After Ukraine, does Russia have designs on the three Baltic states?by / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an “armed attack” on one Nato member is to be regarded as an attack on all. Fine words, but the challenge for Nato is to ensure that they are never put to the test. For his part, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin knows that there is no better place than the Baltics—nearby, lightly defended, far from the Nato core and with a large Russian minority—to try his luck.
There are two main reasons why he might be tempted to do so. The first is focused on the United States rather than Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. The US is again Russia’s principal adversary, although the rivalry has changed since Soviet times. It is not nearly as ideological as when communism was out to “bury” the west. Moscow’s geopolitical aims are more modest, too: it believes that the US just has to accept that its current dominance must be replaced by a humbler role in a “multipolar” world in which Russia is treated with the respect it thinks it deserves. With respect would come the realisation of Moscow’s second objective: recognition that Russia has a legitimate extraterritorial sphere of interest, much of it encompassed within a loosely defined “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) that includes most or all of the post-Soviet space, including, to a greater or lesser extent, the Baltics, the three renegade states that made it all the way from the USSR to Nato.
The idea that the breaking of Article 5 would shatter American pre-eminence was one that I heard repeatedly on recent visits to Tallinn in March and Riga, the Latvian capital. The argument was straightforward enough. Article 5 binds the North Atlantic Alliance together. If it failed to protect Nato’s Baltic trio, other allies would wonder whether it would work any better for them. Is Bucharest so much more important than Tallinn? Is Warsaw? It’s not hard to see how the alliance might begin to unravel. It’s not much harder to think that some of its members might prefer instead to come to terms with a Moscow that was no longer the ideological or existential threat that it was in Soviet times.
The blow to US prestige would be immense, and it would not be confined to Europe. American allies or associates elsewhere in the world could easily decide that Uncle Sam’s support, long a fraying concept, was not something that could be counted upon for much. Time to call Beijing perhaps?
The shorthand term “the Baltics” conceals a great deal of difference. Strongly Roman Catholic Lithuania was in a “Commonwealth” (1569-1795) with Poland before falling into Russian hands and still has a feel of central Europe about it. Latvia and especially Estonia have, at least culturally, more of a Lutheran tradition—the legacy of the “good old Swedish times” (as they are occasionally described in Estonia) that predated conquest by Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. Even more so, it is also the legacy of the presence of a now-vanished Baltic German elite that first arrived in the area in the 13th century and, until the fall of the tsars, ran most things, whoever was nominally in charge. Cannily acknowledging its Swedish past, Estonia is now trying to redefine itself as Nordic, a shortcut to respectability that Finland (once the fourth Baltic state) mastered with great success in the 1920s. That Estonian and Finnish are (more or less) mutually comprehensible helps. Latvia is the middle geographically, and in other respects too—nationalist and proudly so, yet in some ways more comfortable with Russia, more welcoming of its money, and to some degree its people (thus intermarriage rates have been relatively high), than is the case in Estonia, where Estonians and Russians live largely apart; “two solitudes,” in the old Canadian phrase.
“As Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves once put it to me: ‘We join everything.'”
But there is plenty that unites the Baltic nations too, above all their shared mid-century catastrophe—occupation by the Soviets, then the Nazis and then, for nearly 50 years, the Soviets again, a catastrophe that still haunts. Why that nightmare came calling is rooted in the specifics of the time—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and all that. But there is also a shared realisation that they did not do enough to stave off doomsday in the interwar years. They failed to cooperate sufficiently. They failed to make enough friends abroad. Now, as Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves once put it to me: “We join everything.” The Baltic trio joined both the European Union and Nato in 2004.
That they attach such importance to Article 5 is no great surprise, and nor was the fact that I was hearing the persuasive argument that sticking with the commitment it represents is about more than three small states, an argument clearly intended to dissuade those tempted to abandon the Baltic nations—faraway countries of which many know little—to their fate. There are plenty who might be willing to do so. An opinion poll conducted in April and May by the Pew Research Centre in eight Nato countries revealed that only in the US and Canada was there outright majority support for using their armed forces to defend one of Russia’s Nato neighbours in the event of serious military conflict. In France, Italy and Germany, there was a clear majority against. It’s perhaps worth remembering that Article 5 does not mandate a military response, merely “such action as [Nato] deems necessary.”
