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Are the Baltics the Next Crimea?

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In Tartu Estonia, there is a building on the main square, constructed on an uncertain foundation that leans precipitously. The locals call it the “Leaning House” or the “Pisa Building.” Ironically, it leans to the west, appearing something like a hunting hound straining at the leash to be loosed to run after its quarry. In this case, though, complex histories, and Russia, are the leash.

The Baltic Republics — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — occupy an important place in Russian history and thought. Latvia and Estonia have roughly a 25 percent Russian-ethnic minority (perhaps 400,000 out of a population of 1.3 million in Estonia; perhaps 550,000 out of a population of 2.2 million in Latvia) as a result of the Soviets and their families here after the war.

Estonia was part of the Russian Empire for centuries until the Tsarist Empire fell apart—and Estonia quickly bolted, declaring its independence in 1918 (75 years before Ukraine could do the same, it should be noted). After the Soviets rolled back the Nazis, they rolled up the Baltics— and as recently as 2012 Russia and Estonia still have not settled the borders permanently, but there are permanent Russians as well as newly arrived transplants that make borders a different kind of question.

Latvia, too, has been a forest duchy ruled from abroad since the 13th century—but it has never lost its identity as a people and distinct culture. Latvians have struggled with proper “sharing” between Latvian and Russian, a flashpoint in any borderland. (When I was there several years ago, a debate raged about what language, or languages, street signs should be). Today, one has “three strikes and you’re out” to pass a Latvian language test—no pass, no citizenship, no voting, no EU passport. A pretty good incentive package, though.

St. Petersburg, former capital of Russia (and Leningrad for 75 years of the 20th century) is closer to Helsinki, Riga, and Tartu than it is to Moskva—which is the same distance away as Vilnius. Proximity and population matter, and have caused many to wonder if “the next Crimea” will be in the Baltic.

For the European Union and NATO, though, those borders are much more than transit points of peoples, ethnic minorities, businessmen with posh flats in Riga and homes in St. Petersburg and bank accounts in Bern, Switzerland—they are the “walls of Europe” that have in some form or fashion existed since the 14th century when Europe tried to keep the Golden Horde, the Huns, and the Ottomans out.

There is a lot more than a border crossing here—and that is why Europe is likely to react so differently to a Russian adventure on the banks of the Narva River and the Baltic.

Russia stands to lose too much, and gain too little, with an expansionist adventure to the north by northwest. Here are some reasons the Baltics are safe for now.

Kaliningrad, Exposed
Several years ago, Putin tried to get permission to build a highway to Kaliningrad that would have neither on nor off ramps as it transited Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. Howls from Vilnius and Warsaw quickly punctured that trial balloon.

Russian Amphibious Forces. RIA Novosti Photo

Russian Amphibious Forces. RIA Novosti Photo

The Russian Navy maintains approximately 40 naval craft and vessels in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad (until Sevastopol was taken, Russia’s only year-round ice-free port), albeit in a questionable state of maintenance and crew capability—they are rarely seen to raise steam, much less sortie.

There are a million inhabitants in Kaliningrad, surrounded and isolated by the EU and NATO on all sides. Russia can’t afford to gamble away Kaliningrad—and the “West” could take it even more easily than Russia took Crimea, and with just cause—it was always part of Prussia (and before that the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League, the precursor to the EU) until the post-World War II period.

Europe, Uncovered
The Baltics also offer access to the European Union. Perhaps more importantly, they offer access that is not directly into Poland from Belarus, making it much harder for the Poles to stop Russian goods and people transiting further into Europe. While Vladimir Putin talks of a Eurasian consortium of some sort, what he fears is losing access to the “rest of Europe” via the Baltics and onward through Poland. Not only can he not afford to risk the trade loss, he can’t afford to stop the import of luxury Italian clothing, Spanish jamon de Sevilla, French wines, and German cars—his oligarchs will be irate. Putin and Russia need Europe more than Europe needs Russia—that eternal truth has not changed since young Prince Peter traveled to England in the 17th century.

Banking and Finance
The rapid expansion of the banking industry in the Baltic Republics in the 1990s, especially Latvia, made a lot of money for some people.

First, it allowed Russians to get their money out of Yeltsin’s Russia, but keep it fairly close. Second, once the Baltics were in the EU, the money was safer—subject to more scrutiny and controls perhaps, but certainly safer. Third, the sustained rise in property values meant that drug money could be laundered via the real estate market—much harder to track than regular banking, finance, and commerce. Lastly, if London starts to carefully scrutinize the amount and nature of Russian rubles there, Putin and his fiscal sponsors will need to find another place to move GazProm’s profits. While reports are sketchy and (understandably) secretive, trends seem to indicate that Russia is pulling hundreds of billions of dollars/pounds/euros out of its traditional and well-known banking centers, in anticipation of more sanctions. It needs Riga and Tallinn.

