Read more: after Ukraine, are the Baltics in Putin’s sights?
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…