Radioactive in Riga: The Latvian Nuclear Standoff of 2018, Part I


Note from the author: The purpose of this scenario, which stretches over three years, is to gauge potential future developments in NATO-Russia relations. While it is a work of fiction, and thus largely speculative, it is nevertheless grounded in a close study of Russia’s geopolitical mindset, and of its recent strategic behavior. The goal is not to engage in alarmism, but rather to explore plausible pathways to conflict, in the hope that through their examination such grim futures can be forestalled. Scenario development, whether through alternate histories, science fiction, or wargaming, can help us befuddled mortals peer just a little further into the fog of the future. That being said, it is my sincere hope that none of these events come to pass, and more importantly, that readers should find the scenario more thought-provoking (and entertaining) than genuinely troubling. Last but not least, it should provide a useful reminder that despite recent events in Syria, the Russian challenge to European stability is not likely to go away any time soon.


“The defeat of the enemy’s objectives is conducted throughout the entire depth of his territory. The differences between strategic, operational and tactical levels, as well as between offensive and defensive operations, are being erased. … Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy’s advantages in armed conflict. Amongst such actions are the use of special operation forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected.” – Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science in Prediction,” in Voenno-promyshlennyu kur’er or The Military-Industrial Courier, February 27, 2013.

“The West tends to believe that because of the long experience of the East-West confrontation during the Cold War, it knows Russia much better than it does China. This is misleading. First, the Soviet Union may still not be that well understood, partly because the accessible archives are so limited, and second the community of experts dedicated to the Soviet Union disbanded with the end of the Soviet world.” – Therese Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (RAND Corporation, 2012)

“The Russian word for security literally means ‘absence of danger’…. Russia has tended to feel absolutely secure only when everybody else, particularly those around its borders, feel absolutely insecure.” ­-Strobe Talbott, The War in Georgia: Assessing the Aftermath (The Brookings Institution, 2008)


At the beginning of 2016, few people in Washington could have predicted just how unstable the Russia-NATO relationship would become. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the West had applied a series of harsh economic sanctions on Russia. The transatlantic strategic community had also drawn attention to Moscow’s rapid military modernization and increasingly assertive behavior. Yet few were willing to go so far as to term this era a new Cold War, deeming the analogy both inapt and overstated. Following the detonation of a Russian airliner and the terrorist slaughter in Paris, hope had been rekindled that Russia might prove to be a more cooperative partner in the Levant, with nations such as France arguing in favor of a grand coalition against ISIL. Rapidly, however, a series of developments-both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East-were to dampen some of these more optimistic expectations.

A Temporary Freezing of the Ukraine Conflict

In the early months of 2016, the situation in the Ukrainian Donbas appeared to have devolved into something of a stalemate.  Russian-backed separatists continued to exert control over the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, while Ukrainian forces regrouped and consolidated their presence in frontline cities such as the industrial port of Mariupol. The onset of a particularly harsh winter appeared to coincide with a sizable decrease in cross-border infiltration. In March 2016, General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) gave voice to cautious optimism, noting:

There has been a notable reduction in Russian troop presence along the Ukraine-Russia border, and encouraging signals that Russian equipment, resupply, and training is no longer flowing as freely as before.  We welcome this development, but remain vigilant over the possibility of renewed attempts to incite violence in Ukraine or elsewhere.

In Western capitals, close observers of Russian politics suggested that the Kremlin might have chosen to temporarily reduce its direct level of activity in Ukraine in response to rising domestic discontent over the steady drumbeat of Russian combat casualties, which reached a crescendo in January when almost 60 Russian troops died of exposure after having been driven from their bunkers. Despite Moscow’s attempts to muzzle coverage of the disaster, a Vice journalist’s footage of the young soldiers’ frozen corpses found its way online, causing widespread discontent in Russia. Others warned that this reprieve in violence was merely the result of a redirection of more forces toward the Syrian theater, and likely to be short-lived, predicting that conflict would resume with the advent of spring.

