“We Are a Small Country Next To a Big Bully” Latvian Defense Minister Demands Weapons from Germany

In an interview, Artis Pabriks, the defense minister of Latvia, the NATO country that shares 283 kilometer border with Russia, calls on Germany to provide more concrete assistance. He says his country is engaged in an all-encompassing mobilization to protect itself in the future.
Interview Conducted By Jan Petter in Riga, Latvia
Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Artis Pabriks

Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Artis Pabriks

Foto: Ozge Elif Kizil / Andolu Agency / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, your immediate neighbor, Russia, has launched a war of aggression against Ukraine. Your other neighbor, Belarus, is acting as a base for it and could still intervene itself. How vulnerable is the security of the Baltic states at the moment?

Pabriks: From our point of view, Belarus is already a party to the war. They are firing missiles, Russia has marched (into Ukraine) from their territory. But we are also noticing how bad Moscow's logistics are. At the moment, it looks very empty on the Russian side of our border. They need all the supplies they can get. Obviously, Putin has grossly miscalculated. In the short term, he will not be able to afford another front. And we are in NATO. Of course, we still worry. The situation has become more unpredictable.

DER SPIEGEL: A few days ago, you asked for military assistance from other countries to help increase your country's security. How could Germany help you?

Pabriks: We are a small country next to a big bully. If we are to prevent aggression against Europe and NATO, we need support. The United States has been giving us very generous military aid for a long time. With that money, we also buy from them. We demand that the German government do the same. Many things have changed in recent weeks. Germany has made a historic turn, which we respect very much. But you should invest that money wisely now. The Germans should help us buy their weapons, so that we can protect ourselves. Europe is only safe together.

"That is a lesson from our experiences with Hitler and Stalin. An aggressor may try to blackmail or persecute the government. But Latvia will fight."

DER SPIEGEL: What do you have in mind, specifically?

Pabriks: We can't afford air defense, for example. We urgently need better defense systems like THAAD, Patriots or comparable from Europe. Only then will we be able to defend Riga. We also need better technology on the coast. Of course, we are happy when allies send us soldiers. But what we really need is better equipment and more firepower. We don't have to wait for the EU for that, that can also be settled in a bilateral treaty.

Latvian soldiers during a joint exercise together with other NATO member states

Latvian soldiers during a joint exercise together with other NATO member states

Foto: Valda Kalnina / picture alliance / dpa

DER SPIEGEL: As a NATO member, you are protected by Article 5. Nevertheless, in the event of a Russian attack, Latvia would be exposed to the overwhelming power of a former global superpower. Are there any realistic estimates of how long you could hold out on your own?

Pabriks: I do not engage in speculation. But you can see what is possible in Ukraine. Even Western analysts said that Kiev would fall in a few days. Now, almost two weeks have passed and Ukraine is still fighting. We have been preparing not just since yesterday, but since 2014. Our motivation is huge, and we know the terrain. So, we are ready to stand our ground. But for that, we also need support.

DER SPIEGEL: What are you doing yourself to improve your national defenses?

Pabriks: In addition to the 6,000 professional soldiers, we have about 8,000 men and women in the National Guard. They prepare to defend Latvia in their spare time. In the future, we want to increase their number to 12,000. In addition, we are currently building permanent volunteer units everywhere. Also here in the ministry, in the authorities, in schools, in town halls. Our current goal is an all-encompassing mobilization. In the future, schoolchildren from grade 10 onward will spend one day a month learning about how our country can defend itself. We are also planning summer camps. The Youth Guard is already the largest youth organization in Latvia. Currently, we are experiencing historic levels of interest in defending our country: In the past 10 days, there were more applications for membership in the National Guard than in the entire year in 2021.

DER SPIEGEL: What would an aggressor who attacks Latvia have to expect?

Pabriks: Our National Guard is distributed throughout the country. In an emergency, its members will fight fiercely for our freedom. We have contingency plans and weapons depots for this. And no matter what happens: We will not surrender. In the meantime, it is even written in our constitution that this is not possible. That is a lesson from our experiences with Hitler and Stalin. An aggressor may try to blackmail or persecute the government. But Latvia will fight.

DER SPIEGEL: In addition to the possibility of attacks from the outside, cohesion in Latvia is also a challenge. No other EU country has such a high proportion of Russian-speaking inhabitants. How great is the danger of an information war?

Pabriks: That doesn't scare me very much. The Russians here live in a free and democratic country. Of course, there is Russian propaganda. But those who live here will always be confronted with other opinions. Freedom of opinion applies. For other offenses, such as espionage or the like, there are clear laws. And we will, of course, apply them. We keep a close eye on who is doing what in our country. As defense minister, I have to know that. But I can tell you that I am very unconcerned about this at the moment.