Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Bear?

If countries were described in terms of human lifespans, it could fairly safely be said that Russia today is a teenage hooligan.

It lashes out whenever it wants to.  It prefers brawn over braininess.  It absolutely doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of it.  It refuses to play by any rules at all.  And whenever it is called on what it is doing, it retreats into a sulk.  Oh, poor me!  Nobody understands me!  I’m a good guy!  Why can’t others see that?

The scenario that has been playing out in Ukraine in recent weeks has been wearily familiar to anyone who watched what happened in Crimea.  A group of armed men, all of them wearing masks and all of them without any insignia whatever on their uniforms, storm an administrative building, raise the Russian flag above it (asked why on a television show that I watched recently, one of the masked men replied, “Because we are all Russians, and we want to be part of Russia”), proclaim an “independent republic,” announce that a referendum on the territory’s future is needed, and suggest that Russia should come to their aid just as soon as possible.

The Kremlin continues to blithely claim that in all cases, these men are a part of “self-defense” forces that are simply trying to protect ethnic Russians who are so terribly oppressed.  The rest of the world knows perfectly well that this is a bald-faced lie.  On the second or third day of events in Crimea, a television reporter found a “self-defense” activist who calmly declared that “We are Russian soldiers here.”  In one case in Eastern Ukraine, the “self-defense” activists proved that they were by no means local residents by first invading the local opera house.  Oops!

But one way or another, it is patently evident that the process is one that has been coordinated by someone from above.  In all cases, huge piles of vehicle tires and sandbags have been brought in to barricade the occupied buildings.  Last weekend the process occurred more or less simultaneously in multiple locations, thus again suggesting thorough choreography.  There is no reason to disbelieve the US ambassadress to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, who told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that clearly the whole process has been coordinated in Russia.

As to the rest of Ukraine, Moscow has been putting pressure on the new/old government in Kyiv, first announcing that Ukraine owes Russia $16 billion (when in fact the debt is more like $2.2 billion, i.e., a lot less), and then magnanimously announcing in the person of Russian boss Vladimir Putin that no, no, Russia won’t insist on the rapid repayment of the loan, but also pointedly stating that this will be true only if Ukraine doesn’t “cross a line after which there is no retreat.”  Of course, it will be Russia and only Russia that will determine where that line is and what kind of activity would mean crossing it, and that means that the central government in Kyiv is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”  kind of situation.  If the authorities do nothing, then the Ukrainian government will be seen as weak, and that will encourage the Kremlin to push it around to an even greater degree.  If it turns its (not inconsiderable) military force against the rebels in what Kyiv has described as an “anti-terrorism operation,” then that may well prove to be a pretext for a full Russian invasion – again to “protect ethnic Russians.”  Not that Russia has polled “ethnic Russians” in Eastern Ukraine to ask whether they need any protecting.  Certainly there has been nothing to suggest that they are being singled out for any kind of discrimination or repression.  It is also true that in every single oblast (district) of Eastern Ukraine where administrative buildings have been attacked and occupied, the majority of residents are not Russians at all.  In this, these territories differ from Crimea, where 80% of residents were Russians, and so it was comparatively easy to convince them to vote in a referendum that they should just join Russia and be done with it.  Elsewhere in Ukraine – not so much.

Received wisdom differs on what Russia might do next.  There is a school of thought to say that Vladimir Putin is not interested in occupying Ukraine, all that he wants is to create such instability there that the European Union and, crucially, NATO would never think of inviting it to become a member.  The EU has already moved forward with signing the political side of a potential association agreement with Ukraine.  The problem is that that is the easy part.  Far more difficult will be the economic reforms upon which the EU (and also the IMF and other international agencies) will insist before further relations can be developed.  This would include things such as raising the price of utility services to the cost level, which would clearly be most unpopular among Ukraine’s residents.

