The End of an Era
Latvia’s foreign minister on the demise of the U.S. missile treaty with Russia and NATO’s new focus on China.
NATO foreign ministers gathered in Washington on Thursday to celebrate the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 70th anniversary. A ceremony to mark the occasion was held in the Mellon Auditorium, the same place where the organization’s 12 founding members signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. Since then, the alliance has grown to comprise 29 countries, including Latvia, which joined in 2004.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss the challenges the alliance faces, both old and new.
Foreign Policy: I understand that one of the things on the table this week is the perceived threat from China and that this is one of the first times it’s been discussed by NATO leaders. What’s Latvia’s position on that shift of bringing China into NATO’s field of vision?
Edgars Rinkevics: I do believe that it is important that the alliance discusses all possible challenges that we face. We have done it in the past, and we should do it now and also in the future. But I also believe that we need to focus on the core issues that the alliance faces, namely of course the situation in Europe, challenges posed by Russia, particularly post-INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty]. But in today’s world, all things are very much related. And if you discuss the INF Treaty and the post-INF situation, then obviously Latvia would be advocating for a new kind of arms control regime. We all understand that this arms control regime must also include countries that were not part of the INF, for instance China. So from that point of view, I think that the discussion is timely.
FP: In an interview earlier this week, you cautioned against a black-and-white mindset toward China. What did you mean by that?
ER: Some countries were so inclined to trade with China that they forgot about human rights issues and about issues that are related to regional security, such as the South China Sea. What I sometimes feel is that there is either an attitude of “let’s forget all the problems and let’s concentrate only on doing business” or “let’s wipe out everything that we have achieved with China” [because of human rights and security concerns]. I think that we need a more balanced approach.
FP: What was the initial response in Latvia to the U.S decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty?
ER: We knew that the INF Treaty was violated long before the United States decided to withdraw. We also knew, and spoke about it many times, that four different types [of missiles banned under the INF] were already targeted at the Baltic states—they were deployed in Kaliningrad and in Russian territory near our borders. So from the kind of practical point of view of security, the very essence of withdrawing or ending the treaty doesn’t make a big change. From a symbolic point of view, it’s definitely the end of the era of optimism that started at the end of the Cold War.
Now that this treaty is dead, we would love to see as soon as possible a complex process of negotiating a new multilateral arms control treaty. I’m not a dreamer. I know how many problems we are facing already and [how many] we would face, but it is still better to have very difficult negotiations rather than just to leave it as it is.
FP: If the United States were to place intermediate-range missiles in Europe, would Latvia welcome that?
ER: Immediately after the U.S. announcement, Russian propaganda outlets were playing a lot of stories saying that the United States would deploy immediately missiles in Poland and the Baltics. First of all, as far as I know, the United States simply doesn’t have those missiles because they are still bound by treaties. Second of all, there is no request of that kind. Third, [if there were a request to host U.S. missiles] we would then give consideration in accordance with Latvian law. So I don’t have the answer today on this very hypothetical question that is not actually on the agenda and that I believe has also been instigated by Russian propaganda, trying to paint a picture that does not correspond to reality.
FP: Have you seen an increase in Russian espionage or Russian influence operations in Latvia?
ER: Well, definitely cyberspace is more crowded. We have seen a lot of attempts to use this information as a kind of weapon. Having said that, we didn’t find any evidence of a huge influence operation by Russia during our recent national elections, maybe because we have been used to that already for far longer [than the United States]. And we were also working proactively with social media networks trying to raise public awareness, trying to address some of those specific issues. My immediate concern is definitely these upcoming European elections in May. The countries of the European Union differ when it comes to resilience [in the face of Russian interference].
FP: Do you feel that Latvia is more resilient than other European member states?
ER: We are more aware of risks. We are working to increase resilience each year. But we also see that tactics are changing, ways are changing, instruments are changing, so it’s a never-ending story.
FP: There was some speculation at the beginning of the year that a union state between Russia and Belarus could form part of Vladimir Putin’s 2024 succession plan. With him due to step down as Russian president, he could become head of the union state. How closely are you watching that, and do you think it’s a realistic concern?
ER: We are closely watching our neighborhood because Belarus is our immediate neighbor, together with Russia. And indeed we see that there is a change of dynamic between Belarus and Russia. There has always been a very close economic and trade relationship. We see that now there is increasing pressure to invest more in political integration. What’s behind that—is it to do with the transition of power beyond 2020, or is it a search for a more integrative approach—that is something I will not speculate about. But obviously I think that relations between Belarus and Russia and the dynamic in the region should be watched closely, at least for trying to prevent some negative scenario spilling over to the whole region. Having said that, this will be, to some extent, the choice of Belarus itself.