When the North Atlantic Organization was established by the main western powers on April 4 1949 Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. Since NATO was made to defend the Western Europe and US from possible Soviet invasion no doubt that in case of war Latvia would become a battlefield. During the Cold War years Latvia was filled with Soviet bases and NATO gathered intelligence about them. Until the very end many of the NATO leaders could not imagine the collapse of the opposing Warsaw Pact Union and the Soviet Union. The question became open to the western leaders – what to do with former Eastern European satellite states and the Baltic States? Integrate them in the NATO? Or leave under the Russian influence? But, the answer for many of the Eastern European countries and the Baltic States was clear- we want to join NATO! The process of joining was difficult because of protests from Russia and Latvian readiness for such step. And the responsibility of being a NATO member in this fast changing unstable world is even more challenging.
On January 1991 during the Barricade movement the Latvian government started to form a legislation for own armed forces. The past Latvian Army in 1918-1940 was in great memory for many, but it was unable to defend its homeland in the most critical moment. Mostly because of lack of foreign support, lack of unity between the Baltic states and the cowardice of the ruling politicians. The first national armed unit of the restored independent republic was the Latvian National Guard (Zemessardze) made right after the breakdown of the coup in August 1991. NG is a basic land component, consisting of volunteers who perform traditional national guard duties such as crisis response and support for military operations. It consists of 3 regions of National Guard.
On September 10 1991 a law of compulsory military draft was made to form new Latvian armed forces. The Latvian men from age of 19 to 50 had to fulfill a military duty. On November 13 1991 the Ministry of Defense was formed. Before the WW2 the ministry was officially called the Ministry of War. First Minister of Defense was Tālavs Jundzis who before that served as the chief of the commission of the defense and interior affairs. In the same time the vitally important Latvian Border Guard was also formed. On January 21 1992 the main Joint Headquarters (NAF) was formed to take command of all land, sea and air units. All other headquarters of navy, air defense and border guards were subordinated to the main command. The first commander-in-chief was colonel Dainis Turlais.
On November 4 1992 the law regarding National defense and armed forces was made. Latvian military was officially named the National Armed Forces (Nacionālie Bruņotie Spēki NBS). The structure of the NBS changed many times. The Land Forces (Sauszemes spēki SZS) consists of Headquarters HQ and Signal Company 1st Infantry Battalion 2nd Infantry BattalionFire Support Battalion Combat Support Battalion. Latvian Naval Forces (Latvijas Jūras spēki LJS), Air Force (Latvijas Gaisa Spēki LGS), Latvian Special Task Unit (Speciālo Uzdevumu Vienība SUV) and the Military Police. There are active 4,763 active duty personnel in the NAF. 971 in SZS, 552 in LJS, 10,642 voluntary national guardsmen with 1,284 officers and 1,945 non-commissioned officers in the Latvian National Guard. There are 1,288 civil employees serving in the NAF. From 2005 Latvia switched from institutional draft to professional army.
The cooperation with NATO begun shortly after the founding of the new Latvian military. On 20 December 1991, NATO founded the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) to collaborate with potential partners. Latvia also participated in the NACC foundation session, thus becoming a Member State of the forum.
In 1994, Latvia joined the programme “Partnership for Peace” established in the same year, which gave the possibility to take advantage of consultations of NATO civil and military specialists, their support and practical assistance in development of the defence system. In 1995, the participation in the “Partnership for Peace” programme also allowed Latvia to get involved in the NATO Planning and Review Process that, in subsequent years, facilitated compliance of the Latvian National Armed Forces with those of NATO Member States.
The joining NATO meant that Latvia had to make many changes in its laws and policy. From 1992 to 1994 Latvia had tough time of managing the withdrawal of the Russian army from Latvia. The ex-Soviet soldiers now part of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation were still in their bases and many refused to leave. Latvian delegation managed to achieve that all ex-Soviet bases including the top-secret sites are evacuated. Russians destroyed most of their military objects and made unusable for the Latvian army. After the last Russian soldier left Latvia (not including the retired officers and their families) the Latvian government set path to join EU and NATO. Many amendments were made including the Citizenship law that caused a failed referendum to cancel these changes.
