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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvia Gives Soldiers a NATO Lesson

ADAZI, Latvia -- A classroom decorated with daffodils is the unlikely front line in Latvia's battle to join NATO. And a spiky-haired schoolteacher named Sylvia Simane is the Baltic country's secret weapon.

In an impeccable British accent, Simane explains how her team of civilian teachers plan to have all of Latvia's professional soldiers speaking "peacekeeper's English" so they can slot neatly into NATO operations.

The Latvian educator's classes in this sprawling former Soviet army base are part of a transformation under way across Eastern Europe as armies from the Baltic states, through Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea, to Slovenia and Slovakia in Central Europe, prepare to swell the ranks of the Western alliance.

In November, leaders of the 19 current NATO nations meet in Prague to decide which among the 10 candidates will be invited to join. Although NATO diplomats stress nothing has been decided, expectations are high that up to seven will be picked.

Memories of brutal Nazi and Soviet occupation drive the anxiety of these countries to join. Latvia alone lost half its population in the 20th century, says Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis.

"Throughout the last century we had such a lack of security and stability," Kristovskis said. "People in our region are seeking security, that is why they are supporting NATO enlargement."

Polls show Latvian public backing for NATO membership at around 60 percent and undiminished by the government's decision to double defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, well above the level of many wealthy European NATO members.

If the advantages of NATO membership are clear to the candidates, the benefits for the alliance appear less straightforward.

"If one is being completely honest, the new nations bring in more liabilities than military advantages," said Sir Timothy Garden, European defense expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "It's driven more by politics than by military practicalities."

It's hard to see Latvia's 5,400-strong active-duty forces packing much of a punch. The air force has no combat planes and the army and navy are equipped with hand-me-downs.

While Romania and Bulgaria struggle to slim bloated Cold War-era armies and shed outdated Soviet equipment, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have had to build from scratch since they broke free of the Soviet Union. "The day after our independence we didn't have a single weapon," Colonel Raimonds Graube, Latvia's commander in chief, said in an interview in his office, which once housed the headquarters of Soviet Baltic Command. "We are starting from a blank sheet ... building up a small, professional, NATO-capable army."

Graube thinks his forces can play useful niche roles such as bomb-disposal or field medicine. Latvian troops have already served with NATO peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, including as medics and military police helping British forces in Kosovo, and in Bosnia as members of a joint combat unit formed with Estonia and Lithuania.

"Latvia is a small country," Graube said. "We can't provide large numbers of infantry. It's better to focus on some specialized areas." The pride of the Latvians is BALTNET -- an air surveillance center run jointly with Estonia and Lithuania that uses brand-new U.S. supplied equipment to monitor planes over the Baltic Sea and much of western Russia.

Once the Baltic states join NATO, the radar network can be hooked up to alliance systems to provide real-time information to allied commanders.

Kristovskis says the Sept. 11 attacks reinforce the case for NATO expansion by showing the need for a wide alliance against terrorist enemies.

"Even big states, strong developed states, need support from all democracies, big or small," he said. "Our capabilities are different, but today the threat from terrorism is such that common values are as important as weapons."