The fact that the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia managed to establish, lose, and restore their sovereign statehood during the 20th Century is no guarantee they will be able to preserve it in the 21st. But it gives them a heads up when facing the multiple hybrid security threats that they and other European states must contend with these days.
After two world wars and 50 years of foreign occupation, it is well understood throughout the Baltic Sea region that civic resilience is a prerequisite for a modern defense and security strategy.
Resilience in the face of hardship comes naturally if it is a precondition for survival. In Latvia, a country of less than two million with a standing army of 6,000, and an 8,000-member National Guard, an effective national defence strategy requires the full engagement of society. That engagement comes naturally when one considers that Latvia and its Baltic neighbors all live next door to Russia, a country that:
1. Is nearly 100 times their size;
2. Has invaded and occupied them in the recent past;
3. Has occasionally threatened to do so again;
4. Consistently engages in a variety of cyber and infowar attacks on Baltic societies;
5. Routinely conducts massive wargames on their borders replicating what is clearly meant to look like a rehearsal for a real invasion
The Balts know how to take a hint and have been preparing accordingly. After restoring independence in 1991, joining NATO became a top priority. That was achieved in 2004, and along with membership in the EU, it became the pillar of the Baltics’ conventional defense strategy. Relying on multilateralism diplomatically and collective security militarily, the Baltic governments have directed their attention to the security needs and questions of their civilian populations. This is especially the case along the 214km Latvian–Russian border, where regular cross-border contacts and a predominant Russian media presence require enhanced vigilance and local awareness.
Latvia integrates total defense into a national security strategy that focuses on social resilience out of existential necessity. There is a wide recognition that all efforts should be made to increase and improve the population’s ability to resist all forms of hybrid threats. The Balts have been a target of Russian information warfare much longer and more intently than many of our EU partners and thus have a heads up on the methodology of cross-border meddling. Latvians may be amused but few are surprised when Russia’s propaganda outlet Sputnik Radio proclaims that Latvia’s most widely celebrated ancient holiday, Midsummer’s Eve, is actually a Neo-Nazi tradition borrowed from Hitler. The economic, political, and social targets have always been the same, only the technology has changed.
Latvia’s 2016 State Defence Concept reflects a key element of the Latvian constitution and a characteristic of its national identity: the willingness and ability of the population to engage in individual and collective resistance in times of conflict. It sets down the parameters of civil–military cooperation and brings together state institutions, the armed forces and the public at large.
A crucial demographic for civic awareness is the generation of Latvians that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union, who have not experienced war or foreign occupation. Their school curriculums are designed around resilience-enforcing subjects such as history, political science, human security, and civic responsibility. They are kept informed about the reasons NATO troops are stationed in Latvia through classroom briefings and direct contact with the troops of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence stationed at the Adaži military base in eastern Latvia. Popular NGOs, such as the Latvian Transatlantic Organization, create people-to-people programs designed by and for the country’s youth. Of the 8,000 members of Latvia’s Youth Guard, 30% are female.
Every country in the Baltic Sea region has experienced a series of cyber-assaults, which continue to test the resilience of regional security systems, infrastructure, and societies. They range from Estonia’s massive cyberattacks in 2007 to more recent disruptions of Latvian cellular networks, Lithuanian government institutions, and Norwegian air traffic control systems.
While these cyber-kinetic interventions can be addressed with technical measures, the assaults on the hearts and minds of local populations through information warfare is a much greater challenge. Baltic populations have been hardened against ‘fake news’ that arrives directly through Russian-language sources. The manipulation of social media through local languages is harder to detect and requires better education in the skills of critical analysis.
One non-profit organisation addressing this issue is The Baltic Centre for Investigative Journalism Re: Baltica. Working in English and collaborating with investigative journalists throughout the region, they dig deep into socially-disruptive issues such as corruption, non-transparency, money laundering and press intimidation. In the process, they have increased awareness of the ‘who, what and why’ behind organised efforts to influence public opinion. Recently, working with BuzzFeed News and the Estonian newspaper Postimees, they investigated Skype logs and other files that uncovered Russian companies that bankrolled regional websites, pumped out stories, and infiltrated local media.
Resilience in the face of necessity can only come about through awareness: you need to know you are being threatened before you can take steps to block that threat. You also need to know who is doing it and how. Awareness in the Baltic Sea region is acute because the threats have not only been palpable in military terms, but equally apparent in the hybrid battlefield of information warfare. Thanks to the technological advancements of globalisation, this second assault on social cohesion and stability extends far beyond the region and needs to be addressed internationally. As the rest of the world is discovering, the masterful manipulation of social media through troll farms, fake websites and digitally altered videos is a daily challenge for internet savvy Balts. Radio, TV and the print press were a staple in the post-Soviet period of the 1990s, but their effectiveness is marginal compared to what can be accomplished through the internet.
The Baltic states may have the geopolitical disadvantage of living on a security fault line, but they have acquired experience and skills that are invaluable to their friends and allies around the world.
Ojars Eriks Kalnins
The author is a member of the Saeima, the parliament of the Republic of Latvia, and Deputy Chair of the Saeima’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.