Alphen, Netherlands. 2 October. Every year, when I have the honour of addressing the magnificent Riga Conference I set myself thereafter the Riga test. Are the good citizens of Riga safer this year than last? Whenever I go to the Baltic States I come away convinced of two things. First, the need for something called ‘Europe’ in some form or another. Second, just how fragile freedom is and why it must be constantly defended. This year I had the honour of supporting Minister Bergmanis and his team by setting out the challenge for NATO over the coming century and chairing a vital debate about the relationship between security and liberty that democracies must strike and which, in essence, defines freedom.
My Latvian friends are celebrating one hundred years as a country this year. Sadly, they are not celebrating one hundred years as a free country. Since 1918 and those past one hundred years Latvia suffered under the jackboot of oppression for fifty-two of them as they were betrayed by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. My use of the word ‘betrayed’ is deliberate. On August 23rd 1939 Hitler’s foreign minister Ribbentrop and Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov signed a so-called Non-Aggression Pact to which a secret protocol was attached. That protocol agreed that with the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939 Poland and the Baltic States would be divided between the Nazis and the Soviets. Two years later, on 22 June 1941, Hitler launched his gargantuan, obscene invasion of the Soviet Union that would lead to his suicide in a Berlin bunker less than four years later, but only after some thirty million Balts and Russians had perished.
The cost of freedom and the hard choices it forces on people was brought home to me shortly after I arrived at Riga Airport last Wednesday. Last Thursday I had the honour of giving the keynote address at the excellent Tipping Point 2018 conference in Palanga just over the Latvian border with Lithuania. To get there I was driven some 260 km along a road that in late 1944 and early 1945 was a highway of death.
Being a historian I was only too aware through where I was being driven as I passed through places where tragedy had walked with both of its heavy feet. Saldus, Skrunda and Liepaja, and the many places in between were on the front-line between hold-out German forces and massive Soviet advances during Operation Bagration and the six battles of the Courland Pocket between October 1944 and May 1945. When I looked carefully I could see the sad signs of a struggle that consumed tens of thousands of Latvian lives with monuments and graves acting as a sentinel of remembrance as I made my peaceful way to Palanga. The Latvian countryside is truly beautiful rolling in waves likes the unfurling waves of a flag, but it also melancholy. Where once forest had stood fields abound because to flush out resistance the Red Army had simply burnt to the ground the forests of silver birch which are the sylvan signature of the Baltic region.
What a choice the Latvian people had faced back then between Moscow’s Political Commissars and Berlin’s Leadership Guidance Officers, not to mention the SS Einsatzgruppen with their murderous mission to exterminate Jews and anyone else who stood in their way. In fact, it was no choice at all. That is why I rejected the title of my panel at the Riga Conference which asked if NATO would still be effective one hundred years hence. For me NATO is the hard backbone of all out freedoms but for all its utility and value NATO is but a tool of defence. No, what matters far more to me was this week’s upcoming elections in Latvia for it is the popular expression of real freedom that we are together defending. The real question is how we ensure that Latvia is still holding free and fair elections when Latvia 200 is celebrated.
Three separate but interlocking trends worry me. The first trend is Moscow’s retreat back into over-militarised and aggressive autarky most typified by the cult of Stalin that is once again rearing its head in Russia. The second trend is America’s retreat into itself even as US power is being stretched ever more thinly the world over. As an aside, I was offered a lift into central Riga by a Canadian colonel and two of his soldiers. Canada is doing its bit! The third trend is the decline of the main Western European powers into a strategic fantasy-land in which harsh reality is appeased by politicians all too willing to take risks with the lives of others. Britain lost deep in the swamp that is Brexit. Germany, still too fearful of itself and its own history to take on the burdens that geography and history place on it. Italy? No comment. France? President Macron is Europe’s only strategic leader but like his country’s wine, there are times when the ‘etiquette’ on the bottle is far more appealing than the contents within.
The other day Sir Simon Winchester, a doyen of the British media, and all-round, fully signed-up member of the London Metropolitan chattering elite posed a question on the BBC that has not really been heard since eighty years ago on the eve of the Munich ‘peace in our time’ Accord Neville Chamberlain talked about then Czechoslovakia as “…small country about which we know little”. “Why should Britain defend Latvia?” Winchester asked. He should make the same journey, no, the same pilgrimage to a painful past, I have just made. You see the same past that consumed Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 1939 almost consumed Britain in 1940. It was only the maverick Churchill, a British people willing to fight (as opposed to much of the Lord Halifax Establishment who wished to ‘seek terms’ with Hitler) and some sane defence decisions taken in 1934 that saved Britain and thus prevented Hitler from winning.
Sadly, Britain’s heroics in 1940 also inadvertently helped paved the way for Stalin to win in 1945 and gobble up much of eastern and central Europe for generations. It was only a relatively strong NATO, American solidarity and the absolute determination of Balts, Poles and others that over time wore down the resolve and the capability of the then Soviet Union. It is thus sobering, to say the least to hear President Putin thinks the Soviet Union was a good thing and he wants to rebuild it. I have learnt to believe President Putin when he makes such pronouncements.
For these reasons, I want neither Balts nor Brits ever again to face such choices. For Latvia 200 to be celebrated NATO remains vital, but it must be a NATO in which Europeans do far more than at present. Why? First, because it is now time for Europeans to grow up strategically. Second, because to keep America strong in Europe Europeans must do far more to help America.
There is a twist, as I made clear in a somewhat heated discussion I had with a senior diplomat over Brexit who is both a friend and someone I respect. It is not weapons that make NATO strong but mutual respect. If Latvians want to face down the likes of Sir Simon Winchester and stop post-Brexit Britain simply retreating behind its nuclear shield and its powerful navy (On Saturday HMS Queen Elizabeth became Europe’s only massive strike carrier, the first of two such power projection British ships) then solidarity must work both ways. If the British people PERCEIVE they are being punished for Brexit by the very Europeans who are calling upon young Britons to defend then I am afraid NATO will be damaged and possibly the Riga test one day failed, especially if the Americans are weakened by events in Asia-Pacific. It is perception that drives politics and strategy just as much as reality and the next two months of Brexit negotiations could well decide the future not just of the EU, but also of NATO and by extension the very idea of ‘Europe’. Think about it, Riga.
At the end of the panel I chaired I finished with a quote from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which had been haunting me through the debate about Europe, security and freedom. “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
The real threat to NATO and by extension to Latvia and the people of Riga is that Europeans come to believe that the responsibility for the security of Europeans ultimately rests elsewhere. It does not. It rests on all of us together – Britons, French, Germans, Poles, Latvians, et al.
The people of Riga are no less secure in 2018 than they were in 2017 but nor are they completely safe. Free Latvia 200? Only if we are all willing to defend freedom together, not simply talk about it.Julian Lindley-French