Having dismembered parts of Ukraine to freeze that country’s Westward progress, Russia’s government is turning its attention to the three Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are on NATO’s front line, and in each capital officials and analysts fear that the Kremlin may deliberately destabilize the region to demonstrate its rising strength and to underscore Western impotence.
In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. declined to recognize 45 years of occupation of the Baltic nations by the Soviet Union. All three countries embraced independence when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1990 and worked tirelessly to fulfill the conditions for both NATO and EU membership. They viewed their inclusion in the Alliance in 2004 as an essential step because it offered them a permanent guarantee of security and independence from Moscow. Without NATO membership, their predicament could very well now be comparable to Ukraine’s; Russia would be able to intervene without any effective deterrents. But even now, the question arises: Can NATO adequately protect the Baltic countries against a non-conventional threat from a resurgent Moscow?
While Russia’s ambitions toward the three Baltic states are clear, its pretexts for intervention and its strategies of subversion differ. The Kremlin is pursuing two overarching goals. First, it seeks the Baltics’ compliance in Russia’s geopolitical goals; it wants neutralized governments that will not challenge attempts to establish a Eurasian Union with the remaining post-Soviet states. Russian officials understand that the Baltic nations cannot be enticed or incorporated into its regional bloc, but they want to prevent them from supporting any initiatives for a wider EU or NATO that would undermine the Eurasian alternative. All three states are internationally active in support of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries that have resisted Russia’s pressures.
Second, Moscow wants to emasculate NATO, especially along their shared border in eastern Europe. By regularly challenging the Baltic countries through troop maneuvers, airspace violations, and threats of invasion or nuclear annihilation, Putin is intent on demonstrating that, in the event of a Russian attack, the Balts will be helpless to resist and NATO’s mutual defense doctrine will prove worthless. The Kremlin’s ambition is a NATO “rollback,” in which Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania perhaps might formally remain part of the Alliance but be unable to oppose Russian policy.
Moscow has two main pretexts for pressuring the Baltic countries: the status of Kaliningrad and the position of Russian-speaking populations. The Kremlin seeks exclusive control over a transit corridor across Lithuania to its exclave of Kaliningrad, a strip of territory on the Baltic coast that Russia annexed from Germany at the close of World War II. Russian officials claim that Kaliningrad could be deliberately cut off by Vilnius. However, the more likely scenario is a rising movement for autonomy in Kaliningrad, demanding as has Ukraine closer links with the EU, which the Kremlin will want to thwart. Kaliningrad’s population is growing increasingly frustrated by economic stagnation and Moscow’s neglect, and Western sanctions will further diminish the standard of living. Lithuanian officials calculate that Russia could stage a provocation along Kaliningrad’s border, claim that the local population is in danger of isolation or attack, and send a convoy of troops to open a direct corridor across Lithuanian territory.
Latvia and Estonia, meanwhile, contain sizeable Russian-speaking populations that Moscow claims are subject to discrimination and repression, despite no such negative reports by international human rights organizations. Although the greater share of these residents are integrated in the state through citizenship, political participation, and economic opportunity, a sizeable minority have avoided naturalization and may be susceptible to manipulation by Moscow’s agitprop offensives. Out of two million people in Latvia, 26 percent are Russians, with about another 6 percent being “Russian-speakers” (who claim Russian as their first language but belong to another ethnic grouping). Of these, about 290,000 people are non-citizens, as they have not passed an elementary naturalization test or have not applied for citizenship. In Estonia, out of a population of 1.3 million, about 28 percent are “Russian speakers,” of which nearly 90,000 are non-citizens.
In both countries, the “non-citizens” enjoy all EU-harmonized civil rights, aside from being unable to vote in Latvia, which is in line with the practice of most other EU states. However, in Estonia non-citizens are even permitted to vote at the local level. As permanent residents, all non-citizens can freely travel to any EU member state and live and work anywhere in the country. Nonetheless, a small minority remains vulnerable to a targeted campaign by Moscow to manufacture or exploit grievances in order to divide Latvian and Estonian societies. Conflicts can be incited by intensifying anti-government disinformation as conveyed through the popular Russian television channels and by infiltrating Russian special forces to organize local provocateurs. Officials in Moscow could then intervene under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots and preventing “civil war.” As in Ukraine, the aggressor could present himself as the peacemaker and mediator.
Various arms of the Russian government have applied pressure to the Baltic states for years. This pressure is likely to intensify if Ukraine is effectively neutralized by a “frozen conflict” in the Donbas. In addition to direct military threats and the exploitation of ethnic divisions, Moscow has used energy embargos, economic sanctions, political influence, financial corruption, cyber warfare, physical provocations (such as the recent abduction of an Estonian intelligence official on Estonian territory), and media and disinformation campaigns to engender social divisions and confrontations and weaken the Baltic governments.
The overriding question in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius is whether NATO can respond adequately to the security needs of its most exposed members. In terms of conventional military threats, it is essential to have an effective tripwire in place, manned by soldiers from various member states, including the U.S., on a rotational basis. Moves in this direction, through air policing units, regular training and military exercises, and the creation of small bases to accommodate the planned NATO Rapid Reaction Force, must be hastened. Moreover, given the eclectic methods that Moscow employs to soften up its neighbors, the Alliance must be better prepared for a wide assortment of unconventional threats. This must include assisting local police forces and border guards, preparing for anti-guerrilla operations, and more effective intelligence-gathering and -sharing operations.
In addition to ensuring comprehensive border controls and consolidating a professional and loyal police force, both Riga and Tallinn are developing a Russian-language media to counter persistent Kremlin disinformation campaigns targeting Russian-speakers. The Baltic governments have closely studied Moscow’s Crimean and Donbas operations and are determined to make sure that their countries are better prepared to withstand a Russian offensive. Estonia established a NATO Cyber Defense Center after a sustained attack on Estonian government websites in 2007. Latvia has just opened a NATO Strategic Communication Center in order to forewarn the Alliance about Russian media campaigns and other psychological operations.
Ultimately, the successful defense of any NATO member, especially in deterring Putin’s many pronged assaults, will be a crucial test for the credibility of the Alliance over the next decade. If Russia dismembers a NATO member, it will not only have gained a measure of revenge for losing the Cold War; it will also have successfully dismantled the Western alliance.