The Baltic states view the Trump White House with justified fearby Richard Martyn-Hemphill / December 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Hunched over the wheel of a night bus from Lithuania, our driver stares out at the icy roads that pass through Latvia and up to Estonia, lined on each side by forests and cabins. A drift of fog keeps him squinting through the darkness, left to guess what lies up ahead.
The triumph of Donald Trump has left politicians throughout the Baltic Sea region shrouded in a similarly haunting awareness of the unknown. Much of the world sees the President-Elect as an affront to cherished abstractions—dignified statecraft, respectful language, the rule of law. But in the small and proudly-independent states here, the brute question is instead whether the eventual result of the new regime in Washington could even be invasion by Russia.
Trump’s ally on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich, called Estonia “a suburb” of St Petersburg, not worth risking nuclear war over. Wild comments from Trump are not surprising—but Gingrich knows what he is doing. Gingrich supported the expansion of Nato in the 1990s, eventually leading to the inclusion of several Russian “suburbs” in 2004. He pushed for legislation to provide for that when he was Speaker of the House. So his new attitude, and Trump’s own contempt for Nato, are causing real anxiety.
Harsh memories of decades of Soviet rule are still keenly felt round here. A quarter of a century on from independence, the Baltics are ensconced in the European Union and Nato, and so—in theory—safe from any Russian incursion. Since Trump’s win, news outlets have been rehashing the scare stories that have been around since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Ever since, the Baltic Sea has been locked in an arms race: even neutral Finland and Sweden are cranking up military spending and seeking co-operation with Nato. Russia is flexing its muscles less discreetly. In its western exclave of Kaliningrad, it shows off its military in snap drills, and probes the air and sea space of its neighbours, unveiling military hardware with the glee of a child opening Christmas presents. In response, Lithuania has reintroduced conscription and released a manual on how to survive and disrupt an invasion. Estonia also has conscription, and it has long kept its defence spending in line with the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP. Most members are way off, but little Estonia now pledges even more. And Latvia and Lithuania are raising their spending incredibly fast, and should hit that 2 per cent target by 2018.
The United States has dramatically stepped up deployments throughout Central and Eastern Europe to strengthen its guarantees. But its next president has given more mixed signals about what these pledges are worth than any predecessor since Nato’s founding. Thus, before the election, many politicians here were raising the alarm about Trump. They rooted for Hillary Clinton, and expected her to win. If America saw her as lacking in warmth, in the Baltics she displayed a crowd-pleasing touch—thrilling the locals with her embrace of folk dance, and—reportedly—outlasting John McCain in a vodka-drinking contest on an official trip to Estonia.
The hope was that Madam President would echo Barack Obama’s vow: that the defence of the Baltic capitals—Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius—was “just as important” as that of London, Paris and Berlin. “You’ve lost your independence before,” Obama told a rapturous audience in Tallinn in 2014. “With Nato, you’ll never lose it again!” What a contrast with Trump, who suggested Nato was “obsolete” until its members paid more for their defence. He’s backpedalled somewhat, but his expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin have left officials here aghast.
The Baltics have become a haven for Russian journalists, activists, politicians, artists and businessmen opposed to authoritarian rule back in their own country. So the Baltic states cause Russia double offence—being both a dangerous democratic template for a post-authoritarian Russia, and living proof that countries can thrive after throwing off Moscow’s yoke.
During an interview at the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, its new Foreign Minister—Sven Mikser—epitomises the emerging hope-for-the-best, prepare-for-the-worst approach. Some politicians privately discuss a new “Intermarium” alliance stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Others are trying to court the US Congress, where the majority Republicans have traditionally been suspicious of Russia. All regard Nato as a hard-won prize, cemented with real commitments in places like Afghanistan. “We have always seen the US as our strongest ally. US participation has given Nato its credibility,” says Mikser, who insists that the backbone of defence must remain Nato’s Article 5, and not some sort of EU equivalent, as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed after Trump’s victory. “I expect President Trump to be very different to Candidate Trump,” he said hopefully.
For Emmet Tuohy, a research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security there is an upside to Trump: he “has had the salutary effect of making [the Baltics] speed up their own… measures to increase defence capacity.” But the Russian threat could take many forms—including cyber attacks, energy disruption, and spreading disinformation via the Russian media channels that serve Russian-speaking minorities. Many of these people cling to grey passports that technically render them stateless Soviet citizens, and their grievances could be a flashpoint. They number 6 per cent of Estonian residents, and twice that share in Latvia.
Of course, the security question gets abused in local politics—a handy sideshow from corruption, emigration, low pay and creaking welfare. Few voters are starry-eyed about the transition from communism. Then again, just look at Moldova’s dysfunctions and Belarus’s despotism, or indeed the Russian oligarchy itself, and the Baltics do look like a success. A success that’s worth protecting.