There is also the question of the immense level of corruption in Ukraine.  No one has forgotten that in addition to the palatial digs of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a similarly over-the-top home was inhabited by the country’s now former prosecutor general.  This begs the question of the power and authority of the central government.  The Upper Rada, or Parliament, of Ukraine is the same one which just a few months ago was busily declaring that the protesters who gathered daily on the so-called Maidan were all terrorists.  That same Upper Rada switched sides just as soon as Yanukovich fled ignominiously, and that raises questions about whether it would not be ready to switch right back if Russia were to take the upper hand.

The other school of thought in this says that Putin so much doesn’t care about world opinion that he will invade Eastern Ukraine, and let the chips fall where they may.  Certainly it is true that the invasion and annexation of Crimea was a massive violation of the 1994 agreement which Russia itself signed together with Ukraine, the United States and the United Kingdom, guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial inviolability.  This clearly demonstrates the fact that the Kremlin cares nothing about treaty obligations, and this means that a new world order is being established in this part of our planet.

As far as Latvia is concerned, there is, of course, the crucial fact that unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  In response to events in Crimea, NATO has already increased the number of military planes which patrol Baltic airspace, and there has been much talk about how to expand the alliance’s presence in the Baltic States.  US Senator John McCain was in Latvia this week, and he said that America is not planning to actually establish military bases here, but it does seem that the presence is going to be boosted in some manner nonetheless.  Of course, given that Latvia is in NATO, it can be said that Latvian military bases are NATO bases anyway.  The issue is the logistical and other support which the alliance can provide in times of trouble, and there is no doubt that it is entirely prepared to do so.  On multiple occasions senior American and other officials have said that they take Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – the one that says that an attack against one member state is an attack against all member states, and so all member states will do what they can to defend the victim of aggression – very seriously, indeed.  Ignoring a 1994 agreement among individual states is one thing.  Rattling sabers in the direction of the world’s most powerful military alliance is something else entirely, and there is no particular reason to believe that Vladimir Putin’s beady little eyes are focused in our direction, at least not in a purely military sense.

That, however, does not mean that Moscow has no other opportunities for mischief, and there are two major issues here.  The first relates to Western sanctions against Russia.  For the time being, these only involve visa bans for a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials, and this has been received as something of a ha-ha moment on both sides.  Senator McCain, while in Latvia, joked that he was disappointed that Russia had implemented a visa ban against him, because he had been planning to spend his summer holidays in Siberia.  If, however, Russia takes another step against Ukraine’s sovereignty, substantial economic sanctions would certainly be on the agenda.  For Latvia, that could mean big, big trouble.

The most glaring issue, to be sure, is the fact that Latvia is 100% dependent on Russia’s Gazprom company for natural gas.  Were the gas pipeline to be shut off, Latvia could survive for a while because of its gas storage facility at Inčukalns, but the establishment of alternative delivery routes would be a matter of years, not days.  (Although it also must be noted, of course, that shutting off the gas would equally hurt Russia, which very much depends on energy resource revenues to prop up its national budget.)  There is also the fact that 70% of transit cargo passing through Latvia comes from Russia.  Again, finding alternative deliveries would not be a quick process.  There are also industries in Latvia which continue to be highly dependent on the Russian market.  The canned fish industry in particular has been unable to convince anyone in Western Europe or elsewhere that Latvian sprats are one dandy food.  One company has already filed for bankruptcy even in the absence of economic sanctions, simply because of the fairly vast devaluation of the Russian ruble during these times of upheaval.  Of course, smart business people shifted their focus from Russia to other markets long ago.  Those who didn’t may find that the time is coming when the piper will call the tune.

Of course, Latvia is not the only country which has doubts about economic sanctions.  The UK, for example, has said that there should not be sanctions against the Russian billionaires who own lots of property in London in particular and who, therefore, make up a sizeable portion of the local and national economy.  But if Russia does decide to invade parts of Ukraine, it is likely that Latvia, the UK and all other Western countries will have to swallow the bitter pill, and to a certain extent it can be said that in the long run, this would be good for Latvia in that it would finally force the entire business world to realize that no matter what kind of money can be made in Russia, the fact is that our neighboring country is in all ways unpredictable and questionable.  Even before the events in Crimea there were many occasions in which Russia suddenly declared that Latvian sprats (and Lithuanian dairy products; and Ukrainian pork products; and Dutch flowers (if you can believe it)) were suddenly unacceptable in Russia for sanitary and hygienic reasons, and so imports thereof would be banned.  It is hard to imagine any case in which a business would decide that this is all fine and good.  Yes, extensive economic sanctions would hurt in Latvia, but, again, in the long run that might be a positive thing.

