National Security & Defense

Baltic Journal, Part II

Vladimir Putin observes military exercises with defense minister Sergei Shoigu in 2013. (Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters)
On languages, ethnicities, gaps, and more

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent the week of September 12 in the Baltic states — or rather, in two of them, Latvia and Estonia. A piece of his will soon appear in National Review magazine: about the Baltics, Russia, NATO, and America, particularly in light of our presidential campaign. This journal supplements the piece, and concerns matters weighty and light. For Part I, go here.

On the threshold of Riga’s Old Town, there is a museum: the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 1940-1991. Latvia had a double whammy, or triple whammy. Call it two and a half. First, the Soviets invaded, occupied, and brutalized. Second, the Nazis did the same. Third, the Soviets returned, with a vengeance.

Between the world wars, the Baltics enjoyed independence. Obviously, that period was quite brief. Since 1991, the Baltics have had, what? About 25 years of independence?

These periods of independence have been mere parentheses. But they are enough to let a man, or a nation, know, “This is what I want. This is what ought to be.”

‐Near the museum, a lone clarinetist is playing “Over the Rainbow.” I think, “Good for you, Harold Arlen: You wrote an everlasting one.”

Did he know it? Could he have sensed it? Maybe.

‐Let’s return to our conversation with Janis Kazocins — the Latvian national-security expert who was born and raised in England, and who became a brigadier general in the U.K.’s army. I mentioned that he once led one of Latvia’s intelligence services. There are three of them.

He says to me, “In post-Communist countries, intelligence tends to be split up, between agencies. People have learned that it’s no good to have all the strings in one hand, so to speak.”

True, true.

‐We talk a bit about language — which is related to identity and nationhood. By the end of the Soviet period, remember, the Latvian share of the population was down to almost half. In other words, only about half of Latvia was Latvian. “We were on the brink of minority status in our own country,” says Kazocins. “We were on the brink of not being viable as a Latvian country.”

Now the Latvian share of the population is up to about 62 percent. And Russophones, or ethnic Russians, constitute about a quarter. (There are sprinklings of other languages and ethnicities.)

The country has just one official language, one state language: Latvian. This looks odd and wrong to outsiders, says Kazocins, but he explains:

“If Russian were made a state language, Latvian would be dead within a generation. Because there would be no motivation for anyone to learn Latvian. It’s so much easier to learn Russian.”

I don’t quite understand. Kazocins further explains:

“Well, it’s because Russian is so widely used. It’s a great language, a world language, whereas Latvian is available only in Latvia. It doesn’t get you very far — even if you travel to Lithuania or Estonia.”

Ah.

‐I ask Kazocins, as I ask everyone, about assimilation and integration: How’s it going? One answer is: Time is on the Latvian side. Time is on the side of assimilation and integration. The Kremlin had 50-plus years to Russify the Baltics (and other states). It will take some time for independent countries to de-Russify, so to speak. But every year of independence helps.

Those who think of themselves as Soviet — as part of a lost empire — die out. Succeeding generations are born.

And people intermarry like mad. Officially, intermarriage in Latvia is something like 20 percent. Unofficially, it’s more like 30 percent. In other words, between 20 and 30 percent of marriages are interethnic.

Many, many families are bilingual — including Kazocins’s own. He outlines this for me.

I think that we Americans are used to thinking of ourselves as peculiarly multiethnic, and peculiarly a nation of immigrants. Then you grow up and get out a little, and you realize: This is a common condition in the world. Maybe not to the American degree, but …

‐You know what harms integration, or social cohesion? Social media. “For young people,” says Kazocins, “social media are replacing more traditional forms of media, such as newspapers and television. And the new media tend to reinforce their worldview, because they hear only from likeminded people. They are not exposed to an alternative view.”

Oh, yes. A great many people, in a great many countries, could sing several verses of that song. (Please don’t ask me when was the last time I looked at a left-leaning newspaper or magazine. I’m too busy with warfare on the right.)

‐Constantly, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin bombards the Baltics with propaganda. Constantly, the Kremlin is trying to stoke grievances in the Russophone populations. Constantly, the Kremlin is trying to get them to believe that they are discriminated against — suffering — and require the aid of the Mother Country.

The Russian government would like to make fifth columns out of the Russian minorities. Kazocins puts it interestingly: “Putin wants to use them as the Soviets once used Communist parties in the Cold War.”

Bingo.

