Latvia up in arms over BBC’s Russian invasion drama
A BBC television drama depicting a Russian-backed rebellion in Latvia has triggered an outcry in the small Baltic NATO and EU state, with the foreign minister slamming the plot as “rubbish”.
The programme, titled “Third World War: Inside The War Room“, aired on Wednesday and featured scenes of a Kremlin-supported rebellion in Latvia’s eastern Latgale region, clearly modelled on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“Watched BBC2 World War 3: Inside the War Room, while scenario of separatists in Latgale is rubbish, overall many lessons to learn for all,” Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Twitter.
The show used former senior military, diplomatic and security service staff to make decisions on a British response to Russian aggression, also showed them not retaliating in the face of a Russian nuclear attack on London.
It could be watched by viewers in Latvia with satellite TV, and local news programmes showed some of the more dramatic sequences.
Under NATO’s Article 5 provision for collective defence, an attack against one ally is an attack against all and automatically triggers a security response.
Under Moscow’s thumb in Soviet times, Latvia and fellow Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania have been on edge since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
The Baltic trio and nearby Poland, which will host a NATO summit in July, have called on the Western defence alliance to reinforce its presence in the region because of their concern over Russia.
A Rand Corporation threat assessment published on Wednesday found that it would take just 60 hours for Russia to take over Estonia and Latvia.
“Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours,” Rand said in its report.
“Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad.”
Rand suggests that “a force of about seven brigades” including heavy armour supported by air power, “on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.”
The BBC’s “Inside the War Room” should never have been made
With the angry crowd wielding Russian flags, it looks just like a scene from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Men in balaclavas storm a local government building and remove the flags from its façade. Except this time, they are the Latvian and EU flags, and the setting is not Ukraine but Latvia’s eastern region of Latgale, near the Russian Border. This is the opening of World War Three: Inside the War Room, which was broadcast on BBC Two tonight. In it, ten political, diplomatic and military figures war-game an imagined scenario in which Russia becomes militarily involved with Latvia and Estonia.
The one-hour programme jumps between fake documentary scenes set in Latvia, and scenes set in the “war room,” where the ten figures debate how to respond to Russia’s hypothetical moves and, ultimately, whether to engage in nuclear warfare. This makes for a charged 59 minutes of midweek television yet, given the current tensions along NATO’s eastern edge, the BBC’s decision to broadcast it is surprising.
The programme reflects genuine concerns about Moscow’s ambitions in the Baltic region since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Some observers have warned that the three Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—might be next. (Note that the first two of these countries have large ethnic Russian minorities). In an interview a year ago, Lithuania’s defence minister Juozas Olekas told me that his country is “in a different situation” to Ukraine since it joined NATO in 2004, and so perhaps Russia will stay away. Still, as the BBC programme shows in its compelling “war room” scenes, it is unclear exactly how NATO members would or, in practical terms, could respond to a Russian attack on one of the Baltic States. A focus of the next NATO summit, in Warsaw in July, will be strengthening the Alliance’s presence along its eastern flank.
Strategists have been thinking ahead, imaging possible scenarios in the Baltic. For instance, a Finnish magazine outlined three hypothetical storylines involving Russian attacks on Finland’s Åland Islands, the Swedish island of Gotland, and the city of Narva, on Estonia’s border with Russia (the article can be read in English here). Meanwhile, there have been dubious efforts to depict Latgale as a potential Latvian Donbass, and shadowy online calls to establish a “Latgalian People’s Republic” (like the Republics of Donetsk or Luhansk), which the Latvian security services deemed to have been fabricated from outside Latgale.
Hypothetical scenarios are one thing, the BBC’s programme is another. Inside the War Room is not a documentary about Moscow’s influence in the Baltic States, featuring interviews with Latgalians (many of whom resent being stereotyped as disloyal to Latvia). Instead, it sets a violent takeover in a living, breathing region of the world where speakers of Russian, Latvian and the local Latgalian (which some consider a dialect of Latvian) nestle side by side. It is not like in the civil service FastStream exam I sat as a student, which involved hypothetical sudden developments in a crisis-ridden country with a made-up name; it is closely connected to the real world.
Even before its broadcast, and with almost no details about its content, the programme has raised eyebrows in Latvia, prompting heated comments online. Jānis Sārts, director of the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (STRATCOM) commented that the genre of entertainment should not be confused with reality. The Russian media has picked up the BBC programme too. TV Zvezda, a television channel run by Russia’s ministry of defence, announced it in an article with the headline: “Britain will not reply to Russia’s nuclear strike—Daily Mail.” More broadly, by portraying Russia as fearsome, Latvia’s ethnic Russians as separatists, Riga as helpless and its Western allies as hesitant, the programme inadvertedly echoes some of the Kremlin’s narratives.
Video footage is a particularly sensitive matter, in the context of the use and abuse of images during the conflict in Ukraine. The BBC programme is not a documentary, but could be assumed to be so, or depicted as one. Its news-like scenes set in Latvia and the Baltic States, complete with authoritative voiceover in BBC English, could easily be construed as news reports. Some viewers will say that World War Three: Inside the War Room is just a television programme, yet already its repercussions have been wider.
by Annabelle Chapman | Read other articles of the author