Monday, March 26, 2018

Russia Eyes Latvia Ahead of Election

By Franklin Holcomb, Catherine Harris, and the ISW Russia and Ukraine Team

Key Takeaway: Russia will likely intensify its campaign to disrupt Latvia’s political stability ahead of Latvia’s fall 2018 parliamentary elections. The Kremlin may use rising social tensions over a new Latvian educational bill as just one tool to fuel divisive narratives and trigger large-scale protests. The U.S. should support NATO ally Latvia as it confronts Russia’s hybrid warfare and use the upcoming April 2018 Baltic Summit to reinforce its commitment to defend Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Russians and Russia-linked actors are escalating tensions over a controversial Latvian education bill. The Latvian Parliament approved the final reading of a draft language bill on March 22, 2018.[1] The bill aims to gradually transition Latvia’s education system from mixed Latvian-Russian language instruction to Latvian-language based.[2] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the Latvian government of forcing Russians in Latvia to abandon their heritage.[3] Moscow-linked political-social organizations have attempted to halt, delay, or alter the legislation.[4] The Russian government-linked Russian Union of Latvia (RUL) organized protests against the bill, including protests of around 1,000 individuals on February 24 and March 10, though pro-Russia sources claimed 3,000-5,000 people attended.[5] The RUL is currently attempting to challenge a decision by the Latvian government blocking a public referendum on the bill in Latvia’s Supreme Court.[6] The RUL is also petitioning the EU to recognize the bill as an infringement on minority rights. It called on several EU and NATO states, namely Hungary and Romania, to support the “Rescue Package for National Minorities” which would grant minority groups across the EU increased autonomy.[7]

The Kremlin may fuel these tensions to destabilize Latvia ahead of the fall 2018 Latvian elections. The Kremlin seeks to destabilize Latvia in order to reassert influence over the former Soviet state, to test NATO unity, and to drive further divisions within the EU. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that the Kremlin is most likely to undertake a multifaceted approach, potentially including the use of irregular troops, if it chooses to escalate in Latvia rather than conduct a large-scale, short-notice conventional ground operation. The Kremlin regularly uses tensions over language as means of destabilization. ISW assesses that the Kremlin is fueling escalation between Hungary and Ukraine over a similar Ukrainian language bill in order to seed social unrest in Western Ukraine and drive a wedge between Ukraine and its neighbors. The Kremlin could exploit existing tensions surrounding the Latvian language bill to boost divisive narratives and destabilize the political landscape.

Latvian officials have already expressed concerns about the Kremlin’s intensifying interference in Latvian affairs, which may be indicative of the Kremlin’s increasing campaign of subversion. The Latvian Foreign Minister warned about the Kremlin’s escalating disinformation campaign ahead of the elections while he was in Washington on March 7, 2018. Latvian parliament member Ainars Latkovskis warned on February 21 that the Kremlin is attempting to “add more fuel to the fire” of a Latvian banking crisis in order to “create chaos in Latvia by portraying it as a failed state.”[8] Latvia’s Defense Ministry warned on February 20 that “there is a high probability [of an] externally organized widespread information operation…that, by its structure and execution, is identical to those observed in pre-election periods in the U.S., France, and Germany.”[9] Latvia’s Security Police warned on March 19 that Russian intelligence services continue to pose a “significant threat” to Latvia and are continuing their efforts to recruit Latvians and infiltrate key Latvian government institutions.[10] Signs of the Kremlin’s accelerating campaign to destabilize Latvia could include large-scale protests, sudden attacks on Russian-language speakers, and cyber attacks.

The U.S. and its Western allies should support NATO ally Latvia’s efforts to bolster its defenses as it confronts Russia’s hybrid campaign. Latvia should continue with its gradual approach to implement the language bill, if passed, so it does not provide additional opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit. The U.S. and its partners should support Latvia in its efforts to deny Russia the ability to foment political unrest and vie for domestic political influence. These countermeasures could include bolstering efforts to ensure that Kremlin-backed media does not dominate the information space for Russian-speaking Latvians, increasing tailored support to Latvian intelligence and law enforcement, and other mechanisms that can support an early detection and adequate response to a Russia-fueled destabilization campaign. The upcoming Baltic Summit in April 2018 hosted by President Donald Trump presents an opportunity to reinforce the U.S. and NATO commitment to defend allies against the full range of Russian warfare. 