The numbers would have been even worse had the question been more specific. What if those polled had been asked whether their country’s troops should intervene in the case of a supposedly domestic Donetsk-style “rising,” however bogus, in Narva, a drab, Soviet-style city that is Estonia’s third largest? Located just across a narrow river from Russia, and with a population that is 96 per cent Russian-speaking and where over a third of the residents are Russian citizens, Narva could provide all the convenient ambiguity (just an internal matter, you see) that a hesitant Nato—or a hesitant Nato member—might need to argue that Article 5 did not apply. Besides, who wants to die for Narva?
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia first won independence from Russia in the confused aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, new republics offering a chance of nationhood after centuries of alien rule. All three eventually succumbed to reasonably mild variants of authoritarianism but, given the difficult circumstances of their birth, not to speak of the deteriorating economic and political climate in Europe in the 1930s, theirs was a story of remarkable progress.
During the Soviet occupation the years of independence were remembered, understandably if not always accurately, as a golden era, memories that fuelled the drive for a fresh break with Moscow and the determination to make it work. They inspired the form that that second chance would take. When (to borrow an image from the historian Norman Davies) these three peoples finally emerged from Leviathan in the early 1990s, they wanted their republics back. The old flags flew once more. Old constitutions were dusted off. Old monuments were rebuilt. Imposed idols—Lenin and the rest—were torn down.
But the past cannot be unmade. Between them, the Nazis and the Soviets reshaped the demographics of the Baltic states forever. The Germans slaughtered the region’s Jewish population (prewar Lithuania and Latvia both had significant Jewish minorities), all too often with the help of local willing executioners, twisted both by “traditional” eastern European anti-Semitism and the (highly exaggerated) perception that Jews had been sympathetic to the Soviet takeover in 1940. War itself took its toll. And whether true believers, forced to choose between two totalitarian systems or simply conscripted, Balts fought on both sides.
Both during the initial occupation and then after their return in 1944, the Soviets followed the standard Stalinist script of mass-murder and deportation to the east. The flight of tens of thousands to the west increased an emptiness that Moscow (partly prompted by a desire to Russify its new SSRs) filled by importing huge numbers of settlers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Prewar Estonia was roughly 90 per cent ethnic Estonian. Today that figure is 70 per cent. The balance is almost entirely made up of “Russian-speakers” (a catch-all term used in the region that refers to more than ethnic Russians). Latvians saw their share of their republic’s population shrink from 75 per cent before the war to 62 per cent in 2014. Russian-speakers accounted for most of the rest.
Those statistics mask how close Latvians and Estonians— small, bullied peoples (1.4m Latvians and fewer than a million Estonians were living in “their” Soviet republics in 1989)—came to being a minority in their own homelands. By the end of the Mikhail Gorbachev era, only 52 per cent of the Latvian population was Latvian, a total that would have continued to decline had the Soviet Union survived. The story was not so different in Estonia. A palpable fear of extinction haunts these lands, tethered by history and geography to a neighbour that had already absorbed nearby Ingrians, Karelians and Veps into something close to nothingness (and there are other “forgotten peoples”—to quote from the pointed title of a late-Soviet period Estonian choral cycle—to choose from).
That existential terror goes a long way to explaining why, after the restoration of independence, citizenship of both Latvia and Estonia was initially restricted to nationals of the prewar republics and their descendants. Legal logic did the rest. The revived Baltic states saw their break from the USSR as a restoration of independence. That left those who had moved there during the Soviet occupation in an awkward place. Lithuanians (more numerous and representing a far larger share of their republic’s population) could afford to be more generous: citizenship was open to almost any long-term resident who wanted it.
Over time, both Latvia and Estonia have relaxed citizenship rules, partly due to a reluctant acceptance that most of their Russian-speakers would never go “home” and partly due to pressure from the west that they were so keen to rejoin—a west that was uncomfortable with anything resembling ethnic nationalism. And which, more pragmatically, had no wish to risk a Baltic Balkans with Russia next door.
