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Putin’s nervous neighbors: High Anxiety in the Baltics

Jeffry Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin (Weekly Standard)

In fall 1991, a member of the Slovenian parliament visited me at my office at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss her country’s campaign to join NATO.

I recall the intensity of the conversation and how odd her zeal seemed to me at that moment. The Cold War was over. Slovenia’s fate as a peaceful little Switzerland hugging Austria, Italy, and the Adriatic Sea struck me as fairly assured.

My guest insisted, however, that this mostly mountainous, relatively prosperous, southeastern European nation—formerly part of Communist Yugoslavia—needed an insurance policy to protect itself, should history come roaring back in the Balkans. The next spring, history returned. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic started his war against Bosnia, and soon much of the former Yugoslavia was engulfed in flames.

A quarter-century later, in northeastern Europe, there’s growing anxiety that history will grab Latvia and Lithuania by the throat again. Both have been NATO members since 2004. But they’re eager for more assurance these days.

That’s because Vladimir Putin has been working tirelessly to bring Russia back to its nationalistic, narcissistic glory, and the tiny Baltic states feel especially vulnerable. Both border Russia (Lithuania through the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad).

Both have salient ethnic Russian populations. Both were occupied by Soviet forces and incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Moscow is clingy. This summer, the Russian chief prosecutor’s office, acting at the request of members of Putin’s United Russia party, announced it would examine whether the Soviet Union acted legally when it recognized Baltic independence in 1991.

It sounds ominous. This is the same chief prosecutor that ruled in June that Russia’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine had been illegal.

I’ve been to Estonia a half-dozen times the last couple years. This trip, I’ve come to Lithuania and Latvia to get the lay of the land, and to participate in two conferences. The countries are studies in contrast; both find themselves increasingly in harm’s way, although for different reasons.

The conference in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is a gathering of staunch pro-American, pro-democracy advocates organized by the Hudson Institute and a half-dozen like-minded American and European think tanks. The venue is the Presidential Palace, a building of elegant neoclassical design that dates to the 14th century and is the president’s official residence.

Several Russian imperial governors lived here in the 19th century, notably Mikhail Muravyov, a fervent nationalist and merciless ruler dubbed by his subjects “the hangman of Vilnius.” Muravyov didn’t care much for local Lithuanian or Polish identity.

“What Russian rifles did not succeed in doing will be finished off by Russian schools,” he observed.

It’s not hard to see how the new Russian belligerence reaches deep Lithuanian wounds. The words of Georgia’s 42-year-old defense minister Tina Khidasheli resonate strongly with conference participants. She tells us that when Russia invaded Georgia seven years ago, it was clear Ukraine would be next.

Putin is reincorporating as much of the Soviet empire as he can. Khidasheli has come to Lithuania to urge vigilance and an end to wishful thinking about Russia. Georgians know something about Russian designs. To this day, their South Ossetia and Abkhazia provinces remain occupied by Russian forces.

It’s astonishing how well Vladimir Putin smells weakness and lives by the adage “What’s mine is mine—and what’s yours is mine.” Moscow has violated the EU’s six-point peace plan in Georgia since the start. This summer, Russian soldiers brazenly moved border demarcations, gobbling up further bits of Georgian territory.

“I went to bed in Georgia, and woke up in South Ossetia,” said one startled farmer.

It’s little consolation for the Lithuanians here when Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser now at the Cato Institute, tells the assembly that a conventional military assault by Russia on Lithuanian territory is unlikely—although “not to be ruled out entirely either.”

The Vilnius meeting is a “shoutout,” says Charles Davidson, one of its principal organizers and founder/executive director of the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative. This is a gathering of the converted, designed to inspire the faithful.

A young representative of a Swedish NGO sounds like a hardened Washington neocon when she issues an impassioned plea for the West to stop falling for Putin’s lies. Frail former Lithuanian president Vytautas Landsbergis, who lived through Nazism and communism in his eight-and-a-half decades, is worried about NATO’s resolve. He strikes melancholy notes, saying he’s glad he will likely be gone before his country’s next, coming conflict with Russia.

Lithuania worries about a spectrum of threats and does not rule out Russia’s use of military force. A senior Lithuanian analyst tells me one scenario has Russia staging an attack on a train en route from the Russian Federation to Kaliningrad as pretext for intervention. Sound farfetched?

The Shelling of Mainila on November 26, 1939, was a false flag operation in which Red Army forces fired on a Russian village, claiming that the assault originated from Finland. The Soviet Union used the alleged attack as pretext to launch its Winter War four days later. Does anyone seriously believe that Russia’s KGB president is beyond such tricks, if he sees a chance to test NATO’s Article Five? Kaliningrad matters to Moscow. Its governor has warned of a Western-instigated soft revolution.

