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In the Shadow of War

How Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine impacts Latvia

By: /
13 January, 2023
Riga, the capital city of Latvia. Photo by: Makalu/Pixabay
By: Evija Djatkovica
Evija Djatkovica is the Deputy Director and the Head of Belarus and East-Europe Program of the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga. She holds a master’s degree in Diplomacy and is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Riga Stradins University

How Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine impacts Latvia

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has led to untold destruction and lost lives in Ukraine, many other countries in the region have also been seriously impacted.  The invasion of Ukraine, for example, was also a shock for Latvia and its people. Indeed, Latvians, who had suffered considerably under Soviet occupation and the Russian Empire’s rule, witnessed yet another attempt by Moscow to stamp its brutal authority on a neighbour.

Russia’s full-fledged aggression in Ukraine has entered its eleventh month already and since the war began, the Latvian state and society have demonstrated remarkable solidarity with Kyiv. Latvia, a country of less than 2 million people, with an annual GDP per capita of around 20,600 USD dollars, has accommodated over 35,000 Ukrainian refugees from the 4.8 million Ukrainians who fled their country and sought refuge in the European Union (EU). Whilst openness to asylum-seekers has not always characterised the Latvian political scene, the war in Ukraine proved the opposite.

Latvia has also donated around 1% of its GDP in assistance and ranks second in the world in support to Ukraine by share of GDP. Military aid has been at the forefront, with Riga sending most of its helicopters, self-propelled howitzers, armour and munitions, Stinger air defence systems and drones to Ukraine. In total, Latvia has already spent an amount equal to around 41% of its 2022 defence budget supporting Ukraine.  

Political solidarity has also been bold both in terms of denouncing Russia and supporting Ukraine in the EU. Latvia was among the first countries to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism in August and named its actions in Ukraine a genocide. Out of national security and moral considerations, a travel ban, not including humanitarian visas, was also imposed on Russian citizens by all three Baltic countries. As a result, travel routes to the European Schengen area were closed for Russians. While the travel ban did impact Russian men fleeing mobilisation, more importantly it helped put a stop to others, seemingly oblivious to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, who were seeking vacation opportunities in Europe, via Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Latvia has also been a long-term political supporter of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Recently, Latvia unequivocally backed the granting of EU candidate state status to Ukraine. Even if more symbolic than practical, the positive decision was nonetheless an important signal of European solidarity with Ukraine.

Locally, self-organised societal campaigns in Latvia to support Ukraine have had impressive results. Volunteers, for example, launched an off-road vehicle donation campaign that resulted in over 900 vehicles being delivered to the Ukrainian army. The initiative has now grown into a social movement called “Twitter convoy.” Since the first days of the war numerous food, clothes, and hygiene parcels have been delivered to Ukraine while many people also selflessly opened their homes to refugees.  Others have tirelessly gathered around the Russian Embassy in Riga to protest Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

In parallel to helping Ukraine, Latvia undertook steps to ramp up its own security. Foremost, NATO’s decision to reinforce the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup (eFPBG) to the level of brigade and upgrade rapid reaction forces was much welcomed in Latvia. Canada is the framework nation for the Latvian eFPBG, and since February 2022, has sent additional personnel to Latvia and other European locations. Still, military asymmetry along the Russian-Belarusian border with the Baltic countries does not favour NATO. This means more combat-capable units must be deployed not only to deter but repel a possible incursion, if necessary.

In addition, Latvia has pledged more money, human resources, and weaponry for its defence. An ambitious military spending target of 2.5% of GDP by 2025 and at least 3% by 2027 has been set. In 2022, the national defence budget was around 2.3% of GDP. Military conscription will also be re-introduced in order to boost the size of the Latvian Armed Forces (LAF).  Currently, the backbone of the LAF is made up of 6,700 professional army personnel and around 10,000 voluntary territorial defence troops (National Guard). Latvia was the only country in the Nordic-Baltic region, save for Iceland, without a draft up until now. Finally, Latvian combat capabilities will be supplemented most notably by the addition of a mid-range air defence system, drones, and new HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, the latter of which have proven their value in Ukraine.  Latvia’s domestic defence industry has also developed unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, which are now entering the market and likely to end up in Ukrainian hands soon, due to crowdfunding efforts in Latvia to deliver weapons produced in Latvia to Ukraine. In addition, Finnish company “Patria” will begin assembling wheeled armoured personnel carriers in Latvia next year.

