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In the Ukraine war, Russia's military spending is as high as ever. Now the West is alarmed because the Kremlin leader is indirectly hinting at a possible attack on Latvia, a NATO member. It is a reminder of a growing danger to Europe.
BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin sometimes chooses downright bizarre occasions to launch his threats against the West. It was at Monday's meeting of the Russian Human Rights Council, where Putin expressed a new, deep concern. It was not of course about the human rights of the thousands of political prisoners in his own country, but about the Russian population living in neighboring Latvia, which happens to be a NATO member, having to take language tests.
Around 25,000 Russian citizens live there with permanent resident permits, most of them dating back to Soviet times. Since September, they have had to prove their basic knowledge of the Latvian language in a brief test in order to extend their permits. Those who fail the test or do not register for it are at risk of deportation. The test must be passed within two years.
For Putin — who cares nothing about the languages of Russia's non-Russian inhabitants — Latvia's policy is a scandal. Those who treat parts of their population "in such a pig-like manner" will in turn find "the same pig-like behavior" in their own country, he said.
A real threat to the Baltic nations?
It seems that the Russian president has now rediscovered the "protection of Russians" as the new thrust of his criticism of Western countries.
Putin used the alleged repression of Russians in Ukraine as a reason for his invasion. Baltic countries, where large minorities of Russian speakers live, fear that Putin's logic could soon affect them too. A quarter of Latvia's population identifies as ethnically Russian, but most of them have long since naturalized — and do not believe in Putin's "Russian world" vision.
Putin is following his own logic and going as far as he can.
We can state that is still remains unlikely that Russia will intervene militarily in a NATO country. But what we forget is that the same was said about Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Skeptics said that the plan was too risky and that the prospect of sanctions and long-term disadvantages for the Russian economy would deter Putin from launching an attack. But that turned out to be wishful thinking.
Putin is following his own logic and going as far as he can.
U.S. army NATO exercise in Latvia
Putin's failed plan in Ukraine
This can be seen from the very first days of the Ukraine war, when capturing Kyiv was at the top of Putin's agenda. In the first days of the Ukraine invasion, only the courageous efforts of the Ukrainian armed forces — and a lot of luck — prevented a Russian airlift to Hostomel airport north of Kyiv. If the Russians had managed to quickly deploy a massive military force in the Ukrainian capital, there might no longer be an independent Ukrainian state today.
Putin, who today presents himself as some kind of prince of peace, could only be prevented from taking the Ukrainian capital with massive resistance from the Ukrainians.
Volodymyr Zelensky was supposed to die, or at least be forced to flee, as the unsuccessful attack attempts of the first days of the war prove. At least 500 Russian agents, including sympathizers of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014, infiltrated Kyiv and other Ukrainian regions to organize a coup and install a pro-Russian puppet government. But that plan ultimately failed.
From the outset, Putin's target was the whole of Ukraine. This should give skeptical Europeans, who feel safe under the NATO umbrella, food for thought.
People are seen by the Burachki crossing point on the Russian-Latvian border.
Putin vs NATO
A war against NATO would be a new, previously unimagined level of risk for Putin and his regime.
If Putin were to attack a NATO country, European and U.S. missiles would not only be directed at military bases in western Russia, but probably also at Moscow itself. This would also be a different level of escalation for the Russian population than the attacks by small Ukrainian kamikaze drones, which make it into the country's interior but cause little damage.
A drying up of Western military aid for Ukraine would free up resources for Putin for new interventions.
Putin still lacks the resources for an open war against NATO. Large parts of the troops that are otherwise stationed near NATO's borders are fighting in Ukraine.
But that could change. A drying up of Western military aid for Ukraine would not only mean that Putin would launch a new attempt to bring the whole of Ukraine under his control. It would also free up Putin's resources for new interventions.
A long war ahead
As we approach the end of the second year of the war, it is clear that the Kremlin leader is gearing up for a long war. He openly states that he is fighting against the West in Russia's neighborhood. At an official 6% of GDP, Russian military spending has reached a level not seen for decades. High oil prices and a low ruble exchange rate are pouring a lot of money into Putin's coffers.
According to experts from the German Council on Foreign Relations, Putin is likely to have built up his army to the point where he could wage war against NATO in six to ten years' time, calculated from the point at which heavy fighting in Ukraine ended.
Putin's war in Europe may seem today like an unrealistic vision of absurd horror. But it is an opportunity that Putin will seize — if he is allowed to.
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