Raimonds Vejonis: "Everything we saw in the Soviet days still goes on, but with new actors"
The Ukrainian Week spoke with Raimonds Vejonis, the newly-elected President of the Republic of Latvia and Minister of Defense when this interview was made, about NATO revival, the "deterrent effect," Putin's unpredictability, and the cost of the conflict in Ukraine to Riga
U.W.: 11 years ago Latvia joined NATO. What has been the impact on the country, the army, and the security system? What has changed? Do you feel secure after the events in Ukraine?
Our country has been a NATO member for 11 years, and this gives us confidence that in the event of any crisis we will receive support from the other members of the bloc. Today, when the security situation in Ukraine has deteriorated and Crimea was annexed, we feel especial support from NATO member states in the Baltic region, and the constant presence of our allies' troops gives us a sense of protection against any contingencies.
U.W.: Not long ago, the Russian fleet "paraded" off the coast of the Baltic States, Russian air forces often violate NATO airspace, etc. Are these mere provocations, or is it something more, like a threat to the national sovereignty of the Baltic countries?
Last year, Russian planes violated the borders of Estonia twice, for about a minute, with all other activities taking place in international waters and next to our borders. Russia is flexing its muscles. We can see that over the last five years, its armed forces were modernized and developed. Various war games, including the unexpected ones, are taking place near our borders. We know very well the scenario implemented in Ukraine, when the unexpected maneuvers turned into the annexation of Crimea. Of course, we are worried. The scale of these military exercises and the number of personnel involved are very large, with lots of equipment. All exercise scenarios are very aggressive: attacks on neighboring countries and on NATO members. All these activities next to our borders are a test of our response capacity. We have to respond from our NATO bases to any planes that appear close to our borders with their transponders disabled. Air patrol missions have to identify them and monitor what is happening. This is also a test of the NATO forces. Russia, most likely, also collects information on how quickly we respond to each such event, and on the kind of reaction on our part. This is a whole complex of activities on their part.
U.W.: Latvia recently held military exercises of the armed forced of NATO member states, with another exercise planned for the summer. Is it in response to Russia's activities, or is it because you feel a real threat?
The exercises taking place in Latvia and on the territory of all three Baltic countries have been planned. The only thing that has changed is that after the annexation of Crimea, more representatives of NATO members started taking part. This means that all exercises are happening on a wider scale. A large variety of equipment is involved, and the number of personnel has increased (from 1,000 to 2,000 on average), as well as the scope of exercises. Most exercises now involve NATO, whereas previously they were held at the national level. However, their general number has not changed.
U.W.: We often hear that the Russian threat has revived NATO. Can you see any changes?
I agree. When in 2008 the Russian-Georgian war broke out, only five countries (the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine) actively reacted to the situation and stood with the Georgian people to protect it against the Russian aggression. But the war had no impact on the relationship between NATO and the EU and the general security situation in Europe, because at that time everyone thought it to be an isolated incident and nothing more. Six years later, everything is different. Last year, when the events in Ukraine started, NATO reaction to the deterioration of the situation in the region was almost immediate, and the reaction of the US came even faster. They supported us and sent additional forces. NATO started dealing with topical issues: how to respond to the "green men," and how to strengthen the eastern flank of the NATO states. The economic sanctions against Russia were also introduced. This has changed the attitude of NATO and the EU to Russia.
U.W.: What do you think is Putin's major motive in this war? What is his actual goal, and how far could he go?
It is difficult to know his ideas, but in any case he has shown himself to be unpredictable. The events in Ukraine confirm that those decisions were taken unexpectedly. This is one of the negative aspects of the unpredictability of his moves. Why is he doing this? Because he wants to preserve the political, economic and military impact on the post-Soviet territory. The only difference is that the Baltic States are members of NATO and the EU, and Russia's impact is not as immediate as on the other countries. But in any case, I think this is Russian chauvinism. If you take the Russian history, you can see its imperialist dimension, its chauvinism. Everything we saw in the Soviet days still goes on, but with new actors.
U.W.: Recently, there was a scandal in Latvia when the idea emerged of establishing a "Latgalian People's Republic." How serious is the threat? Could the Ukrainian scenario be used?
No. I can say right away that such scenario is impossible. In any society, there are some radical elements. In Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, there is also a very small portion of the population waiting for an opportunity to express themselves in a radical way. And these people are certainly pro-Russian. There was an incident in Latvia, and it was inspired from Russia. This idea cannot be implemented in our country, because Latgale residents definitely consider themselves to be part of Latvia, and there is no talking about becoming a part of some separate republic or Russia.
Our country is a member state of NATO and the EU, and no one will want to wage a war against NATO. The common sense is against it, so I think that such scenarios in Latvia are not possible. At the same time, it is very important for us to strengthen the external and internal security, that is, the military and the police. We have to work hard on increasing the presence of the NATO troops in the region, as well as on the early warning, that is, collect the intelligence on possible provocations and prevent them. This gives us confidence in the "deterrent effect" on any activities against our country.
