Photo: Charles Kelley

Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics – Reasons to Worry, Hope and Pray

I recently spoke with my Latvian-born mother about the danger her native land faces due to Putin’s aggression. My mother was 8 years old in 1940 when her homeland was brutally occupied by Russia for one year. Latvians call those days the “Year of Terror”. Ironically, Stalin used a bogus Latvian request for protection as a pretext for invasion. Putin uses the same pretext today to annex Crimea and threaten Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltics.

When Mom was 9, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, pushing the Russian army out of Latvia. The Nazi occupation lasted more than three years. She was 12 when the Russians drove the Germans out and began a 47-year reign of terror. How she rejoiced, in 1991, when Latvians tore down Lenin’s statue and declared her independence to a jubilant world. Yeltsin’s Russia recognized it as a fait accompli.

But this is 2014. Will Russia invade Latvia for the third time in her lifetime? Does Mom have reason for worry? The historical and political similarities connecting Stalin to Putin, Latvia and the Crimea, and Latvia and Russia are remarkable.


Putin has announced his intent to restore the borders of the Old Russian Empire of Tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725). He reasons that since Crimea was historically part of Russia it should be included in Modern Russia. Of course Putin doesn’t acknowledge that the powerful Peter couldn’t defeat the fiercely resistant Tatars. It was only after decades of aggression that Crimea was first conquered and occupied by Russia in 1783. In the ensuing decades Crimea was Russified as hundreds of thousands from Russia were sent there to live, work and neutralize the indigenous culture.

Latvia was forcibly annexed into Peter the Great’s Russia in 1710. Since that time Latvia has been free from Russia’s grip for only 48 years:  (1) from 1918-1940 – when Latvia was independent for the first time; (2) from 1941-1944 – when the Nazis were the occupiers; and (3) from 1991 until the present.  In total, Latvia has been occupied by Russia for 256 out of the last 304 years. This is longer than the entire existence of the United States. Latvia was also Russified during the Soviet years so that today, in the capital city of Riga, only 40% are ethnic Latvian.


For Putin, it stands to reason that if Crimea historically belongs to Russia, why not Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? Incredibly, a recent poll indicated that one in three in Latvia agree with his agenda. These are mostly Russians who get their daily news from Moscow.

But that which gives Crimea her greatest value transcends history. It is about location, location, location. Crimea’s great ports on the Black Sea are highly desirable, militarily, politically and economically. Likewise, Latvia’s location on the Baltic Sea and her three major port cities are coveted by Putin for the same reasons. During Latvia’s most recent Soviet occupation there were dozens of Russian military bases throughout the land. If Russia can re-establish Liepaja as the home of a new powerful naval base, Putin would have an ideal place for nuclear submarines…just like in the good old days.

Latvians understand Russia’s aggressive history and Putin’s twisted mentality. They have cause to be anxious. Most doubt NATO will protect them from Russia. As World War II ended, the Yalta Conference (in Crimea) decided the fate of Eastern Europe. Stalin promised help, free elections and independence. Roosevelt believed him and Churchill was helpless to stop him. As a result, millions were enslaved for almost 50 years.

Similar things are happening in the same places right now. As Putin exploits Western (especially European) timidity, once again Crimea is on center stage. Russia continues to multiple forces on the borders of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Latvia and Estonia, creating pretexts for occupation while cloaking its real intent. Putin is executing his plan with the precision of a chess master.

Latvians have felt betrayed for decades. Their cynicism toward the West is not unfounded. I hope this time they will be proven to be wrong.

 Reason for Hope

I hate military build up and war.  Yet, apart from serious NATO intervention, Russian Special Forces will keep advancing until the occupation of the Baltics becomes a fait accompli. NATO forces must be positioned in the Baltics. A few weeks ago, I thought this is something that NATO would not risk. But I might be wrong.

The US has sent six F-16s to patrol the skies over the Baltic nations. This summer US Marines will conduct military exercises alongside Latvians.  The Mayor of Liepaja, Uldis Sesks, announced his city’s decision to officially invite NATO to establish a base in the Port of Liepaja, near the border of Lithuania. The Mayor pointed out that the Port of Liepaja is already the headquarters of the Latvian Navy, and has more than enough free territory. He also added that the city’s economy would also benefit from the stationing of NATO ships.

