From Russia upgrading the capabilities of its Baltic fleet to Donald Trump’s ambivalent comments about assisting Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack, tensions in the region have many concerned about a military confrontation. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman sat down with Valdis Zatlers, who served as president of Latvia from 2007 to 2011, to discuss the U.S. presidential election, negotiating with Putin, and his country’s relations with both Russia and the United States moving forward.
DAVID ANDELMAN: What do you think of Donald Trump? Are you worried about him as president?
VALDIS ZATLERS: Nowadays it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on there. People often ask me this question: If Trump wins, what will happen? First, he hasn’t won the election yet. Even if he wins, there is a deep democratic tradition in the United States as a mature democracy. The political establishment will force him to play under U.S. rules, not under Trump rules.
DA: It sounds like you’re not very worried about a Trump presidency. A lot of people are. I’ve been through three Baltic countries, and people are saying “it’s the end of the world if Trump wins.”
VZ: We are not used to the scale of lies. Usually, that scale of lies only comes from [Vladimir] Putin, but we are not used to someone of American leadership lying so often. If you lie, in our tradition and our culture, you cannot be relied on. Trump’s comment about the hesitation of whether the U.S. will support the Baltics in the case of military conflict worried people. You see, with a politician, people take it seriously. The problem is, if you don’t take it seriously, then there is trouble. If somebody says something wrong, he must understand that the people take him seriously because he is no longer just some average person in a pub, he’s a high-ranking politician.
DA: Speaking for not only himself, but also his government. He should be speaking for the American way of life and America’s relationship to the world.
VZ: Of course, but we all see that the modern world has a problem with candidates for leadership. I’m not talking about leadership; I’m talking about the candidates for leadership. Therefore, the choice for Americans will be pretty difficult. It is the dirtiest campaign I have ever seen in my life. So you ask the question: What’s the outcome?
DA: Regardless of who wins, what do you think the world, particularly the Baltics, will look like under a Trump presidency versus under a Hillary presidency? How different would it be?
VZ: I will not make any speculations on that. As I said before, I believe the American establishment is very stable, so there won’t be much change. What I am 100 percent sure of is that Hillary will not push the reset button with Russia again. Trump, I don’t know. We want it, being on the Russian border. We feel safer when the American-Russian relationship is better.
DA: The former prime minister of Finland was just on television before we came up here. He said that he would like to see another attempted reset with Russia. Do you think that’s possible, under a new administration?
VZ: That’s not going to work. It failed once, even with good intentions from both sides; Latvia being in the middle, we had even more optimistic views on the process. We asked, “Are you sure you’re going to push the reset button?” They both said, “Yes, we are sure this will be a success.” So we acted the appropriate way. We improved relations with Russia for a very short period of time.
DA: You were president then; you went along with it. How did your behavior change during that period?
VZ: We told the Germans and the Americans we are not Russophobes. There was an image that we were Russophobes, and that the Baltics would be against Russia every time. My usual statement was, “We are the warning sensors, and please take us into account because we are close.” We understand what’s going on there because for 50 years we were in the Soviet Union and had that experience, as well as the fact that most people speak Russian so they listen to local Russian television. It is a wonderful source of information; it’s much more precise than the intelligence reports because the Russian media is owned by the state and controlled by the state. So they reflect the state’s policy, and they always prepare the Russian population for the coming steps. If you watch TV, you can guess what’s coming next. A recent case is the U.S.-Russian agreement on plutonium; for three or four months Putin was telling the TV, “this is a very bad thing, and the Americans don’t do it the right way and we do it the right way, and this is an awful situation.” Four months later, Putin said Russia was leaving the agreement. This is the weak point of Russia. They tell you everything on TV of what they will do. They have to control their society, so they try to prepare the society. Therefore, if you look at the TV, what the leaders say on TV, you can predict their actions. They talk about the military and war; they get the society ready for war. War becomes a normal thing. Now, they are talking about nuclear war. They’re preparing their population for nuclear war. That’s a chicken game. Two cars driving toward a cliff, trying to see who will scare first. The problem is, the Russian car doesn’t have brakes.
