Fears and choices in the Baltic states in the face of Russia

A review of the current geopolitical situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

By Ricardo Lenoir

Last summer, Madrid hosted the finals of the world basketball championship. This fact completely monopolised the information on Internet coming from the Baltic states, a region which had hitherto abounded in entries on tourism, inviting people to visit its three beautiful capitals. Six months later, and with toughening international politics on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a search now offers completely novel results: news is now about rearmament, given the Russian threat to avoid a repeat of what happened in Ukraine. What has happened in the last year has thus been an incentive for these three States to draw attention to the fate that may await them if Russia continues its expansionist policy in the countries of the post-Soviet era. With Crimea in fresh in the memory of all, movement on all fronts has not taken long.


2004, the year everyone took sides

For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 2004 marked the real turning point since winning back independence from the USSR in 1991: their two-fold entry into the European Union and NATO consolidated a turn towards the West which, without doubt, entailed rejecting the Russian option. Since then, they have formed the northwest corner of Europe, a position that has certainly enabled them to pass unnoticed for the last decade. Having succeeded in becoming EU member countries, they then went about their business without being paid much attention from anyone. So little has the attention been paid to them that a flagrant violation of human rights against the population of Russian descent in Latvia and Estonia, to a lesser extent, still remains unresolved.

This community, which began emigrating from Russia in 1940 and currently reaches 30% of the population in the case of Latvia, suffer clear discrimination by the government, prevented from being public servants, or even voting in parliamentary elections, whether local or European. Known as “non-citizens”, they do not have the same passport as their fellow countrymen. And this is happening within the very borders of the European Union.

This situation calls to mind Putin’s claims on the situation of Russians in Crimea – and the paragraph can be read in the Russian Constitution: “…to ensure the support of its citizens outside its territory”. Therefore, in the interest of these countries and with a view to defend against any move by Russia, it is urgent that this matter be solved, thus disarming the arguments of the Baltic states’ neighbour. As a knock-on effect, naturalisation would deactivate a part of the population indoctrinated by Moscow. It cannot be forgotten that the winner of the last general election in Latvia was Harmony, a pro-Russian party, which was prevented from governing by a coalition of parties.


Supported on the Fifth Article

In any case, stabilising this situation is not any guarantee of success, as can be seen by the events of the last five years. The Baltic countries have observed with trepidation what happened in 2008 in Georgia, in 2013 in Belarus, and last year in Ukraine. The conclusions reached have led them to draw attention to the possibility of being attacked – but only now are they no longer labelled as hysterical, do they have a voice, and getting support.

Brussels has taken note and has taken the step of going to the office of Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. Within the articles of the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington in 1949 is the fifth point, which reads “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of these, occurring in Europe or North America, shall be considered an attack against all […].” Consequently, it concludes that an attack against Lithuania is tantamount to one against the United States, and action must be taken accordingly.

This led, last year, to the organisation putting the Baltic Air Policing mission in place, a defensive operation to protect the region from a possible Russian attack. Baltic Air Policing is part of a series of measures motivated by the major increase in flights by Russian aircraft over the Baltic region, which has intensified in recent months. From the Kremlin, this is justified by assuring that they have been necessary to access their own enclave, Kaliningrad, within Lithuania, although this sounds like a somewhat vague response to the sharp increase seen since events in Ukraine.

Numbers speak for themselves: if 31 flights were recorded in 2005, last year this number rose to 144. This would seem more like a show of force; a demonstration of military muscle to the West; a new challenge that is interpreted by the Russian government as an act of defence against the proliferation of NATO operations on their border.


Gas as a political element

In this analysis only one player was missing: the EU. It was the European Commission who last April denounced what was an open secret: Gazprom’s predatory pricing depending on who the buyer country was, clearly putting the former Soviet bloc countries at a disadvantage: the three Baltic republics would, in fact, be paying 40% more than other countries such as Germany. Explanations from the Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, leave no doubt:

“I am concerned that Gazprom is in breach of the EU antitrust rules by abusing its dominant position in the European gas markets. We believe that it may have put up artificial barriers to the flow of gas between countries in Central and Eastern Europe and others, hindering cross-border competition. Keeping national gas markets separate has also allowed Gazprom to charge prices that at this stage we consider unfair.”

To assess the impact of the infringement, suffice it to ascertain the fine stipulated by the Commission: 10% of the gas company’s turnover. This situation is already being addressed by the Lithuanian government. In order to end this unfair treatment, and with greater relevance to the question of energy dependence, last year a ship from South Korea, named Independence and loaded with liquefied natural gas (LNG) arrived at their port. In the words of the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, this could meet 90% of the needs of the Baltic population; a major commitment which will have to be watched carefully.


The European and Atlantic guarantee

The situation in the Baltic republics is not the same as Ukraine. While President Putin’s next moves cannot be predicted, it is also the case that there is a framework for action that is influencing events. The pro-European and Atlantic commitment formalised more than a decade ago guarantees the security of the region, since a formal attack would be suicidal for Russia, with much lower military capabilities than NATO.

This would not be a situation in which Putin could continue attempting to widen the borders which define his living space. The response so far has come in the diplomatic arena through harsh economic penalties, and keeping these up is key to appeasing the geopolitical chessboard. If what is wanted is a peaceful scenario, we need to commit to measures that do not usually have an immediate response, but will undoubtedly offer greater returns in the long run.


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