Categorized | Europe, Russia, Security Issues, World

Rethinking the Spectre of Russian Intervention in the Baltic States

The Narva River separates Hermann Castle (left) in Estonia from Ivangorod Fortress in Russia

The baltic states responding to the threat posed by a resurgent Russia is understandable, but the nature of this threat and the means to reduce it need to be re-examined.

From 2014 onwards, Western commentators covering Russian aggression in the former Soviet space have repeatedly issued stark warnings of a potential threat to the Baltic states. All three states were part of the USSR and have a significant Russian-speaking population and therefore, it is argued, could be a target of aggression in the wake of Russian intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. This fear would appear to be shared by the governments of the three states. In the context of a changing security environment, all three have taken various steps to increase deterrence, ranging from the reintroduction of conscription to the upgrading of their arsenals. However, while these steps may successfully serve a domestic political purpose or leave an impression upon allies (most of whom, unlike at least one of the three states, have so far failed to meet NATO defence spending commitments), taken in isolation they fail to recognise the scope of Russia’s ambitions.

The potential for a conventional attack by Russia on a Baltic state remains negligible (although these precautions would be unlikely to impact the outcome were one to occur). Membership of NATO already fulfils the purpose of conventional deterrence and, while the alliance’s presence is dwarfed by Russian military power in the region, it is difficult to conceive of any situation in which the Russian government would reach the rational decision to risk open conflict with NATO. More crucially, ongoing speculation as to the authenticity of the NATO deterrence role lies precisely in the fact that the threat posed to the Baltic states is not one of ‘traditional’ military intervention.

The nature of the security risk to the Baltic states is neither conventional in nature nor uniform in extent, with Latvia and Estonia arguably at higher risk of external interference than Lithuania. It is noteworthy that Latvia and Estonia have far longer borders with Russia, much larger Russian-speaking minorities and overwhelming concentrations of Russian-speakers in bordering regions such as Narva, which as of 2013 is over 80% ethnically Russian. These factors, beyond the control of either national government, provide far greater scope for the sort of intervention which has now been well rehearsed in Georgia and eastern Ukraine, in which Moscow has been implicated in supporting separatist movements. But above all, current nationality laws and shortcomings in attempts to fully integrate the Russian-speaking communities in Latvia and Estonia are far more problematic than is the case in Lithuania.

Any threats to the territorial integrity of the Baltic States are unlikely to be realised in the form of conventional military hostility and therefore conventional military deterrence, at least in isolation, is not a convincing precautionary step. Rather, the significant reform of nationality laws and policies aimed at encouraging the social, economic and political integration of Russian-speakers into Latvian and Estonian society, while not a straightforward undertaking, would encourage an improved level of regional stability in the longer term. Such a programme by Latvia and Estonia to better integrate Russian-speakers could greatly strengthen their territorial integrity (and more effectively than by military preparedness alone). This would also serve the purpose of sending a very positive message to Western institutions, sometimes known to be frustrated at the inadequacies of Baltic policy-makers, and often perceiving the politics of those states as being drawn upon ethnic lines. It could also send a positive message to Russian-speakers elsewhere in the former Soviet space that there is no inherent contradiction—and there are in fact many benefits—to being both a member of the Russian-speaking diaspora and a citizen of a country belonging to Western institutions.

To conclude, the means by which Russia has undermined the integrity of neighbours in recent years have indeed included traditional military intervention, such as in Georgia in 2008, but more crucially highly sophisticated forms of hybrid warfare and it is clear to see how these methods, with plausible deniability and the nurturing of pro-Russian separatism at their core, could in theory be used against a member of NATO with a large concentration of dissatisfied Russian-speaking citizens. The NATO alliance was formed in an era in which the primary threat to its members was conventional in nature and it is therefore struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar security environment. Nevertheless, it remains highly doubtful that a rational adversary would carry out any form of conventional hostile actions. Therefore, instead of bolstering defence, already underscored by membership of the strongest alliance in history, policymakers in the Baltic States (and other states perceived to be at risk) could be focusing greater attention upon those aspects of security which NATO is not designed, or is reluctant, to deal with. Addressing the inadequacies in integrating Russian-speaking citizens to date could be made a greater priority for reasons of both military security and social cohesion. Reducing, if not completely removing, this potential channel of interference upon which hybrid warfare depends would greatly limit the options on the table for Moscow, if the undermining of the territorial integrity of the Baltic states was ever to become a foreign policy goal.

Image courtesy of Guillaume Speurt

About Charlie Zawadzki

Charlie Zawadzki holds an MA in Diplomatic Studies from the University of Leicester. He has been a Chatham House member since completing an internship with the Africa Programme and works freelance in education management.

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