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3 Latvia: Domestic Vulnerabilities and Threat Assessment.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many Western pundits, columnists, and military experts asked, "Who's next?" Latvia was an obvious choice because it has a large number of ethnic Russians, a large Russian media presence, an energy dependence on Russia, a border of over 200 kilometers with Russia, and a history of being part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Additionally, Russia is overwhelmingly militarily superior.

While Latvia's NATO membership diminishes the probability of scenarios similar to the Crimean annexation or the war in the Donbas, Latvia's internal vulnerabilities should prompt a frank analysis of a potential Russian attempt to destabilize the country

The Socioeconomic Dimension

Economic and social problems can create a gap between state and society that external forces can exploit. Latvia was among the EU countries hardest hit by the financial crisis in 2007-08, (1) which led to a decrease in trust in national institutions. In 2009, Latvians' trust in their government was the lowest among EU countries. (2) Although the Latvian economy returned to growth in the second half of 2010, (3) in 2016, 77 percent of Latvian society rated the national economy as poor. (4)

Largely due to immigration, Latvia has also had the second-largest contraction in population in the EU, with a 12 percent decrease in its population between 2004 and 2013. (5) In 2014, roughly 50 percent of emigrants from Latvia cited a dislike of politics and having no future prospects in Latvia as being among the main motivators for leaving the country. (6)

At the same time, dissatisfaction with social and economic conditions has not translated into protests, which could be manipulated by outside forces. Since 2007, the belief in protest as an effective tool of political influence in Latvia has been decreasing. (7) In the short term, the lack of political activity in Latvia is a positive trend, as it decreases the possibility of Russia mobilizing grassroots movements in its interests. However, in the longer term, this is a problem for Latvia since a strong civil society is a precondition for successful development.

Furthermore, one benefit to genuine civic activism in Latvia is diminished vulnerability to Russia's influence. The strengthening of democracy would also distance Latvia from Russia in terms of political culture; the prevalence of democratic values in Latvia is likely to increase aversion to authoritarian political practices in Russia and thus weaken Russia's influence in Latvia.

The Politics of Energy and Ethnicity

Latvia imports almost 70 percent of its energy. (8) It is also the most natural-gas dependent of all EU countries, and Russia is the main supplier. (9) Latvian economist Igors Kasyanov argues that the Ukrainian crisis has raised concerns that Russia might use Latvia's dependence on its natural gas as a political tool. (10) For instance, following the annexation of Crimea, Russia cut gas exports to Europe to preclude the reexport of gas to Ukraine from Western Europe via Slovakia. (11) The liberalization of the gas market, which has ended the monopoly position of the energy company Latvijas Gaze (34 percent of which is owned by Russia's Gazprom (12)), is one of most important steps to reducing Russia's ability to use energy as a tool for pressure.

Russia's so-called compatriot policy is one of the tools that Russia has been using for promoting its interests in post-Soviet states. In his March 18, 2014, speech following the annexation of Crimea, Putin said: "Millions of Russian people and Russian-speaking citizens have lived and will live in Ukraine, and Russia will always protect their interests with political, diplomatic and legal means." (13) Thus, the alleged violation of the rights of Russia's compatriots has been used as an excuse for violating the sovereignty of an independent state. (14)

Latvia has one of the largest shares of Russian ethnic minorities in the world. According to the 2011 census, ethnic Russians constituted 27 percent of the Latvian population, or approximately 557,000 people. Furthermore, 37 percent of Latvians (770,000 people) use the Russian language at home. (15)

This ethnic and linguistic composition makes Latvia potentially vulnerable to Russia's compatriot protection as a destabilization tool. At the same time, Russia's ability to do so is limited by at least two factors. First, Russian speakers in Latvia are not homogenous in their attitudes toward Russia. For example, while the Kremlin considers 750,000 of the Latvian population to be Russia's compatriots, (16) in 2015, only 12.7 percent (approximately 263,000 people) of the Latvian population admitted to a sense of "belonging to Russia" (17)--that is, considering Russia part of their identity in the sense of origin, language, culture, or kinship. Thus the real number of "Russian compatriots" is likely just a third of Moscow's estimate.

