War Room

In the part of the world where Latvia is located, there is reason to speak of two different worlds that exist in parallel. One of them is the European world in which, for all of its faults and foibles, the European Union has proved to be an excellent way of joining countries together in pursuit of economic development, the observance of human rights, the elimination of corruption, etc. Needless to say, Latvia has not done all that well in any of these areas, the economy being what it is, discrimination against various groups in society being evident, corruption still being rather rampant, etc. Still, Latvia has been a fairly dutiful member of the EU, and of NATO, and of the Council of Europe, and of the United Nations, and of the OSCE. Latvia is certainly part of the global community, at least as defined by what we can call for our purposes “the West.”

The other parallel world is the one that exists next door to our country in the behemoth that is the Russian Federation. Particularly since the ascent of Vladimir Putin, that often bare-breasted little dictator and autocrat, there has been no lie that Russia has been unwilling to tell in pursuit of its aims, no international law or rules that Russia has been ready to ignore, no process of aggression in which it has not been at the ready to engage in. Georgia was to blame for the war that led to Russia’s annexation of Georgian territory. There are no Russian soldiers in or anywhere near the so-called “people’s republics” in southeastern Ukraine. The government of Ukraine is made up of fascists and Nazis. Russia is only bombarding Daesh in the Middle East, and its bombs have never, ever killed a single civilian individual. Fascism is on the rise in the Baltic States, too. The world knows the mendacious nature of all of this. The Kremlin pretends that it is all true.

It is in this context that one can view the recent BBC film “World War III: Inside the War Room.” It was broadcast by the “Beeb” on February 3, ostensibly for a domestic audience, but very quickly it became a matter of international discussion. The film presented a group of retired British diplomats and military experts sitting around in a room to discuss an imagined crisis during which Russia starts to harass the Baltic States, and Latvia in particular. Those who understand Latvian can view it here. That is Latvian Television, which purchased the rights to the film and broadcast it on February 19. Those who do not understand Latvian can find the film in English here.

The film is a rather curious hybrid. The specialists in the room really are British military and diplomatic experts, among them Ian Bond, who was London’s ambassador to Latvia from 2005 until 2007. The center of what I suppose can best be described as a docudrama, however, is made up of scenes showing growing unrest in the eastern Latvian city of Daugavpils, and this is where we get into pure fiction. For one thing, the producers of the film have conflated a comparatively long-ago event – the rioting that erupted in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2007 after the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet-era military monument from a central location to a more peripheral one – with events in eastern Latvia in 2016. There is some “creative” license in that approach. Second, the mayor of Daugavpils is presented as one Dmitry Voslov – a Russian who is perfectly happy to accept the “little green men” and to use them to call for a referendum about the greater sovereignty of the broader Latgale region. In fact, the mayor of Daugavpils is called Jānis Lāčplēsis, and his reaction to the film was harsh: “We need political decisions and serious economic projects that ensure that investments in the region are advantageous. We are not, however, afraid of horror stories, no matter who makes them up. People who live here have seen wars, revolutions, deportations and genocide – not in the cinema, but in reality. That is precisely why people in Latgale very much appreciate peace and friendship.”

I can agree that the BBC film was rather offensive to people in Daugavpils and Latgale. To suggest that large numbers of them, including the mayor, would happily join in what is essentially a Russian invasion is not particularly positive, and that is putting it mildly. It is also a bit disturbing that one of the experts in the film demonstrated truly old-fashioned thinking by referring to the Russian city of St Petersburg by its Soviet-era name of Leningrad.

In a broader sense, however, “Inside the War Room” bears some consideration. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted after watching the film that “Inside the War Room, while scenario of separatists in Latgale is rubbish, overall many lessons to learn for all.” Indeed. The experts in the film are asked to consider a situation in which the aforementioned unrest erupts, Britain, the United States, Poland and the other two Baltic States send ground troops to quell it, and then Russia and America exchange “tactical” nuclear attacks — Moscow on ships at sea, Washington on an unidentified military facility inside Russia itself. The film ends with the experts discussing whether, if Russia unleashes a wholesale nuclear attack against the West, the West, and Britain in particular, should respond in kind. Cue dramatic music, show a man in Daugavpils walking off into the distance, cut to the credits.

Now, I would imagine that most readers of this portal would find the idea of an all-out nuclear war to be unimaginable. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who, in childhood, cowered under my desk in the elementary school classroom to “protect” myself against a nuclear bomb falling on suburban Chicago (and wondered why the desk was adequate protection in the case of a nuclear attack if, during a tornado drill, we all had to go out in the hallway). Not the only one who recalls seeing the horrific film “The Day After,” in which a nuclear attack is waged against the United States. Not the only one who knows that for a few desperate days in October 1962 (when I was two years old), the world was on the brink of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not the only one who knows that in the end, Khrushchev blinked, because he apparently understood that the concept of “assured mutual destruction” would mean the destruction of his own country and all of its people, too.

