Latvia grooming western port for NATO ships

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Latvia is pursuing an ambitious proposal to its NATO allies for transforming the Navy Yard in the port of Liepaja into a standing base, reported LTV investigative news program De Facto Sunday.

At a time when Russian warships have been nearing Latvian waters with increasing frequency, NATO is planning to increase its operational presence in the Baltic Sea.

“We’re working on how to transform our Liepaja Naval Forces base into a base that could regularly accommodate NATO ships. Principally, it would be used as a NATO navy base for activities and operations here in the Baltic Sea,” Defense Ministry state secretary Jānis Sārts told De Facto.

Latvia is trying to persuade its allies that an investment into the facilities in Liepaja would provide the greatest effect from the monies intended for developing the alliance’s capabilities in the region. The Defense Ministry believes it has strong arguments in favor of choosing Liepaja to host the increased presence.

Meanwhile Russian naval ships and submarines have been spotted plying the waters along Latvia’s maritime territorial jurisdiction more often this year. Latvian naval patrol and coast guard ships have already been at a heightened state of alert since July, sending patrols out to monitor whatever can’t be identified with coastal radar systems alone.

“We receive the signal from the coast, from the Maritime Operations Center, that an unidentified target has been noted, and we need to get out there and identify it. We try to get within a mile or two of its position to tell what kind of ship it is,” explained commander’s aide Lieutenant Janis Dabols of the patrol ship Rezekne.

Rarely is there any communication with the Russian ships, however radio contact can be made whenever necessary.

“In some cases, we either get close enough in terms of navigational maneuvers that we must notify the vessels of our movements,” explained Naval Forces Flotilla commander Captain Juris Roze.

So far this year Russian armed forces ships have approached Latvia’s territorial waters altogether 27 times, with submarine sightings totaling five in the same time period.

“The Russian Federation’s modernization program is proceeding, they are increasing their military capacity in the Baltic Sea, this capacity being supported by increased training and testing, so we see heightened activity here,” Sārts pointed out. He refused to speculate whether last week’s submarine scare off of Sweden’s densely populated island archipelagos could be an attempt to escalate to more provocative actions.

Kilo-class submarines, which are designed for destroying targets in shallow waters, were spotted three times in August and once each in September and October by Latvia’s National Armed Forces. In one incident they were very close – only ten kilometers from Latvia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) sea border.

Patrol ships do not ask what these ships are doing near our waters.

“If it’s a military vessel, we stay at a safe distance of two miles and don’t bother them. We identify the target, report back to the shore operations center, they give us further instructions,” Lieutenant Dabols said.

Some of the armed ships are simply on route between Kaliningrad and St.Petersburg. But some are conducting training maneuvers and drills very close to Latvian waters. Surveillance and reconnaissance have not been ruled out as part of Russia’s intent, but both sides take part in active intelligence gathering about each other.

“It would be naïve to hope that a military ship out at sea isn’t trying to gather intel on us. It’s natural we do the same when we encounter a non-NATO ship out there. Any nation’s vessel. Using photographic technology and the rest of the resources at our disposal,” asserted Captain Roze.   

So far the Russians have not violated Latvia’s territorial waters and remained in neutral seas. Neither have there been any aggressive incidents such as encountered by Finland’s research ship Aranda, which was harassed by Russian warships and helicopters earlier this year.

There is always at least one Latvian patrol ship on duty out at sea, out of a total of five. While it’s true the recently commissioned ships are not yet equipped with armor or firepower systems, such upgrades are said to be in the works, claims the Defense Ministry.

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