U.W.: You are probably watching closely the events in Ukraine. In your opinion, is it possible to resolve this conflict diplomatically or through sanctions?
In any case, I believe that first of all you need to make the maximum use of the diplomatic channels, because military operations result in casualties on both sides, including among the civilians. And this is definitely not the best mechanism. Therefore, it would be best to resolve the situation diplomatically. The economic sanctions are a way to influence the aggressor. Of course, they are not always efficient, but in any case, I believe you have to try to act by peaceful means rather than through military force.
U.W.: Should NATO member states give weapons to Ukraine?
NATO has decided not to give Ukraine lethal weapons, but nevertheless, any state that is a member of NATO or the European Union can help Ukraine with weapons, funds and so on based on bilateral agreements.
U.W.: What has been the cost of the conflict in Ukraine for Latvia so far?
I would not say that there have been any costs for the Latvian budget. Of course, we lost in the economic cooperation, the sanctions affect our economy, slowing down our GDP growth. While at the beginning of the year we planned 2.8%, now the growth figure has dropped to 2.3%, and by the end of 2015 it is likely to be less than 2%. This significantly affects the Latvian economy. However, the same effect can be observed in the whole of Europe. However, as the Defense Minister, I can say that the politicians have finally started talking about the national security and the European security. All countries understand that they have to develop their armed forces. We need to be ready to host additional representatives of NATO armed forces, which made it possible to pass a legislation stating that the country is aiming at the defense budget of 2% of GDP. Until now, there were only words, with no money allocated. 2% is one of the requirements for NATO membership. Now, both politicians and the Parliament have realized that it is important to improve the defensive capacity of our armed forces. Additional funds have been allocated from the budget, and we have begun to systematically develop our army. This is the first year when we can plan real investments in the armed forces and strengthen our air defense capacity. We have a Russian military helicopter base located within 27 km from our border, and a paratrooper base within 70 km. This is very serious.
We are also strengthening our Zemessardze, the National Guard. All citizens who want to join it and who meet certain criteria can receive training. In crisis situations, armed forces can use them to defend the country. There are also special task forces, engineering troops, naval forces, etc. It is important that money has also been allocated to improve the infrastructure, which will be used not only by our armed forces, but also by our NATO partners. This also requires additional investment.
Another development area is investment in youth. We have a special volunteer organization Jaunsardze uniting young people aged 12 to 21. At schools in each municipality, we have groups with instructors who not only teach the history of Latvia and its armed forces, but also train how to survive in nature (basing on the example of the American scouts). Young people can acquire basic military skills. For example, how to disassemble a machine gun (this is what we did in Soviet schools). There is no military instruction at schools today, so Jaunsardze is instrumental in providing some military training. This is very interesting to young people. Many Jaunsardze members later join the ranks of the National Guard or the professional army. This gradually strengthens our armed forces.
U.W.: Are there any alternative configurations for security cooperation in this region: Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine?
There are additional ones. A very close cooperation between the Baltic States continues. Last year, we cemented our relations with Poland. Today, the four countries can make joint decisions. They concern the military, the strengthening of the defense capacity, the joint projects and the general development areas for our armed forces. At the same time, we maintain very close contacts with the northern nations: Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. While previously the cooperation around the Baltic Sea was rather formal, it has now become more practical. We exchange information, including intelligence, plan joint exercises and procurement of weapons and other equipment.
Speaking of the Baltic States, we have a Baltic Battalion incorporating a certain number of military personnel from the three countries. It is part of NATO Response Force.
U.W.: In Ukraine, the idea of joining NATO is popular again. How realistic is it today?
Frankly speaking, it is quite difficult, because I know the hard way that Latvia had to go to become a NATO member. There is a lot of homework that has to be done. There are no credit points, you just have to meet the criteria. Ukraine in the future may become a member of NATO and of the EU, but that has to be its choice. It will have to firmly say in a referendum: "We want to be part of the European Union. We want NATO membership." After that, you will have to do your homework. Latvia will in any case support Ukrainian aspirations to join the EU and NATO. We know that support is necessary in difficult times, and we are ready to support you, but it all starts with the people of Ukraine willing to become part of this or that organization. Here we can't do anything. This is a responsible decision that you have to make on your own.
Raimonds Vejonis is the current President of Latvia, politician, biologist, and teacher. He was born in 1966 in Pskov Oblast, RSFSR. In 1989, he graduated from the Department of Biology of the University of Latvia in Riga. Member of the Latvian Green Party. Member of Madona city council and of the Latvian Saeima of IX and X convocations. In 2002–2011, Minister of Environment and Regional Development. From January 2014, Defense Minister in the government of Laimdota Straujuma. Grand Officer of the Order of the Three Stars, the highest state award of Latvia. Elected President of Latvia on June 3, 2015