While Latvia has done its utmost to support Ukraine and boosted its own defence preparations, less is known about the domestic challenges that have emerged as a result of Russia’s current actions. The growing estrangement between ethnic Latvian and Russian citizens is perhaps the most worrisome.  

Almost a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million people are of Russian origin and Russian speakers account for around 38% of the population. However, many of them have not integrated into Latvian society either practically or psychologically, even though over 30 years have passed since the USSR collapsed and Latvia regained its independence. Some, for example, have refused to learn Latvian, and if they do know a little bit, avoid speaking it. They also prefer their children to be educated in Russian, not Latvian. Others have refrained from obtaining Latvian citizenship and remain holders of so-called non-citizen passports. Bitterness also runs high in the Russian speaking population, as few have achieved the wealth and social status they once enjoyed when Latvia was part of the USSR.  As a result, two different societies have grown in parallel in Latvia.

Two consecutive sociological polls surveying people’s attitudes towards the war in Ukraine conducted in Latvia in March 2022, revealed the depth of the problem. Among Russian speakers, support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine reached 20%, while among Latvian language users, only 1%. More telling of the societal divide, however, was that only 25% of Russian speakers supported Ukraine compared to 87% of Latvian speakers. Those who supported neither side in the war made up nearly half of the Russian speaking community and only 10% among Latvian speakers.

The parliamentary election held in October 2022, was another example of the divide in Latvian society. Even though the voter participation rate grew from around 54% in 2018 to 59% in 2022, Russian political representation declined. In particular, and for Russian speakers, their former primary political party of choice “Harmony” did not overcome the 5% proportional representation threshold required for a political party in Latvia to enter parliament.  Four years earlier, however, the left-leaning “Harmony” won 23 seats in the 100-seat parliament and was Latvia’s most popular political party.  This loss of support was, among other aspects, due to the party taking quite a strong line against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which alienated part of its electorate. Some Russian-speaking voters found a replacement in a newly emerged “TikTok” campaigner party “For Stability!” which offered an anti-EU, anti-vaccination, and pro-Russia agenda. They won eleven seats and are the only Russian-speaker representatives in Latvia’s 14th parliament.

An important factor in Latvia is that most political parties avoid reaching out to the large Russian-speaking electorate.  If they do, they are almost inevitably accused of being pro-Kremlin and risk exclusion from the government-making process. The case of “Harmony” best exemplifies this phenomenon. Prior to the most recent election, “Harmony” or “Harmony Centre” as it was formally known, had won three previous parliamentary elections in a row, but was never accepted into any ruling coalition.

Would one notice ethnic tension while walking the streets of Riga?  Probably not. But what could likely be observed upon closer inspection are the intense “de-russification” activities, which have gained momentum across Latvia in the shadow of war.  The most visible de-russification case so far has been the tearing down of the Soviet Victory Monument in Riga in August 2022. The monument, recognizing the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany, had become a reminder of oppression, pain and occupation for Latvians, but a symbol of liberation for many Russians. Other efforts to erase the Russian footprint in Latvia include a complete transition to education in the Latvian language at school, with the Russian language replaced by various EU languages that students will now study instead.  Soviet-related street names have also been changed, and Latvian language examinations for Russian citizens in Latvia will be required to retain a residence permit.

What effects the “Russian cancellation” policy will leave on the Russian-speaking population and what its further estrangement will mean for the national security of Latvia will only be seen in the longer run. For now there are, perhaps, only two realistic options for the Russian-speaking population in Latvia – either assimilate or live a quite underground existence in Latvia. Neither option is ideal for them, or for Latvia in general. Certainly, though, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly given Latvians a new and much needed national emancipation impulse.

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