Latvia’s foreign minister has said the Baltic country must increase its spending on defence in the face of the continued threat from Russia but dismissed suggestions that he was responding to pressure from Donald Trump.
Edgars Rinkevics told the Financial Times that he would campaign in Latvia’s parliamentary elections in October on the platform of lifting defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2024, beyond Nato’s target of 2 per cent.
Latvia is one of a handful of Nato countries forecast to spend 2 per cent on defence this year with 23 other members missing that goal, causing the US president repeatedly to lash out at them. At this month’s summit in Brussels, Mr Trump pushed allies to double their target for defence spending to 4 per cent.
“It is not to satisfy somebody. It is in our national interests due to the geopolitical situation. We don’t expect any improvement in the geopolitical situation in the next five years,” Mr Rinkevics said.
Latvia and Lithuania have doubled their defence spending in the past four years to come close to the 2 per cent target, a level that neighbouring Estonia has already reached. All three have suggested they should increase spending further.
Latvia is in danger of missing the 2 per cent target this year as its economy has grown faster than expected but Mr Rinkevics said that the prime minister, finance minister, president and he were agreed that they had to lift the military budget in the final months of the year to ensure it hit the goal.
The foreign minister conceded that Mr Trump’s continual pushing of European countries to raise defence spending had “provoked renewed interest from the general public”. But he pointed to issues such as cyber and hybrid threats, the need for better military infrastructure after years of low spending in the wake of the financial crisis and the need to fund EU defence initiatives as sufficient reason for the proposal.
“If we are serious about Nato and European defence then we need to increase defence spending. We also agree with President Trump that all nations should spend more on defence. We believe 2 per cent is the absolute minimum,” he added.
But Mr Rinkevics launched a passionate defence of Latvia and other smaller European countries after Mr Trump called Montenegro “very aggressive” and suggested that countries such as these could even spark world war three.
“Latvia, like the other Baltic states, wanted to join Nato because of our historical experience under the Soviet Union. We know what it is like to be the victim of aggression. Believe me, Latvia has no intent through any provocative behaviour of launching world war three,” he said.
Mr Trump, asked by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson why his son should go to defend Montenegro, answered: “I’ve asked the same question.” Asked if that undermined Nato’s commitment to collective defence, Mr Rinkevics said: “We should dispute those kind of fears and worries that some people have about smaller nations getting larger nations into world war three whether it be Latvia, Montenegro or Luxembourg.”
His comments followed those of Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Danish prime minister, who told Mr Trump at the Nato summit that the alliance was about more than just defence spending, according to officials present. Denmark had lost more soldiers per capita than the US in Afghanistan and Mr Rasmussen told Mr Trump he had to look their parents in the eyes. “To say it is not worth anything because we are not paying 2 per cent is wrong,” one official quoted him as saying.
Baltic officials have contrasted the public comments from Mr Trump with what they see as positive actions from the Pentagon and other parts of his administration, such as the presence of international battalions in the Baltics and Poland.
Marko Mihkelson, head of the foreign affairs committee of Estonia’s parliament, said before the Nato summit: “What is most important for us is not rhetoric or speculation but real deeds. As far as what happens on the ground, we see the Trump administration takes things seriously.”
Mr Rinkevics described the Helsinki summit between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “publicity event”. He said he had received debriefs by both the Russian and American sides: “We don’t see any substantive decisions that we should be worried about.” There had been concerns that Mr Trump could offer to suspend US involvement in military exercises in the Baltics. “It was not discussed, US officials told me,” Mr Rinkevics said.
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