The three Baltic states have been trampled over by everyone from the Russians and Soviets to the Germans, Swedes and even Ottomans in the past few centuries. But, even as the world wonders whether they will be next on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion list after Ukraine, there is a counterintuitive sense in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that they are as safe as they ever have been.
“If you look at the past 800 to 900 years of history, an argument could be made that we have never been so secure. Because we have so many very powerful allies, we’re an independent country with our own standing army, a free and open and flourishing trade and investment environment”, says Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s prime minister.
This confidence is largely due to the backing of the US and Nato, which are jointly rushing to reinforce and reassure those countries on the frontline between the military alliance’s eastern flank and Russia.
In a stand-off between the west and Russia that many are calling a second cold war, the Baltic states are increasingly viewed as this generation’s West Berlin. A part of Nato territory that may be all but impossible to defend in itself, but which western officials underscore to Moscow will be heavily avenged in the case of any attack.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, reiterated this on Tuesday after a whistle-stop tour of all three Baltic countries. He told an audience in Estonia that the US and the military alliance would “defend every inch of Nato territory”.
In more than a dozen interviews with senior Baltic officials, including all three presidents and numerous ministers, all suggest there is no immediate threat to their region but that they are ready for whatever Russia might throw at them, as they have been for decades. There are still security weaknesses that they hope Nato can help to plug. But for both the military alliance and the EU there is a clear sense that the Baltics are on the front line against Russia’s revanchism.
“There is an understanding that we are the region where Nato, by defending its territory, either succeeds or fails”, says Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister. “This is a life or death issue for Nato. So you can draw comparisons with West Berlin”.
Attack on one, is an attack on all
Forcibly and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union after the second world war, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania only regained their independence in 1990-91 and promptly made it their goal to join both Nato and the EU, which they did in 2004 — the only ex-Soviet states to do so.
Officials in the three capitals, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, are clear that the Baltics are not Ukraine, in ways both good and bad. One huge difference is that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all covered by Nato’s collective defence pledge of article 5, which says that an attack on one country is an attack on all.
But Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, last week linked the fate of his country directly with that of the Baltic states telling reporters that, “if we are no more then, God forbid, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia will be next”.
Asked if the Baltics “will be next”, politicians in the region tend to say it would be Nato next whether the attack were on Latvia, the UK or Germany. “We have no immediate threats”, says Egils Levits, Latvia’s president. “Or to put it another way: we are experiencing the same threats as Nato in general”.
Nato placed multinational battle groups of about 1,000 soldiers each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017, designed to act as a tripwire in case of a Russian attack. “It is important, so [Nato allies] can’t pretend it’s not happening”, says one former senior Baltic intelligence official. Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defence minister, adds: “We see from the Ukrainian experience that the first 72 hours is very important when everybody is confused”.
The countries leading each battalion — Britain, Canada, Germany and the US respectively — have all sent extra troops in recent weeks. But even then, Russia still has up to 10 times more forces on its side. “We feel we are in the zone where we have a deficit growing, especially with the troop build-up in Belarus”, says Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.
The defence of the Baltics would be far more difficult than that of Ukraine, which has a surface area almost four times the three Baltic states combined, and a prewar population of 44mn people, seven times larger. “In the Baltics it’s very clear that we’re living in an asymmetric situation, because the powers of Russia and Belarus are larger than us. If they would like to have some military intervention, and they didn’t have their hands tied in Ukraine, of course they would overwhelm us”, says Pabriks.
The Baltics are essentially a peninsula, attached to the rest of Europe by a narrow, 65km-wide land border between Lithuania and Poland. Known as the Suwalki Gap, it is bordered to the west by the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the east by Belarus. The Suwalki Gap is widely regarded as one of Nato’s biggest vulnerabilities.
“In Kaliningrad [Russia has] one of the most militarised areas in Europe”, says Gitanas Nauseda, Lithuania’s president. “Lithuania feels sandwiched between this heavily militarised area and Belarus”.
The US presence is seen as vital by Baltic leaders. Before the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the US had about 500 troops on rotation in Lithuania but has now sent an additional 400 to Latvia and 20 Apache helicopters, which one Baltic official quipped was “more firepower than all our armies together”. Now all three countries would like to see US and Nato troops based permanently in the Baltics, a scenario not on the table before the Ukraine invasion.
Latvia has closely studied the war in Ukraine and drawn conclusions on what it needs from its allies. Several ministers point to the need for improved air defence, long a weak spot in the region where jets from various Nato allies make up the Baltic air policing mission. Rinkevics says Latvia feels secure but adds: “We understand that there are no good times ahead. So we need to increase our defence budget. We need to work with our allies to make their presence here long-term, if not permanent”.
All three Baltic countries are now committed to spending 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product annually on defence, ahead of Nato’s target of 2 per cent. But given the size of their economies, financial support will be needed from Nato, particularly for air and coastal defence.
A full Russian invasion of the Baltics is seen as unlikely, given the consequences of attacking members of Nato and the EU. “I do believe that the Baltic states, if Nato and the EU are serious about territorial defence, are not going to be next as the military invasion targets”, says Rinkevics. “But you cannot exclude tests [by the Russians]”.
A Baltic national security official believes a vast cyber attack is more likely. Putin has form, attacking Estonia in 2007 including government, banks and media. There is an unresolved debate in Nato about whether a cyber attack can trigger Article 5 and how big it would have to be to do so.