Poland Resurgent

A photo of members of the Polish Army in 2008.

An undated photo of members of the Polish Army in 2008.

If there is a large, wary, careful and capable opponent to Russia’s designs in the Baltic, it is Poland. While Poland will be savvy in its diplomatic maneuverings, it will not back down or overly accommodate Russia.

Poland is the one economy in the region to have sustained a consistent growth, not stumbling during the global fiscal crisis and resultant recession, and adroitly integrating policies at home and in Europe to make many friends, and alienate few potential enemies.

Not only is Poland home to 48 F-16 aircraft, a recapitalizing navy, and a forged force of veteran troops from campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has a strong economy—almost 40 million citizens—and Radek Sikorski, a very capable practitioner of realpolitik (it doesn’t hurt that he is Oxford-educated, married to Anne Applebaum, and with a Rolodex the envy of any “Atlanticist” leader.)

Anaconda XXI
Many have derided the sanctions and actions taken by the “West,” but two of them have significant bite. First, targeted sanctions may have many in merry Moscow clamoring to get on the “bad boy” list, but when they can’t get to their money or homes in south of France, the blush may be off the bloom.

Sochi looked nice for the Olympics, and Crimea has its appeal—but compared with South Beach and the Riviera, really? Second—kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight was an instant classic in the application of Diplomatic power. Russia more than anything wants to be recognized as an equal, as a peer, as a global player. Even today, it has ships in the south Atlantic, is trying to sell helicopters to Latin America, negotiate access to Djibouti, Egypt and Vietnam, leverage access to the Arctic, and be the “indispensable nation” for Syria and Iran negotiations—all as part of a desperate desire to be seen as a peer player.

A newscaster last week intoned solemnly that “Russia is the only country in the world that can reduce the U.S. to ash.” He wasn’t threatening to smoke Seattle, but stating the extent of Russia’s power. Purposely dismissing Russia from the G-8, calling it a “regional power” and disrupting its fiscal baseline together creates a strong slow squeeze that won’t yield immediate effects or relief for Ukraine—but at least should serve notice that the West is serious, and that the price for a Baltic adventure will be higher.

Borders
Russians can already get across the borders to the Baltics quite easily, whether to see relatives, go shopping, or drive their expensive Italian-made sports cars on roads that won’t shatter axles. If the EU were to interdict that access, there aren’t too many Europeans who are driving to Russia via the “Northern Route”—so it won’t hurt Europe unless Putin tries to retaliate in some manner—but it will hurt Russia, directly and dynamically.

NATO
NATO may have a hard time getting the Turks, French and Brits back to Crimea, and running the Russians out of the Black Sea. They are not nearly so limited in resources in the Baltic and North Atlantic. True, the Russians did manage to “disappear” a submarine last year for several weeks, having it reappear a few thousand yards away from a nuclear missile launch test site with the U.K. and U.S.—but that is the exception that proves the rule. Not only that, but an incursion against a flag-waving NATO member will get you an Article 5 response. NATO members may be tired and running for the exits in Kabul—but an attack in their own ‘near abroad’ will see an instant call to arms—and everyone in Europe remembers that 100 years ago, Russian mobilizations and European reactions led to World War I. This time, though, the Russians have some niche capabilities, but not nearly the near-parity they had 100 (or perhaps even just 30) years ago.

Less Russians
While there was a demonstrable Russian ethnic population, well above 50 percent of the population in Crimea (and there still is in regions of eastern Ukraine), the percentages and absolute numbers in Latvia and Estonia are much smaller —perhaps 1 million total. They aren’t protesting and demanding that Russia come protect them, annex them or help them in any way. The standard of living in the Baltics is drastically better than that of the average Russian; now that the Baltic peoples have returned to the “new” Hanseatic League and lived the good life, they have very little incentive or desire to return to Russian overlordship. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube, and you can’t willingly put the Latvians and Estonians back in any manner of Russian Federation.

Buyer’s remorse
While it is still too early to tell, there are initial reports that things may not be going as well for the Russians in Crimea as they thought they would. After the Pushkin readings, parades, songs, and speeches are done, there is the boring, mundane and downright tough business of governing. There is no reason to think that the Russians will make any less of a hash of Crimea than the Ukrainians did—except that Russia has a lot more money to throw at the Potemkin-esque problem.

A bridge to Kerch may be a big challenge in figuring out how to reconstitute the Black Sea Fleet and support the population of Crimea without being held hostage to Ukrainian transit policies; a bridge would be the very least of Putin’s worries if he tried to get more real estate on the shores of the Baltic. That said, there is absolutely no time or diplomatic maneuver space to “go wobbly” here—Europe and the United States must stand firm and ensure that the “Guns of August” remain a historical analogy, and not a new reality.