DA: It’s interesting, we were in a restaurant and there were two quite-well-off Estonians of Russian origin sitting next to us. One was a cancer surgeon and the other was a fairly well-off businessman, both retired, both Russian speakers. So I asked them, what do you think of Putin? They said, “We like Putin, because he is strong and he has never lied to us.” That’s kind of what you’re saying. He does tell the truth—you may not want to hear what he says, but if you listen, you’ll hear what he’s saying. He telegraphs what he is going to do. Have you dealt personally with Putin?
VZ: Some days ago, a journalist asked me, has Putin changed? My answer is no. It is the same Putin it was 20 years ago. We see him on TV, we listen to his speeches, but basically, he has not changed as a person or as a politician. He is in favor of a powerful Russia, an imperial Russia. What is interesting is that he absolutely anti-communist, but at the same time he is creating a country that looks like a communist country.
DA: He has said that he wants to reassemble the Soviet Union, that the most horrible event of the 20th century was the end of the Soviet Union. Do you believe that is his goal?
VZ: The goal doesn’t mean that he will succeed. You can’t make a union with your previous colonies. There’s a special relationship between an empire and its colonies. In the short term, he’s unpredictable, because he was trained by the KGB. They change immediately in seconds; they have five, six plans and they change according to the situation. That’s what we see in Syria. That’s what we saw in Ukraine. In the long term, he’s very predictable. The problem is he’s running out of his concrete options. Ukraine has failed. Syria is going to fail, sooner or later. Let’s say he can’t keep attacking the neighbors; he had already done it with Georgia and Ukraine. He is very flexible with short-term decisions, but he’s running out of a vision of what Russia will be, and what Russia’s role will be. The problem, in my mind, is that all the options he has are based on military priorities. If you look at these wars, such as in South Ossetia, there’s just a military base of 15,000 inhabitants. Just mountains around. If you look at Crimea, there’s just the military base, nothing else. All this is Russia thinking in military terms.
DA: Did you get the impression when you dealt with him that he was treating you in a demeaning way, such as that he’s the great czar and you are only serfs beneath him?
VZ: We have a good relationship. He admires people who are brave and who tell the truth. He will not say yes, but he will not say no. It’s easy to negotiate with him if he understands you are that kind of person. We got acquainted at a summit when I approached him at a welcome dinner. I said, “Mr. Putin, I would like to introduce myself, I am the Latvian president. I think we have to talk about many topics.” He liked it, because if you go and bow, don’t expect that he will respect you. That’s why he likes Trump.
DA: I suspect that he likes Trump because Trump couldn’t find Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia on a map of the world.
VZ: That’s one point. He also seems to have a similar personality.
DA: Let’s set aside who the next U.S. president might be. What should Latvia and the U.S. be doing going forward?
VZ: We have done a lot. But first we must thank the United States because the support is tremendous. If you talk to people here, nobody will say they don’t see that. The only ideological point for Russian propaganda is: “You serve the Americans too much.” I was asked how often President Bush called me. I said, “not about Latvia, but about Georgia.” The Russian propaganda tries to ride out America all the time, but they’re failing. That means our relationship is much stronger than the propaganda. What we can do in the future? Everybody wants an economic relationship. However, we must be realistic. America is across the ocean, and America has a larger population and economy. At the same time, there are new challenges and new technologies in the modern world. Something that is very new and where we can do much more is information technology. With the help of his foundation, Bill Gates triggered a process—our broadband internet is among of the quickest in the world. The future is confrontation in cyberspace and the media. We should focus on these two areas, as Estonia does.
DA: Do you think you have the resources to build a sufficient deterrent force to face down 10 divisions of Russian armor?