Another possibility is a limited Russian incursion into the Baltics, perhaps by forces claiming to be separatists. “The most dangerous scenario for us is a very limited incursion. It might be hard to find an immediate Nato response”, says a second Baltic national security official who fears such a move could divide the allies. Still, most officials think the “little green men” used by Russia in Crimea are unlikely to be tried a second time. Latvia’s former president once said the tactic to be used against such an incursion would be simple: shoot them on sight.
Other potential tests could include using energy or migration as a weapon, or psychological or information warfare, officials say. “I’m not panicking about any Russian moves or a Russian attack. I don’t have this sense of fear or nervousness”, says Rinkevics, who adds that it is still important not to get complacent.
‘Russia woke us up’
There is intense horror across the Baltic states at what is happening in Ukraine and a keen desire to help Kyiv as much as possible. There is also a sense that it could have been them had they not joined Nato and the EU when they did. “I have never been more thankful to be in Nato”, says one senior Estonian official.
The three countries, as well as Poland, have warned about Russia loudly since at least its war with Georgia in 2008, if not before. “They thought this was because of our peculiar history: that we were hurt and we can’t forgive. But we don’t live in hurt. We simply see them. We know how Russians act”, says Ainars Latkovskis, chair of the defence committee in Latvia’s parliament.
The Estonian and Latvian prime ministers talk of the “naivety” of previous western leaders, thinking that Putin was a politician like them, and instead offering him compromises and showing him weakness. Both are heartened by the unity and strength of the west’s response so far to the invasion of Ukraine.
“This is the proper response, a response out of strength. I have no interest to gloat or say I told you so. This is meaningless”, adds Karins. “We are all in this together”.
The Baltics now advocate preparing for a long-term confrontation with Russia while supporting Ukraine and continuing to inflict economic pain on Moscow. Pabriks says that “finally, Russia woke us up”. He adds that although Latvia feels “relatively safe”, there is also a sense that Nato and the EU cannot afford to abandon Kyiv to its fate.
“The Russians cannot win this war”, says Pabriks. “So what is the end game for them? Nobody wants Russian destruction, nobody wants Russia to disappear from the map, nobody wants nuclear war. We simply want Russia to stop threatening its neighbours and become a normal state”.
Latvia and Estonia have a particular potential vulnerability: large populations of Russian speakers. Most came in the Soviet-era as part of a deliberate policy by authorities to suppress the local culture, traditions and language. About 37 per cent of people in Latvia speak Russian as their mother tongue, although some of these are Ukrainians or Belarusians; it is about a quarter in Estonia.
Officials are quick to play down any thought they could be exploited by Putin, however. “We never saw the ethnic Russians here as a danger for our security or our democracy. Putin’s aggression is opening the eyes not only of western Europeans but also of many local Russians”, says Pabriks.
The Russian speakers are concentrated in eastern Estonia and Latvia as well as both capital cities, but even if some have previously expressed sympathy with Russia and Putin, they are well aware that wages and pensions are substantially better where they are. “The more the Russian-speaking minority live in Estonia, the more they realise this is their own country and it’s better to live here”, says Alar Karis, Estonia’s president.
One difference between Estonia and Latvia is in politics. In Estonia, the political party that appeals most to Russians, the Centre party, is fully integrated in the system and is a member of the ruling coalition. But in Latvia there has long been suspicion and often open hostility to Harmony, the party most appealing to Russians, which has come first in every parliamentary election since 2011, but has never been able to form a government.
Karins hails Harmony’s decision to support a parliamentary motion critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a potential watershed. “It seems that in every nation, there are always definitive moments, and moments that further change at a much more rapid pace than before. This could well be one of them”, he adds.
Latvia’s prime minister says the bombing of places such as Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, has led to a “profound realisation” among Russian-speakers in Latvia that “we really could be threatened”. Karins adds: “If the bombs started to fly in Latvia, unfortunately they would not be discriminatory, looking at one’s family make-up or political beliefs”.
Officials are seeing an uptick in Russian disinformation attempts. Janis Sarts, director of the Nato Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, says there are two current tactics: one, instilling fear via social media and Russian TV channels by saying “you’re next — we’re going to attack you and wipe you out”; and secondly, attempting to sow division by spreading rumours of local Russians being mistreated. Yet, says Sarts, the number of local Russian speakers supporting the Kremlin — already a minority — has fallen in recent weeks.
Latvia has had issues with Russian money in its financial system in the past, but under heavy pressure from the US and international authorities it embarked on a clean-up of its banks and is now advising other EU countries on how to improve their anti-money-laundering controls. Non-resident deposits — those from outside the country, mostly Russia — have fallen sharply in the past five years.
There have also been questions raised about the influence of Russian oligarchs in Latvia, where they congregate in the seaside town of Jurmala. But President Levits has a blunt assessment: “The investments of Russian oligarchs in Latvia are peanuts compared with the presence of them in London”. He adds that Latvia is much less susceptible than many western countries to “toxic investments and the political influence of oligarchs”.
Prime minister Karins says he is prepared for a lengthy stand-off between democratic Europe and autocratic Russia. Karins says: “If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, Putin will not stop. And any western democracy could be next.
“This is a war against democracy”, he says. “It is a war of imperialistic expansion whereby Putin blatantly says he does not respect the right of self-determination of Ukraine. It’s anachronistic but true”.