Nearly ten days ago, Vygudas Usackas, a former EU ambassador to Moscow, commented that he did not believe that Russia posed a direct military threat to the Baltics. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its promise to defend the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, a deluge of reports have been written on Baltic Security. After all, the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia indeed possess a sizable ethnic Russian population. Plus, Baltic leadership has actively sought out reassurance from NATO. In fact, the heads of these respective nations met with President Donald J. Trump to discuss support for Baltic independence earlier this year.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, experts have contemplated the possibility of a Russian incursion into the Baltic region. However, the situation with ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the Baltics greatly differs from the one in Crimea or the DNR. Unlike Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are a part of NATO and the European Union. Because of this, their security issues should not be lumped in with Georgia and Ukraine. In contrast to other post-soviet spaces, the Baltics are indeed, as Usackas commented, behind the red lines for the following reasons:
1. A Baltic incursion is not beneficial to Russian interests.
As stated before, the Baltics are all contributing members of NATO. Yes, Russia is capable of reaching the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga in less than 60 hours. The possibility of escalation on the European front is too great of a cost for Russia to bear. Russia is also not ready to wage an offensive on the European front. There are also no tangible gains from invading the Baltics, Kaliningrad gives Russia a sea port for presence in the Baltic Sea. Overall, experts agree that even if Russian conventional forces are numerically superior to NATO forces on the eastern flank, a Russian invasion is unlikely because no one can pin point Russia’s gain.
2. Russia targets regions in which it already has significant influence
Western polls in 2014 have showed that most of the population then living in Crimea believe the referendum that took place accurately reflected their views. The majority also agreed that joining Russia would make their lives better. Meaning, the Crimeans actively express a pro-Russian narrative which likely stems from Crimea’s unique historical experience with Russia. In Russian consciousness, Ukrainians and Russians are essentially one set of people in two different countries. For example, President Vladimir Putin has gone as far to say that Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities. This is completely different from the dynamic present in the Baltic states.
Unlike Crimea, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania possess stronger independent identities due to their historical experience. Yes, these states were part of the Russian empire, but they were also colonized by other European states or, such as Lithuania’s case, united with another eastern European state. The Baltics were the first to proclaim independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuania, the first to proclaim independence, was once a powerful state united with Poland known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The territory that is now known as Latvia was previously dominated by Baltic Germans until World War II. Meanwhile, Estonia was part of the Swedish empire and long fell into the proximity and influence of its Scandinavian neighbors. Overall, due to their specific historical experience, the Baltics feel closer to Europe and possess a distinguished identity.
3. The Russian speakers and ethnic Russians with EU passports in the Baltics are not quite the same as the ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
While the Russian speaking population in the Baltics can prove to be sympathetic towards Russia’s foreign policy, they do not identify Russia as their home. Those ethnic Russians and Russian speakers possess an EU passport and enjoy the benefits of an increased salary and the lifestyle living in a EU member country provides. For the more financially endowed, the ability to travel without a visa is also a huge plus. For many Russian speakers and ethnic Russians, the Baltics is their home. Their families have resided in the Baltics for years due to different historical reasons. This is not to say; the Baltics do not suffer from issues from integrating their Russian speaking and ethnic Russian populations.
In conclusion, the situations in Ukraine and Georgia should not become synonymous with the situation of the Baltics. Under EU and NATO membership, the Baltics are indeed behind a red line for the Russian Federation.