The Ukrainian crisis and the Crimean annexation have been closely watched by the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). For many, the recent developments are bringing recollections of the start of the Soviet Union. Anyone over the age of 30 remembers living under the Soviet rule, while those older remember the beginning of the Union in 1940. The stories of parents or grandparents deported or killed by Stalin’s forces are still very much alive in the national identities. Additionally, the trade ties between the countries, especially fuel imports, remain significant. Therefore, signs of Russian aggression are taken seriously.
However, much has changed since then. In their 20+ years of independence, the Baltic countries have joined NATO and the EU. Estonia and Latvia have joined the Eurozone. NATO membership was viewed by the countries as the first and most important step in putting distance between themselves and Russia. On the flip side, Russia viewed the Baltic countries joining NATO as the West encroaching into its buffer states. Throughout the Crimean crisis, the three countries have comforted themselves with the knowledge that a NATO country has never been invaded.
The headlines in the Baltic newspapers are mixed. The governments are emphasizing the NATO-guaranteed protection. There are some local military strategists that have written about the lack of military infrastructure and manpower to hold back a large-scale Russian invasion. The local blogosphere pokes fun at the skewed Russian media, depicting “professional protestors,” or people, presumably Russian, who show up at any and every protest to encourage civil unrest.
At the same time, in Estonia, there are minimal, if not non-existent, civil and ethnic conflicts between the locals and Russians. It seems that support for the annexation of the Russian-heavy Estonian regions remains low. People of all ethnicities living in Estonia state that they hope for a diplomatic solution to the problems in Ukraine as the evolution will lay a roadmap for the East-West relations of the future.
In this week’s report, we will explore the geopolitical atmosphere in the Baltic states after the Russian annexation of the Crimea, focusing on Estonia. We will start with a brief history of the relations between Russia and its Baltic neighbors. We will then take a look at what the local press is reporting, the reports coming out of Russia and the word on the street.
The tumultuous history between the Baltic states and Russia goes back centuries. The Baltic region has been divided and ruled by various groups over the centuries as the Germanic forces from the west, the Russian forces from the east and Scandinavian from the north have battled over the region for both military buffer states and trade routes.
Generally speaking, these outside rulers made the natives serfs, building mistrust in the motives of foreign influences.
The tug-of-war between the West and East has been age-old in the region. In Medieval times, the region remained unconquered, and the local people traded mostly with the Vikings and fought off perpetual Russian attempts to conquer parts of the area. The first time that Russia overtook parts of Estonia and Latvia was in the 16th century. This was mostly to gain Russian access to the Baltic Sea for trade purposes. Turmoil continued under Russian rule as the nationalist movement gathered steam. In 1918, three independent countries were established after advanced German forces chased the Russian army east. The countries remained independent until the 1940s when Russia invaded once more and merged all three into the Soviet Union. Stalin deported thousands of locals, while Russians were moved into the countries. As part of the Soviet Union, the countries were able to maintain their languages and culture, but lagged on industrialization.
As the Soviet Union started to unravel, the countries were given more freedom by the central government in Moscow. In the 1990s, the countries voted to secede from the union via referendums. Many Russians remained living in all the Baltic countries.
In 2004, the Baltic countries joined NATO and the EU. Estonia joined the Eurozone in 2011, and Latvia followed in 2014. Lithuania has its currency pegged to the euro, and is slated to join the monetary union in 2015.
The Baltic countries have viewed these developments as a strategic plan to distance themselves from Russian power, both militarily and trading. In fact, for these countries, NATO membership was viewed as essential as all the countries by themselves were too small in population size and GDP to defend themselves independently.
The Baltic countries view NATO membership as the minimum guarantee for safety, but Russia views the eastward movement of NATO as Western aggression. Many Russians, including Mr. Putin, believe that Mikhail Gorbachev received a promise that NATO would not extend beyond the united Germany. It can be argued that Russia had counted on using Poland and the Baltics as its buffer states. Mr. Putin stressed this point in his speech for the annexation of Crimea. On the other hand, after breaking away from the Soviet Union, the Baltics were more than enthusiastic about joining any and every Western union for military and trade protection.
Throughout the Crimean developments, the Estonian government has been suspiciously quiet as if not wanting to agitate an already irritated and unpredictable Russia. The government’s official stance, weeks into the crisis, was that Russia would not take over any parts of Ukraine. Of course, the question remains in the definition of “take over,” since clearly Russians now have the Crimea. Although the annexation was technically via a referendum, Russian sympathizers along with Russian military forces reportedly took over all vital government operations, undermining the Ukrainian government.
More importantly, the Estonian government has stressed that Estonia, as a full NATO member, would be protected by NATO forces. Again, the question here is the pain tolerance of the various parties involved. For Estonia, given its proximity to Russia, the “red line” would likely be reached much sooner than for NATO, in general. By comparison, NATO is not required to protect Ukraine, which is a non-aligned state.
The Baltics, as small countries, depend on other countries and unions for military support. Simply put, the countries lack military firepower. Anecdotally, when a Russian spy plane violated Estonian airspace, the country did not have the satellite technology to identify the origin of the plane, but had to wait for an American plane to confirm that it was, in fact, a Russian plane.
Additionally, for countries with small populations, there are not enough troops to keep back a possible Russian invasion. So, as some local military strategists have argued, if Russia taking the Baltics is a question of ability and willingness, then currently Russia has more than enough ability to take parts of the region. Logically then, the issue holding Russia back from moving its border west is its willingness, debatably as a result of a NATO threat. Separately, when Russia mobilized troops to deal with the Ukrainian crisis, the troops were moved into two separate regions of Russia—the southern region and the western region. According to reports, 10,000 troops have been stationed on the Russian side of the Estonian and Latvian borders. By comparison, the Estonian defense forces consist of 5,600 regular military troops plus 12,600 in voluntary corps.