Putin and his men tell Russophones that they live in a corrupt country — Latvia, let’s say — with an incompetent government. Moreover, fascism is on the rise, they allege.

This is especially funny, as Kazocins says — though not funny ha-ha — because it is in Russia that fascism is rising.

You don’t see many Baltic Russians going “home.” They would much rather be where they are. On the contrary, you do see Russians coming to the Baltics — to practice journalism, for example. Meduza is based here in Riga. Meduza is a Russian online news aggregator. It’s safer to report truthfully about Putin’s Russia from afar — from a foreign country, such as Latvia.

‐The mayor of Riga is a Russophone — an ethnic Russian. So is the foreign minister of Estonia. Or rather, the ex-foreign minister. She has just resigned to run for president.

‐Putin is not a mere propagandist. He harasses the Baltics with more than words — he harasses them with military exercises and related maneuvers. With a variety of tricks, he seeks to spook them, unnerve them. And he did a very good job in Ukraine.

He annexed Crimea and made war in Donbass. This put Baltic people on edge (to say the least). They were in the bosom of NATO. But how safe were they there? Could Putin come up to wreak havoc on them, too?

“There were conversations around many dinner tables,” says Kazocins, with people wondering, “Whom do we know in Germany or the U.K.? With whom can we stay, if the going gets really rough?”

Today, Latvians, and other Balts, are calmer. But the anxiety remains.

‐I ask Kazocins, “Have Putin and his people accepted the end of the Soviet Union, and the loss, so to speak, of the Baltic states?” “To a certain extent they have,” he answers, “but they regret it.”

‐You may remember the Fulda Gap. This was a bit of terrain that was key in the Cold War. The Fulda Gap was a weak spot for the West and NATO. Through it, the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact could invade, or might invade.

Well, now there is the Suwalki Gap. This term is very familiar to Balts and others in this part of the world. It refers to the Polish-Lithuanian border, just 60 miles long. This is the only thing — the only land — that connects the Baltic states with the rest of NATO.

And Putin’s Russia has practiced closing it off, making the Baltics ripe for the taking (or retaking).

“It must be extraordinary and unnerving to see the invasion of one’s country rehearsed by a mighty and hostile foreign power,” I say to Kazocins. He answers, “It’s very unpleasant.”

Remember, he grew up in England, and speaks with British understatement.

‐Kazocins sees something from a Russian point of view — to wit, “The fact that the Baltic states are part of NATO means that Russia has lost what saved it in times past, namely strategic depth. It was strategic depth that saved them from Napoleon and from Hitler. And now NATO is within spitting distance.”

Of course, does NATO threaten Russia? Or does Russia threaten NATO members, specifically the Baltics?

‐Let me give you some mind-concentrators. Earlier this year, General Philip Breedlove, who was then NATO commander, said to Congress, “Russia has chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners.”

And listen to General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. He said to Die Zeit, the German newspaper, “Russia could conquer the Baltic states quicker than we could get there to defend them.”

A third mind-concentrator: General Sir Richard Shirreff, who was a NATO higher-up earlier this decade, has written a book — a novel, called “2017: War with Russia.” It’s billed as “an urgent warning from senior military command.”

‐Janis Kazocins points out that Putin has defended the Winter War — the Soviets’ war on Finland in 1939 and ’40. He has called the war justified, because it corrected mistakes made in 1917. The Finnish border was too close to Leningrad.

Well, Putin considers the breakup of the Soviet Union a horrendous mistake, as Kazocins notes. And if that is so …

Newt Gingrich, an ally and surrogate of the current Republican presidential nominee, recently characterized Estonia as “the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” formerly Leningrad. People in the Baltics pay attention to such things. They can’t afford not to.

‐Putin “tries to be unpredictable,” says Kazocins. “It’s a KGB thing. But he is entirely rational, if you consider that his aim is to stay in power, or to die in bed, unlike Ceausescu or Qaddafi.”

Because Putin is rational, he can be deterred. And deterrence is the name of the game. Kazocins says so, and everyone in the Baltics says so, as far as I can tell. Remember the lesson of the ’30s, Kazocins asks: “If you allow an aggressor to get away with his aggression, he will do it again,” and again. It is infinitely better to deter than to cope with aggression — than to be mired in the hell of war.

Twenty years ago, there was a hugely bestselling book in America: All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Deterrence should be in every kindergarten curriculum. Or at least appear by the fifth grade, I would think.

Anyway, thanks for joining me, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll see you tomorrow, for Part III.

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