Riga, Latvia—Earlier this year, the parliament of Latvia voted unanimously to grant honorary citizenship to Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet legend born in this seaside capital city who defected from the Soviet Union and eventually led the American Ballet Theatre. Normally, such symbolic recognition by a relatively obscure Northern European micro-state to a near-forgotten classical dancer would seem trivial. But during these tense times, when the prospect of a Russian invasion of this NATO ally of ours appears more possible than at any time since its liberation from Soviet occupation, Baryshnikov’s naturalization carries geopolitical significance.
The accomplished dancer’s latest laurel highlights the bone of contention that Latvia’s relations with its resident Russian minority have become. It is a tension our family has felt during our month-long visit to adopt three orphaned Latvian girls, all of Russian descent. A special act of parliament was needed to make Baryshnikov a citizen of Latvia, despite it being the nation of his birth. Most ethnic Russians born here after 1940, like him, are second-class citizens by law, discriminatory treatment that could serve as the pretext for a military move by Moscow to defend their kin. How leaders in Riga and other front line NATO capitals conduct the delicate dance between asserting their national identities and managing relations with their Russian minorities could mean, to borrow from Tolstoy, the difference between “vojna i mir” (war and peace).
Indeed, if war were to come between former Cold War foes, it may very well come here, as Providence contributor Paul Miller has predicted. With a population of just over two million and a territory the size of West Virginia, Latvia is one of the world’s smallest, most vulnerable nations, lying between two similarly diminutive Baltic states—Lithuania and Estonia—and sharing a border with the world’s largest state, Russia. Riga is the region’s economic hub at the delta of the mighty Daugava waterway, and Ventspils, on Latvia’s Baltic coast, is one of the northernmost deep-water ice-free ports. During the Cold War, Latvia was also home to a secret Soviet military city built to safeguard one of its most technologically and geographically advanced radar systems.
Latvia’s tragic history of foreign occupation testifies to its precarious position and its strategic importance. In just the last century, it was colonized or conquered by the Tsars, the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again. Latvians fear this past may be prologue after Russia annexed Crimea with covert paramilitary forces—so-called “little green men”—and then infiltrated the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine last year. Bozova, a Latvian hamlet nestled in the forests along the border with Russia, is the new Fulda Gap—the strategic valley on the border between East and West Germany during the Cold War that NATO expected invading Soviet panzers to likely use. Following Moscow’s menacing moves near the Black Sea, NATO deployed a multinational force, including U.S. Special Forces, to this area to buttress our Baltic allies. A new battle group, led by Canada, arrived last week to reinforce the line. These welcomed troops are no more than a tripwire force, however, designed to trigger retaliation later rather than stop an invasion. A RAND Corporation study last year concluded that “the main vulnerability of the Baltics lies in Russia’s local conventional superiority,” which would “rapidly overwhelm NATO forces currently postured in the region.” The think tank estimates Russia could conquer Latvia in 60 hours or less.
Historically, Latvians took comfort in the steadfast commitment by the United States in particular to protect their territorial integrity. Throughout the Cold War, successive American presidents, unlike some of their European peers, refused to recognize the Soviets’ annexation of their captive country. But ambivalence by the Trump Administration about the United States’ commitment to collective defense under Article V of the NATO treaty, along with perceptions of its pro-Russian orientation, has stoked fears that Latvia’s security guarantee is not ironclad. American headlines covering the confusion surrounding the president’s leadership have consequences on the Latvian front lines.
Latvians’ perception of the Russian threat is not only external. Since regaining their independence in 1991, many have understandably sought to assert their distinctive national and ethnic identity, fiercely promoting their unique language and cultural heritage. Their foil in this Kulturkampf has been Latvia’s Russian minority, the largest in the Baltics. During the Soviet era, Stalin and his successors permitted the preservation of the Latvian tongue and the nation’s traditions, but also populated Riga and other Latvian industrial centers with Russian proletarians and troops. As a result, one in every four Latvian residents today has historic ties to the “motherland,” and one in every three speaks Russian despite the government’s ban on its use in official business. Driving through the prosaic Latvian countryside, one is struck by the purge of Russian Cyrillic characters from road signs, but references to distances not only to nearby Latvian towns but also to Moscow nonetheless remain—enduring evidence of Russia’s gravitational pull.
Enter Baryshnikov, stage right. The ballet legend, fondly known as “Misha” to Rigans, was born in 1948 to a Russian family that resettled here alongside Soviet occupation forces. Recently, he recalled that he “discovered my future destiny as a performer” during his childhood in this Art Nouveau city. “Riga still serves as a place where I find artistic inspiration.” Nevertheless, because of his Russian ethnicity, Baryshnikov qualified for “non-citizen” citizenship only—the second-class status imposing taxation without representation, and limiting public education and employment opportunities. Tellingly, the ethnic Russia quarter of Riga, dubbed the “Moscow Suburb,” can be found where the Jewish ghetto, liquidated by the Nazis during the Holocaust, once lay.
