Editorial: The Phantom Menace

Take note – story published 8 years ago

Living in Latvia at the moment reminds me of living in the United Kingdom in the 1980s - and not just because New Romantic music seems to be cool again.

I'm talking about an even more objectionable phenomenon than Duran Duran - the revived threat of imminent war. Back in the '80s it took something like Star Wars to make you forget the nuclear threat and your own mortality for a few minutes.

However much you may have been enjoying yourself - perhaps sitting by a river having a picnic or riding a bicycle aimlessly around - at any moment the horizon might be punctuated by obscene mushroom clouds and you would have the privilege of witnessing the great universal destruction for a few seconds before you too were sucked into the radioactive vortex.

Goodbye world.

It was a nagging, gnawing feeling, a sort of raw spot on the soul caused by fear, despair and above all, a sense of helplessness - along with anger that a civilization capable of dreaming up picnics and bicycles would destroy itself in such a hubristic manner.

When I met my first Latvians I asked them their attitude towards Russia and the Cold War.

"Oh don't worry, they'll try to come back some day... they never leave us alone for long," was a typical response.

I was surprised. I thought them paranoid. That way of thinking had disappeared with Gorby and glasnost, hadn't it? Yeltsin's Russian Federation was different to the Soviet Union, wasn't it? We were finally free of the gnawing fear, weren't we?

I briefly sensed that fear once again soon after moving to Latvia when I snooped around an abandoned Soviet missile base. It still had mosaics on the former canteen wall of rockets blasting off to destroy the West, the mosaic making them look like the decoration of a Byzantine church.

It was unnerving to look into the shadowy depths of empty missile silos and wonder if the warheads kept there had been pointed at your hometown.

But this was no longer real fear. This was a sort of 'retrophobia' - a nostalgic form of fear.

Then Yeltsin's Russia became Putin's Russia which, it turned out, isn't different to the Soviet Union.

It is different only in style, not content, like some awful modern remake of a 1980s film in which the lack of a coherent script is compensated for by the inclusion of lots of spectacular explosions, unnecessary CGI and overlong action sequences. 

Putin thinks he's The Empire Strikes Back but in fact his rule is The Phantom Menace (1999) to the original Star Wars (1977) of the politburo, with Putin (2000) as a sort of dictatorial Jar Jar Binks, whom he increasingly resembles.

But there is an important difference between the 1980s mindset and today's. In the world of Mutually Assured Destruction contingency plans consisted of hanging a sheet over the window, hiding under the table and waiting for certain death. You cannot resist nuclear fission.

Though the nuclear threat is repeated as a nursery rhyme by the Kremlin today, the main threat to Latvia at the moment comes from 'Little Green Men', from cyber-attacks, hypnotic propaganda and potentially, from the snap military drill turned into invasion.

These things can be acted upon and physically resisted. It is possible to make contingency plans and that is what should be happening.

The government should be giving a lead, involving society at large and preparing the response if it ever became necessary. The authorities should be showing leadership and encouraging practical measures to defend the country not only by regular military personnel and the reserve of the national guard but by all those willing to contribute to civil defense.

That means training - military and medical - plus information on what to do, where to go, what resources are available and how to react in different scenarios.

Boots on the ground should mean not just the relatively small numbers of local and NATO troops on duty. It should mean the whole Latvian nation - at home and abroad.

Latvia tried "You stay in your place and I will stay in mine" once before, and it didn't work out well. So what's the plan next time around?

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