February 8, 2015Former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned that the Russian president Vladimir Putin could mastermind a hybrid attack on a Baltic state to test whether NATO would mobilise. According to Rasmussen, the Kremlin’s true goal is to shatter NATO solidarity and reassert Russian dominance over Eastern Europe.
“This is not about Ukraine. Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power,” he told The Telegraph, a major British daily.
“There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics to test NATO’s Article 5,” Rasmussen added.
“Putin knows that if he crosses the red line and attacks a NATO ally, he will be defeated. Let us be quite clear about that. But he is a specialist in hybrid warfare,” he said.
By hybrid warfare, Rasmussen meant a scenario similar to what happened in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine where armed military in green uniforms, but without any specific insignia, appeared and just annexed the areas. It has been speculated that Putin’s regime could attempt to repeat a similar plot in Estonia or Latvia, both with large Russian minorities.
Rasmussen is, I suspect, out to sound the alarm, rather than warn of any immediate threat. There’s nothing wrong with that: the greater the NATO presence within the Baltic trio, the less the likelihood that there will be trouble.
Writing from Latvia, Janis Kazocins offers up a more nuanced analysis of what might lie ahead. The whole piece (Possible Russian threats to Latvia in 2015) can be found in the Latvian Foreign and Security Policy Yearbook for 2015 (it begins on page 73), and is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic, but it’s well worth focusing in particular on what Kazocins has to say about ‘little green men’
They could be used in support of separatists (local or imported) in areas heavily populated by ethnic Russians, such as Narva in Estonia or Daugavpils in Latvia. However, despite the best efforts of many Western journalists, evidence of separatism in these areas is hard to find: “The main problem with Latvia’s Russian community isn’t that they are a potential fifth column – it’s that they are so remarkably stubborn about being normal citizens of the country.”
Later Kazocins notes
Unofficial statistics indicate that about a third of marriages are between Latvians and non-Latvians, which shows a high degree of integration. More important, two thirds of non-Latvians consider themselves to be Latvia’s patriots and in 2013 89 percent of babies born in non-citizen [this refers to Latvian residents, typically ethnic Russians, who in Latvia during the Soviet occupation and have yet to attain Latvian citizenship] families became citizens at first registration.
And the lessons of eastern Ukraine are all too clear. Ethnic Russians in the Baltic may watch a lot of TV from Russia, but that’s not all they watch. They are far better informed than their ‘compatriots’ (to use Putin’s word) in Russia about what ‘liberation’ by Moscow really entails: Kazocins
While the political views of the Baltic Russian-speaking minorities may be more positively inclined towards Russia’s foreign policy, the whole community is united by a desire to avoid the violence and destruction witnessed in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian General Staff are professional and flexible and thus unlikely to repeat in the Baltics an experiment which, in military terms, has not brought about the anticipated success in Donetsk and Luhansk.
A more likely scenario is an insurgency with the aim of splitting the ethnic communities, pitting them in opposition to each other and undermining the state. This is potentially a serious challenge because it requires only limited personnel and logistics yet, through terrorist tactics, can inflict great damage on the state. For example, the UK counts 1441 armed forces deaths during the Northern Ireland troubles, while the campaigns in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq together accounted for 694 significantly fewer. Moreover, the UK is a well-established, mature democracy which does not have a powerful neighbour able and perhaps willing to provide support for such an insurgency.
Looking further out, Kazocins identifies another danger
Finally, Latvia in particular faces the possibility of a constitutional (ie peaceful and legal) assumption of power by pro-Russian groups. An example of how this could be done is in the initiative to amend the constitution to allow for a universally elected President (Currently the President is elected by the 100 members of parliament). This sounds like an eminently sensible and democratic initiative. However the employment of populist campaigning methods along with the widespread use of funding from unclear, foreign sources (which would only be proved after the election was over), could end with Latvia having what one local journalist has described as a “little green president”.
This may be a reference to Nils Usakovs, the current mayor of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Usakovs is an ethnic Russian, and heads the Harmony party, a leftish (how left rather depends on who you talk to) party linked to Putin’s United Russia party. It draws most of its support from Latvia’s ethnic Russian citizens and, as such, represents a solid, well-organized voting bloc in very marked contrast to the somewhat fragile, somewhat fragmented ‘Latvian’ parties.
The Financial Times summed up the situation after last year’s election as follows: Latvia’s ruling centre-right coalition is set to continue in office despite a pro-Russian party linked to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia group claiming first place in parliamentary elections. In a vote that took place amid intense concerns over Russia’s intentions in Latvia and the Baltics following intervention in parts of Ukraine, the three parties currently in government gained 61 of the 100 seats in parliament.