Radioactive in Riga: The Latvian Nuclear Standoff of 2018, Part III
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. Please read Part I and Part II, which relate the events of 2016 and 2017, respectively.
2018: The Crisis Erupts
Every year, on March 16, during Latvian Legion Day, hundreds of Latvian citizens parade through the streets of Riga to commemorate the 100,000 soldiers of the Latvian Legion, who joined the Waffen SS to fight against the Soviet Union during World War II. This annual remembrance has long been extremely controversial and heavily criticized, not just abroad, but also within Latvia itself. Russia and Latvia’s ethnic Russians are particularly hostile toward the tradition, which they view as little more than a “glorification of fascism.” In the past, ethnic Russians have frequently clashed with Latvian Legion Day commemorators, and in March 2014 Latvia’s government warned against participating in the march, citing serious security concerns. Despite the Latvian government’s advisory, 1,500 people still marched though Riga’s city center.
On March 16, the Latvian government’s anxieties were at a fever pitch. The previous year, incidents involving ethnic Russian protestors had resulted in a series of small-scale street battles, and had led to the deployment of Latvian riot police. Once again, the Latvian government issued a strong advisory, urging those among its citizens who wished to celebrate Latvian Legion Day to “commemorate their ancestors in the warmth and privacy of their homes.” Observers noted that Russian news channels such as RT and PBK had been devoting an unprecedented amount of coverage to “Latvia’s Annual Nazi Festival,” and several ethnic Russian NGOs had begun coordinating massive “counter-demonstrations” via social media. The largest of these planned counter-demonstrations, fretted Latvian security officials, appeared to be concentrated not in the nation’s capital, but in Russian-majority border towns close to Belarus and Russia. Anton Krumins, the head of Latvia’s police force, was confronted with a difficult decision: Should he concentrate the majority of his limited resources in Riga where the march would take place, or should he more evenly disperse his police officers throughout Latvia, at the risk of reducing the protection of the nation’s capital?
Concerns were also raised with regard to the loyalty of the municipal police officers in Russian-majority towns, which some Latvian officials feared would refuse to take action against violent Russian protestors. Furthermore, intelligence services across the Baltic states had reported that buses of Russian “protestors” had been discreetly dispatched to Russian and Belarusian border towns. According to one classified report, a number of these protestors appeared to come from radical nationalist groups such as the Slavic Union, or the Night Wolves, known for their violent proclivities and, in the case of the Night Wolves, for their proximity to the Kremlin. More disturbingly, the Pentagon reported that Russia recently deployed another 500 airborne troops at its VDV base in Belarus.
On the fateful morning in question, a few hundred Latvian citizens defied the government’s advisory and wound their way through the old city of Riga to a fenced off Freedom Monument. Almost immediately, a number of closely coordinated counter-demonstrations engulfed Latvia’s major cities. Although Latvian police forces had long been preparing for such an event, they found themselves rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer number of protestors. Along Latvia’s borders with Russia and Belarus, mobs of ethnic Russians, in some cases equipped with tear gas and body armor, overran border officers. Buses containing hundreds of Russian nationalist thugs poured through the newly porous borders, and in little less than 48 hours entire tracts of the nation’s southeast were no longer under government control.
Two hours after the beginning of the disturbances, the Latvian president convened an emergency session of the National Security Council. As the Latvian interior minister relayed a frantic barrage of real-time updates on the increasingly chaotic situation reigning throughout the country, the stunned officials struggled to devise a coherent and tailored response. The Latvian defense minister called for a rapid deployment of the Latvian Armed Forces in “strategic areas” of the nation’s capital, in order to send a “strong signal” to the Kremlin-backed protestors. The Latvian president, however, was reluctant to immediately brandish the “military option,” stating that he “had no wish to play into Vladimir Putin’s hands, and provide fodder for his propaganda machine.” As the situation continued to deteriorate, the NATO secretary general declared:
NATO is closely monitoring the situation on the ground, and will not tolerate any threat to Latvia’s sovereignty. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization stands ready, under Article V, to respond in a decisive manner to any foreign military incursion against an allied nation.
Eighteen hours into the crisis, crowds of Latvian Russians continued to mass in Riga, and one particularly boisterous group began to surround the U.S. embassy. Most of the demonstrators were masked and armed with clubs or Molotov cocktails, and some waved flags emblazoned with vitriolic slogans such as “Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine: Down with U.S. Imperialism” and “U.S. Supports Global Fascism.” As the crowd swelled to the hundreds, the Latvian president gave the order to establish protective cordons of Latvian troops around key government buildings and foreign embassies.
Russia’s Humanitarian Corridor and “Volunteer” Battalions
As soon as the counter-demonstrations began, embedded Russian reporters started broadcasting carefully doctored images of bloodied ethnic Russian protestors. In some cases, noted The Washington Post, the scenes did not appear to have been filmed in Latvia, but to originate from other, more violent, protests in Moldova and Ukraine. In one particular instance, a widely circulated photograph of an armor-clad police officer dragging a young woman by the hair was subsequently revealed to have been taken during a riot in Chechnya in the 1990s. Despite the clearly biased nature of Russian coverage of the demonstrations, the Latvian government found itself on the defensive, constantly having to deny accusations of egregious police brutality.
