RIGA - Recent events have cast the Baltic States in a new light, as a barrier between Russia and the West. NATO, especially U.S. involvement, has shown the world the strategic importance of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, as well as Poland. NATO training exercises are being conducted in response to both the crisis in Ukraine, as well as the increasing Russian presence in the Baltic Sea region.
With significant ethnic Russian populations in Estonia and Latvia, politicians, citizens and world media have speculated that Russia may soon cast its eye on the Baltics, resulting in events similar to Georgia in 2008, and Crimea in 2014.
There has been a recent push to both increase the defense spending of each Baltic State, as well as have continuing NATO presence in the region: patrolling the skies, the sea, as well as on land.
“The Russian Federation has been, over the last couple of years, constantly upgrading the number, quality, training and readiness of their troops along their Western borders, especially in the Baltic Sea region,” said Peeter Kuimet of the Estonian Ministry of Defense to TBT.
“We consider this development to be absolutely unprovoked and unwarranted and there’s a clear need for NATO to increase its presence and reaction time in the Baltic Sea region,” Kuimet continued.
A NATO summit will be held in Wales in September to determine the next course of action.
“This issue will undoubtedly be one the central issues at the upcoming NATO summit. The UK Parliaments report also correctly states that a Russian attack against NATO is currently unlikely, but there is a need for a bigger NATO presence in order it stays that way,” said Kuimet.
The Parliamentary Defense Committee of the UK published its ‘Towards the Next Defense and Security Review’ report on July 31, arguing that recent events in Ukraine should act as a wake-up call for NATO and the UK, calling NATO ill-prepared to face this new potential threat. The argument that the report makes is that, for the last 13 years, the main wars have been fought against lightly armed insurgents, not opposing militaries.
“The instability in Russia, President [Vladimir] Putin’s world-view, and the failure of the West to respond actively in Ukraine means that we now have to address urgently the possibility - however small - of Russia repeating such tactics elsewhere,” said chairman of the committee Rory Stewart.
“In particular, the NATO member states in the Baltic are vulnerable. We are not convinced that NATO or the UK government has fully grasped the implications of this threat,” continued Stewart.
At the upcoming NATO summit, the UK plans on calling for a re-ordering of NATO, establishing a more permanent presence in the Baltic States.
“It should ensure that NATO begins to train and exercise at a scale to make its ‘deterrence’ credible. The UK should demonstrate leadership in this area. To make Articles 5 and 4 of the Washington Treaty credible, NATO needs to re-examine its capabilities and organizational structures. It must put itself again into a position to carry out its core responsibilities of protecting its member states. It needs to do this alongside its current focus on terror and failed states,” reads the report.
However, the Baltic States have received NATO troops favorably, citing no qualms about the effectiveness of NATO defense.
“We have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of NATO’s collective defense and Article 5,” said Kuimet.
“NATO demonstrated its commitment to collective defense very quickly and effectively already in the spring by increasing the number of air policing fighters in Lithuania and Estonia, by deploying U.S. ground troops to all three Baltic countries and sending NATO’s mine-countermeasures-squadron to the Baltic Sea,” continued Kismet.
In addition to NATO defense, the Baltic States have agreed to increase their defense spending by 2 percent of overall GDP by 2020, something Estonia did in 2012.
High cost of defense
Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis in an interview on Latvian Radio last month said that there is a need to significantly increase defense spending, saying that a Russian military build-up on Baltic borders was causing a new arms race.
“A modern helicopter base is in Ostrova, in Russa. The helicopters could fly in our direction and we wouldn’t notice if they were flying low; that’s a serious problem for our military,” Vejonis said. “We need the ability to monitor our borders and react.”
Vejonis continued by saying that an investment of 140 million euros would be necessary over the next eight years for air defense, including a Stinger surface-to-air missile system and advanced radar.
“Now is a crucial moment to bring the U.S. Congress and the government on board for a permanent allied presence in the Baltic States, so I call on the Latvian community in the U.S. to use its accumulated experience to promote the adoption of this decision,” Vejonis said on a trip to the U.S. in July.
“Following the changes in the security situation with our Eastern neighbor and international relations in Eastern Europe, more serious attention to defense is necessary,” said Lithuanian Deputy Minister of National Defense Antanas Valys.
The funding is slated to go toward improving training, anti-aircraft missile systems, ammunition, as well as medium range anti-tank defense systems.
Over the next eight years, Latvia plans to allocate its increase in funding to air surveillance radar, individual air-defense systems and weapons, as well patrol boat modernization with newer systems and tactical intelligence capabilities. U.S.-led exercises
June saw the conclusion of the fifth year of Saber Strike in the Baltics, an annual NATO-Baltic exercise. Maj. Gen. McQueen, who led the Saber Strike 2014 exercise, remarked: “This year’s scenario was design to help our formations understand defensive operations and to transition from defensive operations to counter-attack and offensive operations.”
Canada and Denmark participated for the first time this year.Operation Atlantic Resolve (Persistent Presence) is still on-going, with no definite plans of conclusion.
