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Putin's Landgrab Alarms Baltics

Putin’s landgrab of the Crimean Peninsula is understandably viewed with considerable alarm in the Baltics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all have Russian minorities; for example, in Estonia, a quarter of the population is of Russian descent. In Latvia, about 30 percent of the population is of Russian descent, and there is a strong ethnic Russian presence in the Latvian Parliament.

Still, the region’s media are sounding alarm bells of Kremlin efforts to destabilize their respective countries. The English-language Baltic Times reported that the Lithuanian intelligence service, the VSD, has warned that its Russian counterpart and other Russian security services “were acting most aggressively against Lithuania.”

In Latvia, the daily paper Neatkariga quotes the country’s security police chief as saying Russia has intensified its “soft power” efforts “through information campaigns, as well as through cultural, educational, and other similar instruments,” the paper said.

Estonia’s defense minister, Urmas Reinsalu, has called on more Estonian citizens to join the Estonian Defense League (Estonia’s version of the US National Guard). He told Estonian Public Broadcasting, “The Ukrainian crisis shows that the idea that defending the state is the problem of professional military only is outdated.”

Estonia’s national defense plan calls for membership of the Defense League to be expanded to 30,000 by 2022, more than double the current 14,000. An informal online poll conducted by the daily Postimees last weekend yielded more than 8,000 responses, with 32 percent saying they would seriously consider joining, 14 percent saying they might do so in the future, and 36 percent saying they would not. Twelve percent said they were already members. 

There is no shortage of advice on what the West should do next. In an editorial, the Baltic Times urged the Atlantic Alliance to “step up and offer Ukraine accelerated NATO membership,” which—it said—the Ukrainian prime minister had already requested in private meetings with NATO officials. “Ukraine is a worthy and willing candidate for NATO,” the paper said. “The NATO community needs to stand and rectify the wrongs of Yalta and Bucharest.”

The latter reference is to the 2008 NATO summit in the Romanian capital in which France and Germany blocked an attempt by the Bush administration to offer fast-track membership to Georgia and Ukraine because of Putin’s objections. “Ask the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Baltic nations, and other East European recently admitted NATO members,” the editorial continued. “They’re willing to defend Ukraine if only to experience freedom from fear themselves.”

Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, called on the European Union to take a tougher stand against Moscow in defending shared values. Speaking in Brussels, Ilves said the EU should join the US in a united stand, and praised the Americans for showing more spine.

“This border change means a major loss of trust in Europe as a player and NATO ‘being back in business’ discussing Article 5. We can no longer think that there are unthinkables of a certain type—countries do get invaded,” Ilves said. He did not, however, put forward any concrete steps for hardening the European position.

On the Russian side the Moscow Times, perhaps in an attempt to deflect some attention from Moscow’s action, raised the question whether Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula might encourage other countries to claim disputed territories. For example, said the paper, would Germany campaign to regain the Russian ice-free port city of Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Konigsburg, which is wedged between Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, and is cut off from the rest of Russia?

But the German minority in Kaliningrad is now 0.8 percent of the total population of 940,000. After 1945, Stalin had deported the Germans to Siberia and elsewhere because he doubted their loyalty. The paper said Germany might still be tempted to take over Kaliningrad, which constituted a forward Russian position inside the European Union, and was therefore a threat to the security of the West.  

Meanwhile, the rising tensions in the region are hurting the economies of the Baltic region. One of the biggest income generators for businesses in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and even Finland are thousands of Russian tourists. In all four countries the flow of visitors from Russia is decreasing even as the value of the ruble drops against the euro, and—as the Helsinki Times put it—“political instability has prompted Russians to re-consider travel plans.”

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