Patterns of Brinkmanship

Indeed, Russia’s increasingly assertive behavior elsewhere along Europe’s periphery left little cause for optimism. Already apparent in 2014, a steady pattern of Russian military provocation and acts of brinkmanship began to deeply unsettle “frontline” nations, such as Poland as well as the Baltic and Nordic nations. In addition to multiple recorded airspace violations by Russian aircraft, a growing number of Russia-West military encounters were described as “high-risk” incidents, with the potential for serious escalation. Russian aircraft would repeatedly “buzz” U.S. guided missile destroyers cruising in the Baltic and Black Seas, and in several cases utilized their electronic warfare payloads to temporarily interfere with or jam the vessels’ combat systems.

Meanwhile, despite reported efforts to “de-conflict” air patrols over Syrian airspace, a number of fraught episodes had already occurred, the most notable being when a Russian fighter aircraft downed a U.K. reaper drone over Raqqa, subsequently accusing the British drone operators of having engaged in “dangerous and erratic” flight patterns.

In February 2016, a Russian Kilo class submarine was briefly detected in the waters surrounding the Swedish island of Gotland. When a Swedish Visby class corvette was dispatched to the scene, a Russian Neustrashimy class frigate shadowed it for several hours. Swedish naval officers later reported that the Russian frigate engaged in “dangerous proximity maneuvers”, refused to respond to hails, and locked its fire control radar on the Swedish corvette. In both February and March 2016, the Russian Navy carried out a series of live missile firings in Latvia’s maritime exclusive economic zone, each time only providing a few hours warning. This led to repeated disruptions to shipping and to a formal complaint from the Latvian president, who described the exercises as “yet another egregious example of Russian intimidation.”

Meanwhile, even as Russia appeared to reduce its troop levels along the border with Ukraine, it enhanced its military presence in the Moldovan province of Transnistria, and in Belarus. In April 2016, the Russian Minister of Defense announced that in addition to the establishment of a new airbase in the Belarusian city of Babruysk, Moscow was “actively considering” stationing two brigades of Russian airborne troops (VDV) in Polatsk. Another 600 men, primarily drawn from elite Spetsnaz units, were sent to strengthen the existing Russian garrison in Transnistria. Commenting on these developments, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared:

Whether in Russia’s near abroad or in the Middle East, the West’s growing taste for foreign intervention and regime change has led to the proliferation of extremist revolutionary movements; ranging from the Islamists of Benghazi to the Nazis of Maidan Square. As a responsible great power, Russia seeks to both enhance regional stability and protect the rights of Russian ethnic minorities. These deployments will help our partners in Belarus and Transnistria secure their borders and societies from attempts at destabilization.

 “Russiky Mir” and the Issue of Russian Minorities:

The Kremlin’s instrumentalization of the issue of Russian-speaking minorities for political purposes is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, the perceived “stranding” of close to 25 million ethnic Russians, split amongst fourteen different nations within the post-Soviet space, has formed a core component of Russian irredentism. The association of Russian statehood with Russian-or Slavic- ethnicity was at the heart of anti-Yeltsin opposition throughout the 1990s, and has returned with a vengeance under the reign of Vladimir Putin. The protection of allegedly persecuted Russian minorities thus formed one of Moscow’s main arguments for military intervention during the Russia-Georgia War in 2008; and in recent years the Russian Federation solidified its control over the separatist republics of Abhkazia and South Ossetia by granting the majority of its residents Russian citizenship. Concerns are growing over Moscow’s ability to foment ethnic unrest within the Baltic states, and particularly within Estonia and Latvia, which both possess large Russian minorities. In September 2014, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, made a speech in Riga which many observers viewed as particularly ominous. In the course of his speech, Dolgov repeatedly drew attention to what he referred to as the repression of Russian minorities in the Baltics, stating, for instance, that,

The problem of mass deprivation of citizenship in Latvia and Estonia remains a serious one. We consider it an unacceptable situation when a significant portion of the population of these countries lack fundamental political and socioeconomic rights. We demand that the international community put decisive pressure on the governments of Latvia and Estonia so that this shameful phenomenon will be once and for all eliminated from Europe.