  • Nat Helms

    Great article. Photo however does not lend optimism to survivability of Polish army. One might also question 48 F-16s doing much to slow down a determined Russian juggernaut. If Russian capabilities are even near par with the former Soviet army Poland would represent a speed bump on the way to World War III. Except for history most of the world has already forgotten the ugly episodes in the Baltic when the Soviets were finally forced out upon collapse of the Soviet Union.

    • David Keleshian

      Nat
      I don’t think you are taking into account the utter hate the Poles have for Russia. Russians will be looking for money and excise fee free Mercedes and Luis Vitton purses. Poles want revenge.

      • joeblow55

        Poles and Balts haven’t forgotten the Russian stab in the back in 1939/40 or the gulag. They will fight.

    • mchill

      Yes, great article and not so great a photo of Polish military skill. The article answered many of my questions on Russian expansion and the last time I saw Polish SF they were just as sharp as US SF, not speed bumps to be rolled by local “partisans”.

    • joeblow55

      B1s, Stealth, B1 and B52s will aid Poland to cram it down Putin’s azz.

      • Nat Helms

        Dear Joe Blow. Very descriptive. Unfortunately you are fighting wrong war. Russians aren’t Third World targets of opportunity. They are tenacious, relentless fighters when aroused… Putin would probably get whipped in Round One… unfortunately then we have to deal with Round 2… too bad you can’t ask Napoleon or Hitler how that worked out for them. Or the Poles. You really want WWIII…. go nuke? Wash out your head gear and read up on what weapons technologies are already out there… Why you think Navy wants Growlers so badly… laser weapons and rail guns, UAVs? Next world war will define what remains of Earth.

        • joeblow55

          Trust me, I don’t lose any sleep over a bunch of Russian thugs led by Adolf Putin, that crass meglomaniac and Borgia like poisoner. I think the west will blow their so called tenaciousness up in smoke. The United States is no Ukraine. And Adolf Putin’s military is no Luftwaffe.

          • Diogenes

            Hi Joeblow. Good morning. Glad to hear it. Sleep could become a scarce commodity if you get your way. Just finished Army Times report on NATO and US response to Russian “expansionism” into Ukraine. Listed total sum of response and a perspective from a professor who studies European warfare. The operational details were not revealed but if Order of Battle is correct would provide just enough fodder to start something real serious. From AT: “Allan Millett, a military history professor at the University of New Orleans, was skeptical about the Europeans’ ability to mount a credible military threat on their own.
            “Who is going to do that? The French aren’t going to do it. And the Germans scare the hell out of everybody still — I don’t think the eastern European countries are going to be eager to welcome the Wehrmacht back.
            “Who can legitimize a European military response to Russian expansionism?”

  • Nat Helms

    Noted, however influenced by close association, albeit brief, with professional Russian airborne infantry officers and men in ’93. I am really glad they never thundered through the Fulda Gap while I was bouncing around in my fearsome M-114 in the early 70s waiting to be annihilated by all the tanks in the universe revving their engines on the Czech border. The situation is much the same… we are on the ropes, not one tank in Europe, NATO is divisive as usual and Russia is in resurgence. Not a good time to assume they are looking for Gucci.

  • Verowerd

    The Soviets did not “roll up the Baltics” after they “rolled up” the Nazis. You make it sound like the Soviets randomly found themselves in charge of the Baltic republics after VE Day and, well, … just decided to stay. They seized control of the Baltics well before their entry into World War II. They did so, in fact, in collusion with Germany. This is easily available history. Why is it so difficult to just be accurate.

    • David Couvillon

      In my visits to Lithuania and working with Lithuanian & Latvian militaries I’ve experienced expressed hatred of the Russians/Soviets. In Lithuania, civilians routinely showed me bullet holes in walls where the Russians executed portions of the populace. The Baltics haven’t forgotten, or apparently forgiven. On a related side note – the Lithuanian civilians were aghast at our Marine “ooh-RAH’s”. “Just like the Russians! (URRAH!) were the admonishment we received!

