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DAUGAVPILS, Latvia — Russia’s renewed saber-rattling toward Ukraine and its troop movements through Belarus have sent chills to its Baltic neighbors.
On the outskirts of Daugavpils, a Latvian town near the Russian and Belarusian borders, Major Aivars Dringis tours the army training camp he oversees to make sure the roads are clear after the last of the snow.
It’s quiet at the moment, but starting February 1, the newest group of recruits to join the Latvian National Guard volunteers will be here in a three-week training camp to learn the basics of warfare.
Your home will be two long tents in a clearing.
“These guys are going to be totally green, so this is all going to be new to them,” Dringis said, scraping ice off the inside wall of one of the tents. Temperatures fell well below zero this week and snow flurries were the order of the day, but the tents have electricity and heaters.
“We’ll turn on the heat in time – we don’t want to scare them off,” he joked.
The warehouse – called Meža Mackeviči – has been fitted with a new staircase and floor in the newly completed administration center in recent months. New shooting ranges, roads and a bridge are planned.
Similar upgrades are in preparation at various training areas in eastern Latvia, and the National Guard strives to continue growing around 8,300 members now to around 12,000. On Wednesday, Latvian President Egils Levits called on his fellow citizens to unite to “strengthen the common security of Latvia, Europe and NATO”.
Defense Secretary Artis Pabriks said in an interview he plans to propose an increase in defense spending to 2.5 percent of economic output from the current 2.3 percent to fund such plans, as well as other improvements such as better national air defenses.
But with 100,000 Russian troops now massing on Ukraine’s borders and more moving through Belarus, there is growing nervousness in the Baltics that such planned improvements will not be enough. The operations in Belarus raise particular concerns because they would be well positioned to attack the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, but they also add to anticipation in the Baltics.
Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia, is a member of the western defense alliance NATO, and Pabriks called on stronger peers – notably Britain and the US – to send more troops and equipment to his country to help Russia in deterrence.
More troops and better surveillance equipment near the border could help Latvia address one of the more peculiar potential challenges of a border raid: realizing it happened. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began with the inconspicuous arrival of masked soldiers without insignia, promptly nicknamed the “little green men.”
Then hat Four multinational battalion-size battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland operated on a rotating basis. “We are grateful for what they have done so far, but knowing that this situation will continue for a long time into the future, we just have to be better prepared and better equipped,” said Pabriks.
In fact, the alarm bells are ringing in the capital cities around the Baltic Sea region. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has also urged NATO allies to increase their presence in her country, while making clear promises to do so increase Defense spending over the next three years. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said last week that Russian forces in Belarus are a “direct threat” to his country, which lies between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
And it’s not just the Baltic States.
Sweden, which like nearby Finland remains non-NATO, increased troop levels on its strategically located Baltic Sea island of Gotland earlier this month after observing unusual Russian naval activity in nearby waters. It has also recently reconstituted five regiments across the country.
“Sweden’s strategy is not just about non-alignment, it also needs to be backed up with a really strong military,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said on Tuesday.
sense of foreboding
It seems calm on the border between Latvia and Belarus for the time being. The road connecting Daugavpils to the village of Urbany on the Belarusian side was busy, with only trucks transporting goods in both directions and a few private cars.
No military or border patrols were observed on the Belarusian side, but a state of emergency remains in effect in three Latvian border communities after thousands of migrants – mostly from Iraq – arrived at the Belarusian-Latvian border in August last year.
The arrivals are widely seen as an attempt by Belarus’ autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize Latvia – as well as Lithuania and Poland, which have also been targeted – and to challenge EU border policies.
Latvian National Guard units were stationed along the border to support border guards.
Lt. Col. Oskars Omuls, who heads the National Guard Battalion in Daugavpils, which includes the Meža Mackeviči camp, said border patrols have used four-wheel drive trucks and small six-wheel quads to patrol the terrain because the population of the border area is sparsely populated often swampy or overgrown with dense forest.
He added that Latvian and Belarusian border guards would keep an eye on each other but not act aggressively.
In the border village of Silene, where the trading center consists of a small grocery store and an Italian restaurant, there was little enthusiasm to discuss tensions with Russia and Belarus with an outsider.
When asked about Latvia’s relations with its eastern neighbors, a young man walking his child in a stroller replied, “I have no problems with them,” before hurrying away through the snow.
In Daugavpils, 30 kilometers from the border on the main road, residents said everyone was talking about deteriorating relations with Minsk and Moscow.
“Of course it worries us,” said Kintija Dzjadzina, a 22-year-old receptionist. “We are so close to the border here. If a war starts, they will come here first.”
Conflicts are nothing new in this part of Europe. A fortress was built near Daugavpils in the 16th century by the Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible, and the area was contested by Swedish and Russian forces during the Great Northern War in the early 18th century.
In the 20th century, Daugavpils was brutally fought over in both world wars, after which the Soviet Union occupied all three Baltic states.
Traces of the Soviet era, which ended in 1991, could be seen in Meža Mackeviči.
The site was a missile testing facility, camp director Dringis said, and overgrown man-made mounds in the woods still have dents where projectiles struck.
Latvian National Guard recruits now use the old Soviet toilet blocks during training, digging trenches around them and dumping sandbags on the empty windows. The new administration building is located on the site of an old Soviet office.
Similarly, on the outskirts of Daugavpils – where Omuls has its offices – the National Guard headquarters was built on the site of a Soviet military school, and the unit’s artillery pieces were lined up in the remains of the large Soviet structure. Much of the walls and roof were missing, but the crumbling building still kept out the falling snow.
As Latvia’s new defense force rebuilds amid the remnants of the Soviet era, Baltic leaders accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of refusing to accept that era is over.
For claims dismiss Labeled “Russophobia” by Russia, they say that Putin is planning a Soviet Empire 2.0 on these countries.
“Russia’s political thinking is stuck in the category of 19th-century imperialism,” said Latvian President Levits said On Wednesday. But he added: “No matter how hard Russia tries, the wheel of history cannot be turned back.”
At the Daugavpils base, Lt. Col. Omuls said he would welcome more recruits into the National Guard and he hoped more young people would put down their smartphones and sign up.
But even at his current strength, his unit is prepared, he said. “We will fight,” he said. “That’s what Latvian taxpayers pay us for, and they expect it. We should and we will be ready.”