Even so, no Baltic state is ever likely to adopt Russian as a second official language. A proposal to do so in Latvia was voted down in a 2012 referendum that was both decisive and divisive. There’s the weight of history, and there is the practical argument too. These countries are too small (Estonia’s population today is 1.3m, Latvia’s about two million), and their societies too fragile (“we can’t be Canada”) to adopt that course. But even as younger generations of Russian-speakers master the Baltic languages, Russian remains widely used and “Russian” schools still operate (for now, anyway) within the state education system.
About half of Estonia’s Russian-speakers now hold Estonian citizenship. The rest divide roughly equally between Russian nationals and “non-citizens.” There are another 260,000 (mainly) Russian-speaking “non-citizens” in Latvia. The anomalous status of such non-citizens, many of whom have lived in the Baltics for decades (or may even have been born there) has long been an irritant to Moscow. It has been described by Putin as “shameful” or worse, a theme echoed by others in the Kremlin hierarchy which takes on a more ominous resonance in an era when, as Putin warned last year, Russia is prepared to “defend the rights of… our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means.”
Since the annexation of the Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, it has been all too clear that that range is very wide indeed. And it is all too clear that the Kremlin regards the Baltics as one area where the rights of Russian “compatriots” are under siege.
It’s not just a matter of increasingly belligerent rhetoric. The harassment of the Baltics has stepped up from occasional irritants (bans on the import of Latvian sprats or Lithuanian cheese, for example) and low key mischief-making, to large scale military exercises (“Zapad-13” in 2013 involved 70,000 Russian and Belarusian soldiers war-gaming in operations against “Baltic terrorists”), incursions into Baltic airspace and a series of gestures clearly designed to demonstrate that Baltic independence doesn’t quite count.
Russia has reopened the criminal investigation of Lithuanians who dodged the Red Army’s draft after Lithuania’s (unilateral) declaration of independence in early 1990. Then in June some parliamentarians from Putin’s United Russia party asked Russia’s state prosecutor to investigate the legality of the constitutional arrangements that allowed the Soviet Union to recognise the independence of the Baltic states in September 1991—although the Kremlin officially disavowed this effort. Most jarringly of all, Putin has begun to defend 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Nazi-Soviet deal that consigned the Baltics to the USSR in the first place.
Russia has also been pouring troops and military hardware (including missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload) into its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea, a slice of old East Prussia annexed by the Soviets in 1945 and cut off from Russia-friendly Belarus by Lithuania. If Russia’s tensions with Estonia and Latvia rest on demography, with Lithuania the problem is geography.
This is not just sabre rattling. When, in 2005, Putin notoriously referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” he was not mourning the Communist Party, but rather the fact that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory,” a theme that, tellingly, he alluded to in a major speech shortly after the annexation of the Crimea. Trying to repair, at least partly, that breach through the creation of his “Russian world” is much more than a matter of poking Washington: it is a central element in his foreign policy and, critically, a key source of domestic support.
Under the circumstances, reports that people from Latgale, Latvia’s easternmost region, (like northeastern Estonia, inhabited by a large Russian-speaking population) were quizzed in 2014 by Russian officials on their inclination to support a Crimean-style scenario in their area are all too credible. Fortunately, the answers they are likely to have given would have been discouraging to anyone plotting to send “little green men” (as the early insignia-free Russian intruders into Crimea were dubbed) across the border. The Baltic’s Russian-speakers receive most of their news from Russia’s poisonous media (which reserves plenty of venom for supposedly fascist Russophobic Balts). Nevertheless, while they appear to be generally supportive of Moscow’s adventures abroad, they seem to have little appetite for being “rescued” by their compatriots: the devastation in Donetsk has only sharpened their awareness of what that could mean.
“Non-citizen status is less of a nuisance than Russian propaganda would suggest”
They also know that they do better financially as they are than under Russian rule. Ukraine in 2014 was a failed state. The same cannot be said of the Baltics, politically or economically. When it comes to the latter, growth in the 1990s was followed by boom in the early 2000s as money poured in ahead of (and after) EU membership. Then came a brutal bust (as an indication, Latvian gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 25 per cent between the third quarters of 2007 and 2009), which was, economically if not emotionally, made more bearable by the safety valve of emigration, particularly to elsewhere in the EU. That was an option that many, mainly in Latvia and Lithuania (Estonians tended to commute to Finland instead), were already taking, but the pace accelerated sharply as GDPs crumbled. Lithuania’s population has shrunk from around 3.5m at the turn of the century to less than three million today. All three economies have since made strong recoveries, but emigration continues, if at lower levels. That said, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have achieved a level of prosperity and, no less importantly, security hard to find in Russia—even in Latgale and northeastern Estonia, two regions that have struggled to keep up.
