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Latvia prepares for Russian aggression amid concern war will spread beyond Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been more than two years since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Russia's other neighbors are worried that the aggression could spread. Those countries include the small Baltic nation of Latvia, and the former Soviet republic is preparing for that possibility. Compulsory military service was reinstated earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to be preparing as well. Congress passed military and defense support for Latvia, along with their neighbors and fellow NATO allies Estonia and Lithuania. To discuss this concern, we're joined now by Latvia's minister of foreign affairs, Krisjanis Karins, who is the - also the former prime minister. He's here in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, alongside his counterparts from Lithuania and Estonia. Welcome to the program and to Washington.

KRISJANIS KARINS: Thank you. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So I want to start with why you feel your country has to prepare for Russian aggression and that this war will spread beyond Ukraine.

KARINS: Well, it's not just my country that needs to be prepared. Actually, all of NATO be - needs to be prepared because what we're seeing in Russia is unfortunately not only Putin-specific. That is, they have a very now - deep-seated ideology of imperialistic expansion. It's sort of a throwback to something that most of us thought disappeared along with the Second World War. Well, it's back.

And they have been fighting now a very aggressive, very brutal war against Ukraine for the past two years. It's not only against the army. It's against civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc. There is no indication that they are going to - that they have any inclination to stop their war machine. Their economy is on a war footing. About 40% of their budget is going towards either the military or internal security measures. They are going flat out. And if we don't stop them in Ukraine, help Ukrainians stop them, then that aggression - we don't know which way it would turn. It could turn towards NATO. It could turn elsewhere. But we have a long-term problem, so we need to do everything to stop them now.

FADEL: Now, you're in Washington as funding for Ukraine is still being held up by the U.S. Congress. So I have to ask, if you do face aggression from Russia, does Latvia think it can depend on the U.S.? And will you bring that up in your meeting with the secretary of state today?

KARINS: Well, the U.S. and Europe really need each other. So on the European side, we've already invested about 144 billion. On top of that, another 50 billion euros went into - you know, over the next four years. We've made that budgetary decision. The Ukrainians also need American support. That's very, very clear. The support, which has been - so far has been extremely, you know, well taken. But it's clear that they need more munitions. They need more weapons. And I think everyone is hoping that the U.S. Congress could take this decision.

I think it's also in the direct U.S. interests because if the rules-based order - this is the world order that the U.S. basically established at the end of the Second World War - if this is not upheld, then the world becomes a very dangerous place, indeed. And trade routes will be disrupted. We will see more and more problems. So we're all actually self-interested in maintaining the order of the world, which now Russia is unfortunately trying to turn on its head.

FADEL: But I'm asking if you feel your country can depend on the U.S. if this funding continues to be held up in this way.

KARINS: Well, we certainly have fantastic U.S. support so far. The budget decision, which was taken by Congress, also included a very nice packet of military assistance to the Baltic countries. We have a continual U.S. presence in our country. And over the past two years, that aid and support and physical presence has increased. So we very much - of course, we rely on our American friends, partners and allies and also expect that to continue in the future. And, again, I - it's not just our interests. It's, in my opinion, in the direct interest of the U.S. to continue this.

FADEL: What will be at the top of your agenda in your meeting with Blinken today?

KARINS: Well, at the top of the agenda will be, what are we going to do in the medium to long term? That is - the war that Russia is waging in Ukraine is one issue. But we need to come out with a long-term, for lack of a better word, containment policy on Russia. Let's, you know, fast-forward, and the war ends in Ukraine, but Russia does not become less aggressive simply because it would have lost the war in Ukraine.

So we will have to work out what we are going to do that is in Europe, in the U.S., in the long term. And when I say long term, I'm thinking 20 years. And so we have to think of where we need to go, and then we have to pull back. What are the steps that we need to do today in order to attain our long-term goal?

FADEL: Krisjanis Karins is the foreign minister of Latvia. Thank you for being on the program.

KARINS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.