At the beginning of November, Politico reported that U.S. military planners are worried that the Baltics might be the next targets of Russian military aggression, be it a replay of Russia’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine or a conventional lighting strike that could be executed before NATO could react.
Fear of these “nightmare scenarios” is nothing new. The ink had barely dried on Vladimir Putin’s signature annexing Crimea on March 18, 2014, when people on both sides of the Atlantic began sounding the alarm. Just as Putin had invaded Crimea (and later eastern Ukraine) to “protect” ethnic Russians, they said, so too would he soon target the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Here’s why observers are worried that Russia will roll into the Baltics.
The fear of Russian military intervention in the Baltics is based on two tempting but flawed analogies with the conflict in Ukraine.
First, like Ukraine, the Baltics have large ethnic Russian minorities. Latvia’s population is approximately 26 percent Russian, while the corresponding figures for Estonia and Lithuania are 24 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Furthermore, these Russian populations have a long history of grievances over language, citizenship and cultural policies that excluded them from political and economic life after the Baltics gained independence in 1991.
Second, just as the annexation of Crimea secured Russia’s access to its Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, so too might Putin want access to Russia’s exclave in Kaliningrad. The province is part of Russia but is separated from the Russian “mainland” by Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. More importantly, Kaliningrad is the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Many fear that Putin might try to cut through Poland or Lithuania with the support of his Belarusian ally, Alexander Lukashenko, and seize a transit route to Kaliningrad.
But don’t worry. Here’s why.
So could the Baltics be next? I don’t think so, for six reasons.
1. Vladimir Putin can’t keep the Baltics out of NATO or the E.U.
International relations scholar John Mearsheimer has made a provocative argument that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was provoked by NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. Whether or not you agree, the Baltics made it into the club before Russia had the capacity to stop them. Some experts have argued that one of the main reasons Russia provoked conflict in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 was to effectively veto NATO membership for those countries — because NATO would be unlikely to let in new members with open territorial disputes.
Invading your neighbors may be a good strategy for keeping them out of NATO or the E.U., but it’s not so useful once they’re already members, since it would guarantee a catastrophic war between Russia and NATO.
2. Russia will never have a seat at the table in Baltic politics
In my previous post on the Monkey Cage, I argued that Putin’s key strategic objective in Ukraine was to install a government in Kiev that would give Moscow a say in making Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy.
But that couldn’t happen in the Baltics. Ever. The historical antagonism is too strong. My previous research on national identity in the Baltics shows that the Soviet occupation of the Baltics during WWII remains central to national memory and identity. Russia is seen as the imperial “other” against which the Baltics define themselves, and would never be allowed to interfere in domestic politics.
What’s more, Putin has so far failed to achieve his strategic objective of installing a pliant pro-Russian government in Kiev. Even if he imagined it possible, there’s little reason to believe he would be any more successful in the Baltics.
3. The Baltics don’t have the same symbolic meaning as Ukraine and Crimea
Ukraine has deep symbolic meaning for Russia. Citizens of both countries consider the ancient empire of Kievan Rus (and its capital, Kiev) to be the cradle of eastern Slavic civilization. Kiev’s Prince Vladimir the Great brought Orthodox Christianity to his subjects in 988, during a golden age of Slavic civilization that was the foundation for later achievements by Muscovy and the Russian empire. In fact, they just installed the cornerstone for a massive new monument to Prince Vladimir near the Kremlin in Moscow. Parts of modern-day Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire since the 16th century; Crimea became part of Russia in 1783.
This deep historical connection of civilizations has long made Ukrainian independence hard for Russia to swallow.
Putin once famously remarked to George Bush: “You have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.” And for most of Russia’s history, he’s right: Ukraine only became a country in 1991 after centuries as the borderland of the Russian and Soviet empires.
That Ukraine took Crimea with it only made things worse, as the peninsula was only “gifted” to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, a transfer that many Russians saw as illegitimate both before and after the Soviet collapse.
Ukraine is special for Russia. The Baltics are a different story. My research has traced the territorial evolution of Russia in the Baltic region. While the Baltics became part of the Russian empire through the partitions of Poland in the 18th century, the Tsars were sufficiently “hands off” to allow strong national identities to flourish that opposed Russian domination.
What’s more, the Baltics were independent between the world wars. When the Soviet Union forcibly annexed them again in 1940, Baltic citizens saw it as an illegitimate foreign occupation – and continued to resist for the next 51 years. Even as Gorbachev struggled in the dying days of the USSR to hold together some kind of union, he knew that it would not include the Baltic Republics, and left them out of his proposed treaty salvaging what was left of the Soviet Union.
Russia and Russians have long recognized that the Baltics are culturally and historically distinct from Russia, according to surveys and interviews I’ve conducted across Russia and Latvia. Whether the historical and cultural importance of Ukraine was a motivation or just a justification for Putin’s actions in Ukraine, comparable symbolism is absent in the Baltics, making them less likely targets for Russian interference.
4. Russian access to Kaliningrad is not threatened. For now.
Throughout its post-Soviet history, Ukrainian leaders used the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, as a bargaining chip with Russia. After the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko announced that Ukraine would not renew Russia’s lease of the base after 2017. Though his successor, the ill-fated Viktor Yanukovych, reversed that decision, many have argued that permanently securing access to the base was a key strategic objective of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Annexing the peninsula solved the strategic problem of where to locate the Black Sea Fleet once and for all.
