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Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, recently voiced concerns that there is a ‘real and present danger’ of Russia trying to destabilise the Baltic States. Given how effective Russia’s tactics have been in Ukraine, and how the conflict there highlighted the acute difficulties of, and the West’s inadequate response to, dealing with ambiguous warfare, it is necessary to understand how this might manifest itself elsewhere. There is certainly the theoretical potential for destabilisation wherever there is an ethnic Russian population to be ‘protected’. The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that once support for greater autonomy, if not full separation or absorption into Russia, is encouraged by real military assistance and an effective information campaign, it is very hard to halt the momentum once it has started.
A huge challenge has been to simultaneously address the non-military, popular and civil unrest aspect of the opposition whilst also dealing with a military force. It would certainly be in Russia’s interests to have leverage in a NATO country, particularly given its own narrative that opposes NATO expansion and perceived encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. Whether the Baltic States are in fact part of Russia’s strategic vision, however, is questionable. The main purpose of examining a threat to the Baltic States is one of active deterrence, not of identifying a latent conflict.
Approximately 26% of the Latvian population is ethnic Russian, and 25% of that of Estonia. Lithuania’s is less at 6%. There have been a number of reports raising concerns over pro-Russian support particularly in Latvia, where there is an additional group of ethnic Russians that are also ‘non-citizens’ who do not have the vote. Latgale, Latvia’s Eastern province, is of particular significance in this debate. Latgale borders Russia and ethnic Russians make up almost 38% of the local population, compared to the Latvian population of 45%.
Latvia’s Russian Union political party has drawn parallels between Latgale and Crimea. Latvian police investigated the appearance in January on social media of calls for the creation of ‘the Latgale People’s Republic’, and the Harmony party, which favours closer ties with Russia and is predominantly backed by ethnic Russians, won 23% of the parliamentary vote in October 2014.
There have been mixed signals from Latvia itself, with Latvia’s defence minister saying there had been no signs yet of Russian attempts at destabilisation, whilst the country’s finance minister said he had detected indicators of hybrid warfare over the past year. Despite there being valid cause for concern and a need for preparation, it would be much more of a risk for Russia to test the West’s response in a NATO country in the same way it has done in Ukraine. Putin knew in advance that Russia would be more willing to fight for Ukraine than Europe would, because of the very fact that Ukraine is not a NATO member.
Russia’s recent probes into the Baltic States’ airspace could indicate preparations for some form of an offensive, but the fact that such exercises have extended to Scandinavia and Britain seems to speak more to a show of strength. It would also be harder to mobilise a big enough support base in an EU country. The severe levels of corruption and economic mismanagement in Ukraine contributed to a certain disillusionment that aided the rebels’ cause in the Donbass.
Russia’s motivation in Ukraine was to prevent the country as a whole turning completely to the West, but the Baltic States have already formally left Russia’s sphere of influence in this way. Putin has mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union, but given the current economic situation in Russia, it is not in a strong position to launch a new campaign of destabilisation and military support without severely jeopardising its own economic growth.
Although Russia’s unpredictability means it may well test the water and take advantage of any opportunities to stir up unrest in the Baltic States, and it has demonstrated willingness to subordinate economics to military spending, transferring its tactics in Ukraine to a NATO country would be far more dangerous and difficult. Although hybrid warfare requires an update in response to any ‘armed attack’ set out in Article 5, NATO has made it clear to Russia it would respond.
Rather than a reflection on the realities of Russia’s intentions towards the Baltics, focusing the conversation on the Baltics is more about deterrence to Russia. This is more about NATO trying to show that it would react effectively if the Baltics were subject to a Ukraine-type destabilisation in order to prevent Russia from trying. The Ukraine crisis has reinvigorated NATO’s role in European security, but that role and response now has to change to deal with the new dimensions of the threat, which amalgamates conventional warfare with that of cyber, information and psychological.
As Sir Adrian Bradshaw told an audience at RUSI, NATO acknowledges the challenges of this, but it is still not completely clear how exactly NATO plans to deal with the multiplicity of tactics. Regardless of what assurance is offered to the Baltic States, the key issue remains that Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have worked effectively, were unexpected and have created a conflict against which deterrence has failed.