On the second anniversary of the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the BBC gave its viewers a chance to “look inside the war room” with a program featuring a committee of former senior British military and diplomatic figures. In a quasi-documentary titled World War Three: Inside the War Room, the participants are faced with a simulated crisis in which Russia uses “hybrid warfare” techniques to invade the eastern Latvian region of Latgale. And with absolute devotion and seriousness, the British officials on the program need to resolve the situation without it leading to a nuclear showdown or World War III (Baltic Review, February 5).
After Russia’s conflict with Ukraine exploded into all-out war, it raised the alarming question of who might be Russia’s next target and what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) might do if the Kremlin indeed turned its attention to the Baltic States, which, contrary to Ukraine, are Alliance members. The BBC program’s producers strived to generate the most imaginable and realistic scenario of a conflict in the region, which would reflect Russia’s previous and ongoing actions in Ukraine. World War Three: Inside the War Room was widely discussed among Latvian politicians and officials, who have mainly focused on the program’s demonstration of the decision-making processes within NATO, and whether or not Article V would be activated in a real conflict situation (Skaties.lv, February 4; Diena, February 24). But the relevance of the documentary’s crisis scenario itself, which essentially directly replicated Russia’s Ukraine strategy in the Baltics, is seriously questionable.
Crucial differences between the situations in Latgale and southeastern Ukraine suggest that the BBC’s simulated scenario is actually quite unrealistic. In fact, there is little reason to believe that Russia would use the same strategy in Latvia as it employed in Ukraine. This is due to three major factors: First, unlike in southeastern Ukraine, Russia does not have specific economic or military interests in Latgale that would justify a military intervention there and bring Moscow in direct conflict with NATO. Second, unlike with the vast distances in Ukraine, Latvia’s small territorial size would invite a more traditional “blitzkrieg”-type invasion strategy by Russia. Moscow would presumably try to immediately militarily secure critical infrastructure throughout the Baltic country, rather than focusing on or opening with a limited “hybrid war”–style operation in the Latgale region. And finally, even if Russia were to choose to pursue a hybrid war strategy in Latvia, it would be unlikely to find sufficient support among Latgale’s population.
Strategic and economic interests motivated Russia’s push to establish control over southeastern Ukraine in order to secure a land corridor to the annexed Crimean peninsula. Moreover, Russia acted in part to seize certain natural resources and heavy manufacturing infrastructure located in Donbas (eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk) and the offshore areas surrounding Crimea (Me.gov.ua, accessed March 10). But landlocked Latgale—Latvia’s poorest area and one of the most impoverished regions in the European Union—lacks any such strategic industry or infrastructure. And with the exception of some important regional north-south transit corridors, small farms and limited manufacturing, Latgale provides few if any economic reasons to justify a Russian invasion, which would spark a war with the North Atlantic Alliance (Crcabc.europa.eu, accessed March 11; The Baltic Times, April 14, 2015).
Second, Ukraine as a whole was too large a “bite” for Russia to “swallow” at once, so Moscow’s hybrid, proxy war tactics there served as a means to “bite off” smaller pieces at a time, partly relying on attrition while simultaneously achieving certain economic and political goals. Indeed, Donbas and Latgale represent entirely different size scales. Latgale is only 14,547 square kilometers and comprises nearly 25 percent of Latvia’s entire territory, which is 64,589 square km. On the other hand, all of Ukraine measures over 603,500 square km—about the size of Germany and Poland combined—with Donbas taking up 53,201 square km. These massive distances naturally seriously influenced logistics and the conduct of the war in eastern Ukraine, which would be significantly different in Latvia. It would make little sense for Russia to take over a small border region in Latvia and not, at the same time, attack critical infrastructure across the country, combined with a “blitzkrieg”-style drive toward Riga and other strategically important Baltic port cities. The distance from Riga to Daugavpils—the most eastern Latvian city in Latgale—is just 220 km. And Daugavpils is only 400 km away from Latvia’s main sea ports of Ventspils and Liepāja. A recent controversial war game study by the RAND corporation asserted that Russia could seize Tallinn and Riga in just 60 hours (Rand.org, January 2016).
Third, although 38.9 percent of Latgale’s inhabitants are Russian speakers or ethnic Russians, this population is hardly similar to the Russian speakers and ethnic Russians who made up nearly 70 percent of the residents of the eastern Ukrainian industrial cities of Donetsk and Luhansk prior to the start of the war. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Donbas region remained almost integrally connected to the Russian economy, with close social and economic ties persisting between the two countries’ populations. Political science scholar Yuri M. Zhukov suggested that any actual separatists in eastern Ukraine were “pro-Russian” not because they spoke Russian, but because their economic livelihood had long depended on trade with Russia and they believed this economic condition was under threat (VOX Ukraine, November 10, 2015).
On the other hand, after the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, the Latgalian Russians were physically, socially, economically and politically disconnected from Russia, and the Latvian economy was reoriented from East to the West. While 96 percent of Donetsk voters supported the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 (Cvk.gov.ua, accessed March 10), public opinion polls show that extreme pro-Russian politicians enjoy very limited political little support across Latvia (Satori.lv, March 12, 2015). In general, Latgalians would be quite unlikely to form any serious backbone to a local “rebellion” orchestrated by Russia. The porous Latvian-Russian border might allow more dedicated “rebels” to enter from Russia, but as evidence shows, they would not find wide support among the local population.
Undoubtedly, the BBC film inspired a serious discussion within Latvian society, which wants a more rapid and successful integration of Latvia’s ethnic minorities, strengthened borders and more robust military forces. And although the hybrid warfare scenario in Latvia is highly unlikely, the documentary was important in sparking a wider debate among NATO strategists about what a real conflict in the Baltics would look like and what should be the most effective response.