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The long read: why Russia is unlikely to pull a Crimea on the Baltics

Most Russians living in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have no wish to rejoin the motherland, but that doesn't prevent hysteria about an invasion. Here's why Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to send in the 'little green men' anytime soon.
The cover illustration from the August 15 issue of The Review. Illustration by Edward Kwong for The National
The cover illustration from the August 15 issue of The Review. Illustration by Edward Kwong for The National

It was over before most people could tell it had even begun. Under the cover of darkness, thousands of Russian troops quietly streamed across the border, with hardly a shot fired. Within a month, elections were held in which more than 90 per cent of the votes cast favoured immediate unity with Russia.

What sounds like a description of last year’s stealth annexation of Crimea is, in fact, a much older story: that of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split Eastern Europe into German and Soviet zones of occupation. Seventy-five years on, Moscow’s critics increasingly fear that history may soon be repeated. “Today Crimea, tomorrow Estonia?” asked Britain’s Spectator magazine last March.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to go as far as we allow him – not only Ukraine, but the whole of Europe,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told France’s national radio. “Is an attack on the Baltic states possible? Yes.”

There are many reasons to feel uneasy. Although they are not Slavic or Orthodox, the Baltic states appear to have very similar conditions to those that provoked the incursion into Ukraine. Aside from brief spells of independence between the wars and over the past 25 years, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had all been part of both the Soviet Union and the Russian empire. Indeed, the very legitimacy of their statehood continues to be debated in Russia. Also, like Ukraine, they occupy a tense border region between Russia and the West.

Finally, they have large numbers of Russian speakers, who, unlike in Ukraine where their supposed mistreatment was largely fabricated by the pro-Kremlin media, are actually denied citizenship rights and routinely suffer from discrimination. At least 300,000 Latvian residents, most of them ethnic Russians, do not have passports and are forbidden from voting.

In what became known as the Putin Doctrine, the Russian president said in May last year that his country reserves the right to intervene to protect Russian speakers abroad. Last September, the Russian foreign ministry’s special representative for human rights warned of “far-reaching, unfortunate consequences” for Latvia if the rights of ethnic Russians were not respected.

A month ago, the Russian prosecutor-general’s office opened a review into the constitutionality of the Baltic secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. The request was submitted by two members of the ruling United Russia party. Although President Putin distanced himself from the move, it was seen as yet another attempt to delegitimise Baltic sovereignty, possibly as a precursor to an all-out invasion.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia’s ­ultranationalist Liberal Democrat party, hailed the proposal and called on the Baltic states to hold ­referendums about joining Russia. “They should be obliged to hold referendums, in which a majority of people will agree to once again be a part of Russia,” he told a Russian radio station. “They never wanted to be independent, they were citizens of the USSR, and wanted to remain that way. I’ve been to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. People asked us: ‘What have you done, why have you abandoned us?’”

Except Russians actually living in the Baltics have no desire to be rescued. As one Russian-speaking Riga-resident told a Reuters journalist last year: “We won’t be asking for help from Putin.” Despite being widely despised by the locals, they have developed a strong – though unrequited – love for their adopted home.

The difficulty in understanding the relationship between Russia and the Baltics lies in Moscow’s highly unorthodox – for a colonial power – treatment of these vassal states during Soviet times.

Certainly, Soviet rule was imposed on the ­countries through the barrel of a gun. Mass deportations saw hundreds of thousands of Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians imprisoned and deported to Siberian gulags, while large numbers of ethnic Russians were resettled in the Baltics. The official use of Russian as a lingua franca eroded the primacy of the native languages.

Yet, there were also some very anomalous things for a coloniser to do to a colony. For one thing, the Baltic countries consistently dwarfed Russia and all the other Soviet republics in terms of wealth, ­economic development, consumer technologies and openness to foreign ideas. They also retained an unmistakable western glamour.

The late Dmitri Furman, one of Russia’s leading scholars of post-communism, has written of the “colossal gravitational pull” felt by his countrymen towards the essentially Western European societies of the Baltics. This manifested itself in an “implicit and sometimes explicit acknowledgement of Baltic cultural superiority” by the Soviet establishment. To other citizens, they were a true window to the West.

Despite their political and military domination over the Baltics, Russian settlers never held the typical position of cultural, social or class superiority imposed by representatives of imperial powers over their dominions. If anything, the inverse was the case. Balts enjoyed levels of living and economic and cultural freedoms that surpassed those in the “imperial centre”. Meanwhile, unlike the privileged status they encountered in Central Asia, the Russian “guests” were widely seen by Baltic intellectuals as uncultured, undereducated proletarians.

Far from lining the ranks of the elite, they found themselves filling factory floors, building sites and in the police force. By contrast, they were significantly underrepresented in managerial ranks, science, academia and the arts. This was partly due to the social composition of the migrants who flooded into the Baltics from all over the Soviet Union in the post-war manufacturing and construction boom. But the very decision to build the USSR’s most advanced and “western” production facilities in those republics rather than elsewhere, reflected existing notions of the Baltics as advanced and progressive.

In fact, Russian domination over the Baltic states may have been one of the few times in history when a richer and more developed polity was incorporated into a poorer, less developed one. As a result, Baltic nationalists paradoxically referred to their Russian “masters” as at once overlords and plebeians.