In Latvia, the atmosphere is different. Here we convene at the beach resort of Jurmala, 15 miles west of Riga, the capital, in a hotel once owned by the Soviet interior ministry (apparently even the KGB needed a little sun and fun). Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev were fond of coming here.

Today, Jurmala is a popular hangout for Russia’s super-wealthy. The conference, a roundtable of about 40—roughly half the size of the Vilnius meeting—is hosted by Latvia’s Harmony party. Founded in 2010 from a merger of three center-left parties, Harmony is Latvia’s leading opposition party and seeks to represent the country’s Russian-speaking population. Party chairman Nils Usakovs is an ethnic Russian and mayor of Riga. Thirty percent of Latvia’s population is ethnically Russian. In Riga, around half the city speaks Russian as a first language.

I admit, I expected open hostility (I was one of only three Americans present). Instead, the daylong discussion comprises—with the exception of a Chinese professor who banged on about American hegemony—speaker after speaker moored in moral equivalence, focusing on what they see as the need for a constructive new Ostpolitik.

The former foreign minister of a small Western European nation pleads for rationality, volunteering that his country “could speak to Putin.” A former Scandinavian ambassador to Latvia calls for “confidence-building measures” between NATO and Russia and a return to arms control and disarmament. It’s time that both sides “stop pressuring each other,” the ex-diplomat insists.

“Both sides need to compromise on Ukraine” is the constant refrain. There are calls for “peaceful coexistence” and the “reconstruction of a European dialogue” with Russia. One Moscow participant throws us Americans a small and crooked bone, saying it is not the United States that created turmoil in Ukraine—but rather Russia’s “younger brother” itself.

That’s part of the Russian narrative, of course. When the Kremlin’s not blaming Washington for having been behind a soft revolution in Kiev, it’s pushing the idea that incompetent Ukrainian politicians and a growing neo-Nazi movement left Russia no choice but to intervene. As best I can tell, there are no Ukrainians of any stripe in the room (the roundtable was open to a small audience).

Mayor Usakovs, a 39-year-old former television personality and journalist, joins for a session. He’s smooth and relaxed. His mantra as party chairman has been an appeal to move beyond ethnic politics. Speaking in his native Russian, Usakovs talks about a “troublesome time,” deplores the bloodshed in Ukraine, but quickly proceeds to argue that none of this can impede “the construction of a stable Europe.” Detente always put stability first, no matter how vicious and menacing that stability could be.

In press interviews, Usakovs likes to maintain that both he and Harmony are Latvians first, patriotic beyond reproach. It’s not an easy sell. Harmony has enjoyed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party for nearly a half-dozen years. It was in this spirit of fraternal relations that Usakovs declined to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Latvia has a Russia problem, at home and abroad. Two-thirds of ethnic Latvians see Russia as a threat, and the greatest fear is Putin’s influence through the back door of Harmony and the country’s large ethnic Russian population. A majority of ethnic Russians may be fence sitters, like most of those at the Jurmala conference, convinced there are two sides to the story and plenty of blame to share among America, NATO, and Russia for current tensions.

That’s hardly good news. But serious trouble may be brewing. FSB (the renamed KGB) presence is increasing, as it has been throughout the Baltics the last several years. Russian money is flowing into businesses and organized crime, into the pockets of politicians and the media. And Moscow never misses an opportunity to criticize the Latvian government for alleged human rights violations of ethnic Russians.

Latvian officials estimate that as many as 5-8 percent of the country’s Russians are now radicalized. Viktor Gushchin, an ethnic Russian historian, calls Latvia a “xenophobic and Russophobic state built on Nazi principles.” Such rhetoric sounds eerily similar to the language Moscow used in justifying its intervention in Ukraine.

In the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic stirred the pot with Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia till the pot boiled over. Putin need not bring matters so far in Latvia. The emasculation and Finlandization of a NATO member might be enough. It’s time for NATO to lean in, with plenty of hard and soft power—before it’s too late.

* Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, senior adviser at Blue Star Strategies, and codirector of the Transatlantic Renewal Project.

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    Dragan Štavljanin

    Dragan Štavljanin radi za RSE od 1994. Magistrirao je na problemu balkanizacije (Prag/London), doktorirao na fenomenu "informacione mećave" – višak informacija/manjak smisla (Beograd). Autor je knjiga "Hladni mir: Kavkaz i Kosovo" i " 'Balkanizacija' Interneta i smrt novinara".