Russia’s borders: minorities and military manoeuvres rattle nerves in the Baltics

NATO Baltic air policing mission highlights rising tensions north of Ukraine. EPA

Anxiety over the crisis in eastern Ukraine has ratcheted in recent days amid claims of an effective Russian invasion, and warnings of NATO making a 4000-troop reaction force available to the region. As events continue to unfold, we ask what this means for the future of Russia and relations with its neighbours. Is Vladimir Putin merely defending his country’s interests or are we witnessing the gathering momentum of a new Russian imperialism?

This is the first of a series that aims to explain the risks and flashpoints across Russian’s European frontier. Here we spotlight the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Agnia Grigas, Occidental College, Los Angeles

Baltic‒Russian relations could have never been described as friendly. Since the Baltic states gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, they have been among the most contentious in Europe. Yet before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a territorial threat on the Baltic states seemed implausible. Today it has certainly become a concern, if not an immediate risk.

Despite Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joining NATO and the EU in 2004, Moscow unexpectedly continued to perceive the Baltics as a “zone of privileged interest”. In turn Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius still perceive Russia as a potential threat to their economies, energy sectors and societies – a fact that many observers found surprising until Russia annexed Crimea and stoked conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The Baltic states have faced repeated Russian defence exercises in their neighbourhood, despite NATO membership. In March, immediately after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian fleet conducted unexpected tactical exercises along the Baltic coast.

After Poland invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is a request for security consultations, NATO demonstrated its commitment to security by increasing its air and ground presence in the region and collaborating in military exercises.

Mapbox, FAL

Russia responded in June by deploying its own 24 warships and bombers to Kaliningrad, the Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic sea. As recently as August, Russian fighter jets flew close to the Estonian coast above neutral waters and violated Baltic air space.

Energy dependence is another source of tensions. The three states face almost total dependency on Russian oil and gas, and are linked to Russian electricity networks. Russia has repeatedly hiked its gas prices to Lithuania during times of political tensions, not least over a row with Russia’s Gazprom.

But Lithuania’s Klaipeda liquid natural gas terminal will start operations in December, enabling Lithuania to buy gas from world markets rather than solely from Gazprom via Russian-owned pipelines. This will strengthen Lithuania’s bargaining position, and weaken Russia’s ability to demand political concessions.

Baltic clash: Gazprom management committee chairman Alexei Miller at the Russian utility’s AGM this year. EPA

But possibly most worrying, given Russia’s efforts to “protect” Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, is the Baltic’s own sizeable population of Russian ethnic minorities. In Estonia and Latvia, ethnic Russians number 24% and 27% of the population respectively, concentrated in the east of the country, while in Lithuania it is below 6%. Percentages of Russian speakers, rather than ethnic Russians, are even higher.

Over the past couple of decades, Russia has made great efforts to maintain political, economic and social ties with these people. It hands out citizenship to them, particularly in eastern Estonia. Moscow also handed out citizenships to residents in Crimea; Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and Moldova’s Transnistria before it sought to gain control of these territories.

Matthew Crandall, Tallinn University

NATO has noticeably increased its presence in the Baltics of late. On his recent visit to Estonia, US President Obama reiterated NATO’s commitment to article 5 (attack against one member is an attack against all). Estonia is also looking at ways to increase its own military capabilities, including purchasing tanks, other military hardware and increasing spending on defence.

Social cohesion is even more important in many ways than the military capabilities being discussed. Putin tends to invade places where the majority welcome him with open arms, like Georgia, Crimea and to a certain extent eastern Ukraine. So for Estonia, the best defence is to ensure that the Russian-speaking population would not welcome a Russian invasion. Considering Estonia’s demographic make-up, it is surprising this has not garnered more media attention.

The Russian speakers in the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts certainly didn’t exist as independent societies. In many ways Putin has been responsible for their behaviour via his propaganda machine, using the local population as a tool to achieve larger geopolitical aims. This only increases the importance of Estonia’s handling of its Russian speakers. The more integrated the Russian speakers, the less effective Putin’s asymmetrical warfare.

For the government, this could include funding more Russian media outlets in Estonia that would provide a neutral view of current affairs. This would be expensive, but would not cost more than the €100m (£81m) that may be spent on used tanks. Moving some state entities to the city of Narva or elsewhere in eastern Estonia could be another option. Introducing mandatory civilian service for both men and women in addition to mandatory military service could increase a sense of community among Russian speaking youth. Increasing the welfare of those in the region should also be a priority, since most welfare indicators show it is disproportionately badly off.

The public has a role too. Estonian speakers need to see Russian speakers not as illegal immigrants from the Soviet Union era who are unwilling to learn Estonian, but simply as neighbors who speak a different language. And Russian speakers should avoid any victim mentality and take ownership of their own situation, making the most of their lives in Estonia. While Estonian and Russian speakers may disagree on the legacy of the past, they should agree on the country’s future.