Eurasian Disunion Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks – Part Nine

Analysis 14 June 2018
Eurasian Disunion Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks – Part Nine

The think tank Institute for Strategic Analysis continues publication of excerpts from a book “Eurasian disunion-Russia’s vulnerable flanks” to keep English-language readers informed of new trends, developments and analyses of President Vladimir Putin’s policies in former Soviet nations during his reign over Russia.

Part IX

Northern Flank: Baltic and Nordic

The Baltic Sea occupies a pivotal position in Moscow’s plans to consolidate the northern flank of its expansionist Eurasian project. It provides a vital trade route to Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, hosts the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, and is the location of the Baltic fleet, headquartered in the Kaliningrad exclave. Despite Kremlin opposition, over the past two decades the Baltic Sea has become largely a NATO lake, with six member states having located along its coast: the traditional members, Denmark and Germany, and relative newcomers Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the remaining two neutral states, Sweden and Finland, are moving closer to NATO in an effort to protect their security in an increasingly unpredictable region.

Russia’s northern flank consists of two sets of countries that have experienced growing pressures from Moscow: the Baltic and the Nordic. The three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) occupy the most vulnerable position, especially Latvia and Estonia, which contain significant ethnic-Russian and Russian-speaking populations. Each state has campaigned for more effective NATO protection to counter attempts to unsettle their internal security. In the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Baltic states formally requested NATO to deploy several thousand troops as a permanent deterrent. They are seeking a brigade-size unit of approximately 3,000 soldiers so that every Baltic country would have at least one battalion stationed on its territory. The successful defense of any NATO member in deterring Moscow’s many-pronged assaults will be a crucial test for the credibility of the Alliance over the next decade. If any NATO member is dismembered by Russia, then Moscow will not only exact revenge for losing the Cold War, it will also have in effect dismantled the Western Alliance.

The Nordic non-NATO members, Sweden and Finland, have also become increasingly concerned by Moscow’s activities along their borders. Events in Ukraine in 2014 threw into sharp focus the absence of Nordic capabilities following years of drawdowns and a focus on crisis management operations instead of territorial defense. 1 Two decades of underinvestment in defense and substantial force reductions have hollowed out territorial defense capabilities. Northern Europe has been left dangerously exposed to military coercion at a time of mounting uncertainty. If regional stability was threatened because of Russia’s actions, both Sweden and Finland could petition for NATO membership, thus expanding the rupture between Washington and Moscow and intensifying Russia’s justifications for its regional aggressiveness.

In the event that Moscow decides to directly attack Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, in an alleged defense of its national interests, it will seek full military maneuverability in the Baltic Sea and to restrict NATO's response. In flexing its military muscles through large-scale maneuvers, the construction of new bases, and frequent violations of the air space and coastal waters of littoral states, Moscow has been aiming at several objectives. First, the military buildup is supposed to demonstrate that Russia is again a great power and can create an environment of uncertainty in the Baltic and Nordic regions. Second, Moscow is testing NATO's political and military responses and adjusting its own tactics and operations in potential preparations for armed conflict. And third, in the case of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Kremlin's military pressures are part of a broader multi-pronged offensive to weaken their governments, stir social and ethnic disputes, and demonstrate that NATO will not be able to defend them in the event of war.

Baltic Front

The Putin administration has persistently tried to demonstrate that the independence of the three Baltic states is an “abnormality” as compared to the period when the region was under Russian or Soviet rule.2 Russia’s post-Soviet narrative has depicted the Baltic countries as a platform for expanding US interests in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia itself on the pretext of democratization and promotion of human rights. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are on NATO’s front line, and each capital fears that in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin may engage in several forms of incursion to demonstrate its strength and underscore Western impotence.

While Russia's ambitions toward the three Baltic states are clear, its pretexts for intervention and its strategies of subversion are varied. In terms of objectives, the Kremlin follows two overarching goals. First, it seeks to marginalize and isolate the three countries and reduce their influence in the post-Soviet neighborhood. It calculates that neutralized governments will not challenge attempts to establish a Eurasian bloc among the remaining post-Soviet states. Russia’s officials understand that the Baltic nations cannot be incorporated in its regional organizations, but they want to prevent them from supporting any initiatives for a wider EU or NATO that would undermine the Eurasian alternative. Despite Moscow’s pressures, all three Baltic capitals remain internationally active in support of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries that have resisted the Kremlin.

Second, Russia wants to emasculate NATO, especially along their common border in Europe’s East. By regularly challenging the Baltic countries through troop maneuvers, air space violations, threats of invasion, or nuclear annihilation, Putin’s officials are intent on demonstrating that if Russia decides to attack, the Balts will be helpless to resist and NATO’s common defense doctrine will prove worthless. In effect, the Kremlin’s ambition is NATO “rollback,” in which Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania may formally remain part of the Alliance but are unable to oppose Russian policy and NATO does not emplace its infrastructure on Baltic territory.