On the second day of the demonstrations, RT announced a groundbreaking story. Citing sources “on the ground,” the RT news anchor declared that Latvian fascist militias, colluding with the Latvian police, had begun operations of “ethnic cleansing” in the Latvian city of Daugavpils. Shortly after the breaking of the story, Vladimir Putin declared an emergency press conference, and announced that,
The Russian Federation can no longer tolerate such atrocities against its overseas compatriots. With immediate effect, I have ordered our forces to establish two humanitarian corridors, which will allow persecuted Russian minorities to seek refuge in either Russia or Belarus. Russia will also be sending humanitarian convoys, complete with food, fresh water, and medication to the repressed people of the historically Russian border provinces.
Before Putin had even completed his announcement, Russian airborne troops moved to secure the Latvian border with Russia and Belarus. Hundreds of Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms — the “little green men” of Crimea — flooded into Latvia. When queried on their provenance, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, first denied any knowledge of Russian troops in Latvia proper, “apart from the peacekeeping force along the borders,” before acknowledging that “some compassionate volunteers may have wanted to give up some of their holidays to assist their Russian brethren in Latvia.” After all, he added, “European and American citizens have left in droves to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, yet we have never suggested that they were on a government payroll.”
NATO immediately responded to Vladimir Putin’s announcement by demanding that Russia withdraw all of its troops — both declared and undeclared — within 48 hours. If these conditions were not met, declared the NATO spokesperson, NATO would be compelled to deploy its rapid reaction spearhead of 4,000 troops to help prevent “any further erosion of a NATO member’s sovereignty.”
Russia’s Coercive Nuclear Signaling and NATO’s Dilemma
Within 48 hours, however, Russia created a fait accompli on the ground, and exerted de facto control over six of the Latvian provinces with the highest proportion of ethnic Russians. When the Latvian army attempted to enter Daugavpils, it was repelled by thousands of Russian partisans fighting on their home turf, operating under the guidance of highly experienced VDV and Spetsnaz officers, and equipped with night vision, assault rifles, and generous quantities of ammunition. Ill equipped for high-intensity urban warfare, the small Latvian Army withdrew and regrouped in Riga. In the course of the aborted operation, however, several U.S. and Polish advisors to the Latvian armed forces were killed. Incensed by these casualties, NATO responded by announcing the dispatch of four additional brigades (two American, one British, and one Polish).
Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that it was granting “its oppressed compatriots in the Baltics their true citizenship at last,” and Russian 24-hour news channels broadcast images of beaming Russian-speakers in Latvia cheering and brandishing their brand new passports. Unwilling to risk the safety of their air transport aircraft, NATO commanders dispatched their troops by road and rail, only to find that critical segments of the railway lines running through Lithuania had already been sabotaged. As the 48-hour deadline came to an end, only a portion of the rapid reaction force had arrived. While the first NATO troops fanned out around Riga, ethnic Russian community leaders and NGOs already began to call for the organization of a series of referendums, which would allow each province to decide in favor of joining the Russian Federation. Two Russian army columns, supported by combat aircraft and advancing under the protection of an air defense bubble, began to move toward the provinces in question, in order — in the words of the Russian defense minister — to “help protect the local population from NATO intimidation as they exert their right to self-determination.”
NATO issued its final ultimatum: If Russia did not withdraw all its troops from the disputed provinces, NATO combat brigades would be forced to engage to restore the status quo ante and Latvian sovereignty. Putin rejected the ultimatum, and announced that:
Any attack on Russian troops, or on Russian compatriots, will be countered with overwhelming force. We would like to remind Western leaders that despite their armies’ superior numbers and technological proficiency, Russia is not some third-world military like Iraq or Libya. Any attack on a great nation — and on a great nuclear power — such as Russia, should be very carefully considered and debated. Once again, we will not hesitate to use any means whatsoever to counter Western aggression.
In Western capitals, Putin’s comments were immediately taken for what they were: veiled nuclear threats. These threats were accompanied by intense nuclear signaling. Satellite footage revealed Russian technicians ostensibly assembling missile launchers, and that a squadron of nuclear-capable Tu-95 “Bear” bombers was deployed to Belarus. Communications were intercepted of Russian military officers discussing “tailored nuclear counterstrikes,” and “surgical nuclear operations.” In a frantic call to the White House, the Latvian president urged the United States and NATO to “delay any immediate military action,” for fear of “provoking a nuclear holocaust on Latvian soil.” The U.S. administration assured their Latvian counterparts that any nuclear strike by Russia, however “limited in scope,” would lead to “massive nuclear retaliation” on the part of the United States and its allies. “You didn’t believe that during the Cold War, so what makes you believe that now?” retorted the Latvian leader, before imploring the American president to enter into negotiations with the Kremlin.
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.
Photo credit: Anton Holoborodko