Non-citizen status is less of a nuisance than Russian propaganda would suggest, something hinted at by a significantly lower take-up of Latvian and Estonian citizenship than expected (the language and civics tests are not that demanding). That non-citizens can travel visa-free to Russia (unlike Latvians and Estonians) as well as to most of the EU, helps explain why. They are excluded from some public sector jobs, but can vote in local elections in Estonia, if not Latvia, and are (with a wrinkle or two) entitled to the same social benefits as full citizens. It’s easy for their children, if born in Latvia and Estonia since independence, to claim full citizenship. In Estonia, it will be automatic from next year.
This is not to argue that Russian-speakers don’t feel left out in lands they once dominated, living in states where their ethnicity feels a lot like second-best. Local patriotism for their Baltic home does exist, but integration is very far from complete. Nevertheless, with the exception of riots in Tallinn in 2007 over the relocation of the statue of a Red Army “liberator” from the city centre to a military cemetery (which also provoked a massive cyber-attack from Russia), there has been no serious ethnic violence.
Those riots were also a reminder of the very different ways that Balts and Russian-speakers view their unhappily shared past, but perhaps the most troubling indicator of a persistent divide is in the structure of Latvian and Estonian politics. Lithuania has something resembling a conventional left/right split, but in the other two countries ethnicity counts for more than ideology. Latvia’s Russian-speakers tend to support the Harmony Party, the country’s largest, while their counterparts in Estonia opt for the less explicitly “Russian” Centre Party, which took nearly 25 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election. In contrast with post-independence orthodoxy in Latvia and Estonia, both parties are leftish, but their connections to United Russia say more. Neither is in government but their leaders are mayors of Riga and Tallinn, respectively, two cities with large Russian-speaking populations. There are some in the Baltics who worry more about little green mayors than little green men. And there’s a lot of Russian money about, above all in Latvia.
So what lies ahead? Few doubt that Russian pressure will continue. For all the chest-beating, however, an open attack remains highly unlikely, but if Russia wanted to recruit disaffected locals, counterfeit or otherwise, to stage some sort of “insurrection” in, say, Narva, convincing enough to give Nato’s waverers their out and infiltrators their in, it might well be able to do so.
The Baltic states are doing what they can to build up their own defences, both military (spending is up, Lithuania has reintroduced conscription) and otherwise. Estonia and Latvia are setting up Russian-language television channels designed to do something to puncture the noxious “information space” in which so many of the region’s Russian speakers live. Lithuania, meanwhile, has opened up a liquefied natural gas storage facility designed to guarantee its energy independence from Russia.
None of this by itself will be anything like enough. Estonia’s armed forces have around 6,000 regulars, the Latvian air force amounts to little more than a few helicopters and Lithuania has no tanks. Without Nato, there’s not a lot to put in Putin’s way. Russia’s President is no madman, but, in the current climate, for the Baltic trio to rely on a paper guarantee is to tempt fate.
To be sure, Nato has boosted its presence in the region. There have been joint exercises, an expanded Nato air policing operation has been underway since 2014, and a new 5,000-strong Nato rapid reaction force designed to deliver a response to aggression in eastern Europe within a matter of days is being built up. But according to the Czech General, Petr Pavel, speaking shortly before he became the head of Nato’s Military Committee in June, 48 hours is how long it would take the Russians to occupy the Baltic states, establishing a fait accompli that would present the west with some very difficult decisions. What the Balts are hoping for are troops who are already there, a tripwire akin to the US presence in South Korea. Step by tentative step, Washington is moving in that direction. In late June, the US announced that it would store enough equipment (including tanks) in the Baltic states and three other east European countries to support a battalion in each. Again, that assumes that troops could arrive in time to use them. But a request by the Baltic countries for the permanent deployment of a Nato brigade (3,000 to 5,000 troops) on their territory remains unanswered. That hesitation will not have escaped Putin’s attention.