Three or four years ago, I read a science fiction novel written in 1924 by the Latvian author Gotfrīds Mīlbergs. The novel, set in the year 2107, begins with the new Russian Empire invading Latvia. Through a combination of advanced technology, stealth, the legendary prowess of the Latvian soldier and a certain degree of serendipity, the Latvian military manages to repulse the attackers.
But, continues the author of Sidrabota saule lec…, the Latvians don’t stop there. Their doggedness leads to the collapse of the Russian military and, by story’s end, Latvian soldiers are patrolling the streets of Moscow.
The NATO defense alliance, or something like it, was nowhere to be seen.
But this is science fiction—and fantasy. The reality is that against such a formidable foe Latvia and much of Eastern Europe could well crumble without military assistance from abroad.
The residents of Latvia know this. In the results of a survey released April 10 by the Latvian Foreign Ministry, 81.8 percent of those polled were sure that in the event of such a crisis, Latvia would not be able to defend itself. That’s why nearly 64 percent of those polled were positively oriented to Latvian membership in NATO.
That’s what I told an audience of students and faculty when I moderated a roundtable discussion in April at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. The session, “The Security of East Europe and the Expansion of NATO,” was sponsored in part by the university’s Baltic Student Organization and also featured Professor Paulis Lazda, who teaches history at Eau Claire, and several international students including Sanita Kupča of Latvia.
I remain skeptical about the need for Latvia to join NATO. But during the past several weeks, my skepticism has begun to mellow, particularly now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has gotten cozy with NATO.
This November in Prague, 10 Eastern European nations are hoping they get to join the NATO alliance. Observers are confident the Baltic nations—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—will make the cut. And some are even forecasting that countries such a Romania, whose prospects earlier were dim, might get an invitation thanks in part to the “new world” in which we live since Sept. 11.
But can a country such as Latvia afford to bring its military up to a level desired by NATO—and maintain that level? Would NATO membership really guarantee that Russia or any other nation or movement would not attack Latvia? Is it the proper role of the United States, Canada and Western Europe to protect Eastern Europe—and from what?
On the other hand, why should Latvia trust Putin’s Russia? When Putin last November visited the United States, he suggested that Moscow would no longer stand in the way of NATO membership for the Baltics. Why? Because, he suggested, NATO has outlived its purpose. Perhaps it has. So then why did Putin go to Rome in late May to strike a new agreement for NATO-Russian cooperation? And why is Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko still saying that NATO expansion would “unequivocally qualify as a mistake”?
Until these recent events, I used to believe that NATO membership for Latvia would be rather worthless nose-thumbing toward Russia. The only “enemy” Latvia might potentially have is Russia. Why antagonize it needlessly? Plus, I had to wonder if Russia decided to do something silly like invade Latvia, would NATO really rise to defend a small nation on the Baltic Sea?
I still harbor those doubts. But they have become overwhelmed by questions about Russia’s motives for its renewed interest in NATO. Perhaps my skepticism of Russia’s motives is shaped by growing up Latvian in the United States. I imagine the skepticism would be even stronger if I had lived in Latvia during the decades of occupation. Regardless, it’s troubling that Russia has rushed ahead to form closer ties to an organization it has viewed as an anachronism and an insult, while Latvia and the other candidate nations are forced to wait until November to learn whether they’ll be asked to join the club.
In a fantasy world, Latvia would have no need for the defense alliance. But in the real world, it’s time to expand NATO.
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