Are the Baltic states at risk of Russian aggression?

As tensions are brewing between Russia and the West, the three tiny states on the coast of the Baltic Sea - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - seem to be at the epicentre of this imminent showdown. Over the past year NATO, European, and Baltic leaders frequently evoked concerns of Russian aggression spreading from Ukraine to the Baltic region and given the seriousness of the situation, rightly so. Just weeks ago the Lithuanian parliament approved mandatory conscription – for youths aged 19 and 26 – citing changed “geopolitical conditions.” Though present Russian policies towards the Baltic States may not spell imminent war as in Ukraine, their implications could be more worrisome for the post-Cold War order in Europe due to Baltic membership in the EU and NATO. 

Until a year ago despite Russia’s historic ambitions in the Baltic region, Russian military aggression against the Baltic States seemed implausible. As adviser to the Lithuanian MFA in 2008-2009 and a scholar of the Baltic States, I mostly worried about the region’s acute energy dependence on Russia as NATO membership seemed to have solved the Baltic security dilemma. 

However, following Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, all three Baltic states faced heightened military maneuvers in their region. In 2014, NATO jetfighters policing the Baltic airspace were scrambled 68 times along Lithuania’s border in order to deter Russian jets flying at a very close proximity, by far the highest count in more than 10 years. Latvia and Estonia likewise registered numerous ‘close incidents’ and airspace violations. Unsurprisingly, the UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that there is a “real and present danger” of Russia trying to destabilize the Baltic states. 

More recently, The Times newspaper, presented notes of a meeting between Russian generals and U.S. officials, where Moscow threatened a “spectrum of responses from nuclear to non-military” if NATO moved more forces into the Baltics. The Russians stated that “the same conditions that existed in Ukraine and caused Russia to take action there” exist in the Baltic states. 

The prospects of Russia causing domestic unrest are indeed great, because both Latvia and Estonia have significant Russian minorities – which at least rhetorically Moscow has sought to support and protect. In Lithuania the number of Russian minorities falls just under 6 percent, whereas Latvia and Estonia have much larger Russian populations – 24 and 27 percent respectively. Furthermore, unlike Lithuania whose Russian minority is rather well integrated, Latvia and Estonia have a sizeable number of Russians who due to citizenship policies and language requrements still have so called ‘alien passports’.

Lithuania is also facing a serious risk from Russia. In September 2014, Russian legal authorities re-opened  criminal cases against approximately 1,500 Lithuanian men who had refused to serve in the Soviet army in the 1990-1991 period. Also, just last month, the Lithuanian internal security department raided the apartments of more than 9 suspects who engaged in anti-constitutional activities that appear linked to Russia. As the research of my forthcoming book demonstrates, Moscow’s more aggressive policies of compatriot protection target countries with territories bordering the Russian Federation where there is a concentration of Russian minorities. In this regard Estonia and Latvia again appear more at risk than Lithuania, since their eastern territories of Ida-Viru County and Latgale border Russia and have sizable minorities. In Ida-Viru County the number of Russian speakers is around 80 percent  and in Estonia’s eastern city of Narva, the number of Russian speakers might be as high as 97 percent  around 36 percent city’s population hold Russian passports. Lithuania, lacks such high concentrations of Russian minorities and is buffered from Russia in the east by Belarus. 

Nonetheless, in the west, Lithuania borders the highly-militarized Russian territory of Kaliningrad, home of the 56 warship-strong Russian Baltic Fleet. Via its territory, Lithuania provides train passage for Russian troops and personnel from the mainland to Kaliningrad. The Lithuanian port-city of Klaipeda that has been evoked as contested territory by Moscow is close to the border of Kaliningrad. Over the past year there have been some calls from minor radicals and online petitions that Klaipeda should  join the Russian Federation or that Lithuania should become Russia’s corridor to Kaliningrad.

Today, NATO membership and its promise of collective security via Article 5 is the most important guarantee for the Baltic states. Moscow’s challenge to Baltic territorial integrity will either elicit an effective response from NATO or will result in discrediting the authority of the Alliance and in turn the entire international system built on its security guarantees. Indeed, some have argued that this is precisely  Moscow’s aim  as it has notched-up pressure on the Baltic states. NATO’s recent shows of support to the Balts – the deployment of additional jetfighters, the positioning of NATO troops on the ground, joint military exercises and the establishment of NATO command centres – has been crucial to show the strength of the alliance and to discourage Russia’s adventurism.

Over the past year th Baltic states have  become possibly the most vocal of all EU and NATO member states against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and an oft-cited target of Moscow’s next land grab. NATO’s Article 5 serves as a security guarantee for the Baltic states and will discourage Russia from scoring easy points and directly challenging their territorial integrity. At the same time Baltic NATO membership is a litmus test for the Alliance in the 21st century – is the Alliance ready and willing to uphold its security guarantees? Hence, as Russia looks to challenge the post-Cold War order, it is not only the small countries on the shores of the Baltic Sea that need worry about their future but also NATO. 

Grigas, a Truman National Security Fellow, is the author of The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia and a forthcoming book on Russian re-imperialization of the post-Soviet space from Yale University Press.