of Russian Federation). The Baltic States, all together ,should increase the number of the troops from 20 000 to 30 000 in order to be more effective in front of 100 000 Russian troops. These numbers are quite optimistic in a longer time perspective. Considering force to space ratios, each brigade (4 000 – 6000 soldiers) can securely hold a front line of approximately 7-15 kilometers front line. The length of Latvia’s Eastern border is 276 km, so it may need at least 73 600 troops according to this calculation (4 000 troops on each 15 km sector). Latvia is weak when it comes to air defense and artillery defense. In addition, in order to meet up with the requirements of effective deterrence and actual defense, Latvia should reconsider the return to the compulsory military service, improve  a mobilization system and training of army reserves.

3. Enforce multidimensional regional cooperation

The second step to enhance security confidence is – through close and wide regional cooperation. The closest regional cooperation should include the three Baltic States, Scandinavian countries – members of NORDEFCO and Poland. The wider circle should include other Central and Eastern European countries –  NATO and NATO PfP (Partnership for Peace) members. In this sense, defense cooperation among the Baltic States has been close even before Latvia joined NATO. During the years of successful cooperation between Baltic States, many excellent common projects such as BALTNET, BALTRON, and Baltic Defense College  have been launched. Another significant display of jointness  are regional and NATO military exercises, (with special focus to Host Nation Support capabilities) which are being organized in all three Baltic States since the year 2009. These are the most tremendous joint contributions by the Baltic States ever made in terms of the personnel involved and material resources invested. Cooperation between Baltic States should be strengthened, moving towards development of single defense lines across all the three Baltic States. The principle of collective defense should be first implemented at the regional level, and between three Baltic States. Furthermore, on the interaction between  Baltic States and the NATO armed forces, Baltic States should fully synchronize exercises, which should be organized on a regular basis. And finally Baltic States should develop a unified military command, forming large elements of joint forces, prospectively transforming into the large joint units of the Baltic States.

4. Integration of the Russian ethnic minority

The ethnic composition of the Latvian population is among the major concerns of Latvian security. About 26% of Latvia’s population is Russians by nationality. The largest number proportions of Russians live in the Eastern parts of the Latvia and in Riga, the Capital city. Considering  the recent experience of Ukraine and the historical experience of Nazi Germany before the WWII, when the ethnic “card” was frequently used for territorial acquisitions, it is very important to minimize the risk of falling respective minorities in the Baltics under the Russian influence. Currently it is understood, that certain measures should be taken to confront Russia’s informational warfare and propaganda campaign in the media space. As Russia recently declared its readiness to issue Russian Federation citizenships to Russian minorities in the former soviet republics, it is another avenue for Russia to manipulate minorities also in the Baltic countries and use them as the cause for the military aggression. Therefore, the important task for the Latvian government and society as a whole is to continue the integration of the Russian minority into Latvian society in order to avoid affiliation of local Russians with the Russian Federation and avoid  the subsequent increase of Russian citizens in the Baltic States. Several efforts in this regard were  made in previous years, but the policy of integration later was considered as a failure not a success. These mistakes should be fixed now. First, integration should more effectively address the issues, where national division has the most severe consequences –  presently existing heterogeneous educational system and divided information space. Education system and information channels must be unified, helping to form society of individuals with shared identities.

5. Synchronize EU agenda with NATO

Latvia must advocate policies for EU that fully aligns NATO security concerns and measures with the concerns and measures of the EU. Having  a common understanding, EU can develop its military capabilities what is complementing NATO efforts in terms of maritime security strategy, air defense, border security etc. EU must complement NATO strategic communication efforts, especially countering Russian propaganda.

Other dimensions of national security within  the European Union are economic security and energy security. During the past 10 years the Latvian economy has  are quite successfully reoriented towards the Western markets, while there are still few vulnerabilities within specific export sectors, what depend on exports to the Russia and another former USSR countries. Latvia still heavily depends on Russia’s natural gas, which is still a major energetic threat for Latvia. Dependence on Russia’s natural gas must be minimized by integrating in western-centric energy system. Economy and exports dependence on the East should be minimized as much as possible, achieving broader integration into EU economy. In order to minimize energy dependence, Baltic States should also utilize regional cooperation. Latvia can benefit from Lithuania in terms of gas supply, compensating deficits within Lithuanian electricity market, for example.

Latvia, during its 6 months presidency of the Council of the European Union (January – June 2015) succeeded in several aspects, serving not only the purposes of its national and regional economic and energy security, but also managed to push forward many issues that have what has importance for the Baltic States in the context of common security and defense policy, such as a cyber-security, counter measures to the hybrid warfare and strategic communication, countering Russia’s propaganda.


In the current situation, Latvia, together with the other  Baltic States, should do whatever it takes in order to develop credible conventional deterrence and ensure appropriate diplomatic measures against the possibility of Russia’s aggression. Latvia should pay much more attention to its own national security and defense. Current Latvian defence capabilities at large extent,  invites Russian aggression rather than discourage it. Goal of any deterrence measure should convince any invader, that he will not succeed  a quick victory at the low cost.

Olevs Nikers is a senior analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC based think tank. He has led the Baltic Security Strategy Project supported by the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation and the Jamestown Foundation (2017-2019) and currently he is Director of the Baltic Sea Security Initiative. 


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