With Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, other regions that were formerly part of the Soviet Union are watching nervously to see if they’ll be the next targets of Russian expansionism.
Among those with the fearful are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the three Baltic states that are the only ex-Soviet nations to join both the European Union and NATO.
Baltic nerves were frayed last month when 3,500 Russian troops participated in a surprise, live-fire military exercise on the coast of Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic surrounded by Lithuania and Poland.
Then in a move that echoed Russia’s actions in Crimea, Moscow voiced concern about the marginalization of ethnic Russians in Estonia before a U.N. human rights committee.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea marks “a paradigm shift, the end of trust in the post-Cold War order,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote in the Washington Post. Ilves called Moscow’s claim of threats to ethnic Russians in Crimea “fabricated” and called for more NATO troops and equipment to be sent to protect the alliance’s eastern members.
The issue of ethnic Russians is a sensitive one for the Baltics. Like Ukraine, all three have significant numbers of ethnic Russians within their borders—many of whom trace their roots to immigration during the Soviet era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania granted automatic citizenship to its Russian minority, which is 6 percent of the population. In Latvia and Estonia, where ethnic Russians are about 25 percent of the total, those whose families were not living in the countries prior to the Soviet occupation in 1940 were denied citizenship in the newly-independent states.
Indeed 7 percent of Estonia’s population and 13 percent of Latvia’s are non-citizens and are barred from voting in national elections.
Many of these are so-called “stateless” people with no official citizenship in any country. In both Latvia and Estonia the stateless populations have the opportunity to gain citizenship through “naturalization.” But this involves passing a test in the country’s official language. Many have lived in the Baltics their entire lives without learning Lativian or Estonian, which became official languages only after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In Latvia, Russian-speakers sought to rectify this by pushing a 2012 referendum to make Russian one of the country’s official languages. That effort failed after 75 percent of voters rejected the measure.
Still, many ethnic Russians choose to live in the Baltic states as second class citizens rather than move to Russia. In 2007, President Putin offered Russians in the diaspora the opportunity to return to Russia as full citizens. Few did. Aleksandr Brokk, an ethnic Russian living in the Estonian border city of Narva, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that he had no interest in moving across the border to the neighboring Russian city of Ivangorod. “People come and go. When you cross into Ivangorod, straight away you can see the atmosphere there,” he told the radio network. “Who is going to want to join that?”
Still, concerns over Russia’s ambitions continue. World leaders “must understand that Russia today is dangerous. Russia today is unpredictable,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said following Crimea’s annexation. Without a strong response from Europe and the United States, other countries could see their borders being redrawn, she said.
For its part, during an April 1 meeting NATO sought to reassure the Baltics. Military exercises involving 300 U.S. marines alongside 300 troops from Latvia and Estonia began at Adazi Military Base in Latvia on April 7. The exercises are part of an annual operation, according to the Baltic Times. But in a visit to the region last month, the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the presence of American troops in the Baltic states could be increased.
The Pentagon had already sent six additional fighter jets and an air refueling tanker to Lithuania to bolster NATO’s air policing mission there, which has been in place since 2004. Normally NATO nations rotate four jets at a time to monitor the airspace over the Baltic region. On April 8 the Alliance announced that the number of jets will triple to 12 in May.
But the Baltic states, which lack large militaries, are calling for more. Latvia’s defense minister called for a permanent NATO base in his country and his Estonian counterpart told the Financial Times his nation is interested in seeing “as strong a NATO footprint as possible in the region.”
Still, some analysts say that fears of a Russian invasion of its former territories on the Baltic are overblown. “Really, the Baltic countries are in a different category,” said Vykintas Pugačiauskas, international news editor at Lithuanian National Radio and Television, in an interview with the Global Journalist. “Being part of NATO, being part of not only the European Union, but more importantly being part of the eurozone is something completely different from the situation Ukraine has found itself in.”
People in the Baltic states do worry about war, according to Pugačiauskas. “War is a part of everyday talk... But there is no desperation,” he said. “They give their reassuring message ... They say ‘yes we have to look at Russia in a new way as a threat, but at the same time we feel pretty comfortable with the reassurance of NATO leaders.”