Latvian Armed forces also had to prove themselves in the International operations. From 1996 to 2009 Latvia joined the Peace Keeping operations on Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 1999 Latvia sent its soldiers to join the peace keeping mission in Kosovo the KFOR. Latvians left on 2009. 17 soldiers, 13 Military reconnaissance experts and four staff sergeants was stationed there during the mission.
On 23―25 April 1999, at the NATO summit meeting in Washington, USA, NATO suggested Latvia and the other eight candidate states to elaborate a Member Action Plan (MAP) for participation in NATO by reflecting the entire preparatory process and measures for the participation in NATO therein. MAP would permit the states to receive additional consultations, support and practical assistance from NATO Member States. On 21 November 2002, at the meeting of NATO Heads of state in Prague, Czech Republic, Latvia and six other candidate states were invited to join NATO. This marked the beginning of the last stage for Latvia for becoming a NATO Member State, which took place on 29 March 2004.
The reasons for invitation only in 2002 is linked with the change in the global policy. US started a “Crusade against terrorism” and needed more supporters for their actions. Russia who was actively acting against the Baltic States joining in NATO, after September 11 seemed for friendlier to US than before. However, Russia again became more hostile after US invasion in Iraq on 2003. But, it was too late to prevent the full integration of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. The borders of NATO had extended to Russian borders making Russians to adopt the “encircled fortress doctrine” that stated that Russia is surrounded by the western powers and needs to defend itself from the foreign influence. The so-called “orange revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan where liberal forces managed to overthrow the pro-Moscow autocratic regimes made Russian leaders believe that NATO is against them even more. As Russia again experienced economic boom due to the rising oil prices, Russian military started a revival and power demonstration.
Meanwhile Latvia joined the ISAF mission in Afghanistan on 2003. Latvian soldiers were already sent under the Soviet lines on “International Duty” to Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. However, they were sent mainly against their own will. This time the participation in the mission was voluntary and paid. So far Latvia has sent 144 soldiers and the mission still continues. Latvians operate in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Meymaneh. So far three soldiers have been lost. Latvians were and are involved in heavy firefights with the Taliban insurgents. Now Latvians are mostly involved in training the Afghanistan Defense forces. The US, Norwegian and other partner state military has praised their Latvian colleges for their courage and discipline.
Latvia officially supported the US invasion in Iraq when other NATO states such as France and Germany did not. First soldiers were sent to Iraq on August 2003. Latvian troops were initially deployed to Kirkuk (under U.S. command) for a year, then transferred to Camp Charlie in Al Hillah, followed by Camp Delta in Al Kut. Finally, the Latvians were stationed at Camp Echo in Ad Diwaniyah where they conducted external security patrols. During their final posting, three Latvian soldiers were killed in action. On June 18, 2007, all but 7 of Latvia’s 125 troops left Iraq. Four of the remainder left within two weeks, leaving three officers who participated in intelligence analysis and operational planning from July 2007 onwards. The last three Latvian soldiers concluded their mission on November 8, 2008.
Latvian army specialists were also involved in military conflict in Macedonia on 2003, Latvian military observers were sent to Georgia on 2008. Latvian government officially sided with Georgia, during the war with Russia. The Prime Minister of Latvia Ivars Godmanis joined others western leaders and went to Tblisi during the war action. From 2011 Latvian naval specialists are involved in action against the Somalian pirates. On 2013 Latvian military instructors were sent to Liberia to help instructing the Liberian armed forces. And the latest ongoing mission with the Latvian troops on the ground is Mali where Latvia has sent officer and instructor.
