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On 7 November, NATO conducted military training drills with Poland which included, among others, relatively large contingents from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Anaconda 2018 was an exercise in political reassurance and an effort to test the Alliance’s emergency response and reinforcement procedures. However, it is not clear that military exercises of this kind reflect the real security needs of the Baltic states. While Baltic state leaders are apprehensive about Russia’s intent towards their countries, it is unlikely that Russia has serious territorial ambitions there. Russia certainly maintains a serious interest in gaining deeper involvement in political, intelligence and business processes in all three Baltic states, but it is not clear that this is a NATO issue that could be resolved by a military response.
Military Engagement Unlikely
Russia will not risk directly engaging with a NATO member, which would prompt a response from other member states. While it is one thing to militarily engage with a country like Ukraine that has never enjoyed NATO membership, it is quite another to test NATO’s mutual guarantee, underwritten by the US. Baltic state leaders have become increasingly concerned following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which raised questions about changing borders in Europe. The Baltic states are particularly concerned by Russia’s military exercises, maintaining that they could be preparation for land invasions, but there is no evidence to suggest that this year’s Vostok exercises or last year’s Zapad training intended to take over Baltic territory. Russia has little desire to become embroiled in a conflict so close to its own borders, given its messy and expensive involvement in eastern Ukraine.
Second and more importantly, Russia already exerts significant influence over the Baltic states, through its high penetration of the Baltics’ political and intelligence processes, as well as business networks. While Russia certainly has interests in probing the Baltic states’ capabilities, these are unlikely to take on an outright military dimension, such as an overt territorial aggression.
Spheres of Influence
Notwithstanding Russia’s unwillingness to engage militarily with the Baltics, Russia still considers these countries to be within its historic sphere of influence. The Russian authorities retain a strong interest in gathering intelligence on political and military processes there. Russia’s intelligence penetration of all three Baltic states is thought to be very high. Lithuania’s State Security Department published its National Threat Assessment in March, noting Russia’s active intelligence operations targeting Lithuania’s foreign and domestic policies, including attempts to influence the public in the run-up to the 2019 Lithuanian presidential elections. Estonia has also seen increasing Russian intelligence activity. There have been several high-profile spy swaps, and in September a senior Estonian army officer from the Ministry of Defence and his father were detained for spying on behalf of the Russian military intelligence (the GRU).
Russia also allocates significant intelligence-gathering resources to assess the Baltic states’ military capabilities. All three Baltic states maintain that Russia works alongside Belarusian intelligence services to recruit informants, particularly from the Lithuanian military. The Baltics are also concerned by Russia’s military build-up in the exclave of Kaliningrad (near Lithuania), but the Russian authorities consider the Baltics’ cooperation with institutions such as NATO, including its consolidation of troops and hardware close to its borders, to be an aggressive act.
Business as Usual?
Russia also maintains significant influence in the Baltic business community, particularly in Latvia and Estonia. Despite Estonia’s strong anti-corruption stance, the beneficial owners of many businesses are thought to have close links to the Kremlin. Russian business interests still dominate the Latvian banking sector, which in the early 2000s became known as Russia’s ‘laundromat’ because of the banking system’s reputation for processing the proceeds of crime and corruption. In February 2018 allegations of widespread money laundering, funds of which were thought to originate in Russia, prompted the US Treasury Department to threaten to sanction one of Latvia’s largest banks, ABLV, which was eventually liquidated.
All three Baltic states are attempting to reduce their reliance on gas and electricity from Russia and link to the EU power grid instead, but this is a long-term ambition that is unlikely to be fully operational before 2025. Lithuania has managed to reduce its reliance on Russian gas through its LNG port at Klaipėda and also imports gas from Norway – Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom has divested its shares in most of the Baltic gas companies. However, Gazprom still has a large stake in Latvias Gāze, Latvia’s state-controlled gas company, even though the gas market was officially liberalised in 2017. Russia has in the past used its control over gas and energy markets to pressure countries into political concessions, particularly Belarus, which remains a security concern for Latvia.
One of the most frequently discussed levers of Russian influence in the Baltics is through the significant Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia – around a quarter of the population in Latvia. The Baltic states maintain that the Kremlin could influence this community by playing on their grievances, emphasising their political and economic marginalisation – many ethnic Russians do not have citizenship and are given ‘non-citizen’ status, preventing them from voting in national elections.
As part of this, the Russian Duma (parliament) is in the process of passing a bill to simplify citizenship procedures for ethnic Russians living abroad. The bill will apply to countries that have ‘difficult’ political or economic situations such as an armed conflict (likely to refer to Ukraine), but also refers to the Baltic states, claiming that ethnic Russians’ rights are under threat there. While the bill is likely to be a measure to counter Russia’s demographic concerns by encouraging skilled migrants to return to Russia for work, it also indicates Russia’s ongoing attention to this community in the Baltics.
However, these ethnic Russian communities are not a united movement seeking regime change in the Baltics. Aside from Russia’s ability to convey a narrative through the media, it is not clear that this translates into any cohesive action from the community that could have any security or fundamental political implications – pro-Russia demonstrations tend to be small and poorly attended. Moreover, despite Russian speakers’ grievances in Estonia and Latvia, as EU member states their standard of living remains higher than in Russia, and there is no widespread support for migration back into Russia.
Ultimately, Russia has no desire to territorially expand into the Baltic states, but it does have several tools at its disposal to influence these states, which are likely to remain confined to the business and intelligence community. Notwithstanding their socio-political grievances, the Russian-speaking community in the Baltics does not presents a serious security threat to their own governments. While Russia often probes the Baltic states’ military and intelligence capabilities, this intelligence-gathering strategy is unlikely to escalate into open hostilities.
BANNER IMAGE: Members of the Estonian Defense League guide in a helicopter to a landing zone during Trojan Footprint 18 near Kikepera, Estonia, 3 June 2018. Trojan Footprint is a military exercise that deployed NATO and partner nation forces to the Baltic region. Courtesy of US Army / Staff Sgt Matt Britton.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.