Russia's recent involvement in Ukrainian political turmoil touched a raw nerve in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. All three are now members of the EU and NATO, but they have painful memories of the Soviet occupation. Leaders of the Baltic states are asking for a bigger NATO presence in their countries, a move Russia angrily opposes.
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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. It's four months since Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. And that set off alarm bells for Russia's Baltic neighbors. Like Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia share a border with Russia. They also have populations of ethnic Russians and a long and bloody history. NPR's Corey Flintoff sent this report from the region.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: In Latvia, it seems that every conversation about Russia's role in Ukraine ends with a history lesson from the Baltics. Much of that history is displayed here at the Museum of the Occupation in Riga. The museum depicts Latvian life under successive occupations by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and again by the Soviet Union. The first thing a visitor sees in the museum is a pair of giant portraits. Latvian journalist Aleks Tapinsh.
ALEKS TAPINSH: This is the portrait of Adolf Hitler. This is a portrait of Joseph Stalin. And for many, many Latvians, these two individuals are equally bad.
FLINTOFF: The occupation lasted until 1991 when the Soviet system collapsed. But many people in the region see neighboring Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union. Latvia's Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkevics, says Russia's latest moves against Ukraine raised real fears that the same thing could happen in the Baltics.
EDGARS RINKEVICS: Some scenarios, as we have seen in Crimea as well now in the eastern part of Ukraine, really reminds us of our own history. So from that point of view, people would love to see strong reaction by the international community.
FLINTOFF: Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are all members of the NATO alliance. And the reaction came in the form of a reassurance package designed to show that NATO has their backs. The package included several hundred U.S. Special Forces who came for training missions and stepped-up air patrols by NATO warplanes. Russian officials complained that the actions could provoke a new arms race. Rinkevics called it a proportional response, especially given that Moscow has staged some military exercises in the region that appeared to simulate an invasion of the Baltics.
Lt. Col. Riivo Valge is Air Force Chief of Staff in neighboring Estonia. He admits that the NATO response so far is largely symbolic, but says it's nonetheless important.
RIIVO VALGE: Firstly, a sign toward whoever wants to see in the world that we are the NATO territory and we belong to the Europe and NATO. Definitely this presence does not constitute a threat to anybody.
FLINTOFF: Estonia is now hosting a Danish Air Force contingent flying U.S.-made F-16 fighters on policing missions along the borders and over the Baltic Sea. The planes armed with short to medium range missiles stand ready in hangers on Estonia's Amari Air Base. The pilots strap into their cockpits and roll out onto the tarmac for flights that lately, have included intercepts of Russian fighters that fly too close to Estonian airspace.
For their part, the Baltics are trying to take more responsibility for their own defense. Estonia already spends the NATO recommended level of 2 percent of its GDP on its military. Latvia voted earlier this month to also increase its defense spending to 2 percent by 2020. But military leaders acknowledge that it's a part of the world where defense isn't easy. Again, Estonia's Air Force chief of staff, Riivo Valge.
VALGE: Looking at the local geography, one might argue that it is difficult to defend. But for the local people and for local military, we have pledged that we will defend it.
FLINTOFF: Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Tallinn, Estonia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.