Sociological studies have found strong evidence to suggest that Russians accepted and internalised the sense of themselves as inferior to the ethnic Balts. For example, intermarriage was frowned upon by locals, but conveyed prestige on Russians, who were more likely to list their child’s nationality as Estonian.

In the years following the countries’ independence from Moscow, their attraction for Russians living there only grew. This is all the more surprising given the clarity with which the newly elected governments have indicated that they are not wanted and should leave.

When Latvia declared independence from the USSR, it granted automatic citizenship only to those ethnic Russians and other former Soviets who had lived in the country prior to 1940. As a result, at least a third of ethnic Russians and as many as one in two ethnic Belarusians remain effectively stateless people in their own country. (The Latvian government has argued that people settled under what it calls an occupation regime cannot qualify as stateless persons.)

In 1993, a spokesman for the country’s department of citizenship and immigration stated that “sooner or later, all these 700,000 [ethnic Russian] residents will have to leave Latvia”. Similar attitudes prevailed in Estonia, where the government even sponsored a migration fund.

Historian Anatol Lieven quotes the Latvian politician Visvaldis Lacis telling a Russian newspaper in the 1990s: “Certainly, we will not drive Russians out of Latvia by force, but your status here will be like that of the Turks in West Germany. You are not ­second-class citizens, you are nothing.” Yet, for all the often open hostility and the discrimination in terms of labour and citizenships rights, significantly fewer Russians have emigrated from Baltic states than from other former Soviet republics. According to Furman, this does not merely reflect the higher standards of living found in the Baltics, but rather the enduring appeal of the western lifestyle and its values.

In fact, polls have shown that ethnic Russians were more likely than native Estonians to trust European institutions. While Russia continues to struggle with economic backwardness and political authoritarianism, its former citizens are relishing the freedom that comes from finally living in the kind of “normal country” to which Russia’s liberals aspire back home.

There is no turning back. A poster child for such integration is Nils Ušakovs, the young, western-­educated but ethnically Russian mayor of Riga, who overcame significant prejudice to win office. Although Ušakovs supports greater rights for the Russian minority, he has spoken out in favour of Latvia’s Nato membership and Ukraine’s territorial integrity; is married to an ethnic Latvian; and calls himself a Latvian patriot.

The loyalty of Baltic Russians has not stopped nationalists on all sides from invoking the spectre of a potential Russian invasion, possibly backed by a domestic fifth column. Last spring, the German government announced a programme aimed at training Baltic journalists to broadcast in Russian to counter Moscow’s “propaganda” targeting ethnic Russians living in the Baltics.

Over the past year, Russian and Nato troops have begun massive military build-ups on either side of the border with the Baltic states. Ironically, stoking the threat of conflict has been equally profitable for both Putin and his Baltic nemeses. Their most vocal representative is Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose anti-Russian rhetoric helped her win a re-election landslide last year and who, a karate black belt like Putin, has also been accused of authoritarian tendencies.

The climate of suspicion and fear has fed dangerous social developments, including the rewriting of the history for political ends. In Russia, revisionist textbooks increasingly whitewash the original invasion of the Baltics by Soviet troops, while Lithuania’s attempts to rebrand Red Army soldiers as occupiers has resulted in the absurd prosecution of Jewish resistance veterans who fought against the Nazis. These accusations and counteraccusations have fed xenophobia and intolerance on both sides.

Yet, contrary to such mutually convenient scaremongering, Russian residents in the Baltics have shown little desire to re-embrace the old motherland. Even in Russia itself, polls conducted by the independent Levada Centre have found little domestic appetite for irredentism. Over the last five years, the proportion of those opposed to the idea that Russia must maintain control over the former Soviet republics by any means possible went from just over half the population in 2009 to some 65 per cent in March 2015. Fewer than 10 per cent now believe that Russia’s borders should expand to take in the Baltic states (in 1998, a third of the population felt this way).

Perhaps most importantly, despite the broad support for the annexation of Crimea, only about a third feel that Russia has a right to intervene in other countries to defend the rights of Russian-speaking minorities, suggesting that Crimea is seen by the public as a special case rather than a template for future action.

Of course, it is not unheard of for the Russian leadership to disregard the wishes of its people. But for all its apparent irrationality and nationalist posturing, Putin’s government remains, above all, wedded to the bottom line. And it is just such hard-nosed calculation that most makes an invasion unlikely: it’s simply not in Russia’s interest to “retake” the Baltics. They are far more valuable as permeable western safe havens for Russian money laundering (nearly half of all Latvian bank deposits are held by non-residents from Russia and other former Soviet republics), and convenient forward bases for political machinations behind Nato lines.

Annexing, say, Latvia would see it suspended from the European Union and its institutions. Returned to the imperial fold, but cut off from the European banking, visa and political systems, the country would lose its value for Russia. For this, if no other reason, Putin is unlikely to send in the “little green men” any time soon. As one man says to another in the old Soviet joke: in the future, communism will conquer the entire globe! That’s all well and good, retorts his friend, but where will we import our grain from?

Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London.


Updated: August 13, 2015 04:00 AM

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