Russia: Levers in the Baltic States

5 MINS READAug 27, 2008 | 20:50 GMT
After the Russo-Georgian war, many former Soviet countries — including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — began assessing their own internal security. While the newly assertive Russia is not likely to take military action against the Baltics, because they are NATO members, Moscow could well use existing levers to foment internal instability there.
After Russia's Aug. 8 invasion of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, many former Soviet states, including the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have begun assessing their own internal security. These countries all have significant ties to Russia and host considerable Russian-speaking populations — similar to South Ossetia. Russia has levers to pull in the Baltics to effect change should it feel the need to. While Russian military action like that seen in South Ossetia is unlikely in the Baltic countries due to their membership in NATO, internal political meddling or support for increased ethnic tensions are very much within the Kremlin's capability. Russia has already shown that it can act in the Baltics. Over the past few years, Russia has disrupted energy supplies flowing through the Druzhba pipeline, instigated protests and riots over the removal of a World War II statue and is believed to have been behind cyberattacks on Estonia and Lithuania in 2007. However, the Baltics' Russophone population is perhaps the strongest lever Russia can use against the states' governments. The Baltic countries have a long and bitter history with Russia because of Soviet-era events. Josef Stalin sent Russians to the Baltics as a way to increase Soviet influence there. The Russian population there grew throughout the second half of the 20th century, and today Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have Russophone populations of 40 percent, 30 percent and 9 percent respectively. The Baltic countries were also the first countries to claim independence from the Soviet Union, and they quickly turned to the West by joining NATO and, in 2005, the European Union. The Baltic governments have always been slightly paranoid about their Russian-speaking populations. Latvia and Estonia in particular have imposed draconian citizenship standards, essentially disenfranchising the Russian populations there. Many Russian speakers there must rely on a Russian passport to travel, are discriminated against in the workplace and are kept from political participation. Because of Russian disenfranchisement in the Baltic countries, there are quite a few political groups and Russophone organizations that support Russian equality in Estonia and Latvia, and to a lesser degree in Lithuania. These groups include the Russian Nationalist Movement of Estonia, the Union of Associations of Russian Compatriots in Estonia and the Russian Community of Latvia. Russian nationalist groups criticize Baltic governments over anti-Russian policies and have taken part in violent protests, like those concerning the World War II memorial. Acts of aggression also have occurred, such as the 2004 murder of a Lithuanian border guard (accompanied by a message written in blood reading "Lithuania for Russia") on a contentious railway that links Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia via Lithuania. But such attacks appear to be fairly isolated and not necessarily connected to Russian nationalist groups. There are plenty of aggressive, pro-Kremlin Russophones in the Baltic states, and there are organizations that support Russian nationalism, but the fusion of aggressive violence and the organizations does not appear to be solidified. However, a lack of organization among aggressive Russophones would not prevent the Kremlin from having a lever in the Baltic countries. Because Russophones make up such a large percentage of the population (especially in Latvia and Estonia), the Russians would certainly have a large pool of potential recruits if they did want to stir up conventional trouble like bombings, shootings or other disruptive/destructive attacks. There have been no real significant threats suggesting that Russian nationalists have any serious conventional capabilities, but the Kremlin could easily inject the resources, skill and organizational power to assist — if it hasn't already. Perhaps an even bigger and more diabolical lever that the Kremlin could use is found in Baltic nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. Existing groups like the Latvian National Front and the National Force Union have been involved in violent attacks against minorities, including Japanese nationals and gay rights groups. Neo-Nazi groups in Estonia and Latvia have carried out re-enactments of World War II events and have staged parades celebrating Baltic Nazi units that fought against the Russians in World War II. Although these groups have not launched significant attacks on the Russian population, pro-Kremlin Russophones certainly fit into their target set. If they were to start targeting Russophone neighborhoods, businesses or other interests, this would be a spark that could provoke a Russian excuse for broader action. Russian intelligence capabilities certainly include the ability to infiltrate foreign nationalistic groups and goad Estonian or Latvian nationalists into creating a justification for broader Russian action. With the trigger primed, the Kremlin could stir up its sympathizers in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius to create political tension and violence in the Baltics.

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