Moscow has two main pretexts for pressuring the Baltic countries: the status of Kaliningrad and the position of Russian-speaking minorities. The Kremlin seeks exclusive control over a transit corridor across Lithuania to its exclave of Kaliningrad, a slither of territory on the Baltic coast that Russia annexed from Germany at the close of World War Two. Officials claim that the region is being isolated through international sanctions against Russia, introduced after its assault on Ukraine during 2014. They have issued warnings that Kaliningrad could be deliberately cut off by Vilnius in an attempted takeover of the territory.

A more likely scenario is a rising movement for autonomy in Kaliningrad, demanding closer links with the EU, similar to Ukraine’s aspirations, which the Kremlin will be determined to thwart. Kaliningrad’s population is showing signs of frustration with economic stagnation and Moscow’s neglect, and long-term Western sanctions will further diminish living standards. However, Lithuanian officials calculate that Russia could stage a provocation along Kaliningrad’s border, claim that the local population is in danger of isolation, encirclement, or attack, and dispatch a troop convoy to open a direct military corridor from Russia across Lithuanian territory.

Moscow has tried to benefit from political, ethnic, and social turbulence in the region in order to keep the Baltic countries off balance. It has exploited the Russian minority question to depict the Baltic governments as failing to meet European standards for minority protection. The Kremlin claims the right to represent and defend the interests not only of Russian ethnics but all “Russian speakers” in order to raise the number of alleged victims of Baltic repression. Assertions by officials that Baltic governments discriminate against Russians, despite the conclusions of international human rights organizations, contribute to heightening tensions.

Latvia and Estonia contain sizable Russian-speaking populations. Although the greater share of these residents is integrated in the state through citizenship, political participation, and economic opportunity, a considerable minority has avoided naturalization and may be susceptible to manipulation by Moscow’s agitprop offensives. According to the 2011 census, out of two million people in Latvia, 26.9% were Russians, although the pool of “Russian speakers” remains larger. Of these, about 290,000 are currently non-citizens, as they have not passed an elementary naturalization test or have not applied for citizenship. In Estonia, according to the 2011 census, out of a population of almost 1.3 million, 24.8% were Russians, with a larger number of “Russian speakers,” of which nearly 90,000 are currently non-citizens.

In both countries, non-citizens benefit from all EU-harmonized civil rights, aside from being unable to vote in Latvia in line with norms evident in other EU states. However, in Estonia non-citizens are permitted to vote at the local level. As permanent residents, all noncitizens can freely travel to all EU territories and live and work anywhere in the country. Nonetheless, a small minority remains susceptible to an intense Moscow-directed campaign to manufacture or exploit grievances in order to divide Latvian and Estonian societies. Conflicts can be incited by spreading anti-government disinformation through widely watched Russian television channels and by infiltrating these countries using Russian Special Forces to organize local provocateurs. Officials in Moscow can subsequently intervene to allegedly protect Russian compatriots. As in Ukraine, the aggressor can thrust himself forward as the peacemaker and mediator.

Numerous pressures have been applied over several years against the Baltic states by various arms of the Russian government. In addition to direct military threats and the exploitation of ethnic divisions, Moscow has used energy embargos, economic sanctions, political influences, financial corruption, cyber wars, NGO activism, and media disinformation campaigns to engender social divisions and confrontations and weaken the Baltic authorities. In the aftermath of events in Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia have remained on alert for another scenario of partition engineered by Moscow on the grounds of defending Russian compatriots. Kremlin ambitions may be bolstered by its relative successes in Ukraine, especially as the Western response proved inadequate in preventing partition. The Baltics also have relatively small and weak military forces. As a consequence, each state has sought more effective NATO protection of their borders, territories, and political institutions to counter attempts to unsettle internal security.

As the major energy supplier in the region after the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has periodically sought to disrupt the Baltic economies in order to gain political advantage. Each government has tried to reduce its dependence on Russian energy and its exposure to blackmail. Moscow also endeavors to control energy transit routes, as this is both financially and politically profitable. Energy supplies are used as leverage to purchase shares in local refining and transportation systems. Moreover, periodic threats to reduce or halt supplies are intended to induce concessions for Russian investments in local economies. Another customary form of political pressure involves targeted trade sanctions against the Baltic states. For instance, in June 2015 Russia’s Federal Veterinary and Phyto-Sanitary Oversight Service prohibited the transit of fish and fish products from the Baltic countries across Russia to Kazakhstan.

To be continued)

Republished from a book "Eurasian Disunion Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks".