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Managing the Russian Challenge on NATO’s Borders

October 01, 2018
4 min read
Photo Credit: Sergei25 / Shutterstock
With Russia’s posture growing increasingly assertive over the past several years, the transatlantic partners continue to readjust to a new security dynamic.

With Russia’s posture growing increasingly assertive over the past several years, the transatlantic partners continue to readjust to a new security dynamic. As a component of its efforts, Moscow is pursuing a broad set of measures to undermine the cohesion across the transatlantic space.

Due to its geographic location on the most eastern edge of the EU and on NATO’s eastern flank, this challenge is particularly acute in Latvia. While many EU and NATO member states have only recently been confronted by Moscow’s tactics, Latvia — and other Baltic states — have a long history of being targeted by and countering such measures. While measures taken by NATO have been critical in reassuring the Baltic states, Latvia continues to be in a precarious security situation in both the conventional and unconventional domains. With all of this in mind, I recently sat down with Jānis Garisons, State Secretary at the Latvian Ministry of Defense, to discuss NATO’s posture, the threat posed by Russia, and Latvia’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine forced NATO member states to rethink strategies toward Moscow. In response, the alliance doubled down on efforts to bolster territorial defense in three successive NATO summits. While focusing on deterring Russia has been clear, in your opinion, has the Alliance's progress been sufficient and what more needs to be done?

Jānis Garisons: Well, you can always say that “we want more.” But I would say that we are very satisfied with what has been achieved so far. If we start by looking at the Wales and Warsaw Summits, and then the Brussels Summit, there has been a very steady development. And people probably sometimes miss this because of that debate about 2 percent after the Brussels Summit. I think there have been very important decisions taken during the NATO Summit in Brussels. The first one is about reinforcement and readiness, which I think is very crucial because NATO has to develop a follow-on force — which basically, in our case [Latvia], is seen as reinforcement. I think another important development is the changes which have been approved for the NATO command structure. We see that it is more suitable for current needs. And if you put these together with the U.S. decision to reestablish the Second Fleet, I think it provides a robust picture.

And there is also this initiative undertaken by Denmark — the Multinational Division North — where we are already working with Denmark and Estonia to establish an actual forward headquarters in Latvia. This will add even more to NATO’s command structure, basically meaning that the forces will be commanded and exercised in a quicker and more efficient way.

Moving beyond conventional deterrence generally, and the Russia threat specifically, what do you see as another key challenge facing NATO today, and what efforts can help mitigate that challenge?

Jānis Garisons: Well, I think we have been experiencing or have been affected by information and psychological warfare, as well as cyber issues. This new environment is something that we have to deal with and adjust to because I think it would be wrong to say we will be able to go back where we were a few years ago. We have to adjust. It will not change, even if Russia changes its behavior. There will be others who will use the same methods or patterns. Therefore, what we have to find are ways to strengthen the resilience of our populations. And, of course, because we are democratic societies, it makes it much more of a challenge for us to strengthen this resilience.

Do you see a role for NATO in this resilience piece?

Jānis Garisons: I think there is a role for everybody. Before we [Latvia] developed and put forward the concept of comprehensive defense to the government, we saw the basic need to engage all agencies and services in a comprehensive way at the national level to ensure that everybody is ready to defend the country. It is not only about military defense, it is also about resilience of the people. Because if people know what they will do in times of crises, it increases psychological resilience.

Latvia will hold parliamentary elections in a couple of weeks. There is some real concern about Russian influence operations in the country around the elections. How is your government — and specifically the MoD — working to reduce the impact of these influence operations?

Jānis Garisons: I can say that at least so far, we have not seen a dramatic increase in interference. Information or psychological operations are at a constant level. Propaganda is [the same as what] we have already been experiencing before. It is nothing different from a normal period. One explanation for this is probably the current international environment, but we also have tried to increase awareness before elections — not only among politicians, but also among media and the general society. This includes all the possible channels for influence operations. There is still one and half weeks to go before the elections, but so far we have not seen something different than what normally happens.