RIGA Latvia's defense minister said on Friday Russia was trying to stir unrest in the Baltic state by using "specially-trained, professional provocateurs" in the wake of its intervention in Ukraine.
The Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, now NATO and EU member states, were once part of the Soviet Union and have substantial Russian-speaking minorities, like Ukraine.
"There are risks that Russia might try to destabilize the situation in the region," Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia's defense minister, told Reuters in an interview.
"We see it very clearly in Ukraine's case, where they have acted and are still trying to escalate the situation in different ways," the minister added.
"They are trying to increase negative sentiment in society through certain specially-trained, professional provocateurs."
As an example, he mentioned comments by Aleksandr Gaponenko, an activist for non-citizens' rights in Latvia, to Norwegian television that Latvia's government intended "to suppress protests with the power of army".
Around 26 percent of Latvia's 2 million people are ethnic Russians. Many do not have Latvian citizenship and so cannot vote or apply for certain public-sector jobs. Moscow has long complained about the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics.
"There are no direct military threats to Latvia and the Baltic region, but there is increased activity of Russia's Armed Forces near the border," Vejonis said.
He stressed that NATO's presence in Latvia was critical, but the country also needed to develop its own military capabilities.
"Memories of Soviet times are still alive here, nobody wants those times to return. The NATO presence is essential to dispel these concerns," Vejonis said.
NATO is temporarily boosting its presence in eastern Europe to reassure allies that NATO would protect them if they ever faced Russian aggression.
The United States has sent 600 soldiers to the Baltic countries and Poland for infantry exercises. Soldiers are expected to stay in the region until the end of the year.
It will also send more ships and planes to eastern Europe.
Latvia's defense spending, along with several other NATO members including Lithuania, is short of the alliance's target of 0.9 percent of GDP for 2014. It says it will gradually increase funding for the military to 2 percent of GDP by 2020.
"We see now that if there is no defense, then there are no other industries, because there is only chaos, as we can observe in Ukraine," the minister concluded.
(Reporting by Aija Krutaine; Editing by Andrew Roche)