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Baltic nations, worried they’re next, help Ukrainians defend themselves

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Baltic nations, worried they’re next, help Ukrainians defend themselves
Hundreds of people in Kuldiga, Latvia, hold banners and flags during a March 2 "Stand With Ukraine" rally against war and Russian aggression. (Bargais/Shutterstock)

The last time all three Baltic ambassadors in Washington joined in a webinar via Zoom, the subject was COVID-19. But the pandemic already seems like ancient history—suddenly replaced by much worse TV images of Russian warplanes, tanks and artillery pounding one Ukrainian city after another to rubble.

On March 7, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Lithuania of NATO protection and American support during a lightning visit to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

“We will defend every inch of NATO territory if it comes under attack,” he said during a brief stop in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. “No one should doubt our readiness. No one should doubt our resolve.”

Last week, the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) asked ambassadors of the three countries—all members of NATO and the European Union—how they’re helping Ukraine confront the Kremlin threat while ensuring that their own countries won’t be next on Putin’s hit list.

CEPA expert Edward Lucas, a former senior editor at The Economist who’s been following Central and Eastern European affairs for more than 35 years, moderated the one-hour webinar.

“I’ve been dealing with the Baltic states since the Soviet occupation era ended in 1990, and I’ve seen them regain their independence, restore their economies, join the EU and NATO—and now we see them at the forefront of international attempts to support beleaguered Ukraine,” he said.

“I don’t need to remind this audience of the horrific fate that has befallen Ukraine: the unprovoked attack by the Russian Federation which is unfolding in front of our eyes,” Lucas continued. “As we discuss this, people are being bombed and shelled in Kharkiv, Kyiv and other places—and we all feel helpless.”

Estonian Ambassador Kristjan Prikk speaks during a March 1 webinar organized by CEPA.

Perhaps no countries are as vulnerable to the Russian threat as these three little Baltic states, which together cover 175,116 sq kilometers and are home to a combined 6.2 million people—about the same as Maryland.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were all briefly independent nations before they were invaded and occupied in June 1940 by the Soviet Union, then promptly annexed as constituent republics of the USSR only two months later.

In Estonia, the smallest of the three, a pro-Ukraine demonstration in Tallinn’s Freedom Square attracted 30,000 people—making it the largest protest the country has seen since independence.

Estonia: Crisis ‘not just about Russia’s obsession with Ukraine’

Kristjan Prikk, Estonia’s ambassador in Washington, said he and his colleagues have been fearing such an attack for years.

“This crisis is not just about Russia’s obsession with Ukraine, but one step in a series of attacks against the European security architecture that does have already and will have further global repercussions,” said Prikk, a reserve officer in the Estonian Defense Forces and a member of the Kaitseliit (Estonian Defense League).

Before his current job, Prikk spent three years as permanent secretary of Estonia’s Ministry of Defense, where he managed the country’s defense forces, its foreign intelligence service and the Centre for Defense Investments. From 2015 to 2017, he was director of national security.

“We have long held the view that we must very rapidly raise the costs of aggression to make sure there is no way the aggressor can get away with it and come out of this war stronger than they were before,” he said. “I’d like to emphasize the need to adjust NATO’s force posture, particularly to strengthen deterrence on the eastern flank.”

Latvian Ambassador Māris Selga speaks during a March 1 webinar organized by CEPA.

Māris Selga is the Washington-based ambassador of Latvia, which since 2014 is the headquarters of NATO’s Strategic Communications (Stratcom) Centre of Excellence, which fights Russian disinformation.

“Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has shown that the West is not lost,” said Selga, who before his current assignment was Latvia’s ambassador to China, and before that, Egypt.

“The most important thing is unity, which also works positively toward Ukraine so they see they are not left alone. NATO cannot enter their territory and help them physically, but morally and financially we are helping them, and the response that Western society has shown is fantastic,” he told his online audience. “You couldn’t imagine a couple of months ago such a response to Russia’s invasion.”

As Lithuania’s ambassador in Washington, Audra Plepytė has been outspoken in her support of dissidents in neighboring Belarus. Last July, she used a gathering at her embassy to inaugurate the bipartisan Friends of Belarus Congressional Caucus. Her goal: to bring down Europe’s last dictatorship under Alexander Lukashenko.

Sending Ukraine weapons while ‘making life difficult’ for Putin

Few could have imagined then that Lukashenko would soon allow his country to be used as a launching pad for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But then again, no one could have foreseen how Ukrainian President Volodoymyr Zelensky—an ex-comedian with no political experience—would become an international hero for refusing to back down in the face of danger.

“President Zelensky’s leadership has shown that all of us have to fight for our freedom. This spirit of standing up for your values gives us courage as well,” said Plepytė, adding that she’s heartened by how quickly Germany abandoned its long-standing reluctance to increase defense spending—and by how Sweden and Finland, which had always been neutral, are now seriously contemplating NATO membership.

Lithuanian Ambassador Audra Plepyté is interviewed recently at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“If we had this conversation only a week ago, we’d never imagine we’d have been so quick and so tough in responding to an aggressor,” she said. “We still remember 30 years ago, when Russian tanks were attacking our TV tower and Parliament, and people stood up without guns. Fortunately for us, there were no casualties; it wasn’t a full attack like what we see now in Ukraine.”

As for what concrete steps the EU and NATO can do for Ukraine, Estonia’s Prikk said arms and ammunition are at the top of the shopping list, at least so the Ukrainians can defend themselves.

“My country as well as Latvia and Lithuania have committed to sending significant packages of weaponry and other defense-related items to Ukraine,” he said. “But as we speak, these stocks are being used and we need to help replenish them. Also, we have to think about the logistics, how to get it there. At this point, the land bridge seems to be the most reliable.”

Furthermore, he said, Brussels needs to strengthen its messaging by accepting Ukraine as a candidate to join the EU, while seeking to avoid loopholes so that the Russian government cannot move their assets from one bank to another or create shell structures in order to evade sanctions.

Latvia’s Selga expressed similar sentiments.

“We are all working together— the EU, NATO, the United Nations, the Council of Baltic Sea States—wherever we can manage to punish our eastern neighbor and make life for him a little bit more difficult,” he said. “We’re providing ammunition, Stingers and humanitarian help. Latvia is ready to receive up to 10,000 refugees if necessary. We hope, of course, that will not happen.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.