• Premier Kucinskis calls for higher spending, more troops
  • `Nobody's ready for' U.K. leaving EU, he says in interview

Baltic nations, which broke free from the Soviet Union a quarter century ago, are at a critical juncture as they discuss increased defense spending and the allocation of more NATO troops to the region, Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis said.

The discussion is about a battalion-sized contingent in each of the three countries, split three ways between the U.S., the European Union and the host nation, Kucinskis said in an interview Tuesday. The Latvian government has received no indication that there would be obstacles to this plan, he said. The nation itself wants to reach the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense-spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product in 2018, having budgeted 1.4 percent of GDP for this year.

“This is one of those turning points where we can show that we are firmly in Europe,” Kucinskis said in his office in the center of the Latvian capital, Riga.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are boosting defense spending and seeking a long-term commitment by NATO to increase the number of its troops in the region, home to large Russian-speaking minorities. They will head into negotiations at a July summit in Warsaw against the backdrop of a U.S. presidential election campaign in which Republican frontrunner Donald Trump criticized the military alliance as obsolete and said the U.S. is paying a disproportionate share of its costs.

‘Our Security’

“Any substantial U.S. political changes in relation to NATO wouldn’t be in our interest, because that could directly affect our security,” Kucinskis said. “U.S. policies have recently been very predictable, very stable, and I hope that these are pre-election talks that you see in every country.”

A British exit from the EU is also a potential security risk as the country is “one of Europe’s biggest NATO players,” Kucinskis said. Latvia’s priority is to avoid ‘Brexit,’ with a large number of its nationals living and working in the U.K., he said.

“Frankly speaking, nobody’s ready for that,” Kucinskis said. “That would undoubtedly be a huge loss for all of the European Union.”

While Latvia is at odds with Russia over security issues, Kucinskis said the two countries are working together to brace for the potential increase of refugee flows from the Middle East after Balkan nations closed the route running from Greece through Macedonia, Serbia and beyond. The governments in Riga and Moscow are sharing information and have set up a working group to discuss border control, he said.

‘Very Concerned’

Latvia is also strengthening its frontiers as the lack of stability in Syria and elsewhere in the region means a continued potential for further waves of refugees, Kucinskis said. While the country hasn’t recorded an increase in arrivals, the government in Riga has become “more attentive” after reports of migrants crossing into Finland and Norway from Russia, he said.

“At the moment when there was a known concentration near Russia, we got very concerned,” Kucinskis said of a potential refugee wave heading toward the Baltics. “At the moment, there’s no information about further escalation, but this shows that there are risks.”

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