By contrast, no Baltic or Western government has ever made serious attempts to block Russian access to the exclave of Kaliningrad, though Lithuanian officials have recognized their theoretical ability to do so. But actually following through on the threat to cut railways, roadways and utilities to Kaliningrad would almost certainly provoke a Russian military response and guarantee a dangerous escalation with potentially nuclear implications. So no country even tries.
Yes, Kaliningrad could conceivably emerge as a flashpoint, especially if Russia uses it for an aggressive anti-access/area denial strategy. Russian missiles based in Kaliningrad could keep NATO naval and ground forces from reaching the Baltics in the event of a Russian attack, isolating the three countries from the rest of the alliance at a critical moment. But as long as Lithuania allows Russians access to the region, war over Kaliningrad is unlikely.
5. Baltic Russians are not Crimean, Donbas or Russian Russians
Much of the talk of a Russian invasion of the Baltics has centered around the ethnic Russians living there. As one reporter in Riga put it, “If Putin felt justified in his actions against Ukraine, where 17 percent of the population is ethnic Russian and 24 percent Russian-speaking, Latvia’s allegedly endangered minority would seem to provide him with a convenient pretext for action.”
One social activist in Latvia warned about what many observers fear: “Military aggression in the old style — tanks crossing the border — is not likely here. … But what they call a hybrid offensive — provocations, a media war — that is very possible and hard to defend against.”
Hybrid warfare combines conventional and unconventional modes of warfare, bringing the battle to new battlegrounds. As retired Col. John McCuen writes, “the decisive battles in today’s hybrid wars are fought not on conventional battlegrounds, but on asymmetric battlegrounds within the conflict zone population, the home front population and the international community population.”
Thus, many have speculated that the Russian minorities of the Baltics could offer Russia a sympathetic target population to use as its launching pad for a hybrid invasion, just as it used the native separatist movements in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as cover for hybrid warfare.
I don’t think that’s likely. I recently wrote in the Moscow Times that the Baltic Russians are not particularly amenable to Russian hybrid warfare. Though they have many lingering grievances over language, cultural and citizenship policies, these grievances have not translated into separatism.
More and more ethnic Russians have gained citizenship in the Baltic States and increasingly seem to hold the view of Nils Ušakovs, the ethnically Russian mayor of Latvia’s capital city, Riga: “I was born here. … I’m a Latvian national; a Russian-speaking Latvian who is a patriot of my country.” This attitude is especially prevalent among the younger generation of Baltic Russians, who increasingly see themselves as European and enjoy the benefits of living in the European Union.
Even the older generations who still feel a stronger connection to Russia can see the contrast in living standards between Russia and the Baltics. Katri Raik is the director of Narva College in Estonia, which caters to Estonia’s Russian population, and compares Narva with the Russian city Ivangorod that sits just across the river:
What would happen if Narva were to hold a referendum? Would its residents want to live in Estonia or in Putin’s Russia? Anyone with any common sense … would want to live in Estonia. Because life here is better, more stable, the pensions are higher, we have social welfare. People in Narva know what they would choose because they often travel to Ivangorod.
Research by Ammon Cheskin confirms this point. While Baltic Russians maintain a close cultural affinity with Russia, Russia’s political and economic attraction is much lower.
In an effort to leverage that cultural affinity, Moscow has used a variety of strategies, including support for pro-Russian parties in the Baltics, aggressive propaganda in the Russian media that most Baltic Russians watch, and mass mobilization strategies to try to instigate separatism. These efforts haven’t persuaded Baltic Russians yet. Nevertheless, Estonia recently launched a Russian-language TV station to better integrate its Russian population and to counter Moscow’s influence.
6. A Russian hybrid attack wouldn’t stay secret for long
By definition, hybrid warfare combines conventional and unconventional means. Even if Vladimir Putin chose to ignore the five reasons above that he shouldn’t launch a hybrid war in the Baltics, a hybrid strategy would require the eventual use of conventional Russian forces.
Sooner or later, the world would have clear evidence that “little green men” in unmarked uniforms could be traced back to the Russian armed forces — direct military aggression against a NATO ally. Though it took a while to find conclusive proof of Russian troops in Ukraine, the proof eventually came.
Given that there are some U.S. and NATO forces stationed in the Baltics, Russian military intervention would probably be detected much more quickly.
NATO would face a choice: fulfill the purpose for which it was founded, or accept a fait accompli and cease to be relevant in the 21st century. The United States and Europe still hail NATO as a “cornerstone of global security.” So there is good reason to believe that the alliance would put up a fight.
A fight with NATO is one that Vladimir Putin cannot afford. If he is the skilled strategist that many, including Stephen Walt, have said he is, he will understand the incredible cost of provoking a war with NATO.
Waiting to exhale
These six reasons tell us why Russia is unlikely to make the Baltics the next target of military aggression. But unlikely is not the same as impossible. History has offered up bigger surprises before.
Russian aggression in the Baltics would no doubt be a strategic disaster for Moscow in the long run. In the short to medium run, though, Moscow will surely continue to cause trouble for the Baltics and their NATO allies, using propaganda and provocative military exercises to keep everyone off balance. But these measures, however troubling, should not be confused with the opening phase of a Russian invasion.
Robert Person is an assistant professor of international relations and comparative politics at the United States Military at West Point. He specializes in the foreign and domestic politics of Russia and the post-Soviet states.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, DOD or the U.S. government.