[Testing NATO there] would not necessarily take the form of an attempt to seize a portion of Latvia or force Riga to withdraw from the alliance, although some in Moscow might like to do either or both of these things. Instead, it could involve creating the kind of social and political instability that no defense alliance is designed to block and thus call its utility into question among some.
There are at least three reasons for concern on this point. First, Latvia’s demography and economy would seem to provide Moscow with opportunities. More than half of the population is Russian-speaking, a third is ethnically Russian, a slightly smaller share is made up of non-citizens, and there are tens of thousands of retired Soviet officers [it should be stressed those last two are--sometimes overlapping--sub-sets of the second category].Moreover, the ethnic Russians and non-citizens are concentrated in the largest cities, where they have pluralities or even majorities, and Russian business interests form a disproportionate share of the economy, at least potentially giving Moscow levers it could deploy against the Latvian authorities.
Second, there is the longstanding problem of Latgale, a region in the southeast adjoining the Russian border most of whose population speaks what it believes is a distinct language as well as Russian, is much poorer than other regions of the country, and views itself as neglected.
And third, some Latvians have been expressing concern about the state of Latvia’s defense forces, noting that it has had trouble maintaining troop levels, has had to take many men from Latgale whose loyalty may be divided, and has in recent years lost many of its officers to retirement or resignation.
[W]orries are likely to continue to intensify as some Russian speakers and especially non-citizen activists stir the pot. Aleksandr Gaponenko, a leader of the Congress of Non-Citizens, said his group will hold a meeting in Riga this coming weekend to demand change, a meeting he described as “our Maidan”….
These concerns need to be kept in perspective: most Russian speakers in Latvia are loyal to that country, and few earlier Moscow efforts to provoke instability have achieved very much. As a result, Latvian officials and experts are confident that they do not face a Ukrainian scenario or even something short of that.
That may… be true, but it may not be sufficient. On the one hand, most ethnic Russians in Ukraine opposed Moscow’s intervention, but that opposition did not block Russia from using a minority within a minority to advance its aims. As the ongoing violence in Ukraine shows, armed minorities can play a serious, even decisive role against more passive majorities.
Few question that NATO would respond to an overt Russian military move into Latvia or any other NATO member country, the Western defense alliance is not designed to counter the kind of subversion that Moscow has already used in Ukraine and that it could deploy in Latvia to undermine that country’s independence and test the alliance as well.
The idea of redeploying a small NATO force in the Baltic region could help calm nerves, stiffen spines and help deter Moscow from the sort of adventurism that could lead to a further dangerous escalation of tensions in what Russians, rather ominously, tend to refer to as the “near abroad.”
That said, Latvia is currently doing too little to contribute towards its own defense, something that may be beginning to change. The Financial Times reported in late March that Latvia was planning to boost its defense budget from 0.9 percent of GDP to 2 percent (the minimum NATO target) by 2020, a good step forward (the country’s defense spending had been savagely reduced on the back of the its deep financial crisis five years ago) if, it seems to me, a little leisurely. Lithuania has promised to do something similar and Estonia, typically, is already there.