Latvia: Some Notes on Small State Security

Image courtesy of Investorstemcell. Image courtesy of Investorstemcell.

I’m in Riga, Latvia this week as part of a West Point Department of Military Instruction training team detailed to assist the Latvian National Defence Academy in curriculum development.  The team has been here since Sunday, February 23rd, and will depart on Friday, February 28th.  As usual with these sorts of things, our hosts have been generous and gracious, even blessing us with some high quality horseradish vodka last night as part of a “thank you” for the progress we’ve made so far.  Tasty former-Soviet delicacies aside, the trip has got me thinking about small state security.  Through military functions I’ve traveled to a lot of these smaller nations: Singapore (approx. 5 million people, 25 by 40 miles in total physical size), New Zealand (about 4.5 million people, roughly the size of the state of Colorado), Norway (about 5 million people who all happen to be great at biathlon), and now Latvia (approx. 2 million people with a country you could easily drive across from meal-to-meal).    All these countries happen to be littoral (or exposed to water) and all have some geostrategic considerations in common.

Image courtesy of Sia Registracija. Image courtesy of Sia Registracija.

General Geostrategic Considerations

These thoughts partially come from my time in New Zealand, but they well apply to the other countries mentioned above (including Latvia):

1. Geography & Demographics: Land and population size have left these countries with an asymmetric relationship to significantly larger neighbors.  New Zealand gets off the easiest due to the tyranny of distance; at the same time any country that could project force that far would necessarily be a “great power.”  Norway is in that boat as well.  But Singapore is in a tough neighborhood of relative giants – and Latvia is orders of magnitude smaller than Russia. Geography and demographics limit resources.

2. Resources: Necessarily insufficient for most likely and most dangerous threats from neighbors.

3. Small size & tough locations: Mean territorial/homeland defense is not the only security threat to these countries – access to trade and external resources is critical.  Think of it this way: they cannot sustain themselves with the resources they’ve been given – autarky is not an option.

4. These factors mean they seek political independence through security cooperation (partnership and collective security).

With Respect to Latvia

A local official described to me the three main threats to Latvian security, which I think are interesting when compared to the above considerations:

1. Demographic: sinking population due to declining birth rate coupled with a “brain drain.”

2. Energy Security: All energy provided by single source – Russia.

3. Russian Soft Power: Due to Soviet-era industrial and assimilation policies, Latvian cities are heavily ethnic Russian (50% in Riga).  30% of the country, overall, is ethnic Russian.  That means that nearly 1/3 of the population consumes news from Moscow-provided information sources.  The hockey team (Dynamo Riga) is part of the Kontinental Hockey League – a major sports league which draws Latvia eastward.

Military-Strategic Considerations

These are just some thoughts I’ve jotted down in my notebook – and will likely come back to for refinement at some point:

  • Minimal material capability relative to all potential military threats
  • CAN fight tactical engagements & strategic war – CANNOT sequence operational battles
  • Two forces: support collective security with a conventional stabilization force – on order must provide the nation with unconventional warfare capabilities
  • Not likely to provide traditional landpower (ability to seize and control territory) in any significant size or for any long period of time – i.e. protect Riga or a large airfield
  • Territorial/homeland defense mission – goal is to protract long enough for NATO to arrive, through attrition of enemy capability and erosion of enemy will

Again, these are some rough notes, but I am confident that they are basic enough assumptions that will prove to be true.  Now, the news here is not all bad – smaller forces are winning nearly half the time when facing a significantly larger opponent these days.  Smaller states can field military forces that adapt faster, run cheaper operations that go farther, and are harder to find and strike.  These states (i.e. Latvia) just need to find their own version of the Rope a Dope strategy – so they can find success like Ali did against Foreman.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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