U.S. soldiers drive a Stryker armored personal carrier during NATO's Steadfast Javelin II military exercise in Lielvarde, Latvia, Sept. 6 , 2014. Hundreds of soldiers, vehicles and aircraft from nine countries took part in a NATO military exercise on the alliance's eastern front. (Valda Kalnina/EPA)

As top Kremlin officials have sounded ominous new warnings that they will defend ethnic Russians wherever they live, Latvia, the NATO nation with the highest proportion of Russians, is feeling like it is in the crosshairs.

Six months into a bloody conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized key stretches of territory, other nations that were once part of the Soviet Union are worried they could be the next target of Russian intrigue. President Obama this month vowed that the United States would defend its eastern European NATO allies, but several episodes in recent weeks have tested that resolve.

A top Russian diplomat touched down in Latvia’s capital to warn of “unfortunate consequences” stemming from alleged discrimination against the ethnic Russian minority there. The capital city’s mayor paid an unusually timed visit to Moscow. And a Russian-speakers’ political party passed out fliers comparing a heavily Russian region of Latvia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in March in the name of protecting its compatriots.

The incidents have troubled Latvia, a nation of 2 million people along the Baltic Sea, where many retired Soviet officers remained along with their families after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Because Latvia is a member of the NATO defense alliance, threats against it have importance out of proportion to its size. NATO troops, including a 600-strong contingent of Americans, are rotating through Baltic territories, and NATO leaders this month approved new forces that would be able to quickly deploy to Eastern Europe should they be needed.

“Russia and Putin still have a geopolitical interest in the post-Soviet territories,” said Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis. “Russia is trying to use the Russian-speaking minority as a tool to aggressively promote its objectives.”

The breakup of the Soviet Union left behind substantial Russian minorities in all three of the Baltic states, and many of their complaints are similar to those of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Russian speakers in the east have said they feared attacks on the right to speak their language. In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, ethnic Russians have complained of laws that require knowledge of the national language to obtain citizenship and of other rules that downplay Russian language and history in classrooms.

The societal divisions have been especially sharp in Latvia, where national leaders have long clashed with the Kremlin. About one-third of the population uses Russian as its primary language, and 13 percent of the population holds non-citizen status and cannot vote. Latvia’s government temporarily banned some Russian state-run television channels earlier this year, saying that the stations’ coverage of events in Ukraine and in Latvia was detrimental to national security.

“We can see attempts by Russia to affect many countries’ policies. Soft power, soft influence,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. “Security, foreign policy is back on the agenda, almost as it was in the 1990s.”

Leaders worry that Latvia will be specially targeted ahead of its six-month term holding the rotating E.U. presidency, which begins in January, and they say they are bolstering their defenses against cyberattacks.

Uncomfortable divisions

The strains among groups have received Kremlin scrutiny.

“We all know well the real scope of the problems with human rights and the rule of law that our compatriots encounter in the Baltic states. This topic is constantly at the center of attention and activity of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special representative for human rights, said at a conference this month in Riga for ethnic Russians in the Baltics. “It is necessary to recognize clearly that such actions, carried out by many political forces, can have far-reaching, unfortunate consequences.”

Ethnic Russians in Latvia say that the violence in Ukraine has opened uncomfortable divisions within the community about the extent to which they should embrace Kremlin actions and model their own struggle along Ukrainian lines. Outright violence, most say, is a pipe dream.

The delicate balance was on display this month when the mayor of Riga, an ethnic Russian, came under fire for a visit he made to Moscow at the same time Latvian leaders were at a NATO summit to ask for bolstered defenses against Russian aggression. As the popular leader of a city where more than a third of Latvia’s population is concentrated, Mayor Nils Usakovs has built bridges between the Russian and Latvian communities. He has an outside chance of becoming prime minister after October elections.

But critics said the photos of the mayor smiling with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave the wrong signal about Latvia’s resolve to defend itself.

“I’m a Latvian citizen. I’m an ethnic Russian,” said Usakovs, 38, who was born in Riga to Russian parents. “I’m attached to the country where I was born. But obviously I share many values with Russian speakers all over the world.”

He said his visit to Moscow was intended to preserve economic ties between the nations during a time of tit-for-tat sanctions, which he said he opposes. But he also said no one in Latvia wants a replay of the violence in Ukraine and that NATO was an effective and valuable security deterrent for Latvia. His trip to Moscow was followed by visits to Washington and to E.U. leaders in Strasbourg, France.

Usakovs’s ethnic Russian Harmony Center party is the largest in Latvia’s parliament, holding nearly a third of the seats. But it has been shut out of ruling coalitions because ethnic Latvian parties have been cautious about accepting a Russian presence at the nation’s top levels. Now the mayor has to balance between constituencies to preserve support.

“They are trying to walk the middle line because they’re trying to appeal to Latvians,” said Ojars Kalnins, the head of the foreign policy committee in Latvia’s parliament. “They support Ukraine, but they can’t condemn Russia.”

Government help

One activist warned that if peaceful routes fail, moderate ethnic Russians in Latvia may be unable to restrain more radical members of their community who have watched the pro-
Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine set up a quasi-independent statelet.

“There is a risk for manipulating these Russian minorities here, especially when the way to advocate our cause is not clear,” said Elizabete Krivcova, one of the leaders of the Non-Citizens Congress, an organization that presses for looser citizenship laws and for Russian-language education rights. “There are some very aggressive people. They are in the minority. Alone we cannot address this. We need the government to work with us.”

Some efforts are underway. Together with Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia is starting work on a state-funded Russian-language television network that it hopes can be an alternative to Russian state television, which has routinely portrayed Ukraine’s leaders as bloodthirsty neo-Nazis. Leaders also talk about improving integration efforts inside classrooms.

If Western nations are to hold strong against Russian efforts to divide them, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services at New York University, the best path to success is by forestalling potential vulnerabilities.

“To bring maximum immunity, Western democratic states have to do really well,” Galeotti said. “It’s about legitimizing themselves. It’s about ensuring there aren’t disgruntled minorities who can be manipulated.”