NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – On Nov. 15, 1992 – the day Air Force Lt. Gen. John Conaway touched down in Riga, Latvia, hoping to establish partnerships between National Guard elements and nations newly freed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc – Ināra Mūrniece was 21-years-old.
Twice, Mūrniece’s father had been deported to Siberia. Eventually, her family had returned to Latvia.
“During Soviet times, everything was bleak and gray,” Mūrniece recalled. “We couldn’t even speak or dream about democracy.”
Her grandmother had told Mūrniece stories of a free Latvia, an independent, sovereign nation. And her grandmother had taught her songs.
“She sang Latvian songs, in spite of occupiers being around us,” Mūrniece said. “Christmas was forbidden in the Soviet Union; she sang Christmas carols. The Latvians regained their spirits by culture, by songs, by traditions.
“I couldn’t imagine going into politics, because there was no politics: it was just oppressive powers, and KGB, and Communist Party, which controlled all life in the Soviet empire.”
But, on the day the 22nd Chief of the National Guard Bureau’s plane touched down, Mūrniece had a kernel of hope, because, on Aug. 21 the previous year, the Republic of Latvia had declared its independence. The Soviet occupiers had not yet left – a Russian colonel was among those who met Conaway’s arriving aircraft. But there was hope – and the commitment of the Latvian nation.
“I recall the day of regaining independence,” Mūrniece said. “Many people just cried. I asked my father and my grandmother, ‘Why are you crying?’ After suffering in Siberia, after hunger, after repressions, after they came back home, to have freedom and to have sovereignty, to have independence, to have our life – it was a miracle to them.”
Here’s how that freedom changed the trajectory of one Latvian’s life:
Mūrniece became a journalist at Latvia’s largest newspaper. Then, she ran for the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament – and was elected. From 2014 to 2022, Mūrniece was Speaker of the Saeima.
Today, Mūrniece is her nation’s minister of defense.
Latvia and its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, were the first three nations to form security cooperation partnerships with National Guard states in the nascent Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.
Today, the SPP is celebrating 30 years and has grown to partnerships with 100 countries, more than half the sovereign recognized nations on the planet, and Mūrniece is in town representing her nation at a two-day conference of the partners.
Back when she was a journalist whose beat included the military, Mūrniece observed Latvia’s growing relationship with the Michigan National Guard.
She watched cooperation, professional development and, she said, friendships grow.
Michigan joint terminal attack controllers – troops known as JTACs who guide military aircraft engaged in close air support and other offensive air operations from a forward position – trained with their Latvian counterparts. The Michigan Air Guard and the Latvian Air Force honed skills together. Latvia added UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to its military capabilities.
Today, the partnership thrives, and Mūrniece hopes to see Michigan Guardsmen training with and learning from Latvian counterparts in the country’s Multinational Division North.
“Today, Latvia is a proud member of NATO and the European Union,” Mūrniece said. “We enjoy a democratic lifestyle and freedom.”
Latvia isn’t just a member of NATO – it’s a leader in meeting and surpassing the goal of all alliance members spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense. “It’s not just spending,” Mūrniece said, “it’s an investment in our defense and deterrence, and our society, with our quite difficult history, knows very well it is an investment.”
For decades, Latvia warned Western nations about Russia.
“We are very happy that the NATO allies have heard our warnings,” Mūrniece said. “Yes, it was late. It was only after Russia started full-scale war in Ukraine. But better late than never, and I’d like to commend NATO military planners for newly adopted defense plans for our region.”
Last week, Minister Mūrniece led Latvia’s delegation at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her nation committed about 1.3% of its GDP for Ukraine.
“Latvia, together with other Baltic states and Poland, will always support Ukraine, and we will support Ukraine politically, militarily, with humanitarian aid, economically, in all ways possible … as long as necessary … to full victory of Ukraine,” Mūrniece said.
Minister Mūrniece praised the NATO summit’s commitment to a comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine and the formation of the NATO Ukraine Council.
“During Soviet occupations, Latvia has felt all the consequences: We have had our own Buchas, and Irpins,” Mūrniece said, referring to Ukrainian cities impacted by Russian atrocities.
“That’s why we understand what Ukrainians are going through today.”