VILNIUS/TALLINN - If the strategy behind the Russian government's maneuvers of recent weeks was to create a sense of overwhelming unease in the Baltic states, it has succeeded spectacularly.
By July 19, almost every major player in Baltic politics had offered an opinion on the subject, and one phrase has started to characterise the debate: 'Cold War'. The irony is that even when some of the politicians warn the public against thinking in those terms, the mere fact that they have made the comparison tends to confirm its validity.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas did just that July 19 in a radio interview, suggesting that the tension between Russia and Western countries is increasing, but will not grow into a new Cold War.
"Russia has a tradition of using aspects of foreign policy for interior discussions when elections are approaching," Kirkilas said, hinting that Russia's posturing is part of the start of Russia's presidential elections due for the spring of 2008.
Undoubtedly there is a good deal of domestic politics mixed in with Russia's confontational international stance. President Putin is due to step down after serving his second term, but it is just possible that should Russia be facing some sort of significant crisis or feel itself threatened, the constitutional rules could be changed to enable him to carry on.
If Kirkilas was tending to play down the reality of the Russian threat, his approach is out of sync with many of his compatriots, if a new survey is to be believed. A poll of more than 500 people in Lithuania's largest cities found that more than half viewed Russian military intervention in the Baltics as a possibility, with slightly fewer believing that NATO would help under such circumstances. If that's not a Cold War mentality, it's hard to know what is.
Only one third of those polled believed that Russia is issuing empty threats 's which seems to be the prevailing belief in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Another Baltic politician making Cold War comparisons July 19 was Sven Mikser, chairman of the Estonian Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
"There's reason to be worried, looking at the eagerness with which Russia is escalating its relations with the West," Mikser, a Social Democrat, said in the Postimees newspaper.
"Russia is feeling more powerful economically and militarily than before and is attempting to return to the policy of spheres of influence familiar from the Cold War era," Mikser wrote.
"At the same time, Estonia and its neighbors have no reason for too much panic. The prospect that Russia will start heaping up troops at our eastern border, even though a little less theoretical than the Baltics becoming a 'black hole' of NATO conventional weaponry, is nevertheless not too likely in the near future," he added.