Will this, plus the array of political and economic sanctions, force Putin to retreat (or at least quit advancing)? One can never be sure, but now is the time to demonstrate grit by applying pressure on Russia in every category. If not, my mother may see her homeland succumb to the same aggressor for the third time in her lifetime.

Charles D. Kelley is a Latvian-American with dual citizenship. He is the president of Bridge Builders International.

6 thoughts on “Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics – Reasons to Worry, Hope and Pray”_en

  1. I was interested in the origins of Putin’s mentality, i.e. that he felt he could occupy lands which have Russian speakers or were historically under Russian control. According to wikipedia (, there is a quote that says Stalin “threatened that the USSR could also seize “territory with a Russian minority””. The ref.18 says: “Soviet-Latvian negotiations started on 2 October 1939 and on the following day Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vilhelms Munters informed his government that Josif Stalin had said that “as for the Germans,[there is no obstacle], we can occupy you” and threatened that the USSR could also seize “territory with a Russian minority.” ”
    ………………And since Russia and China are collaborating militarily now (2014), you definitely need to understand their mind-set for the future of European and especially Baltic security.

    1. Time magazine cover piece on Putin goes deeper still on the topic of putin’s mentality. Interestlingly, Artis Pabriks, former foreign minister and Defence minister is quoted.

  2. Great support for the hot issue but simplifying historical facts of a country so complicated and heterogenous really does not help the situation.
    Why would you focus on the last 300 years not the very beginnings? Latvia had their own pagan rule and kings until 13th century then following 700 years of German rule. They did not go anywhere when Russian Empire politically included Livonian territories, Lithuania, Grand Duchy of Finland and many other territories. The Empire of Catherine the Great was very European, very multinational and multicultural (fact rarely brought to light). Latvians could travel, live and study wherever they wanted. Dealing with two lords on their neck was frustrating but it wasn’t an all-day torture either. Therefore, one really mustn’t compare Russian Empire with Soviet rule, which destroyed everything any monarchy or empire stood for. It shouldn’t be ignored that Latvia has been oppressed from West, North and East (not only East). The real tragedy was that the rest of the world let the Baltic States (always belonging to the North and West) be thrown in the Evil Empire for 45 years! It’s of highest importance not to allow any bullying again and finally acknowledge the Baltic States as a unique geopolitical unit (according to UN – Northern Europe), not part of the Slavic Eastern Europe.
    The other odd point – only 40% of Rigaers being Latvian. Firstly, this calls for a reference. Secondly, would that really matter, knowing Riga has always been a city of foreigners, not Latvians (Cēsis more likely)? Only because 60% are non-Latvians doesn’t mean they’re all Russian. In my opinion, their ethnicity does not matter in the context of this issue, it’s more important that they stand for democracy and freedom and are loyal to Latvia.

    1. You make some good points, Ms Murdoch. I bring up 300 years of history in reponse to Putin’s public statements about wanting modern Russia to have the borders of Peter the Great’s Russia…300 years ago.

      The previous 500 years of successive foreign rules was not relevant to my point. You are correct that there was some prosperity in Latvia under the duel rule of the German aristocrats during the Russian Imperial rule. However, there was great discontent with all things Russian and German by 1905, otherwise there would not have been such a significant revolt that cost so many Latvian lives in the Baltic Revolution.

      Over the last 25 years the percentage of ethnic Latvians in Riga has grown as its overall population has decreased. My stats come from conversations with officials in Riga’s city council…not scientific. The topic is relevant because Putin has declared that he has the right to protect his own wherever they are. His March 18th speech to the Duma made this clear (the transcript is available at the Russian President’s official website).

      Until recently I seldom heard Latvians speak about various kinds of Russian speaking people; usually all of the slavic groups have been referred to as ‘Russian’…including Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians. This has been neither accurate nor fair. I think the current crisis in Ukraine will impact future generalization of this nature.

      Yes, there is a difference between Soviet and Russian; at the same time, the Russian mentality was a fertile soil for Soviet values. This is probably not politcally correct to say, but I think it is self-evident. Putin is both and he is proud of both heritages.

      But, the main point of my piece is that Putin does not intend to stop with the Ukraine. He wants the Baltics, especially Latvia.

  3. Another practical point for PUtin is the addition of valuable oil and gas rights through the addition of Crimea’s shoreline on the Black Sea. Russia picked up the best drilling areas without a shot being fired…It’s more than just ego. Unfortunately, Putin wants more access to the Baltis Sea as well…

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