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DAUGAVPILS, Latvia â€” Russiaâ€™s renewed saber-rattling toward Ukraine and its troop movements through Belarus have sent a chill through its Baltic neighbors.
On the edge of Daugavpils, a Latvian town close to the Russian and Belarusian borders, Major Aivars Dringis tours the army training camp he oversees, making sure the roads are clear after recent snows.Â
It is quiet for now, but from February 1 the latest batch of recruits to join Latviaâ€™s voluntary National Guard will be here on a three-week boot camp to learn the basics of warfare.
Their home will be two long tents in a clearing.Â
â€œThese guys will be totally green, so all this will be new to them,â€ Dringis said, scraping ice off the inside wall of one of the tents. Temperatures fell well below zero this week and snow flurries were common, but the tents have power and heaters.
â€œWeâ€™ll get the heating on in good time â€” we donâ€™t want to scare them off,â€ he quipped.
The camp â€” called MeÅ¾a MackeviÄi â€” has been refitted over recent months with a new staircase and floor in the newly finished administrative center. New shooting ranges, roads and a bridge are planned.Â
Similar upgrades are in the pipeline at various training areas in Latviaâ€™s east and the National Guard is aiming to grow fromÂ aroundÂ 8,300 members now to around 12,000. On Wednesday, Latvian President Egils Levits called on his fellow citizens to join up to â€œstrengthen the common security of Latvia, Europe and NATO.â€
Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview he planned to propose a hike in defense spending to 2.5 percent of economic output from a current 2.3 percent to fund such plans as well as other upgrades such as better national air defenses.Â
But with 100,000 Russian troops now massing on Ukraineâ€™s borders and more moving through Belarus, there is a growing nervousness across the Baltics that such planned upgrades wonâ€™t be enough. The deployments in Belarus are triggering particular concerns because they would be well-positioned to strike at Ukraineâ€™s capital, Kyiv, but it also adds to the foreboding in the Baltics.
Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia, is a member of the Western defense alliance NATO, and Pabriks called on stronger fellow members â€”particularly the U.K. and U.S. â€” to send more troops and equipment to his country to help it deter Russia.
More troops and better monitoring equipment near the frontier could help Latvia address one of the more peculiar potential challenges of a border incursion: Recognizing that it has happened. Russiaâ€™s invasion of Ukraine began with the low-profile arrival of masked soldiers without insignia who were promptly nicknamed â€œlittle green men.â€
NATOÂ hasÂ four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, operated on a rotational basis. â€œWe are grateful for what they have been doing up to now, but knowing that this situation will continue long into the future as well, we simply need to be in a better readiness and better equipped,â€ Pabriks said.
Indeed, alarm bells are ringing in capitals around the Baltic Sea region.Â Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has also asked NATO allies to increase their presence in her country while promising to sharplyÂ increaseÂ defense spending over the coming three years.Â Lithuaniaâ€™s Defense Minister Arvydas AnuÅ¡auskasÂ saidÂ last week that Russian troops in Belarus were a â€œdirect threatâ€ to his country, which sits between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.Â
And it isnâ€™t just the Baltic states.
Sweden, which like nearby Finland remains outside NATO, bolstered troop numbers on its strategically placed Baltic Sea island of Gotland earlier this month after observing unusual Russian naval activity in nearby waters. It also recently re-established five regiments across the country.Â
â€œSwedenâ€™s strategy isnâ€™t just about freedom from alliances, that also has to be backed up with a really strong military,â€ Swedish Foreign Minister Ann LindeÂ saidÂ on Tuesday.Â
Sense of foreboding
For now, the border between Latvia and Belarus appears quiet. The road linking Daugavpils with the village of Urbany on the Belarusian side had heavy traffic, only trucks moving goods in both directions and the odd private car.Â
No military or border patrols were observed on the Belarusian side, but a state of emergency remains in effect in three Latvian border parishes after thousands of migrants â€” mainly from Iraq â€” began arriving at the Belarus-Latvia border in August last year.Â
The arrivals are widely seen as an attempt by Belarusâ€™ autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize Latvia â€” as well as Lithuania and Poland, which have also been targeted â€” and challenge EU border policy.Â
Latvian National Guard units have been deployed along the frontier to back up border officers.Â
Lieutenant Colonel Oskars Omuls, who heads the Daugavpils-based National Guard battalion â€” to which the MeÅ¾a MackeviÄi camp belongs â€” said the border patrols used four-wheel-drive trucks and small six-wheeled quad bikes to patrol off-road as the sparsely populated border area is often swampy or covered with thick woods.
He added Latvian and Belarusian border officers keep an eye on each other, but donâ€™t act aggressively. Â
In the border village of Silene, where the commercial center is made up of a small grocery store and an Italian restaurant, there was little enthusiasm to speak to an outsider about tensions with Russia and Belarus.Â
When asked about Latviaâ€™s relations with its eastern neighbors, a young man walking his child with a pram replied: â€œI have no problems with them,â€ before hurrying away through the snow. Â
In Daugavpils, 30 kilometers up the main highway from the border, residents said everyone was talking about the worsening relations with Minsk and Moscow.Â
â€œOf course it worries us,â€ said Kintija Dzjadzina, a 22-year-old reception worker. â€œWe are so close to the border here. If a war starts, they will come here first.â€
Conflict is nothing new in this part of Europe. A fortress was built near Daugavpils by Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and the area was fought over by Swedish and Russian forces during the Great Northern War in the early 18th century.Â
In the 20th century, Daugavpils saw brutal fighting in both World Wars, after which the Soviet Union occupied all three Baltic states.Â
Traces of the Soviet era, which ended in 1991, could be seen at MeÅ¾a MackeviÄi.
The site was a rocket testing facility, camp leader Dringis said, and overgrown man-made hills in the woods still have dents where projectiles hit.
Latvian National Guard recruits now use the old Soviet toilet blocks during training, digging trenches around them and sandbagging the empty windows. The new administrative block sits on the site of an old Soviet office.Â
Similarly, the National Guard headquarters on the edge of Daugavpils â€” where Omuls has his office â€” is built on the site of a Soviet military school and the unitâ€™s artillery pieces were lined up inside the remains of the large Soviet structure. Big chunks of its walls and roof were missing but the crumbling edifice still kept out the falling snow.Â
While the new Latvian defense force rebuilds amid the remnants of the Soviet era, Baltic leaders accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of refusing to accept that that period is over.Â
In claimsÂ dismissedÂ by Russia as â€œRussophobia,â€ theyÂ say Putin is plotting a Soviet empire 2.0 on these lands.Â
â€œRussiaâ€™s political thinking is stuck in the category of 19th-century imperialism,â€Â Latvian President LevitsÂ saidÂ on Wednesday. But he added: â€œNo matter how hard Russia tries, the wheel of history cannot be turned back.â€
On the Daugavpils base, Lieutenant Colonel Omuls said he would welcome more recruits to the National Guard and he hoped more young people would put down their smartphones and sign up.Â
But even at its current strength, he said his unit was prepared.Â â€œWe will fight,â€ he said. â€œThat is what the Latvian taxpayers pay us to do and that is what they expect. We should be and we will be ready.â€