Former Spy Chief: Russia could “break” NATO through the Baltics
- By defencematters
If the Russian economy collapses and is not capable of opposing the West, the final card left on the table for Russia will be its armed forces saysJānis Kažociņšthe former head of the Latvian Constitutional Protection Bureau
by Gatis Kristovskis
If the Russian economy collapses and is not capable of opposing the West, the final card left on the table for Russia will be its recently modernized armed forces. If this happens, Russia could attempt to "break" NATO through the Baltics. The expansion of military activities in Ukraine’s East has been a huge mistake, and Russia does not know how to get out of this situation anymore. Resistance by the Ukrainian side was much larger than Russia expected, and this means that if Russia wants to continue its assault on Ukraine, it will have to openly send in its regular forces. This would automatically mean new sanctions imposed by the West. However, Vladimir Putin has cultivated his image to a point where he cannot afford to back down, the current advisor to the Latvian defense minister and former head of the Latvian Constitutional Protection Bureau Jānis Kažociņš points out.
Are the Baltics currently living with the principle, "if you wish to live in peace, prepare for war"?
I think that this is a correct assumption. If this preparation is adequate, that is another matter. The United States, the main ally of the Baltics, spends 3.8% of GDP on defense. Latvia is only now beginning to slowly approach defense spending of 2% of GDP. We must understand that U.S. voters wish to know why they have to pay their taxes to defend the Baltic people, if we cannot even reach defense spending levels to at least 2% of GDP. This is morally necessary for us. On the other hand, this additional defense financing must be used efficiently.
Are the Baltics reacting accordingly to Russian threats?
We alone cannot ensure our defense. This is a lesson we learned in 1939 and 1940, when Latvia’s defense spending was at a level 27% of GDP. This was a huge contribution towards defense at the time – Latvia had a large number of soldiers and reserves, but this was not enough and we were forced to submit to the Soviet Union. Collective defense is the best option, and we can feel safe at the moment. But this is not enough. We must ourselves continue to invest in our defense capabilities.
Of course, we must also look at the political backdrop, as the propaganda war directed against the Baltics is at a very serious level. Media outlets controlled by the Russian authorities are attempting to convince the Baltic people and its allies that the region cannot be defended and that sooner or later the Baltics will return to Russia’s sphere of influence. They are trying to convince us that our economy is weak, that we are discriminating against the Russian community and that there is a revival of fascism in the region. At the same time, Russia is also trying to convince Baltic allies that there is no use trying to defend the region and that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty will not work here. However, the leaders of the Baltics’ strategic allies, the United States and Germany, have made it completely clear that they will not allow the region to be attacked.
Are the Baltics even capable of solving its security problems with Russia without the involvement of the U.S.?
The United States is a very serious source of support for the Baltics and Western Europe. This is why Russia’s foreign policy and propaganda is directed against the United States. An additional objective is to create a divide between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. Furthermore, Russia is also attempting to break-off the Western world from such countries as Brazil, China, India and South Africa. Russia’s foreign policy in these countries is very different than in the West. This is proven by the participation of the leaders of these countries in May 9 events in Moscow, while almost every Western leader shunned the events.
How capable is the Russian army at the moment to threaten the Baltics?
I believe that the Russian armed forces have improved in some areas since the war with Georgia in 2008. The modernization process was initiated before this war, but has sped-up in recent years. The occupation of Crimea was an exemplary military operation, which was carried out by well-trained soldiers with a high level of discipline. However, the large majority of those currently serving in the Russian armed forces are at a similar level as those serving during the Soviet times can remember it. Looking at the May 9 military parade in Russia, we also see that Russia has modernized its armament in the various sectors of its armed forces. Russia is also investing huge resources in the development of modern nuclear weapons. I recently read that Russia will be allocating 20 percent of its total budget to defense, which means that defense spending in Russia will reach 4.2% of GDP this year.
Russia’s economic situation is one of the reasons why we are seeing confusing foreign policy steps taken by the Kremlin. The occupation of Donbas has been a huge mistake, and Russia does not know how to get out of this situation. In 2013, Putin announced that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, but in two countries, and that is why they must be together. When then President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU and the Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi were taking place, finally Putin felt that Russia has taken its real place in the world. However, this was also the time when the Ukrainian people drove off the corrupt dictator. If the Ukrainians were able to topple their corrupt dictator, then the Russian people could have the idea to do the same. This is why Putin had to act. The occupation of Crimea went off perfectly, that is why the Russians believed they would be able to occupy Ukraine’s east just as easily. However, resistance by the Ukrainians was much larger than Russia anticipated, and this means that if Russia wants to continue its assault on Ukraine, it will have to openly send in its regular forces. This would automatically mean new sanctions imposed by the West. However, Vladimir Putin has cultivated his image to a point where he cannot afford to back down.
