As It Happened: Joe Biden visits Latvia

Vice President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, visits Latvia Tuesday to meet with the presidents of the three Baltic states and to deliver a speech "to the Baltic people" at the National Library. You can follow events here.

Good morning everyone. Today could prove to be an historic one with Vice President Joe Biden arriving to meet Baltic leaders and deliver a speech addressed, intriguingly, "to the Baltic people". That suggests it might be something significant.

The visit comes two years after President Barack Obama stopped off in Tallinn to reassure the Baltic states about US support in the wake of Russia's seizure of Crimea. Tensions between NATO and Russia have increased further since then, so it will be interesting to see if Biden's address is more than an echo of Obama's. 

There is one big difference already. Tallinn in September 2014 was hot and sunny. Riga today is gray and raining. 

JB as I shall refer to him in future, has touched down in Latvia aboard Airforce 2, the smaller, less renowned brother of Airforce 1, bringing with him some blue skies and sunshine. The Secret Service really does think of everything! JB's aviator shades are particularly stylish.

After a quick freshen up, JB will be heading for talks with President Raimonds Vejonis, then PM Maris Kucinskis, followed by a photo call with the Baltic Presidents and a working lunch with them.

There will be a bit of a wait for his speech, though, which will likely start around 17:45 this evening.

Perhaps you would like to use the spare time to check out JB's official biography.

It's not the first time August 23 has been an important day in Baltic history. 27 years ago Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands to form the Baltic Way - a seminal moment in regaining their independence.

Before that in 1939 the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved up Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Both are likely to feature in Biden's speech.

 

Waiting in the Blackheads' House press room (well, a room with a table) having gone through security checks. Luckily as Riga Castle opened for business after extensive renovation only yesterday, Latvia can host its visitors in some style. For the last two years (since the roof of the castle caught fire) the Blackheads' House has been the HQ for Latvia's President.

Worth noting here too that I have never seen the Latvian press corps looking so smart and elegant. They scrub up remarkably well!

Meanwhile here's some arrival footage from LTV.

 

Colleagues helpfully inform that Biden's speech this evening (due to start around 1500 GMT/1800 Riga time) will be streamed live on this LSM website - so be sure to tune in later. 

When all is up and running, you can click to follow the livestream HERE.

We get our first look at the interior of renovated Riga Castle and even though we make it only a few paces in, it looks very nice. Amazing what a lick of paint will do. Even more amazingly, there appears to be a brand new press room here, too. Even more amazing still, it has a large coffee urn in it, which I am pretty sure is a lasting legacy from Latvia's EU Presidency though sadly the cheese cabinet that became a legend among journalists for six months has gone MIA.

After a lengthy wait, the 3 presidents and one vice-president emerge to make brief statements to the press, even though the bulk of their discussions will take place over lunch, afterwards.

Vejonis is first to remind the press about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Baltic Way before Biden stresses that the US' commitment to fulfilling NATO's Article 5 commitment to collective defense is absolute.

"I want to make it absolutely clear to all the people of the Baltic states – we have pledged our sacred honor, the United States of America – our sacred honor to the NATO treaty and to Article 5. We mean what we say.” 

"We have never reneged on any commitment we have ever made. Our sacred honor is at stake," Biden says.

Well, you can't get much clearer than that.

Biden also has a dig at presidential candidate Donald Trump saying he doubts he even understands what Article 5 is, after Trump's comments about Article 5 being conditional.

"The concern that the United States is somehow disengaging [from] the region is simply not true," Biden continues, before giving the quote that the Russian press will most probably pick up on: 

"The fact is that there will be more NATO partners on the Russian border. There will be more than a single tripwire."

 

 

Latvia's presidential office has got this very nice little video of Biden and Vejonis up on YouTube with commendable speed. Worth it for a look inside renovated Riga Castle as well as the body language of course.

 

The US Embassy in Riga has a nice picture of the three VIPs all together.

Actually "These three Presidents walk into a room..." sounds like the start of a joke.

Now the Presidents and the VP are heading to the Freedom Monument to lay wreaths. After that Joe will be psyching himself up for the speech. Speaking of which, we'd better get moving to clear security again...

Back again folks! After another (understandably) lengthy set of security checks I am in the very bowels of the National Library. Well, actually not in the bowels, in the atrium.

For some reason the chance to use the large and purpose-built conference room has been spurned in favor of making Biden speak in what is effectively the lobby. The Baltic flags and the Star Spangled Banner are displayed near the counter where you usually apply for library cards.