Important aspect of the Latvian NATO membership is national security. The Article V is the most important for Latvia. This committed each member state to consider an armed attack against one state to be an armed attack against all states. This would mean if for instance Russia would attack Latvia it would trigger full NATO-Russian war. Optimists see this as a full-time guarantee for the Latvian security. Pessimists remind that in case of such event the nuclear weapons would have to be used and NATO would give up the Baltic States to escape nuclear war. What they forget that because the gigantic amount of the nuclear weapons made by both sides in the past would meant a total destruction and make these weapons useless for achieving victory. So nuclear weapons are mostly used as power demonstration and diplomatic argument. And the other important issue is that the Russian nuclear arsenal has been outdated and downsized by the many nuclear disarmament treaties. The Russian nuclear forces also can be destroyed in pre-emptive strike with using conventional weapons as concluded by many Russian military experts. Therefore in case of NATO-Russia conflict Russia may only be able to threaten others with their nukes not actually use them. And is Russia wiling to doom itself for the sake of the Baltic States if loosing few thousand conventional troops would be more cheaper.
The NATO guarantee for Baltic States security so far is Baltic Air Policing. Its NATO air defence Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in order to guard the airspace over the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The NATO jet fighters are stationed on Zoknia airfield at Lithuania. The Latvian main air force base at Lielvārde so far is not sufficient for modern NATO aircraft. Various NATO countries including Germany, France, Portugal, Poland and others have sent their fighters to do routine flights across the Baltic States. Their daily routine is sometimes interrupted by Russian Tu-95 bombers and fighter planes who for some reason heads to close to Baltic air space or even enters it. During the past decades Russians have sent their heavy strategical bombers on regular flights. In many cases they dare to violate the NATO airspace. Its a Russian power demonstration, however most of these bombers are built during the Soviet era and are outdated. While Russian air force is still in large numbers and pose a significant threat its suffers from outdated aircraft and accidents. Russians still face heavy problems in releasing new aircraft’s and rockets. Numerous test accidents were widespread during the Soviet Union, but no the Russian military simply cannot hide it.
The main threat for the Baltic State security is the military inequality between the member states. Also the US foreign policy during the Barack Obama administration have shifted from Eastern Europe towards the Middle East and Asia. However, in recent two years its apparent that the American “reset” policy has failed. Russia is wiling for more confrontation with US and NATO. The reasons for this is the downsizing Russian economy and falling popularity of the Vladimir Putin regime. To divert the national attention from domestic issues the Russian government blames the US, NATO and EU for its failures. Also Russia is interested in keeping the Middle Eastern conflict hot as possible to keep the oil prices up at high level. Since the main profit for Russian economy goes from oil and gas exports, Russia is interested to keep the oil prices high as possible at the expense of the Middle Eastern peace. And also the Russian paranoid belief that all the democratic opposition is actually a western agents makes them more aggressive towards the west.
With such nervous neighbor, Latvia has irresponsibility kept low military budget for many years. Only in recent times the current Defense Minister Artis Pabriks has openly pushed for adding more funds for Latvian military budget. On 2008 the military budget was 63 000 000 LVL on 2011 93 000 000 LVL. When the new state budget is being arranged the Defense Minister had openly stated that the funding for the defense is still not enough and not reach the NATO standard levels. He even said that the NATO leadership may object the Latvian capability of fulfilling their duty. Meanwhile Estonia spends 249 million euros on defense. Lithuania spends 252.0 million. While it’s not meant as un-patriotic criticism it could bring the situation where in case of emergency Latvia becomes a “white spot” in Baltic State security.
NATO is also concerned about the Swedish military capability. Russians have even played a war games where they proved they can isolate the Swedish air forces in case of war in the Baltic States. Sweden has also neglected its defense for some time and stands as fragile ally. With the US military action looming in Syria, Russia has become even more nervous and some war hawks have even called for invasion in the Baltic States in case of US strike on Syria. While we may view these as empty threats its clear that Russia is no longer a stable neighbor. For Latvia the Putin regime is more desirable as long its controls its military rhetoric and economy to stable level. However, Latvia must also keep off the “soft power” this regime makes. Awareness of danger posed by authoritarian neo-soviet thinking that Moscow tries to import even in the rooms of the parliament must be eminent. The worst case scenario the Russian regime drift to extreme military policy or the complete civil disorder is the main reason why Latvia and other NATO states should do everything to improve their security.