Second, the actual effectiveness of Russian "compatriot policy" is open to doubt because of local scandals and Russia's heavy-handedness with grassroots organizations. (18) Thus Latvian pro-Russian activist Yevgeny Osipov complained that "due to the absence of a long-term coherent and effective policy towards compatriots [by Russia], there are no serious pro-Russian forces in Latvia capable of risking the mobilization of a sufficient number of people for serious protest." (19) This situation provides a policy opening for Latvia to build stronger relations with this group of people who are, and will continue to be, part of its society, so Latvia can fully integrate this part of its population into the broader society.

The Media and Geopolitical Dimensions

Latvians consume large amounts of Russia's media content. In April 2017, 26 percent of Latvia's television audience were regular viewers of Russian television channels, including the First Baltic Channel, which is registered in Latvia but largely retranslates media content from Russia. (20) In a 2014 survey of Latvia's ethnic minorities--Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, and others--80 percent spoke only Russian at home, while only 10 percent spoke Latvian or another language at home. Additionally, 48 percent of the respondents listed the First Baltic Channel as their main source of information about Latvia. (21) Virtually all Russian-speaking Latvians reported consuming Russian media, and only half consumed media in Latvian. (22) As a result, Russian speakers largely believe Russian media narratives, whereas Latvian speakers tend to agree with the more pro-Western stance of the Latvian media. (23)

Since resolving ethnic and territorial disputes is a precondition for joining NATO, Russia has used support for separatist regions in neighboring countries as a tool for containing NATO expansion toward Russia's borders--for example, in Georgia and Ukraine. (24) As the former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated regarding the five-day war with Georgia--which made South Ossetia and Abkhazia de facto Russian protectorates inside formerly Georgian territory--"If we had had hesitated in 2008... the geopolitical layout would be different. A number of countries that NATO tried to drag into the alliance would most likely have been there." (25)

As the Latgale region of Latvia has the highest proportion of Russian speakers and the worst socioeconomic conditions in the country, (26) the probability of "hybrid warfare" in this region has emerged as a point of discussion in Western political and military circles. (The BBC film "World War Three: Inside the War Room" was the most outstanding manifestation of such prognostication.) (27)

Yet, at least for now, two factors appear to mitigate any Russian attempt to repeat the Ukraine scenario in Latgale. First, despite the large proportion of Russian speakers in Latgale, the identity of this region is primarily formed by Latgalians who are ethnic Latvians. In a 2016 survey, the Latgalians had the highest degree of patriotism toward Latvia and the highest support for Latvia's geopolitical orientation to the West. (28) As a result, Russia is likely to encounter strong resistance if it intended to ignite separatism in Latgale.

Second, the crucial difference between Latvia, on the one hand, and Georgia and Ukraine, on the other, is the former's NATO membership, which greatly increases the risks for the Kremlin should it decide to launch a "hybrid," not to mention conventional, war against Latvia. (There was, for example, no military response from Russia after Turkey downed a Russian airplane on November 24, 2015. (29))


In many ways, Latvia is uniquely vulnerable to Russia's influence. However, in the current balance of power, Russia has so far refrained from activities against Latvia's sovereignty. This is primarily because of the strong deterrent of Latvia's NATO membership. The strong nationalism that is present in the Baltic States, including Latvia, also means there will be a strong will to resist Russian aggression.

Although no single factor constitutes a panacea against potential Russian destabilization, Latvia could further diminish its vulnerabilities by diversifying its energy sources, promoting democratic values and civic participation, improving dialogue with Russian-speaking audiences in Latvia, and further enhancing ethnic integration and mutual understanding of both linguistic groups.