Two months earlier, Andrey Neronsky, the director of the Moscow Center of Russian Culture in Latvia, declared in an interview on a Russian nationalist website, that,

If events analogous to those in Ukraine were to begin in Latvia … it is extremely probable that 500 fighters would be enough to end the existence of Latvia as a unified state. Latvia could split into two and possibly more antagonistic enclaves. … There are no forces in Latvia for the suppression of popular uprisings. Its army is small, weakly armed, and not capable of carrying out a large-scale punitive operation.

Neronsky’s remarks were accompanied by a detailed map of Latvia, which went so far as to feature which Russian-populated regions were the most likely to be receptive to secessionist movements.

Baltic defense analysts are well aware of the risks posed by such hybrid operations. In particular, they expressed concern over the challenges posed in terms of adopting a tailored response to foreign-inspired agitation. Latvian armed forces, for example, operate under strict rules that forbid them from engaging in internal security matters. In the event of societal unrest, Latvia’s police forces, operating under the Interior Ministry, would be the first responders. The question of when, and whether, orders should be given for Latvian armed forces to engage might prove singularly challenging in times of crisis. This would impede the Latvian government’s ability to respond in a timely manner to a rapidly evolving security situation on the ground.

Another major concern is with regard to the robustness of the NATO’s Article V when confronted with more unconventional forms of aggression similar to those practiced in Crimea. As Janis Berzins of The National Defense Academy of Latvia noted:

NATO’s Article V states that the “parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Since the Crimean operation was not an armed attack, but the operationalization of new forms of warfare, the question is, to what extent is NATO’s legal framework ready to deal with modern warfare? This has deep implications for Latvia’s defense strategy.

Throughout 2016, Russian diplomats regularly raised the issue of what they referred to as the “plight of Russian minorities” in the Baltic states, especially in Latvia. In November 2016, a series of grainy videos surfaced on YouTube, depicting what appeared to be an elderly Russian couple being physically and verbally harassed by a group of “Latvian nationalists.” Purportedly shot in the city of Daugavpils, state-controlled Russian TV channels widely broadcasted these videos, which are watched by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians throughout the Baltics. Shortly after the release of the videos, PBK, the second most-watched television channel in Latvia announced that Sergei Averin, the elderly gentleman in the videos, had died from a stress-induced heart attack, triggered by the “vicious actions of a group of Latvian fascists.” Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister, in a speech at the State Duma, deplored the fact that,

Throughout Eastern Europe, honest, law-abiding Russian citizens cower in fear and suffer from constant repression. Denied basic human rights and forced to speak a foreign language, they are now also being attacked in broad daylight by fascists.

The Latvian government responded by raising serious doubts over the authenticity of the videos in question, claiming that the alleged confrontation appeared to be staged. Moreover, Sergei Averin had died a full two weeks after the confrontation and from seemingly natural causes. Denouncing the Latvian government’s duplicity, a number of Russian minority NGOs staged a series of mass demonstrations. In some instances, the demonstrations turned violent, and Latvian police units were deployed to respond to the unrest. Images of Latvian police offers clad in riot gear, and striking “peaceful, unarmed” Russian protestors were subsequently widely disseminated via social media.

The Fall of Mariupol

Meanwhile, since early May 2016, NATO observers had drawn attention to a massive influx of Russian troops within Ukraine, as well as to a buildup of Russian forces along the Russia-Ukraine border. At an emergency press conference held in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg displayed satellite footage of large columns of Russian tanks, air defense systems, and self-propelled artillery moving toward the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. As Ukrainian soldiers took position within the city, the nation’s leaders made a plea to the West for urgent military assistance. In an emotional speech held on Maidan Square, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed Western leaders directly:

Even as I speak, Russian troops are invading our soil and poised to strike at our last bastion in the Southeast. Our soldiers are brave, and will die to defend the motherland. But they need help. Their morale is high, but their ammunition is low. They cannot fight Russian tanks with assault rifles, nor can they use their pistols to shoot Russian aircraft out of the sky.