So this means that as long as Russia is occupied with Ukraine, there is no direct threat to the Baltics?
There is no direct threat at the moment, however, the Baltics must take into account that Putin does not have solutions to his economic problems. Even though Putin has announced that everything will be ok in a few years, Russia’s financial reserves could dry-up within two years. Russia’s problems are not just due to Western sanctions and the fall in the price of oil. Russia has not diversified its economy in 35 years, and its people are beginning to feel the effects. The Baltics cannot feel completely safe. If the Russian economy collapses and is not capable of opposing the West, the final card left on the table for Russia will be its armed forces. This is the reason Russia is investing huge resources into its military, while at the same time taking away from such sectors as healthcare and education. If Russia begins to feel that everything is coming to an end, it could attempt to "break" NATO through the Baltics. I would like to remind you that Russia has on several occasions played-out an invasion of the Baltics during its "Zapad" military exercises in the past.
How do you predict the situation in Ukraine will develop? Do you think Russia will go "all-in"?
Russia, of course, would like for Western sanctions to be lifted, and to do as it pleases in its sphere of interest. However, Russian values are not in accordance with Western values. If Russia goes "all-in", then Ukraine will not be enough. The most optimal scenario would be to "break" NATO and occupy the Baltics. However, this is not possible anymore, as the West has been warned, especially the United States. Taking into account all that I have mentioned, there will not be true peace in Ukraine, and the pot will be constantly kept warm. But no one can really predict the development of the situation at the moment.
I am confident that in the case of Russian aggression, NATO will react. The U.S. is the largest member of the alliance, and makes up at least 50% of the alliance’s capabilities. The U.S. has made it perfectly clear that the Baltics will be defended. The Baltics are a litmus test for the United States. Not because the Baltics are in any way important for the United States. In U.S. foreign policy, its sphere of influence in the Pacific Ocean region is more important. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines are closely following along the actions of the United States. If the U.S. is not prepared to fulfill its promises to its European allies, especially in connection with Article 5, then what can these countries expect? If the U.S. does not support its allies in need, a complete collapse of U.S foreign policy will not only take place in Europe, but around the world.
Can the situation change if Russia keeps growing its military muscles?
The situation is changing constantly, that is why it is a NATO requirement for all members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. I believe that not only rotating allied forces should be deployed in the Baltics, but permanent ones as well.
It cannot be ruled out that Russia has different hybrid-war tactics in mind against the Baltics, which differ than the more aggressive ones used against Ukraine.
Crimea was a unique case, because the territory already had Russian forces based in it. The Crimea scenario cannot play out anywhere else. In relation to the hybrid-war currently taking place in Ukraine’s east, we must understand one thing – when Russia saw that the anti-terrorist operation led by the Ukrainian forces was about to succeed against the so-called separatists, Russia sent in its regular forces to push back the Ukrainian side. Russia wished to show Ukraine that the more it continued to resist, the more it would use its regular army against it. If necessary, the Baltics would be able to take care of the so-called "green soldiers" if they suddenly popped-up somewhere, however, if Russian regular forces cross Baltic borders, Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would automatically come into force.
Hybrid-war elements have been used in other conflicts, however, I believe Russia will look for different ways of influencing the situation in the Baltics in an attempt to achieve its political objectives. We must instead look at Russia’s possible goals in the Baltics, when compared to Ukraine. A major problem for the EU and NATO would arise if a pro-Kremlin government would come into power in Latvia. We must look in completely different directions and think of ways to prevent completely different destabilizing factors. Recently, various explosions have gone off in Ukraine outside the Donbas region. The aim of these bombings is to destabilize the country and generate distrust towards the Ukrainian security structures. A similar scenario is not impossible in the Baltics. That is why Russia can use the "compatriot factor" in the Baltics to achieve its goals. Russian-speakers in the Baltics can be used just like the Soviet Union once used communist parties in the West.
How big are the chances Russia could risk using its nuclear arsenal believing that the West would not respond?
If Russia has used its nuclear arsenal in the past to blackmail the West, there is no reason to believe that this could not happen again. We again return to U.S. foreign policy – if the U.S. is prepared to sacrifice Europe, then what will its allies in the Pacific think? If Russia does indeed use its nuclear weapons, the U.S. will have no choice but to respond with a counter-attack. This, of course, is an immensely dangerous scenario.
Is an actual regime change in Russia even possible in the near future?