(1.) Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Latvia, "Economy of Latvia: 2008-2014,"

(2.) European Commission, "Eurobarometer 72, Nacionalas zinojums Latvija," November 2009, 22,

(3.) World Bank, "GDP Growth (Annual %),"

(4.) European Commission, "Standard Eurobarometer 86: Public Opinion in the European Union," December 2016, 22,

(5.) Eurostat, "People in the EU--Statistics on Demographic Changes," June 2015,; and Eurostat, "People in the EU--Statistics on Demographic Changes," June 2015,

(6.) Mihails Hazans, "Emigracija no Latvijas 21. gadsimta regionu, pilsetu un novadu griezuma," in Latvijas emigrantu kopienas: Ceribu diaspora, ed. Inta Mierina (Riga: Latvijas Universitates Filozofijas un Sociologijas instituts, 2015), 17,

(7.) SKDS,

(8.) Ministry of Economics of the Republic of Latvia, "Latvian Energy in Figures," 2013, 3,

(9.) Igors Kasjanovs, "Energetika--izaicinajumu pilna nozare," Makroekonomika, July 30, 2015,

(10.) Kasjanovs, "Energetika--izaicinajumu pilna nozare."

(11.) Reuters, "Slovakia Reaches Reverse Gas Flow Deal with Ukraine," April 26, 2014,

(12.) LSM, "Saeima Adopts Historic Gas Market Liberalization Amendments," February 11, 2016,

(13.) Vladimir Putin, "Obrascheniye Prezidenta Rossiyskoi Fedreacii" [The address of the president of Russia], March 18, 2014,

(14.) Article 14 of the federal law: "On State Policy of the Russian Federation in relation to Compatriots Living Abroad" states that "discrimination against Russian citizens living abroad may be grounds for a review of the policy of the Russian Federation against a foreign state in which such discrimination takes place" and "failure of a foreign country to comply with generally recognized principles and norms of international law in the field of fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals and citizens in relation to compatriots is the basis for the public authorities of the Russian Federation to take action for the protection of interests of compatriots in accordance with international law." "Federalnyi zakon ot 24.05.1999 N 99-FZ (red. ot 23.07.2013) 'O gosudarstvennoi politike Rossiyskoi Federatsii v otnoshenii sootechestvennikov za rubezhom' Statya 14. Osnovy deyatel'nosti po realizatsii gosydarstvennoi politiki Rossiyskoi Federatsii v otnoshenii sootechestvennikov" [Federal law from May 24, 1999 N 99-FZ (version from July 23, 2013) "On government policy of the Russian Federation in relation to compatriots abroad" Article 14 "The foundation for actions for the realization of government policy of the Russian Federation in relation to compatriots"],

(15.) Koncepciya, "Russkaya shkola za rubezhom" [The concept of "Russian school abroad"], November 4, 2015,

(16.) Koncepciya, "Russkaya shkola za rubezhom" [The concept of "Russian School Abroad"].

(17.) Ieva Berzina, ed., The Possibility of Societal Destabilization in Latvia: Potential National Security Threats (National Defence Academy of Latvia, Center for Security and Strategic Research, 2015), 26,

(18.) Kallas Kristina, "Claiming the Diaspora: Russia's Compatriot Policy and Its Reception by Estonian-Russian Population," Journal on Ethnolpolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 15, no. 3 (2016): 10-11.

(19.) Yevgeny Osipov, "Latviiskiye russkiye ne ostanovyat NATO," December 28, 2016,

(20.) KANTAR TNS, "Konsolidetas TV skatitakais kanals aprili--TV3," May 16, 2017,

(21.) SKDS, "Piederibas sajuta Latvijai: mazakumtautibu Latvijas iedzivotaju aptauja," May-June 2014, 37,

(22.) Berzina, ed., The Possibility of Societal Destabilization in Latvia, 17.

(23.) Ieva Berzina, "Perception of the Ukrainian Crisis Within Latvian Society," Estonian Journal of Military Studies 2 (2016): 171-205.

(24.) NATO, "Study on NATO Enlargement," September 3, 1995, chap. 1, para. 6,

(25.), "Vstrecha s officerami Juzhnogo voyennogo okruga," November 21, 2011,

(26.) Latgale biznesam, "Sociali ekonomiskais raksturojums,"

(27.) BBC Two, "World War Three: Inside the War Room," This World, February 4, 2016,

(28.) Berzina, ed., The Possibility of Societal Destabilization in Latvia, 11-12.

(29.) BBC, "Turkey's Downing of Russian Warplane--What We Know," December 1, 2015,
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Title Annotation:PART II LATVIA
Author:Berzina, Ieva
Publication:AEI Paper & Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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