Related Reading:

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[1] “Saeima supports transition to Latvian as the only language of instruction in schools,” Latvijas Republikas Saima, March 22, 2018,

[2] “The parliament passes bills about gradual transition to Latvian-only education,”, March 23, 2016, http://www.baltic-course(.)com/eng/education/?doc=138352 ; ” Bill against Russian language in Latvian schools passed in second reading,” TASS, March 9, 2018, http://tass(.)com/society/993327

[3] “Moskalkova accused the authorities of Latvia of discriminating against Russian-speaking residents,” RIA, February 25, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/world/20180225/1515253741.html ; “Moskalkova urged the UN and the OSCE to prevent cultural apartheid in Latvia,” RIA, February 25, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/world/20180225/1515253980.html ; “Lavrov accused Latvia of Russian forced to abandon their heritage,”, March 15, 2018, https://www.rubaltic(.)ru/news/15032018-lavrov-obvinil-latviyu-v-prinuzhdenii-russkikh-otkazatsya-ot-svoego-naslediya/

[4] “At the CEC refusal to hold a referendum - to answer a march on March 10!”, March 05, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourevents/26265-na-otkaz-cika-v-provedenii-referenduma-%E2%80%93-otvetim-marshem-10-marta/

[5] “Latvia: Russian community protest bill ending Russian language in schools,”, February 24, 2018, https://eblnews(.)com/video/latvia-russian-community-protest-bill-ending-russian-language-schools-338007 ; “Pictures from the rally on February 24 dedicated to 229 anniversary of the first Russian school in Latvia,”, February 24, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourevents/26262-fotoreportazh-s-mitinga-24-fevralja-posvjaschennogo-229-godovschine-pervoj-russkoj-shkoli-latvii/ ; “Miroslav Mitrofanov: Thank you all! March in defense of Russian schools turned out! We are waiting for new, higher goals!”, March 13, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourdeputy//26277-miroslav-mitrofanov--vsem-spasibo--shestvie-v-zaschitu-russkih-shkol-poluchilos-nash-zhdut-novie-bolee-visokie-celi/ ; “Pictures from the march in Riga March 10, 2018,”, March 10, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourevents//26270-fotoreportazh-s-shestvija-v-rige-10-marta-2018-goda/ ; “The beat of drums: in Riga took place many thousands march in defense of Russian schools,” Sputnik Latvia, March 10, 2018,
https://ru.sputniknewslv(.)com/Latvia/20180310/7620465/boj-barabanov-riga-sostojalsja-mnogotysjachnyj-marsh-zashhitu-russkih-shkol.html ; “In Riga, three thousand people attended the rally in support of Russian schools,” RIA, February 25, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/world/20180225/1515235538.html?inj=1

[6] Vladimir Akopov, “The founding fathers of Latvia were "for", and spoke out against the Central Election Commission,”, March 5, 2018, http://baltnews(.)lv/news/20180305/1021745696.html ; “At the CEC refusal to hold a referendum - to answer a march on March 10!”, March 5, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourevents/26265-na-otkaz-cika-v-provedenii-referenduma-%E2%80%93-otvetim-marshem-10-marta/

[7] “’The rescue package for national minorities’ - what is it?”, March 10, 2018, http://www.rusojuz(.)lv/ru/ourevents/26253-spasatelnij-paket-dlja-nacionalnih-menshinstv-%E2%80%93-chto-eto-takoe/ ; “’The rescue package for national minorities’: signatures collected in Latvia,”, March 12, 2018, http://www.baltnews(.)lv/riga_news/20180312/1021771205.html

[8] “Ainars Latkovskis: Russia Latvia is once again trying to show as a failed state,”, February 21, 2018, https://www.lsm(.)lv/raksts/zinas/latvija/ainars-latkovskis-krievija-latviju-atkal-megina-paradit-ka-neizdevusos-valsti.a268753/ ; “Latvia banking crisis: Riga wary Russia could be to blame for 'hybrid warfare',” CNBC, February 22, 2018, https://www.cnbc(.)com/2018/02/22/latvia-banking-crisis-riga-wary-russia-could-be-to-blame-for-hybrid-warfare.html

[9] “Latvia Signals Russia May Be Interfering in Banking Crisis,” Bloomberg, February 20, 2018,

[10] “Russian special services have seriously threatened the security of Latvia in 2017 – PB,”, March 19, 2018, https://rus.lsm(.)lv/statja/novosti/politika/rossiyskie-specsluzhbiserezno-ugrozhali-bezopasnosti-latvii-v-2017-godu-pb.a271878/ ; “The Security Police shall publish a report on the functioning of the service in 2017,”, March 19, 2018,