Being an alien does have its advantages—Latvian non-citizens are exempt from military service and can travel freely throughout Europe on their Latvian passport as well as throughout Russia on their Russian passport if they retain it. Somewhat insidiously, Moscow also continues to pay ethnic Russians a pension if they served in the Soviet military, unless they forfeit their Russian passport to naturalize. Rules have been relaxed in recent years, but Latvian naturalization still requires familiarity with the nation’s history and proficiency in its exotic language—no small feat. This combination of disincentives has led to declining naturalization rates in Latvia, and the persistence of a sizeable disenfranchised and unintegrated Russian minority. Baryshnikov’s naturalization, despite his lack of Latvian language proficiency, was granted because of “extraordinary merits”—a vivid exception proving a stringent rule.
In its alarming analysis, RAND predicts Russia could wage “hybrid warfare” to destabilize the Baltics, leveraging not only its local conventional superiority, but also attempting to activate a potential fifth column of Russia sympathizers through “covert, nonviolent subversion.” The second prong could take the form of “proxies, propaganda, cyber-attacks and possibly other means to foment pro-Russian protests” within Latvia, not dissimilar to the “active measures” the U.S. intelligence community alleges Moscow orchestrated to undermine the American electoral process. This is where Latvia’s policies of soft apartheid have national security implications for the United States. In systematically suppressing spoken and written Russian within its borders, Latvian nationalists have ceded the information space to Russian media broadcasters, who bombard the border areas with pro-Moscow messaging. In response, NATO recently opened a strategic communications “center of excellence” in Riga, but insists it is a listening post only, and not a counter-propaganda broadcaster. In engaging the information war with one arm tied behind their back, the allies are missing an opportunity to promote peaceful integration of Latvia’s Russian minority.
Another opportunity presents itself in the political ascendency of Riga’s mayor, Nils Usakov. Young, charismatic, populist, and social-media savvy—a YouTube video of the cats he keeps in his office recently went viral—Usakov won reelection to a third term as the capital city’s leader earlier this month with an impressive majority vote. As his name suggests, Usakov is an ethnic Russian, the most prominent one nationwide given Riga’s claim on nearly half of Latvia’s population. He leads Harmony, a center-left social democratic party drawing support from Latvia’s ethnic Russians. Among the party’s stated goals are “increasing civil rights of the residents, in particular, to ensure Latvian non-citizens” gain the vote. Harmony has ties to United Russia, Putin’s party, leading many nationalists to accuse it of divided loyalties. Usakov insists he is a “Latvian national, a Russian-speaking Latvian who is a patriot of my country,” and he raised Russian eyebrows when he posted a selfie with an American Abrams tank deployed near the border. On a nationwide level, Harmony has won a plurality of seats in parliament, but remains in perpetual opposition, shunned by ruling nationalist coalitions. If Harmony forswore United Russia, and Usakov were invited to share national power, it could serve the cause of Latvian integration and reduce temptations for Moscow to meddle.
Readers of Providence will appreciate the moral implications of ethnic integration. Ever since the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD, when the apostles Peter and Paul debated integrating Gentiles into the church, Christians have struggled to balance national allegiances with a universal vision of uniting all God’s children. As Marc LiVecche has argued, nationalism can engender love of our near neighbors, but taken to an extreme, it can also foster resentment towards more distant ones. Just three years ago, Latvians amended their constitution to include a preamble committing the nation to uphold “Christian values,” a rare acknowledgment for Western democracies of their religious roots. Is excluding many ethnic Russian Latvians from public life consistent with the country’s faith-based commitment? It’s a question Latvians cannot avoid.
The Ballet russe for which Baryshnikov was famous is a distinctive and dramatic dance known for the strength, agility, and grace it demands. Latvia and the NATO alliance, to which our nation and theirs belong, will need to summon similar skills if we are to deter Russian aggression in the Baltics and beyond. A clear demonstration of forward-deployed hard power, and our willingness to wield it per Article V, is necessary. But it is unlikely sufficient. The allies must also leverage the soft power of national solidarity that comes from closing internal divides. Latvians took a symbolic leap in that direction by applauding Baryshnikov’s “extraordinary merit” and embracing him as their own. Doing so also for marginalized ethnic Russians of ordinary merit would take a courageous leap of faith, but worth weighing in the interests of Latvia’s national security and values—and our own.
Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.
Photo Credit: Performance of Swan Lake at Alexandrinsky Theater in St Petersburg, Russia. By Bossi, via Flickr.