The British government-funded broadcaster BBC Two aired on 3 February 2016 a show about a hypothetical Russian attack on Latvia, a NATO member. In the show, called World War Three: Inside the War Room, the conflict quickly escalated into a nuclear war as Nato forces became drawn in.
The show’s obvious aim is to demonize Russia. It also seeks to soften up the public for more military spending and NATO expansion. Yet inadvertently it throws into sharp relief the risks stemming from a policy of accepting NATO members with repressive domestic policies.
The film conjures up the scenario of a Russian attack on Latvia, following that country’s attempted crackdown on a revolt by its disenfranchised Russian minority. The viewer is given the image of a Russia on a hair trigger, bent on unleashing a war in Europe. A parallel message is that no country with a Russian minority (or majority) is safe. So more security is needed, and NATO should keep growing.
But despite itself, the show drives home a different point: The risk of war in Europe comes not so much from Russia as from Nato’s unthinking expansion to countries practicing dubious ethnic policies at home and harbouring big grudges abroad.
It does so by highlighting three things.
First, it demonstrates why Russia will not invade the Baltics. By drawing the rather contrived parallel with Ukraine, the show debunks its own thesis of Russia being an aggressive power.
Second, it exposes Latvia’s repressive monoethnic state as a risk to its national security and to Europe in general. After all, why would people revolt except under repression? It’s hard to disagree with the show’s unstated point that Latvia’s ethnic policies is a ticking bomb. Should it explode, Riga will have nobody but itself to blame. Ukraine has learned it the hard way, although it never rose to Latvia’s level of disenfranchising its Russian element quite so brazenly.
Third, it leaves no doubt that NATO expansion is a possible catalyst for a war in Europe. Bringing into the alliance countries practicing open ethnic repression is a recipe for disaster.
The show tries to draw an analogy between the civil war in Ukraine and possible ethnic trouble in Latvia. As far as it goes, that is a valid comparison. But where the analogy breaks down is when it attempts to drag Russia into the mix. It completely fails to show why Russia would even contemplate intervening in Latvia’s domestic troubles.
Latvia got its independence in a peaceful separation from the USSR, with the full agreement of Russia. The country then quickly proceeded to disenfranchise most of its ethnic Russians, who make up nearly 50% of its population, calling them occupiers. These were made noncitizens, unable to vote at elections and deprived of other rights. Yet Russia never made a threat. It was Latvia’s domestic issue, it said.
The Ukrainian analogy is also false, not least in that in Ukraine the civil war was triggered by a coup. As Ukraine’s elected president was ousted by the Maidan, half of the country rose in protest. The show does not mention whether a coup had occurred in Latvia. Probably not. But if that happens, it will make life difficult not only for Russia, but above all for NATO.
The big question is what would Russia stand to gain from invading Latvia? For better or for worse, it is a longstanding policy of Russia that protecting ethnic Russians abroad is not worth a major security crisis, let alone a war with NATO. It is far-fetched to claim that Russia would risk a war with NATO over a domestic issue of another country, however sensitive that might be to the Russians, that does not directly threaten its security.
Nato knows full well that Russia is not an aggressor. It’s a status quo country, mostly interested in the stability of its vast borders. As the Ukrainian crisis shows, Russia refuses to be dragged into a war, even if badly provoked. In Ukraine Russia has shown remarkable restraint. In fact, if Russia's conduct towards Ukraine is any guide, then Latvia has nothing to fear. The simple reality is that Russia is not at war with Ukraine. It is Ukraine that is waging war on its own people. Consider the facts.
First, Ukraine has not bothered to declare a legal state of war with Russia, despite its protestations of Russian aggression. It keeps calling its campaign in the East an anti-terrorist operation. Nor is its military operation against the Donbass recognized as a war internationally.
Second, the 1,400 mile (2,300 km) land border between the two countries is remarkably quiet for wartime. If there was war, would it not make sense for the Russians to march right across the border on Kiev, what with the bulk of the Ukrainian forces tied up fighting the Donbass rebels? There are important Ukrainian cities in the area that are not under rebel control and are virtually unprotected: Kharkov, Sumy, Poltava, Chernigov. Even Kiev, the nation’s capital, is only some 125 miles (200 km) from Russia, as the crow flies. Yet, strangely it would seem for a war, the area is not consumed with hostilities.
Finally, the economic and social ties between the two countries continue, uncharacteristically for a war. Millions of Ukrainians visit Russia for work or pleasure, or just to escape the war at home. Mutual investment is strong, although the trade is down. Russia is one of Ukraine’s largest creditors, its funds sustaining the country through the difficult times. And most tellingly, the factories owned by Ukrainian president Poroshenko in Russia keep churning out their produce, paying taxes and thus financing the presumed Russian war effort. Is that what you call a war?
The BBC show is contrived and makes no sense. Yet in pushing its propaganda, the UK government-funded broadcaster still does a service to the perceptive viewer. It shows how Europe got to such a dangerous point in its history and who brought that about.