We can compare Russia at the moment to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Back then, everyone knew that change is coming, but nobody knew how and when. This could take place suddenly, or slowly. During his first two presidential periods Putin had an "agreement" with the Russian people – I will give you a higher standard of living, but for that you will have less democracy. Now this is moving in a different direction – more and more repression is taking place in the country, and democratic standards are falling to even lower lows. Let us remember that Putin recently disappeared for 11 days, and people began to ask if a coup had not taken place. If the people begin thinking and discussing about possible life without Putin, then psychologically this thought process is already going through their minds. I also think that too many have brushed aside the influence Ramzan Kadyrov has in Russia. This can be seen by the internal struggle between the Russian Federal Security Service and Kadyrov’s interests. The Kremlin does not wish to side with any of these conflicting sides. Russia’s economic problems, in tandem with this situation, could lead to a certain level of instability.
Putin’s main aim is to stay in power until he dies. He does not wish to meet the same fate as the toppled Libyan dictator Gaddafi, and he will do everything he can to remain in power. I believe that Russia’s economic problems can make the country’s actions unpredictable, thus it is not in the West’s interests to vanquish Russia, but instead change its national position. The collapse of Russia is the last thing the West needs. Such instability, in the context of nuclear weapons, would be much, much more dangerous than the current situation. If somebody thinks that the situation will improve if Putin loses power, they are wrong, as something much worse could replace him. Putin is a rational thinking person, and he knows very well what the reaction will be if a NATO member is attacked or nuclear weapons are used. If someone, like, for example, Dmitry Rogozin were to replace Putin, he might not understand these consequences.
What are the Baltic’s weak spots in relation with Russia?
The border separating the Baltic with Russia, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is 1,500 kilometers long. However, the border between the Baltic with other NATO members is just 103 km long. Taking this into account, one of our main disadvantages is our geographical position. Second of all, Latvia and Lithuania, unlike Estonia, had not really been thinking too much about their national security in recent years. Third of all, the integration of society in Latvia has not substantially improved. However, I do not want to think that all is lost, because I doubt there are many Russian-speaking residents of the Baltics who wish to see the horrors that have taken place in Donbas to repeat itself here.
Do you agree to what the European Commission president has said – that a joint European army would make Russia understand that we are serious in the defense of our common values?
Armies are a way to achieve foreign policy goals. If no common foreign policy exists, how can there be a common army? We already have seen how larger European countries have different positions on international matters, like, for example, in Iraq and Libya. At the same time, why does the EU suddenly also have to be a separate military force? We already have NATO, which also includes the United States and Canada. It is completely incomprehensible why we need such an army, which would only become a rival to NATO. Member states already have enough generals and bases, thus the alliance should instead focus on regional cooperation, like with Sweden and Finland, which are not NATO members.
Taking into account Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, has NATO reacted accordingly to this new geo-political situation?
Taking into account that NATO is a bureaucratic organization stuck in its traditional methods, the alliance has quickly made and implemented many important decisions during the past year. I believe NATO has reacted accordingly. I would like to remind that agreements are made on the basis of unanimity between the 28 member states. Putin, like it or not, has revived an organization which seemed lost. Of course we must also look ahead and monitor the actions taken by Russia after it awakes from this current nightmare. I am confident that Russia will become a democratic country in the future, thus the West must think of ways to help Russia become a modern and responsible nation.
Is it not suspicious that in Latvia, unlike in Estonia and Lithuania, nobody has been detained the past several years for spying on behalf of Russia?
I believe that Russian spies are operating in Latvia. Latvian intelligence services actually helped their colleagues in Estonia uncover the activities of Estonian security structure official Herman Simm, who was spying on behalf of Russia and caused much harm to NATO. I certainly do not rule out the possibility that there are persons in Latvia, including within the state administration, who are working with Russian intelligence services. Thus it is the task of intelligence services to find out how our potential enemies think and how they might act. As Henry Kissinger once said - the West is playing chess, while Putin is playing poker. It is the task of Western intelligence services to see the cards Putin is playing with.
How do you assess Latvia’s plans of creating a new television channel in the Russian language?
Of course everything must be done so that Latvia’s Russian speaking residents, as well as those living outside of Latvia, can obtain objective information about what is happening in the country. However, I am not confident about the necessity of such a channel. If I were a supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, I would not watch such a channel. Furthermore, there are concerns that the creation of such a channel would strengthen the use of the Russian language in the public domain. In order to attract viewers, this channel would need to have a strong lineup of programs. There are many other ways to speak to the Russian speaking community, like, for example, developing regional media outlets.
Photo Credit: LETA