As Russian and separatist forces began a heavy shelling of Mariupol, a furious debate raged within the White House. Whereas some advisors and cabinet members were in favor of rapidly providing Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs), others were more reticent-pointing to the human rights abuses committed by Ukrainian nationalist militias, such as the Azov Battalion, or the alleged use by the Ukrainian Army of incendiary cluster munitions. Preeminent academics and strategic pundits argued in publications such as The New York Times, that at a time when the United States was already mired in campaigns in both Iraq and Syria, now was not the time to be drawn into a full-blown proxy war in Ukraine.

Some members within the Obama Administration were also reluctant to risk jeopardizing the backchannel discussions with the Kremlin over the future of the Assad regime. These talks had been initiated in January 2016 and had shown few, if any, signs of palpable progress.

After several days of deliberation, President Obama issued a statement condemning Russian actions, declaring that if Russia continued to refuse to abide by the terms of the 2015 ceasefire, the United States would be forced to reconsider its policies with regard to Moscow’s neighbors, and expand its level of defense cooperation with the beleaguered Ukrainian government.

Unfortunately, by the time the statement had been issued, Russian separatists had already seized control of Mariupol’s main airport and shipping terminals. A few days later, the remaining battered Ukrainian defenders withdrew in disarray from the city. With Mariupol at the hands of the separatists, Russia had cleared the way to Crimea, and secured an eastern corridor through Ukrainian territory.

A Russia-Turkey Cold War Over Syria

Throughout the rest of the year, tensions steadily grew between Russia and Turkey in Syria.  The downing of a Russian Su-24 in November 2015 undercut Western efforts to persuade Moscow to more evenly apportion its airstrikes amongst moderate and extremist Sunni groups.  In the weeks following the incident, Putin ordered a sizable increase in air and missile strikes on Syrian Turkmen villages, many of which had resulted in massive civilian casualties. While Russian military forces continued to occasionally target ISIL oil convoys, it became clear that the bulk of their firepower was concentrated elsewhere. Turkey, meanwhile, found itself intensely frustrated by what it perceived to be NATO’s tepid response to Russia’s numerous violations of its airspace, and continued to bomb Kurdish groups ­— many of whom were supported by other NATO members. The crisis in Russia-Turkey relations not only led to a further souring of Russia-NATO relations, but also to a rift within the Western alliance itself, as Ankara charted an increasingly independent and ambiguous Syria policy. Indeed, both U.S. and European intelligence services had grown increasingly alarmed over Ankara’s growing web of ties to Sunni extremist groups in both Syria and Iraq. When confronted on this issue, Turkish officials would angrily point to the West’s support to Kurdish groups that they themselves categorized as terrorist, accusing their NATO counterparts of rank hypocrisy.

In September 2016, Russia announced they had taken taken two Turkish mountain commandoes prisoner in a raid against Al-Nusra fighters in Northern Syria. The battered men, wearing their distinctive blue berets, were paraded in their bloody uniforms on Russian television and accused of having acted as military advisors “arming, aiding, and abetting” terrorist actors. While NATO openly denounced Russia’s “provocative and belligerent” actions, calling for the soldiers’ immediate release, in private many Western intelligence officials felt an almost equal degree of rancor towards their wayward Turkish allies.

In the space of a year, Russia had succeeded in consolidating its gains in Eastern Ukraine, inflicting a humiliating defeat on an increasingly fragile and isolated Ukrainian government. At the same time, Vladimir Putin had continued to pursue his more long-term objectives-chipping away at the unity of the transatlantic alliance, fomenting instability on NATO soil, and savvily highlighting the fundamental  divergences of interest in-between certain NATO members.

2017 was to prove even more tumultuous.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He holds a doctorate in political science, with distinction and a specialization in Asian Studies, and a master’s degree in political science, as well as a master’s degree in comparative politics, from Sciences Po. He can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.


Image: Mstyslav Chernov, CC