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Russia's Baltic neighbors worry that they could be Moscow's next target

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Several strikes, some deadly, once again being reported today across Ukraine. In the capital, Kyiv, the mayor says another apartment building was hit. In the eastern city of Kharkiv, the State Emergency Service reports a teaching building was shelled. And in the west, four missiles hit an aviation repair building at the Lviv International Airport. That's the first attack within Lviv's city limits since the war began. As Russian forces continue their bombardments, Russia's Baltic neighbors are growing more concerned that they could be the next target. Yesterday, the heads of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian parliamentarians spoke to the Helsinki Commission, which is a U.S. agency focused on security. And they want a permanent U.S. troop presence in the region and also a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Joining us now is Rihards Kols, chairman of the Latvian Parliament's foreign affairs committee. Welcome, Rihards.

RIHARDS KOLS: Good morning.

MARTINEZ: There seems to be a shift within NATO members when it comes to a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Your country, along with three others, are now calling for this no-fly zone. Why now?

KOLS: Well, it's not only now. We've been hearing this call since 28 of February when President Zelenskyy called it. And we see the situation is deteriorating, particularly seeing that Russian military is purposely targeting civilian areas. And not only that, as you may know, in Ukraine, there are 15 nuclear power stations that can be hazardous, not only if something goes wrong for Ukraine but the whole world. So therefore, what we see right now, even the green corridors where there are talks, negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian side to agree to create these corridors, they're constantly violated by the Russian side. So therefore, the call for the no-fly zone, even though we understand that there is a lot of complications at the U.N. level, particularly knowing that the Security Council, that Russia holds the veto rights on that and the most probably going to be vetoed. But this is - maybe somebody might say it's symbolic approach for the Baltic parliaments to call for a no-fly zone. But what we have to do is really go from words to deeds, really assist in all matters as we can to protect Ukrainian skies from constant bombings from the Russian planes, military planes and rocket systems.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned those nuclear facilities. Many people, many military experts, have said a no-fly zone would be like starting World War III, which may include nuclear weapons. I mean, what's your response to that?

KOLS: But then again, I mean, right now, it's - I think we have to drop the rhetoric which is stated that, you know, everything we going to do is going to escalate things and it's going to trigger, you know, Putin to other directions, you know, unpredictable and et cetera. We're way past that period. I mean, we had the three months of intense talks and dialogue with Russia. And what in the end happened? There was already pre-staged a circus from Russia's side. They already had the plans adopted, the military ready to attack a sovereign country. So right now to talk about any move from the West or for democratic parts of the world will only escalate things further, I think we have already passed that threshold.

MARTINEZ: But, sir, there is another level this could go to, an even more horrific level.

KOLS: Well, then again, I have to be very precise. We also have to look what is happening internally in Russia as well. I mean, at the high highest level, at the, you know, elites or Putin's inner circle, we see for the past few days, there are senior officials being detained, put on house arrest and et cetera. And when it comes to nuclear, as everybody is - you know, that is Russia - Putin's modus operandi, to spread fear, to threaten, you know, possible tactical nuclear attack, be it on NATO member states, so be it against Ukraine. Well, it's not, you know, a Hollywood movie where everybody thinks that he has this red button that he presses and, you know, nukes are launched. There is a command chain. And I don't think that there is a huge stability right now among the Russian military as well on the plans and how everything has evolved. There are huge doubts. And, you know, I don't think they are prepared for a long-term challenge that that is facing right now Russian military in Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: If the concern is that the Baltics could be targeted next, do you think that Ukraine right now is fighting for Latvia and the Baltics?

KOLS: Well, I have to be very clear on this. And this should be also kind of changed in the Western thinking mindset. We're not talking - there is a rhetoric the Baltics might be next. Look, let's be clear, NATO will be next. Baltic countries are NATO member states. And this is somewhat - this is not acceptable from the Baltic countries as well, is like we're talking about separate entity within NATO that will be attacked. And, you know, I mean, we have received the reassurances on Article 5, iron clad, not an inch. So therefore we shouldn't stick ourselves in such a mindset on thinking what might be Putin doing next? What we have to do right now, protect ourselves, support Ukraine as much as we can.

MARTINEZ: Because it sounds like you're convinced that that's going to happen, that there is no doubt in your mind that you're going to be next.

KOLS: Well, no. The thing is, we have lived next to Russia, well, since we regained independence and before that. And such a rhetoric, such a aggression we have experienced in our skin, you know, time again and again. This is something which, you know, it's not going to bully us that easily from Russia's side. And just to be clear, Ukraine is fighting for us right now. They are fighting for us. And the thing is for the Baltic countries as well, we are the front line. We are defending. If we fail, the rest of the West fails. So therefore, we have to collectively support each other as much as we can, not shedding any potential doubt or, you know, hesitation. Hesitation is exactly what provokes Putin.

MARTINEZ: You recently tweeted about what you call the European Union's broken moral compass when it comes to Ukraine. Can you explain what you meant by that?

KOLS: Well, of course, the moral compass is only applicable to individuals. I mean, you cannot apply moral to a state as an entity. But it has been even these past three weeks, time to time, there are those that indicate that, you know, questioning. You know, in current circumstance, German Chancellor Scholz just now said, you know, he still sees that there is a diplomatic path ahead to solve the current war that Russia is conducting in Ukraine. I mean, that is, you know, wishful thinking, I guess. And so, therefore, the moral compass is that we don't doubt ourselves in the questioning how we can support, not questioning putting, you know, financial assets or something like that. And, you know, membership of the EU is also a good question.

MARTINEZ: That's Rihards Kols, chairman of the Latvian Parliament's foreign affairs committee. Thank you very much for your time.

KOLS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "REACTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.