In the shops, restaurants and bars of Riga, the largest city of the three Baltic states, the sounds of Russian and Latvian languages intermingled as they have done for years.
But the topic of conversation was less harmonious: the growing political tensions between the tiny states, all once part of the Soviet Union, and their large, still powerful neighbour, Russia.
Officials and residents alike fear that after annexing Crimea from Ukraine and assisting a rebellion in the east of the country that is steadily undermining its government in Kiev, Moscow may soon turn its eye to other states where a sizeable minority is ethnically or linguistically Russian.
Not only does Latvia have one of the largest minorities of Russian speakers in any European state, but the Kremlin has long accused it of suppressing the rights of its Russian speakers – some 300,000 of whom are officially considered stateless, and thus may neither vote nor hold government positions.
The British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, warned there was a “real and present danger” that Russia was trying to destabilise the Baltic states. In Riga yesterday Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia’s defence minister, said: “The EU and Nato will not be surprised if Russia intends to do something like that. We are ready, and will be ready to react.”
He added that the probability of being directly attacked was “very low” but Russia was “unpredictable”. Earlier this month from the former Nato chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who declared there was a “high probability” that Russia would seek to test the defences of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Students in Riga switch effortlessly between Russian and Latvian. “We are in Nato and if Russia starts a war, it would be a war with the whole world. I don’t think Russia is so crazy,” said Kaspars Vigups, 27, a chef, in Riga, yesterday.
“I don’t have a problem with Russians, I have many friends who speak Russian and Latvian and they respect our country. We do have some people who think they are Russian and that we need to be back in the Soviet Union, but they are a minority. They don’t have opinions of their own and they are easily influenced by Moscow.
“Politicians are starting a war between Latvians and Russians. Because of propaganda from our government, some people don’t like Russians and some Russians don’t like Latvians. It’s a mistake by our government.”
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Mr Vigups’s colleague Daivis Vasiljevs, 24, whose mother is Latvian and father Russian, echoed that view. “I feel half and half,” he said. “I like Russia and I love Latvia. I would never have problems with Russians or with Latvian people. All these problems come from politics.”
However, the colleagues say they fear a possible Russian invasion. It’s a fear shared by many alike since the Ukraine crisis began. “There’s always a 50-50 chance it could happen,” said Latvian MP Veiko Spolitis. “The most important thing is that Latvia prepares adequately,” Top Russian officials have said they would protect the rights of Russian speakers in the Baltics if necessary. Russian warships and jets have approached dangerously close to Baltic borders since the Ukraine crisis began.
In 2014, a member of Estonia’s intelligence services, Eston Kohver, was captured by Russian FSB agents who accuse him of espionage. Tallinn maintains he was illegally seized while on Estonian soil, but he remains a Russian prisoner. Lithuania has been more vocal since the Ukraine crisis began. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called Russia a “terrorist state” last year and the country has formed a joint military force with Poland and Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama’s visit to Estonia last year reaffirmed the alliances support for the region. “You lost your independence once before, with Nato you’ll never lose it again,” Obama told crowds in Tallinn to loud applause.Reuse content