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Dec 30, 2010 | 02:48 GMT

5 mins read

Russian Influence and the Changing Baltic Winds

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
When asked whether he preferred building a rail project westward to Europe or eastward to Russia, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis on Wednesday said the latter option — a railroad to Moscow — would be more justifiable to Latvia. Dombrovskis was careful to add that the decision would be made based on which option was more economically viable, but he said neither project — the high-speed rail to Europe known as "Rail Baltica" or a high-speed rail from Riga to Russia — would hold priority until a thorough economic analysis is conducted. While it seems that the initial statement favoring Russia is relatively mild and reasonable, it is a subtle yet indicative representation of the changing winds in the Baltics. The Baltic region, consisting of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, is traditionally the most pro-Western and anti-Russian of the former Soviet states. They were the most resistant to Russian rule during the Soviet era, and — not surprisingly — the first of the republics to declare independence from Moscow in the early 1990s. They are also the only former Soviet republics that are officially part of the Western alliance structure, holding membership into mainstay institutions like NATO and the European Union, to which they acceded in 2004 at a low point in Russia's geopolitical power. This was a harsh blow to Moscow, as it not only placed territory that is practically within earshot of St. Petersburg into the political and economic system of the West, but combined this with the military protection of the United States. As such, over the past two decades, and especially since 2004, Russia had taken an aggressive stance toward the three Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania depend on Russia entirely for their natural gas supplies, so Moscow would frequently cut off the pipeline when it needed to prove a point. Russia also engaged in cyberattacks in Estonia in 2007 and used its ethnic Russian populations, particularly in Estonia and Latvia where this demographic represents more than a quarter of each country's population, to put pressure on the respective governments whenever Moscow felt the need to do so. Russia also simulated an invasion of the Baltics when it conducted the Zapad military exercises with Belarus. The way that Russia interacts with and attempts to influence the Baltic region has taken on a much more complex dynamic... But Moscow has realized that its unilateral approach of hostility toward the Baltics didn't give Russia what it wanted — control. Instead, it further increased the anti-Russian sentiments in these states. In the past few months Russia has adopted a new, more multi-dimensional approach toward the Baltic states. Russia boosted ties to Latvia via the Harmony Center coalition, the leading opposition group that finds its platform not only as a pro-Russian party, but also — and perhaps even more so following the global financial crisis that was felt particularly hard in the Baltics — on economic issues. At the same time, Russia has struck various economic deals with the old and new ruling coalitions in Latvia in strategic sectors such as energy ports, railways and pipelines. This seems to have softened Latvia's typically negative reaction to all things Russian, with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks recently saying that France's sale of Mistral warships to Russia does not represent a real threat to national security. It isn't that the Latvian government is becoming pro-Russian, but rather that it has realized that it is easier to cooperate with Russia than fight against it. While Russia has been successful in Latvia, its new strategy is just starting to show its effects in Estonia. Estonia's leading pro-Russian political figure, Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, is embroiled in a political controversy due to his allegedly being an "agent of influence" of Russia, and this has had only a marginal effect on his party's popularity. Russia is also attempting to buy up economic pieces in Estonia – though so far not as much as in Latvia. The third Baltic state, Lithuania, which at one point was the most relaxed Baltic nation toward Moscow due to the fact that it does not share a border with Russia proper and had Estonia and Latvia as buffers, seems to have flipped this position now that Riga, and to a lesser extent Tallinn, have a thawing of sorts with Moscow. Lithuania has spoken vociferously against the Mistral deal, has been blocking Russia's attempt to economically move in, and the Lithuanian parliament has set up a working group to re-investigate Russian crimes in Lithuania shortly after the latter declared independence in 1991. But even as Russia attempts this new strategy, it is not only offering carrots; Moscow continues to wield sticks, albeit indirectly. Russia is moving 8,000 troops near St. Petersburg to the border with the Baltics as a reminder that the Russian military remains a force to be reckoned. Russia is also, in tandem with Germany, continuing to construct the Nordstream pipeline, which circumvents Russia's energy supplies around the Baltics, a sign of growing political and economic coordination between two powerful nations that flank the Baltic countries. So at this point, Russia's relations with the Baltic states continue to be a mixed bag. It isn't that Russia is trying to control these three states to pull them out of Western alliances and back into some sort of new Soviet-like union. Russia is just attempting to make sure that Western influence is easily containable and controllable in the three states that are on Russia's most vulnerable geographic border. The way that Russia interacts with and attempts to influence this region has taken on a much more complex dynamic that has created the air of change in attitude in the Baltic states toward Moscow.

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