As top Kremlin officials have sounded ominous new warnings that they will defend ethnic Russians wherever they live, Latvia, the NATO nation with the highest proportion of Russians, is feeling in the crosshairs.
Six months into a bloody conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized key stretches of territory, other nations that were ruled by the Kremlin until the breakup of the Soviet Union are worried they could be the next target of Russian intrigue. President Obama this month vowed that the United States would defend its eastern European NATO allies, but several episodes in recent weeks have tested that resolve.
A top Russian diplomat touched down in Latvia’s capital to warn of “unfortunate consequences” stemming from alleged discrimination against the ethnic Russian minority there. The capital city’s mayor paid an unusually timed visit to Moscow. And a Russian-speakers’ political party passed out fliers comparing a heavily Russian region of Latvia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in March in the name of protecting its compatriots.
The incidents have troubled Latvia, a nation of 2 million people along the Baltic Sea where many retired Soviet officers remained along with their families after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Because Latvia is a member of the NATO defense alliance, threats against it have importance out of proportion to its size. NATO troops, including a 600-strong contingent of Americans, are currently rotating through Baltic territories, and NATO leaders this month approved new forces that would be able to quickly deploy to Eastern Europe should they be needed.
“Russia and Putin still have a geopolitical interest in the post-Soviet territories,” said Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis. “Russia is trying to use the Russian-speaking minority as a tool to aggressively promote its objectives.”