“The U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is the primary unit supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve. They have been scattered across Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia for several months. The soldiers are there training with our NATO partners at the request of those nations and, from all indications, they are exceptionally pleased with our activities thus far,” U.S. Lt. Col. Steven Lamb told TBT.
The need for more training exercises is clear, as the instances of over 50 NATO interceptions of Russian planes flying near Baltic borders in the last month alone. On Aug. 1, an SU-24 and AN-24 were spotted over the Baltic Sea. A 24-strong regiment of Sukhoi SU-27SM3 planes have also been moved to the Belarusian Baranovich and Lida airfields, 35 km from the Lithuanian border.
While these occurrences have remained in neutral waters and territory, there is still cause for concern at the increase of frequency of these events. Currently, 12 NATO jets are patrolling the skies over the Baltics, from Poland, Denmark and Great Britain.
Russian warships have also been spotted skirting territorial waters in the Baltic Sea. Russia has also ordered two new Mistral-class warships from France, at the price of 1.2 billion euros, a move which has upset much of the West, as well as Japan.
Areas of concern
The question of how to best integrate the Russian minority into Estonian and Latvian society is often discussed, more so since the situation in Ukraine. With a population nervous about their own Russian minority, the divide has the potential of growing wider.
In the town of Narva, with over 64,000 inhabitants, 82 percent are ethnic Russians, and only 46 percent of the total Estonian citizens. About 36 percent hold Russian passports. The legacy of Peter the Great lives on in this town, where he achieved victory during the Great Northern War.
Russia has repeatedly asserted that it has the right to defend Russian-speakers beyond the borders of Russia, leading to its actions in Ukraine. Officials in the town of Narva have said that Estonian politicians have only started paying attention to its Russian speakers since the crisis in Ukraine. However, despite Russian allegations of mistreatment of Russian-speakers in Estonia, analysts and locals alike have claimed that, should there be an independence referendum similar to Crimea’s, the results would be drastically different.
An ethnic Russian in Narva, Aleksandr Brokk, told Radio Free Europe that he believes there to be no concern of Russian ‘liberation’ of Narva.
“People come and go. When you cross into Ivangorod, straight away you can see the atmosphere there,” he says. “Who is going to want to join that?”
There is also concern that the individuals of Latvia who are non-citizens, who are not citizens of Latvia or any other country, number nearly 300,000, would be the targets of Russian propaganda.
Earlier this year, Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Veshnyakov spoke of legislation in Russia proposed to grant Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians in Latvia
This was, he claimed, in order to “save the Latvian non-citizens from poverty by giving them citizenship and a pension without having to stay in Russia,” Veshnyakov told Latvian Radio 4.
This move was seen by many as startlingly similar to Russian actions in Georgia, when residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were permitted Russian citizenship and passports, later used as the basis for military action in August of 2008 to defend its citizens.
Throughout the last few years, Russia has been giving passports in the thousands to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Referred to as “passportization,” the tactic concerned Ukraine and the Baltics during the 2008 Georgian conflict. Foreshadowing the events of 2014, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anton Orekh said at the time to the New York Times that, “in Crimea a general Russian passportization is gaining ground,” the spread of which can “lead to catastrophic consequences.”
The 25th anniversary of the infamous Baltic Way will occur Aug. 23, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Events have been planned to mark the occasion, which was the symbol of a peaceful independence movement, culminating in freedom from the Soviet Union. Now, in light of recent events, the anniversary holds even more significance.
“We will hold a linkup of the Baltic Way, three oak pedestals will be erected at the Latvian border; they are already in production. Speakers of the Latvian and Estonian parliaments will be there,” Lithuanian Parliamentary Speaker Loreta Grauziniene told BNS.
The main event to mark the Baltic Way will take place in Salociai, close to the Lithuanian-Latvian border.
However, despite a reputation for peaceful cooperation, there are activists in Latvia who have been outspoken about the idea of separate republics in Latvia, as well as showing support to the Donetsk rebels.
There have recently been reports that Latvians may be fighting alongside Ukrainian rebels, a move which cannot yet be confirmed by Latvian security services.
Political activist Vladimirs Lindermans, a non-citizen of Latvia and leader of the ‘For the Native Language!’ party, claimed he had information about a small group of Latvians fighting in Ukraine, in Donetsk. Latvian Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said that if this were true, there would be consequences. However, he stated that there was no concern over a large-scale movement of people.
On the other side of the coin is Pro-European Russian activist Igors Vatolins, a Latvian publicist. He is the founder of the European Russians Movement in Latvia in an effort to show that there are Russians in Latvia who do not agree with Putin and who are more European leaning. While the majority of attention is paid to more vocal pro-Russian advocates, this group shows a movement forward for Russians in Latvia.
Vatolins’ stance is that most Russian speakers in Latvia have no desire to join Russia. The primary mission Vatolins’ movement is to lobby the Latvian government on behalf of the minority rights of Latvian Russians before Putin does.
Speaking to the BBC, Vatolins summed up his argument: “So we say to Mr. Putin: We are not tools of your influence here in Latvia, but we say to our [Latvian] government: Please do solve those Russian issues, which Mr. Putin regards as tools of his influence, otherwise it can be the same thing as in the Crimea, and it’s rather serious.”