In the old Cold War in Europe, there was only one serious flashpoint, one place where a dangerous confrontation between Western and Russian forces was likely, and that was Berlin. In today’s confrontation there are many, stretching from the Caucuses to the Baltic Sea.
While the Ukrainian crisis still has to be resolved, another likely point of conflict is the three Baltic nations, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. President Obama took these states’ anxieties seriously enough to fly to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, last month on his way to the NATO meeting to assert that NATO’s commitment to their defence was firm. In what may or may not have been a response, two days later the Russians seized an Estonian intelligence agent, claiming that he had crossed over to their side of the border and said they would put him on trial.
If Russia decides to stir things up some more, this is the most likely place. No one expects Russian tanks to roll across the border. But the Russians have made some provocative moves: military over-flights, manoeuvres close to the border. There are elements in the situation of the three nations that Russia can exploit, particularly the presence of substantial Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia. In Estonia, the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marko Mikelson, told Parliament recently: “What we have seen recently means that we should be prepared for all kinds of nasty things.”
These three countries were independent nations until 1940. Then Russia invaded and made them part of the Soviet Union. In 1941 the Germans drove out the Russians. At the war’s end they were incorporated back into the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell apart, they were the first former Soviet republics to declare their independence.
Both Estonia and Latvia have substantial Russian-speaking minorities. These are not people whose connection with Russia is centuries-old. Most are people who came from Russia during the years when the area was part of the Soviet Union, or their children, so their ties with Russia are personal. This influx occurred partly because the Soviet Union was moving industry to these states so there were jobs there, but also as part of a policy of Russification. Because they came to take industrial jobs, they are concentrated in the cities. In Latvia, 26 percent of the population is Russian-speaking but 42 percent in Riga, the capital.
Russian-speakers claim discrimination. In Latvia they did not automatically become citizens when it became an independent nation but have had to apply for citizenship, and a good knowledge of Latvian is a necessary qualification. The Russian-speaking political party is called For Human Rights in United Latvia, and it has enough support to give it a seat in the European Parliament.
In this situation, the statement by President Putin that he would protect the rights of Russians abroad, although it was said in the context of the Ukraine crisis, worries the Baltic states.
In the Ukrainian crisis, Putin made great play with the presence of far-right elements among the demonstrators who overthrew the Yanukovych regime, characterising the movement as Nazi. While all three Baltic nations are stable democracies, they offer material for this kind of attack. Many among them welcomed the Germans as liberators from Russian rule, some participated in Nazi war crimes, and until recently former members of the SS held regular rallies.
Based on the Ukrainian experience, there are many kinds of “nasty things” – to use Madam Mikelson’s term – one can envisage: the stirring-up of feeling among Russians in the Baltic states, demands for changes in the laws of nationality, even, as in Ukraine, military men who have come across the border but whom the Russian Governments insists are not Russians but local militants.
So what can the West do? Bringing the three Baltic states into NATO was bound to antagonise Russia and raise tensions, and to stretch NATO’s capacity to maintain its credibility. It was part of the enlargement of NATO and the EU to the East that Putin perceived as hostile, as did his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Nevertheless, the Baltic states are in NATO and come under its protective umbrella, and we must emphasise to Russia that the borders are inviolate. This will make old NATO hands nostalgic, when NATO was not concerned with far-off places like Afghanistan but existed solely to defend Europe against the Soviet Union, as it then was.
We can also take steps to reduce tension along the West-Russia periphery, for events on the Baltic shore will not be decided on the Baltic shore but elsewhere.
What we see in ideological terms, Putin sees in geographical terms. Western leaders talk of advancing the spread of democracy and the liberal economy of the EU; he sees Western power advancing eastward, right up to Russia’s borders. Apart from being strategically undesirable from Russia’s point of view, it offends his sense that Russia is a great power whose interests are to be taken seriously. The media in Russia is tightly controlled, but so far as one can tell from observers, this feeling of affronted pride is shared by most Russians.
We can scale down any operations that could seem aggressive, such as military manoeuvres. Removing the few hundred American nuclear weapons remaining in Western Europe would be helpful but appears currently to be politically premature within the Alliance. We are also still doing things that can only heighten tension, like building part of a ballistic missile defence system in Romania.
We can ease tension in the Baltic nations only by easing tension in the whole of Europe, and both Russia and the West must play a part in this. Unless or until that happens, the Baltic nations will have to worry and plan for some “nasty things.”