Latvian Forest BrothersRecently declassified documents from the archive of the Central Intelligence Agency detail financial and material support given by the United States to groups of armed guerrillas in Soviet Latvia in the 1950s. The documents, initially marked ‘Top Secret’ but now declassified, show that the CIA was aware and supported the activities of an anti-Soviet guerrilla army known as ‘the Forest Brothers’. Known also as ‘the Forest Brethren’, the group was formed in the Baltic States in 1944, as the Soviet Red Army established Soviet control over the previously German-occupied states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Soviet Union had previously occupied and annexed the three Baltic countries, in a failed attempt to pre-empt Germany’s eastward military expansion. Groups like the Forest Brothers consisted of the most militant members of anti-Soviet groups in the Baltic States, many of whom were ideologically opposed to Soviet Communism.
The role of the CIA in funding and helping to organize anti-Soviet groups inside the USSR has been known for decades. But the recently released documents, unearthed by Russian-language service of Latvian state television, shed light into the CIA’s early understanding of the identity, strength and operations of these groups. They also contain new information about the background and structure of underground anti-Soviet groups like the Forest Brothers in Latvia.
The first declassified CIA document that contains information on anti-Soviet resistance in Latvia is dated November 29, 1949, and is titled “The Organization of the Underground Resistance Movement in Eastern Europe”. It was soon followed by two other documents, entitled “Latvian Resistance to Russian Occupation” and “Request for [Support] to the Latvian Resistance Movement”. The latter document was produced in mid-1950, after the CIA was able to establish contact with anti-Soviet Latvian expatriates living in Germany and Sweden. From these contacts, the CIA was able to determine that active (and possibly armed) resistance to the Soviet Red Army in Latvia was limited to approximately 5,000 individuals, many of whom conducted periodic guerrilla attacks against Soviet troops or installations. However, the CIA report said that, as of 1950, the majority of these armed guerrillas remained dormant, “waiting for a more opportune moment” to return to action. The CIA memorandum also stated that clandestine radio communication existed between the leadership of Latvia’s anti-Soviet underground in Riga and exile Latvian communities in Sweden.
Latvia Forest BrothersThe role of the CIA in funding and helping to organize anti-Soviet groups inside the USSR has been known for decades. But, as intelNews explained in part I of this article, a batch of recently released documents, unearthed by Russian-language service of Latvian state television, sheds light into the CIA’s early understanding of the identity, strength and operations of these groups. They also contain new information about the background and structure of underground anti-Soviet groups like the Forest Brothers in Latvia.
Judging that Latvia’s anti-Soviet underground movement could be “of considerable operational value”, the CIA initiated project ZRLYNCH in the summer of 1950. Operated out of the CIA’s Munich station in Germany, ZRLYNCH was intended as a long-term project supervised by the Office of Policy Coordination, an early Cold War covert operations outfit that in 1952 was absorbed into the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. The Latvia operation was part of a wider effort by the CIA, which was aimed at subverting Soviet power in Eastern Europe.
For the first year of ZRLYNCH, the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination asked for —and received— a budget of $30,000. The top-secret document unearthed recently by Latvian state television states that the budget was to be used primarily for intelligence collection inside Soviet territory, as well as for covert operations by the Forest Brothers (for information about the group, see part I of this post). The latter were to conduct sabotage activities as part of organized guerrilla warfare. These activities are not specified in the CIA documents. By the end of the first year, it appears that the CIA had recruited three Latvian agents in Europe (one in Sweden and two in Germany), who were acting as mediators between the CIA and the Forest Brothers inside the USSR. Less than three years later, the ZRLYNCH budget had risen to $134,000, with $52,000 going toward covert —mostly psychological— operations and the rest being used to fund intelligence collection efforts. The CIA was also funding the travel expenses of leading Latvian émigré figures in the US, and was diverting tens of thousands of dollars toward Latvian émigré conferences in America, which aimed to unite the various political factions of the fragmented Latvian community in the States.
But the CIA officers behind ZRLYNCH were extremely concerned about operational security. They did not want the Kremlin finding out that the Agency was behind efforts to stir up armed resistance against Soviet power in the Baltic region. One CIA document states that there would be no tolerance for “any breaches of security” that compromised ZRLYNCH. Consequently, any action that uncovered the link between the US government and the Forest Bothers would lead “to an immediate cessation of financial support” for ZRLYNCH, states the memo.
Ultimately, ZRLYNCH failed to seriously challenge Soviet power in Latvia. Most of the members of the Forest Brothers were killed during Red Army counterinsurgency operations, and much of the organization’s structure was penetrated by agents of Soviet intelligence. Eventually, the Forest Brothers became extinct in 1957, when their last members emerged from the forest and surrendered to Latvian and Soviet authorities.
AUGUST 10, 2017 BY JOSEPH FITSANAKIS
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