But today we live in a world in which Russia’s military doctrine openly states that “tactical” nuclear weapons are on the table once again. We live with a Russia that can clearly be described with the word “paranoid.” It sees enemies everywhere. Air defense systems in Eastern Europe are an offensive threat against the Russian Motherland. The West is hell-bent on pushing mighty Russia to its knees and humiliating it. It was specifically in this regard that Tsar Vladimir once, in a momentary flash of honesty, said that if Russia hadn’t intervened in Ukraine, the West would have found some other reason to implement sanctions against it. This is a Russia that occupies parts of Georgia and Moldova just as specifically as the Soviet Union once occupied Latvia. It is a Russia that simply annexed a part of Ukraine while all the while pretending that it had done nothing of the sort (the ludicrousness of this claim was seen when some of the “little green men” in Crimea first invaded the local opera house, thinking it was the local administration building – yeah, those were “dissatisfied” locals). It is a Russia that is doing its worst in support of the dictator in Syria, and the hell with any broader considerations. It is a Russia that is always happy to fly its planes in the immediate environs of NATO’s borders (usually with all signaling systems switched off, which is a gross violation of international rules). In short, it is an entirely unpredictable Russia.

The BBC cannot be blamed for having produced this film. It was part of a series called “Time Line,” and on other occasions the television company has presented an imaginary situation in which public transport in London shuts entirely down, with all of the attendant chaos, for instance. With the aforementioned caveat about “Inside the War Room” taking rather great liberties with the actual situation in Latvia, the fact is that the scenario which was discussed therein is not, sad to say, totally unimaginable. The BBC has said that the experts in the “war room” were not given any scripted lines to say, they really were asked to imagine the situation at hand and Britain’s reaction to same. And that is something that is worth thinking about.

Of course, the difference between Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on the one hand and Latvia on the other hand is that Latvia is in NATO. We have already seen what happens when there is a military conflict between Russia and the alliance. That was the day last November when Turkey shot down a Russian military plane which, with all identification shut off, entered Turkish and thus NATO airspace. In the event, Russia’s response was simply to declare Turkey an enemy and to implement sanctions against Turkish carpets and what not. There was no military response.

But that does not mean that the Kremlin is not thinking about the possibility of looking for other targets once it finishes what it is doing in Ukraine and Syria. Readers will remember the “military exercises” in which Russia engaged back in 2009 – those that included a nuclear attack against Poland as an “aggressor.” The basic fact is that Vladimir Putin has pretty much painted himself into a corner. His vast popularity in Russia is largely based on the idea that Putin is a great hero who is ensuring that poor, besieged Russia remains viable on the international scene and that this viability must necessarily involve military force in Georgia, in Ukraine and elsewhere. That means that the man must regularly do things that demonstrate this strength and vigor. Wrestling tigers will only get him so far. Vladimir Putin has also gone on to a great extent about the idea of the “Russian world” – the one in which only Russians can save the whole planet from destruction. Make no mistake – this is an idea that has not been without willing ears here in Latvia. Perhaps half a dozen people from this country have gone to fight with the “separatists” in Ukraine. Over the next weeks and months, look for a resurgence of protests against the government’s stated intention of increasing the percentage of educational content in state schools that is taught in Latvian, not Russian. Don’t forget that the largest party in Latvia’s Parliament, “Harmony,” has a contractual partnership with Vladimir Putin’s dictator party, “United Russia.”

Also instructive in this regard is Russia’s response to the BBC film. A spokesman for the government described it as a “cheap product,” and the Russian ambassador to Latvia dubbed it “a dangerous provocation.” The government spokesman compared the film to another BBC product, “Putin’s Secret Riches,” which went into rather breathtaking detail about Vladimir Putin’s hidden caches of treasure, declaring quite openly that this is one corrupt man. The truth is that the BBC is a serious news organization. I am sure that “Putin’s Secret Riches” was shown to the lawyers before anyone else saw it. In the case of “Inside the War Room,” too, surely the BBC would not have gone to the lengths to which it went if there were no reason whatsoever to imagine that Russia’s military harassment of the Baltic States could really happen. Readers will be excused for believing that Russia’s denial of Putin’s lucre and of Moscow’s true military intentions is a whole lot of tosh and must be treated as same.

And yet there is an aspect of “Inside the War Room” that is entirely positive, and that is that it forces the question of how exactly the West should view what is happening in this part of the world at this time. Readers will know that in recent months NATO has been boosting its forces here. Military exercises are being held. Baltic airspace is being guarded (and not by Baltic airplanes, because the Baltic States have no military airplanes to speak of). The BBC film represents another round in the removal of rose-colored glasses in the West, and although as a mostly fictional docudrama it cannot be said to be military strategy, it does show that that which it showed is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. If that is another small step in boosting NATO’s ground presence in the Baltic States, another small push toward realizing that permanent military bases here would be appropriate, then that is only a good thing. Because Vladimir Putin only understands the language of force. He can allow the Russian people to sink into penury just as long as he is seen as the strongman. It is as a strongman that he must be treated.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

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