As Russia flexes its military muscles, Baltic states remain on edge
Trump indicated he may break away from US foreign policy traditions during campaign
Baltics rely heavily on NATO, US protection from Russia
Janis Garisons isn’t surprised when he hears allegations of Russian hacks targeting the recent US presidential election.
“Some things you discovered in your pre-election campaign, we’ve been seeing it already for years,” he says.
“They’ve been keeping us awake for twenty-five years,” he tells CNN. “We’re facing Russian propaganda, information warfare and even psychological warfare almost daily.”
Garisons is a top official in the defense ministry of Latvia, a small Baltic country that was ruled for nearly a half century by the Kremlin.
When asked for a response, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russian foreign minister told CNN: “Why didn’t Latvia inform Russia about it through the appropriate channels?”
This year, Latvia celebrated a quarter century of regaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But even now, as a part of the European Union as well as a member of the NATO military alliance, the threat from Moscow still lingers.
Colonel Ilmars Lejins of the Latvian Armed Forces says he considers Latvia’s enormous Russian neighbor his primary threat.
“Our neighbor to the East has shown his intents and capability of disrespecting international law and treaty obligations,” Lejins says. “So I must consider that in my military planning.”
Tensions in eastern Europe have been ratcheting up ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the US military presence in the region has increased significantly.
But the election of Donald Trump has thrown the Baltic States, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (who rely heavily on US protection), into a great deal of uncertainty.
During the campaign, Trump outlined a sharp break in US foreign policy tradition, suggesting the US wouldn’t defend NATO allies, including the Baltic states, against Russian aggression if they haven’t “fulfilled their obligation to us.”
This rhetoric, combined with his public admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has left many in Europe concerned that a new Cold War with Putin is coming.
Publicly, officials in Baltic countries are taking a wait-and-see approach. They stress that they have dramatically increased defense expenditures for the next several years while reminding the US that they have contributed troops to US-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who famously fought and lost a war against Russia in 2008, predicts the next several months could be particularly tense.
“Baltic countries are so vulnerable,” Saakashvili told CNN from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where he is forming a local political party.
“We see that the military potential of these three countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) cannot match, in any way, the Russian military. And the problem is: I don’t see large European powers coming to their help.”
On the defensive
In a snowy field in Latvia, cannons lob artillery shells at distant targets. A pair of Blackhawk helicopters land, and soldiers from the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade pour out, firing a rocket attached to a long cord laced with explosives. It detonates, a simulation of how soldiers would blow a path through a deadly minefield in the event of a conflict.
US troops are performing military maneuvers with the Latvian military and a platoon of soldiers from Slovenia as part of a series of joint exercises called “Atlantic Resolve.”
“The origins were in response to Russian activity in 2014, when the strategic situation changed,” said Colonel Gregory Anderson, who monitored this exercise with his local counterpart Colonel Lejins.
Anderson was referring to Russia’s lightning-swift occupation and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
To confuse and then push Ukrainian troops out of the region, Russia deployed so-called “little green men,” well-disciplined Russian forces who wore uniforms without insignia or flags identifying their country of origin.
The well-choreographed operation has served as a wake-up call to the new strength and sophistication of the Russian military.
On the lookout for potential enemies
If a conflict suddenly exploded with Russia, Latvian commanders say their forces would present little more than a “speed bump” to an advancing Russian military.
“Therefore, the US presence here is very important to deter Russian attempts or simply to avoid miscalculation,” says Garisons, Latvia’s secretary of state.
Latvian officials say, Russia has amassed two armies with an estimated 200,000 troops on the other side of the border. Five years ago, Russia reestablished a helicopter base with scores of aircraft at a location a short drive from the Latvian border.
To protect itself and its population of nearly two million people, Latvia has only 5,000 professional troops as well as a much larger force of volunteer National Guards.
“We need to be a good speed bump that takes out the muffler of the enemy so that it is loud enough that there is no question that this is military aggression against one NATO member,” Colonel Lejins explains. “Then the activation of (Article 5) occurs.”
Under Article 5 of the NATO charter, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all countries in the alliance and requires an active response.
Russian doorstep in Europe
Next, we drive cross country from Latvia, across Lithuania and into Kaliningrad, an exclave of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and the Baltics, cut off from mainland Russia.
At the end of World War II, Soviet Red Army soldiers wrenched control of this territory from Nazi Germany. For decades, it was a heavily militarized region, closed off to foreigners.
The region lurched into the headlines last fall after Russia confirmed reports it deployed nuclear-capable Iskender missiles to Kaliningrad.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov defended Russia’s right to deploy weapons to its sovereign territory in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last October.
“They moved NATO infrastructure next to our borders,” Lavrov said. “And this is not United States territory.”
In many ways, Kaliningrad is a historical curiosity. The streets of the main city, which was known in German times as Konigsberg, are lined with grand examples of old German architecture alongside grim, concrete Soviet apartment blocks.
Here, some Russians also expressed hope about the next US government.
“With the change of leadership in the US we are hoping for an improvement in the situation,” says Konstantin Smernov, a 53-year-old former lieutenant in the Soviet Navy who now works as a real estate agent. “Confrontation isn’t good for anybody.”
Western governments imposed economic sanctions on Russia after the seizure of Crimea in 2014. In restaurants and in homes here, many Russians said those measures contributed to a broader economic crisis that set in after the plunge in oil prices in recent years. Oil and natural gas are two of Russia’s most important exports and the backbone of the country’s economy.
Those sanctions, combined with a move last summer to remove visa-free travel for Kaliningrad residents traveling to neighboring Poland, have some here concerned about the former Soviet citadel’s increasing isolation.
Anna Shugatova was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her dream was to find a job that would allow her to travel. But the 23-year-old, who moved to Kaliningrad from her home in Siberia to pursue a master’s degree in linguistics, says that dream is now in doubt.
“I don’t know if I will be able to travel soon. There are tensions between countries,” Shugatova said.
Echoes of the Cold War
But several Russians say they’ve found one advantage to living in an enclave with relatively easy access to countries like Poland and Lithuania. Visitors can purchase and smuggle in foreign foods that are now banned in Russia.
“We are back to the days of smuggling cheese and sausage from abroad,” said Igor Pleshkov, a businessman and vocal critic of the Kremlin who describes himself as the sole elected member of the opposition on Kaliningrad’s city council.
The Russian port of Baltiysk, about a 45-minute drive towards the coast, is still very much a militarized garrison town. Warships from the Russian Navy’s Baltic Sea Fleet moor at the town entrance, while rows of olive-green military trucks and armored vehicles can be seen in several nearby compounds.
One of the striking oddities about this region is the dozens of ruined German churches dotting the countryside. These crumbling places of worship stand partially collapsed and empty, symbols of what happened the last time armies fought for control of this part of Europe.
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.