VZ: That’s conventional warfare. We can’t stand to do that. The Russian military race has begun. In 2007, there was no infrastructure here, yet there was a lot of infrastructure for nuclear missiles and aircraft on the Russian side. They have increased this. They used it Georgia. Then they attacked the Ukraine with boots on the ground. For internal use, Putin will always say the West has started this arms race in the region. That’s not true; he left the conventional arms control treaty. We are very serious about our security. We are very pragmatic people. We have survived for centuries from different invaders because we are in the middle of spheres of interest, according to the imperial law. Now, we just have one imperial nation on our border. We must understand both the democratic world and the imperial world. At the same time, we follow the democratic way.
DA: Your democratic way is different than the other two Baltic countries. You have no conscription here, for instance. Do you think that’s a mistake?
VZ: I think we have a different strategy. The military people are very educated people; if you want to use sophisticated technologies, you need soldiers who can use them. We have a very well trained professional army. At the same time, the army is supported by the national guard. We are ready to protect our territory by all means.
DA: The secretary of defense said that virtually every home now has weapons to defend itself.
VZ: We are not Switzerland.
DA: When we were in Lithuania, a Lithuanian official told me, “The Russians should understand that if they invaded us, we would turn this into Afghanistan. We would go into the woods and swamps until the Americans came for us. But we don’t want to make the same mistake where we fought like that in the past, when the Americans said they were coming but they never came.”
VZ: We shouldn’t overestimate the experience of history. During the occupation we were successful in the woods for around six years, until the Soviets learned they had to deport all the farmers who were feeding the army. So they deported twice as many farmers as there were soldiers in the woods.
DA: One thing I think Putin fears more than anything is another Afghanistan. The Russian people will never support another quagmire where thousands of young Russians are killed. That’s why he doesn’t send Russian ground troops into Syria, instead fighting from the air. Perhaps that might be the one deterrent that keeps the Baltics safe.
VZ: No. Finland and Sweden joining NATO is what will safeguard the peace in this region. It’s very stable. You see, the difference between Syria and Afghanistan is huge. In the Soviet era, the slogan for soviet leadership was Miru Mir, which means “peace for the world.” In Afghanistan, it was just the opposite of what they told the people. Therefore, all the casualties were very painful. In Syria or Ukraine, you have Putin in the position of leadership telling the people the war is a good thing and Russia is victorious in all the wars. The pain is faded; of course there is pain for the family, but not for the society.
DA: There haven’t been losses of that scale in a Russian war since Afghanistan. In Syria and Ukraine, there have been a couple hundred causalities, but not thousands. There were thousands of body bags coming back from Afghanistan.
VZ: Yes, and it was a real war for the soldiers. Not simply for aircraft.
DA: Do you think you have the resources now, or do you think the United States or NATO are providing the resources, to allow you to stand up to Russia?
VZ: We have to analyze the situation in military terms. What is the real threat? NATO is a military organization, not a political organization. The cyber threat is real, an air attack is real, and tanks are not a real threat for Latvia, but they are for Lithuania. The armies come to Latvia through Lithuania, even in 1940. Kaliningrad is a problem, but it’s very difficult to tackle. This is a military base in the middle of Europe. Therefore, the Russians will never give away Kaliningrad.
DA: The amazing thing is it’s not attached to Russia in any physical fashion. It must be accessed by rail line or by sea. It’s almost like a colony. One final question: I want to ask you about your own Russian population. About a third of your country is Russian. You have a larger percentage than any other Baltic country. Do you worry about that as a potential third column?
VZ: I don’t. I wasn’t sure 10 years ago, but I am sure now. The difference between the Russian political and economic system and the Latvian is becoming bigger. These people have become used to free movement, free speech, rule of law, businesses protected by EU laws, Latvian laws. So, they feel safe. We have had no ethnic conflict in 25 years. There is a difficult legacy from the Soviet occupation. Russian Latvians would never leave. If they leave, they head west, not east. They have grown up as people who understand the rule of law. In the last 10 years, with successful reforms, all the Russian young people now speak Latvian fluently. They are used to this way of life and they are not going to change. [Jokingly]The only thing they want is for Putin to be president of Latvia because they like Putin as a strong personality. This is impossible to put together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of Saeima]