Meanwhile some of Latvia's biggest wigs are assembled in chairs nearby. For which read assorted politicos, the central bank chief, the anti-corruption chief, some policy analysts and diplomats of countries great and small.

The usual suspects, in other words.

I even spot some journalists disgracefully sitting among the bigwigs instead of with me here in the cheap seats with the rest of the press pack. So much for honor among thieves.

EXCLUSIVE!

As we walked away from Riga Castle after watching Biden's unsurprisingly enormous motorcade pass by, LSM spied top chef Martins Ritins, still resplendent in his cooking clothes.

"What was on the menu for the presidents?" we asked, to which he replied Faroe Island smoked salmon, locally-produced caviar, suckling pig and Latvian dessert buberts to follow. 

However, Ritins was of the opinion not enough time was given to the VIPs to eat the food he had so lovingly created.

They could have sent the leftovers to the press room.

 

The text of the Joint Declaration by the three Baltic presidents and the VP has been released.

You can read it on the Latvian president's website HERE. But it's pretty standard stuff, nothing very eye-catching other than use of the archaic Latin "fora" as the plural of "forum". Well, they do sometimes talk about the US as a latter-day Rome.

Meanwhile a couple of dozen US service personnel have lined the balcony above the podium from which Biden will speak and are looking down on us. But above them are lots of books. Probably some sort of moral there if you care to search for it.

 

LTV is starting its live coverage of Joe Biden's speech any minute now (though we are still waiting for the man himself to arrive). Follow it live HERE.

LTV's presenter is doing a great job filling in the time by explaining the duties of the VP, Biden's political career, fact this is being shown in Estonia and Lithuania too...

We're about to get under way. A hush descends upon the library - which is the way things should be, after all.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics will kick things off with an introduction, then People's Front figurehead Dainis Ivans will speak before Joe Biden takes center stage.

In his introductory remarks, Edgars Rinkevics pays tribute to Biden personally, highlighting his understanding of this region's affairs.

"To the east we face a power preapred to redraw borders of sovereign states by force... we see this in Ukraine, we see this in Georgia and we see it in Syria," says Rinkevics.

However the best line is: "We are ready to pay the bill and pull our weight," - a clear response to Trump's demand that NATO allies pay up before expecting US support.

Then Dainis Ivans comes out with a zinger (that not everyone seems to get) when he warns against a future "Putin-Ribbentrump pact".

Biden's speech was well received - not least because he paid lengthy homage to the courage of the Baltic states and held them up as an example to others of how democracy can be reborn from totalitarianism and oppression.

Apart from that there was another strong defense of NATO's Article 5 commitment.

"Let there be no doubt - America's Article 5 commitment is rock solid and unwavering. WE have made a sacred commitment. Out honour has been pledged, and we never, never fail to meet our commitments, not just for now but forever," Biden said.

On Russian aggression, Biden was even more explicit, saying: "America will never fail to defend our allies. We will respond. With Russia once more taking aggressive actions and threatening the sovereign rights of its neighbors, NATO remains as vital today as it ever has been. Aggression still happens in Europe and we must all be ready to answer that aggression.

"An attack on one is an attack on all. Period. End of sentence. It's that basic, it's that simple. And we want you to know - we want Moscow to know that we mean what we say."

And he couldn't resist another dig at Donald Trump, this time paraphrasing the Good Book itself - well, he is in a library:

"Despite what you hear in this heated political season there is a wide, deep bipartisan commitment to NATO in my country. Don't listen to that other fellow - he knows not of what he speaks - and he doesn't know of what he speaks."

Worth noting too that there were passing references to more that needs to be done in the Baltic states in rooting out corruption, increasing energy independence and ensuring the legal system treats all equally before the law.

However, given all the flattery he laid on at the beginning, I'm not sure people paid much attention to that.

All in all though a solid speech and he rounded it off with the de rigueur quotation from Rainis that seems to form the coda to the speeches of all visiting dignitaries.

Actually there may be money to be had from compiling a dictionary of Rainis quotes for foreign speechifiers.

Okay, time to leave the library. Biden's speech was strong and commendably clear. He didn't use any of the high rhetorical techniques beloved by his boss, but he's not that kind of guy really, is he?

We'll bring the curtain down on this liveblog for the day. Thanks for coming along for the ride. If JB happens to walk into the bar we intend to visit now (maybe he is THAT kind of guy) we'll certainly fire up the liveblog again and let you know what he's drinking.

Until then, goodbye!

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