The WSJE said Putin's appearance in a live phone-in television show on Christmas Eve was "a trial balloon which had for some time been in preparation."
In the Dec. 24 TV show, broadcast on all of Russia's state television and radio channels, Putin urged Russians and Russian speakers in the Baltic states to demand official status for the Russian language and numerical quotas of representation in government bodies.
"The staging was elaborate enough to reveal advance planning," the WSJE said.
The TV presenter, introducing a Russian viewer from Riga, helped relay this phoned-in question to Putin: "Is Russia ready, not in word but in deed, to defend the rights and interests of Russians in the Baltic republics, Central Asia and other regions of the former Soviet Union?"
A ready-on-cue president replied at length, announcing "a much more vigorous stance on protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population, primarily in the CIS countries of course." He spoke of waging "a fight for the official status of the Russian language. I want to assure you that we will intensify our efforts in this area. There is no doubt about that."
There, he was targeting countries that have yet to recover from Soviet ravages against their own national identities, the WSJE reported.
"Can you imagine the chancellor of Germany appearing on television to urge Alsatians or German-speakers in Italy to demand more 'rights,' promising support? Inconceivable in today's Europe, you'd say. Hitler patented this sort of intrusion, and Slobodan Milosevic tried his hand at it," the paper wrote.
During the show, Putin compared the Baltic countries with Macedonia. There, it has been decided that the Albanian population has the right, in percentage terms, to be represented in the bodies of state power and management, including the security structures. "We have every reason to extend this principle to Russians [in other countries] as well, including the Russians in the Baltic states," Putin said.
"There is of course no real analogy there," the WSJE underlined.
"Historically, politically, legally, socially, demographically and in every other way, the situation could not be more different in Macedonia than in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These are successful modern democracies, thanks to which local Russians are also palpably better off than those in Russia itself," the WSJE wrote.
The WSJE surmises that the Kremlin calculates that a bit of local ethnic strife could dissuade NATO leaders from admitting the Baltic states as members. Some in the alliance have feared admitting the Baltic states would "import" ethnic tension with the local Russians and risk more trouble with Russia.
"But the Russian authorities post-1991 have proven effective at fanning precisely that type of tension in quite a few corners of the former Soviet domain. At present, Moscow can ill-afford to come out openly against NATO's growing consensus to issue membership invitations to the Baltic states this year.
"An overt, obdurate resistance could ruin Russia's quest for a still higher stake than of a decision-making role within the alliance. Mr. Putin's televised remarks suggest that Russian policy between now and the Prague summit may follow two parallel tracks," the WSJE wrote.
The WSJE recalled that at its year-end meetings last month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) decided that Estonia and Latvia were in full compliance with the organization's standards and recommendations, and on that basis resolved to close its monitoring missions in the two countries. Lithuania, which has far fewer Russian residents, had received its good marks earlier.
"By now, the European Union and NATO take the view that the Balts have done everything that could reasonably be asked of them for societal integration and constructive relations with Russia. In the run-up to NATO's Prague summit, however, Moscow will try hard to prove the opposite," the WSJE concluded.