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Mar 6 2024

Interview: German Ambassador to Latvia joins Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast for reserve duty

For the first time in the 25-year history of Multinational Corps Northeast, an incumbent ambassador joined the Corps' command for reserve duty. Once a German Army active service member, H.E. Christian Heldt, German Ambassador to Latvia, deployed for a two-week assignment to emphasize the commitment to the security of the Baltic Sea region. "I do believe defence is not just limited to the military, but concerns all of us. Society as a whole has to embrace and support the idea of security as a common goal," said the Ambassador.

Mr. Ambassador, what made you join Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast?

First of all, the coincidence of timelines that brought the Corps' Commander Lieutenant General von Sandrart and me together shortly after taking up our respective duties. Since then, we have shared many meetings in Riga, and I got increasingly curious about the work being done on such a scale in your Headquarters. I had become a reserve officer after my active service decades ago – that made it technically possible to join the command for a reserve duty and to get a little more acquainted with the tasks and challenges ahead for NATO in this crucial part of Europe.

I do believe defence is not just limited to the military, but concerns all of us. Society as a whole has to embrace and support the idea of security as a common goal. In that respect, serving and learning at the Headquarters, maybe also giving my inputs on issues of public advocacy for a safer free world, that is my personal answer to the threats targeting our democracies at this very moment, right here in Europe. So , I’m very grateful for this opportunity to "change sides", since in the end, we both are parts of the same team.

Contrary to the popular belief that sees the military and diplomacy as opposites, are they then two sides of the same coin? Can they work in tandem?

Absolutely, both the military and diplomacy are parts of a political toolbox. That is the duo of foreign and security policy. I have myself experienced that in the German Ministry of Defence for two years. We were dealing with all the military missions abroad in the wide variety of mandates. Not just in that respect, in general, there is such a multitude of questions we can only solve together that we simply cannot afford not working together closely. I do know about the traditional stereotypes not just these peer groups have about each other. But in the end, it is existential that we know each other, our respective mindsets and last, certainly not least, our respective capabilities. Only when we have a clear grasp on what we can do combining our tool boxes and our efforts, we are truly able to deliver the best possible results. That means talking, sharing, doing things together. It is also putting yourself in the other’s shoes or boots as in the case for me right now.

Do you think serving at Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast will prove helpful in your work as German Ambassador to Latvia?

I definitely see that. In my host country Latvia, the understanding of the threats posed in the immediate neighbourhood by Russia is widespread and substantial. Latvians are very much aware of the dangers they are confronted with, and not just since 2022. The aggressive pattern of Moscow goes back way before. At the same time, since a few years now, Latvia with its Baltic neighbours is experiencing a reassuring NATO boost. 

Germany as one of the bigger NATO Allies is very present in the Baltic region. We are the framework nation for NATO's enhanced Forward Presence in neighbouring Lithuania. We will ramp up even more by stationing a brigade there. Latvia is hosting the Baltic Air Policing with the German Air Force in 2024. We have the German Navy closely cooperating with the Baltic and thus also the Latvian navy. All that blends into the overall efforts by NATO to deter and show very clearly: This is NATO, we are here as an alliance, nobody should even think about adventuring onto the Alliance territory. 

With my experiences here at Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast, the insights I gathered, I feel even more reassured to say to Latvian friends – NATO is here, NATO is ready. In these challenging times, it is a good feeling to pass on this message in the public sphere, not just in Latvia.

Ambassador Heldt visits the Riga Museum of the Barricades of 1991, commemorating Latvians who protected the newly declared independence from the USSR during the dramatic events of January 1991 © German Embassy to Latvia

When it comes to daily life and people's perceptions, what footprint does NATO have in Latvia?

Very clearly, NATO is the existential framework for Latvia. And that is not just the feeling in elite circles. People there went through half a century of occupation, they know their neighbourhood pretty well. NATO gives reassurance to all Allies, and particularly to those exposed, like now also the Baltic States with Latvia in their middle. The Latvians strongly feel this belonging to the free world, belonging to NATO and the European Union. And they are great partners and allies, with whom we celebrate 20 years in NATO and 20 years in the EU in the coming months.

You were in active service in the 1980s – those were also crucial times, and the yearning to live in the free world was very strong among many European nations.

Indeed, it’s quite surprising to explain today to younger Germans that back then West Germany was the Eastern flank. We were the ones having the solidarity of Allies like the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, Belgium, and so many others who had troops stationed permanently all over our country as NATO's territory. It even sounds surprising to some non-German friends that before the fall of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain dividing Europe, we had defence expenditures that were 3% GDP, at peak times even 4%. The Bundeswehr alone had twelve full divisions, and we were not counting the Leopards by the hundreds, but by the thousands.

These were different times, but it translates the sense of defence being something real and imminent. Of course, there also were the doomsday prophecies. However, NATO stood, and rightly so as we saw afterwards – the model of collective security was appealing enough to attract the big family we are now. That attractiveness hasn’t diminished, quite on the contrary – we witness now Finland and Sweden joining as valued Allies.

But to come back to comparing back then and now, we have to internalize Zeitenwende and reboot our societal mindset. The threat and danger is close and imminent, we have to embrace the fact that we are back to the notion of defence after decades during which the feeling was that the eternal peace had come to Europe. With the brutal invasion into Ukraine, Moscow has taught us differently and once again, we have to think in terms of deterrence and defence on our continent. 

In that same line of thinking, it is now our turn to give this feeling of allied solidarity to our Allies on today's Eastern flank. Not just in words, but by concrete actions, like the stationing of a brigade in Lithuania – the first in German history, transposing our situation decades ago to counter the new threats we all are facing. To me personally, that is the best takeaway after joining the Bundeswehr more than 40 years ago in a completely different setting: I still experience it right now in the Headquarters, the fundamental principles of NATO don’t grow old. And that is what we all will be celebrating in July on its 75th birthday.

The security of the Baltic Sea is a topic more pertinent now then ever before in our post-Cold War history. But what does this region mean to you personally?

My father's family has its origins not very far from here, in Rostock and surroundings. I was only able to see that part of Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall. From Riga, over the past years of my posting, I'm grateful for having been able to retrace European history and discover culture, see us all as part of a revived Europe. In the context of our new NATO members, Finland and Sweden, there often was talk about the Baltic Sea becoming a "mare nostrum". But it has always been there! Fortunately, half a century of divisions and the Cold War couldn’t erase the fact that we are one European cultural space in the diversity of proud traditions our nations have brought to it. With the global challenges we are facing, a glance at the map shows us very quickly how eminently important it is for us to understand we belong together as a part of the free world.

By the way, that is also one of the great experiences of working and staying in Szczecin for a short time, in this part of one of NATO's most steadfast Allied nations. You work with people from 22 nations committed to one cause – to defend our democratic way of life and the rule of law. You walk out, discover amazing spots and wonderful people, and can say to yourself: That's why we're doing this, we're serving our people's future.

Story by Multinational Corps Northeast Public Affairs Office

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Waleriana Łukasińskiego 33
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Waleriana Łukasińskiego 33
71-215 Szczecin