The other issue has to do with Russia’s immense propaganda maw.  The occupation of Crimea was preceded by a torrent of mendacious propaganda on Russian television about how “fascists” had taken over the government in Ukraine, and so Russia had every reason to go and “protect” its “compatriots” in Crimea.  Readers of Latvians Online will know that a few weeks ago the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council banned the rebroadcasting of the Rossiya RTR channel for three months specifically because of content which, according to the council, fomented hatred, discord or conflict.  The ban has been more than conditional, because the satellite company Viasat announced right away that it didn’t feel that the ban was applicable to it.  Latvia’s leading cable content provider, Lattelecom, did remove the program from its repertoire, but smaller cable companies either didn’t or instead replaced Rossiya RTR with an equally mendacious propaganda channel.

The extent to which this propaganda has had an effect on Latvia’s “Russian speakers” can be seen in the fact that a survey last week found that a substantial proportion of them supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, thus evidently believing the claim that Moscow was trying to protect people against “fascists.”  That does not, however, suggest that anything of the type that has been happening in Ukraine is likely here.  Yes, there are a few radical activists who believe that the Soviet Union should never have collapsed and that if the Kremlin is trying to reestablish what some have called “the USSR 2.0”, then Latvia should certainly be part of it.  They are not, however, anywhere near the majority.  Evidence of this was given in the referendum a few years back on whether the Russian language should be given the status of a state language.  Despite vocal support from people such as Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, the referendum crashed and burned.  There is no way in which a majority of Latvia’s residents would vote in favor of allowing Russia to mess around with the country’s “Russian speakers” even if some “Russian speakers” were to call for its “protection.”

Here again it must be remembered that Latvia is in NATO, and it is hard to imagine Russia sending its “little green men,” as the masked and supposedly anonymous men in Eastern Ukraine have been described, into our country.  Neither is it by any means likely that even a majority of the Russian speakers in Latvia really would want the country to join the vastly impoverished and corrupt autocracy that lies to our East.

Russian propaganda says that territories which join the “motherland” will see increased old age pensions and the like, but in Crimea’s case, this promise has already been superseded by the admission that well, the national budget right now is what it is, and so those who were expecting higher pensions will just have to wait until next year’s budget, or maybe the one after that.  Latvia’s non-citizens already enjoy privileges of which Russia’s own residents can only dream, including free travel in the EU’s Schengen Zone.  A member of Latvia’s Saeima said in an interview recently that 98% of Latvia’s non-Latvians would oppose any attempt to merge with Russia.  That may be overstating it, but the fact is that Latvia is not Crimea.  Even Daugavpils is not Crimea.

The bottom line here is that Russia is evidently prepared to do its worst when it comes to relations with nations that used to be part of the USSR.  It is likely that the Kremlin is banking on the fact that eventually the West will just accept the annexation of Crimea, just as it accepted the establishment of the “independent nations” of Transnistria and South Ossetia in Georgia.  Time will show what Moscow decides to do in relation to the rest of Ukraine, but Latvia does not need to be afraid.  Yes, there have been those in our country who have been impatient with the hesitant approach of the government in terms of denouncing Russia for its hooliganism in Ukraine (and it is parenthetically worth noting here that protests have already been arising once again in Kyiv, this time involving people who want their government to attack the rebels in Eastern Ukraine with much greater vigor), but this is surely a case in which slow and steady will win the race.  If economic sanctions come to pass, Latvia will have to grit its teeth and bear it.  But the idea that Vladimir Putin would dare to challenge the world’s most powerful military alliance simply beggars belief.  NATO’s protection, thus, is something that we can very much rely upon.

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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