Latvia favors NATO pursuing good relations with nearby Russia but is adamant that there should be no repeat of the Russian incursions into Georgia in 2008. The Baltic country underlines the importance of consultations, especially when it comes to the transfer of equipment that could be used for power projection.
Imants Liegis, Latvia's defense minister since March 2009, spent 11 years as an ambassador to various countries and institutions, including four years as the permanent representative to NATO and three years as the ambassador to the EU Political and Security Committee.
Q. What should NATO do about Russia?
A. We need to move ahead. It would be helpful if NATO develops a strategic relationship with Russia. The fact that the group of experts on NATO's new strategic concept went to Moscow to discuss it with them was positive.
But any relationship must be based on values. For example, it is unacceptable if a country such as Russia militarily invades a sovereign country using as a pretext that it wants to protect its nationals.
There are positive indicators in the relationship, especially the transit of nonmilitary equipment through Riga to Afghanistan. This is sent over land by rail through Riga across Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. This is an example of very good cooperation with Russia. We need to look for practical areas of cooperation on issues such as piracy.
Q. What are your views on NATO's new strategic concept?
A. Latvia's expectation is to have a visible, candid and solid strategic concept with a slimmer and more effective alliance. The expert group has done a good job with its analysis. Examples of visibility are the air policing of NATO airspace in the Baltic region, regional exercises with the U.S. and other partners, and infrastructure projects. The process so far has been candid, transparent and inclusive, with the involvement of [nongovernmental organizations] and the public.
Q. The alliance's expert group on the new strategic concept has recommended making "more creative and regular use of" consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. Do you agree?
A. It is important to find common ground and use consultations when there is a potential concern about a security situation as a result of transfers of equipment to third parties. Article 4 and the solidarity and consultation procedure in the Lisbon Treaty should be used where member states are looking at potential transfers that might give power projection to non-NATO allies.
Q. What is your view about the possibility of a NATO country selling an assault ship to Russia?
A. Russia has been in discussions with France, the Netherlands and Spain. A Russian general said that if he had had this equipment at the time of the attack on Georgia, it could have been done in 40 minutes and not 24 hours.
There should be open consultation with all NATO countries before a sale is made as it is very dangerous for decisions to be taken by countries without discussion. There does not necessarily need to be an imminent attack, but a perception of a threat. Consultations could also take place with regard to energy security and cybersecurity.
Q. What does the current economic situation mean for Latvia's defense procurements and policy?
A. We've taken the opportunity of the crisis to carry out reforms. We've reduced the number of headquarters as well as the number of colonels and generals. We've also merged some of our procurement agencies and an agency dealing with the management of properties.
Q. What are you contributing to NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia?
A. It's right that NATO focuses on cybersecurity and pooling resources. We've sent experts there. It's important to focus on awareness of the threat to NATO. We also need a close link with the U.S. as the Obama administration is spending considerable resources on the cyber issue.
Q. How are you working with your Baltic neighbors to secure collective defense?
A. There is no closer form of cooperation in NATO than between the three Baltic countries. We have lots of integrated projects. We have a Baltic defense college in Estonia. We also recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the NATO air surveillance project, which is a logical solution to air policing in the Baltics. The three Baltic countries recently sent a report to NATO in which we say that we are looking for a permanent NATO solution to air policing.
Another piece of evidence that we're working together is that the Latvian ambassador to NATO, now the minister of foreign affairs, represented the three Baltic countries on the NATO expert group on the new strategic concept.
Q. Is Latvia taking part in the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Centre of Excellence at Hoyo de Manzanares in Spain?
A. We've developed a good IED specialty in Latvia. I receive daily text messages about soldiers dealing with unexploded ordnance. There's a lot of it on Latvian territory. If we had enough resources, we'd also be involved in the center of excellence in Spain.
Q. Is Latvia planning to take part in the French-led deployable forensic lab project to counter IEDs?
A. EU defense ministers agreed to use EDA [European Defence Agency] resources to fund the creation of a deployable field laboratory for forensic research on IEDs. We are grateful to France for taking the lead and the other nations that have already been able to provide practical support. As a member of the EDA, Latvia bears part of the cost of developing this capability. The project has begun and will reach initial capability in a year. We look forward to a decision to deploy this capability in support of the International Security Assistance Force mission.
Efforts and research in the counter-IED field should build on and exploit the synergy between EU and NATO member states to defeat the use of IEDs and thereby diminish their impact. Latvia will continue to cooperate with all the countries involved in this field.
Q. Are you in favor of so-called permanent structured cooperation in the EU?
A. It still needs to be examined. We're concerned that some member states might be excluded and are therefore cautious about it.
Q. What do you think about the NATO secretary-general's idea of upgrading the EU-NATO Capability Group from being just about information exchange to an "active forum for participation"?
A. Capability development is an essential area of cooperation between NATO and the EU. At the moment, we see that continuing as we are now is becoming increasingly inefficient and thus costly for member states. We fully support the secretary-general's proposals on reducing duplication and saving money in capability development. Ensuring the efficient use of limited resources is particularly relevant for member countries of both organizations, such as Latvia. The EU-NATO Capability Group should become more focused by discussing specific proposals on capability initiatives - for instance, in force planning. The participation of experts in these specific areas would facilitate more thorough discussions.
However, to implement the idea of moving from exchange of information to the coordination of efforts requires political will. Meanwhile we should be realistic and work on a more flexible approach to EU-NATO relations. The principle of inclusiveness - all member states of both organizations should participate - is key for further development of EU-NATO relations.
Q. Is it important that the EU reaches a security agreement with Turkey, and for Turkey to be allowed to join the EDA as an observer?
A. There is a clear need for coordination of NATO and EDA efforts. Turkey should be given the possibility to contribute to Common Security and Defence Policy activities since it has a lot to offer in terms of capability. We believe that arrangements between Turkey and the EDA would promote the ongoing capability-related efforts and would be a step towards a breakthrough in EU-NATO capability coordination and synergies. Ë
--- By Julian Hale in Brussels.
å 2010: 134.26 million lats ($250.8 million)
å 2009: 161.47 million lats
å 2008: 260.2 million lats
Active-duty troops: 5,187
Projects: Individual equipment and weapons replacement, construction of coastal patrol boats, sea surveillance radar system development, air command and surveillance capability development, Air Force aviation base in Lielvarde, ISAF participation, international military exercises.
Source: Defense News research