  • Nat Helms

    No doubt Poles are tough… problem is there aren’t too many Poles and its regular forces aren’t up to the caliber of any nation’s special forces, hence the name.
    How about a conundrum instead. I was thinking about this when your message arrived:
    A current report in the Marine Corps Times says US is considering
    sending a symbolic Navy ship into Black Sea and a contingent of soldiers to Europe
    to show solidarity with Ukraine, which incidentally lost its last ship to the
    Russian Navy recently.
    Simultaneously a report in Foreign Policy offered an interview with NATO commander US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who tells FP that there’s little evidence Russia has pulled back – and suggests the U.S. needs to rethink its military posture in Europe. He reportedly also asked our European allies to contribute more planes and enthusiasm.
    And finally there’s a month old report from Reuters quoting Gen. Breedlove as saying, “There just isn’t any reason for us and Russia to compete over the future of Ukraine. I think that we both want the same thing which is a prosperous, stable, peaceful Ukraine.”
    He told FP neither the United States nor the 28-nation Western alliance has drawn up contingency plans for how to respond if Russian forces did move militarily in Crimea.”Right now we are not planning contingencies on how to respond here.”
    Sounds like a plan!

  • Kurt J

    Blatant error Lt. Col, I believe the Nazi’s initially handed the Baltic’s and half of Poland to the Russians, that’s when Estonia’s short lived freedom ceased not when the Russian’s rolled over the Nazi’s. Estonians and Latvians identify more with Finland (they were all formally Lutheran though church attendance in the three countries is virtually non-existant) than the rest of Europe. I don’t think Russia has any plans to cross any borders, since they are not trying to spread a Socialist doctrine but giving up Sevastopol was a pragmatic not ideological issue. Now the EU is saddled with an economic disaster in Ukraine, (I hope the rest of Europe enjoys cleaning up the Nuclear mess that exists), pretty clever move on Putin’s part. Anti-EU sentiment is growing throughout Europe, note the Election results in France the past weekend, getting Catalonian’s worked up about Estonia is a serious stretch. Lavrov and Putin are smiling as eventually it will be European and United States taxpayers who rebuild Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure, while unemployment continues to rise in Southern Europe.

  • Ruckweiler

    While Putin may have been KGB, he is still a Russian. His territorial ambitions will probably reflect those of the Tsars as much as those of the old CCCP. If I were the 3 Baltic countries I’d be very concerned. Sad that there is a strong possibility of the bad, old days returning.

    • joeblow55

      The Baltics are in NATO now, unlike Ukraine. Any invasion by fascist Russia there will be the cassis belli forWW3. So I would say to the Russians, don’t try it. Go back to your alcoholic stupor.

  • adde

    The three Baltic states are not NATO’s near abroad. The are NATO alliance countries. Big difference.

  • joeblow55

    The Russian/Putin Ukranian play book is identical to that Stalin took in the Baltics after allying himself with his fellow monster Adolf hitler in the Molotov Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Demand military bases, behave for a time, then introduce thugs and Russian communists in to disrupt and intimidate civil society, then massively invade, install your own leaders while shipping their predecessors to the gulag and creating a phony “referendum” asking to be admitted to the Soviet Union, gratefully accepted. Putin, this corrupt supreme oligarch and poisoner by proxy, will do anything to remain in power. Just like stalin. I can hear Putin now, “thanks, uncle joe!”.

  • Michael Flower

    - The next Sudetenland, Possible!

    If Putin, isn’t. stop now! Then we learned absolutely nothing during WWII. It’s going the be easier to send a message too Putin now, than to send him one later. Putin is riding on his ego, and his own self importance. If we do stop him now, what will we learn after WWIII?

  • Idaho spud

    Russia’s gambit in the Baltics (especially Estonia and Latvia with their 25% ethnic Russian population) won’t be a tanks across the border blitzkrieg. It will be extensive Russian Language propaganda to stir up resentment and a sense of victimhood in the Russian speaking population. FSB trained agitators to transform the sense of victim hood into civil unrest (accompanied by extensive disinformation campaigns in the rest of Europe, combined with economic pressure — all to ensure Europe lacks the will to intervene). Provocations will transform civil unrest into open force by Russiophone “self-protection militias” (led and equipped by Russian-Estonian agitators (trained by the FSB) with perhaps Spetnatz help). NATO doesn’t need to prepare for a non-nuclear WWIII invasion. It needs to revive Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe to provide Russian speakers with an alternative source of information and opinion. It needs to ensure the Latvian and Estonian security forces have the means and training for non-lethel crowd control. They have to have the means to secure a city hall held by a “self-protection militia” without creating martyrs by blowing it up or killing everyone inside — even if the separatists are armed and shooting back. And, hardest of all, the Latvians and Estonians will have to find a way to set aside their very understandable anger over the Russian occupation ( I’ve seen the KGB Museum in Vilnius ) and ensure that their Russian speaking population has an opportunity to participate in civil and economic society. In Ukraine and Crimea the Russians could offer instant economic advancement to Russian speakers if they joined up with Russia. Estonia and Latvia are a different ball of wax and have the opportunity to sustain the advantage of offering its local Russiaphones a better way of life outside of Russia — including respect for Russian culture.

  • Secundius

    I think Lithuania, is probably going to feel the “Putin Pinch” fairly soon.