Putin Targets The Baltics To Discredit NATO

By Edward Lucas
September 22, 2014

Having humiliated the West in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is turning to the Baltic states. It has sent four powerful signals, none of which have met a proper response.

No sooner had President Obama earlier this month delivered a ringing message of support to Europe’s beleaguered front line in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, than Russia abducted an Estonian security official, Eston Kohver, near the countries’ shared border. He awaits trial in Moscow, on espionage charges–and a 20-year jail sentence if convicted.

Next, Russia asked Lithuania to extradite an estimated 1,500 citizens who allegedly failed to complete their military service in the final years of the Soviet Union. That is as sinister and repellent as if modern Germany wanted Dutch or Danish help in prosecuting deserters from Hitler’s army. And on Sept. 19, Russia seized a Lithuanian fishing vessel, which Moscow said was poaching in Russia’s territorial waters. The ship and its crew have been detained in Murmansk, prompting a furious protest from authorities in Vilnius.

Meanwhile, Konstantin Dolgov, a senior Russian official, issued a chilling warning earlier this month during a conference in Riga, the Latvian capital. He accused the Baltic states of fostering neo-Nazism, discriminating against ethnic Russians and the Russian language, and gross violations of human rights. The West, he said, had instigated these abuses.

Moscow has periodically tried to whip up the discrimination angle over the past two decades, but the revival of the theme, with the West dragged in, is a notable escalation in the Kremlin’s information warfare. Coming now it is also a sign that Russia may be trying to repeat its triumph in Ukraine–but in countries that are core members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. If Mr. Putin succeeds in destabilizing those countries, it would deal a devastating blow to the alliance’s credibility.

Russia has long preferred fiction to fact in the Baltics. It denies that then-independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet army in 1940, maintaining that they were legally annexed. It shows no remorse for the resulting repression, including the deportation to the depths of the Soviet Union of 200,000 men, women and children. Even before Mr. Putin and his ex-KGB friends took power, Russia was a meddlesome neighbor.

It is now getting worse. Mr. Dolgov’s charges in Riga are invented–and even his title, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s “special representative for human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” is as plausible as that of a vulpine specialist in poultry welfare. But the punishment is all too likely to be real. Mr. Dolgov warned the Baltic states of “far-reaching, unfortunate consequences” if they continue with their imaginary sins.

Russia’s stealth war in Ukraine started with stunts and propaganda too. When its protégé, Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country in February, Russia abruptly termed the new authorities in Kiev a “junta.” Moscow claimed that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were being persecuted, and that neo-Nazism was rampant. The accusations were styled to inflame old grievances and fears, and they set the stage for civil war.

Could that now happen in the Baltics? Like Ukraine, these three countries have sizable numbers of ethnic Russians–around a million, or one-seventh of the total population, with Latvia having the largest proportion. They range from well-integrated local citizens to ardent Russian nationalists. But the Baltic states are not hotbeds of ethnic tension–at least for now. In everyday life, different languages and cultures rub along fine. Estonia and Latvia offer citizenship to all residents regardless of ethnicity: You merely have to learn the national language and pass a history exam. Lithuania enfranchised its small Russian minority in 1991.

As the shellshocked residents of the ruined towns and cities of eastern Ukraine would attest, Russian “protection” of allegedly oppressed minorities does not improve their lot. Mr. Dolgov’s bullying will not ease wrangles over the role of Russia in education and public life. Instead, it threatens to destroy the peaceful lives all residents of the Baltics have enjoyed since 1991.

But the squeeze on the Baltics stems not from any real interest in the fate of expatriate Russians–a matter that Moscow systematically ignores in most countries. The Kremlin aim is to demoralize the countries by showing weak Western resolve.

So far, President Putin is succeeding. NATO is slowly and belatedly getting used to the idea that it must deal with territorial defense against a Russian threat. In a year or so, the alliance may have a rapid-reaction force, able to reinforce Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a crisis. But NATO is hamstrung. Most members do not spend enough on defense, and some of the oldest members–France, Italy and Germany, in particular–believe that even defensive moves against Russia are “provocative.”

Meanwhile, Russia is rearming fast. Its military plans involve the early use of battlefield nuclear weapons–something that is a serious taboo for most NATO members.

NATO’s biggest problem is that it is configured to wage the wrong kind of war. Russia doesn’t fight according to conventional military timetables. It softens up countries that it wants to dominate, using confusing, unpredictable tactics, with an approach that military experts dub “hybrid warfare.” This includes trade sanctions, energy cutoffs (the Baltic states import all of their natural gas from Russia), propaganda, cyberattacks, the targeted use of organized crime, corruption of politicians–and the incitement of ethnic grievances.

NATO and the West aren’t set up to deal with these threats, which also come with a dose of maskirovka, a word for camouflage and thus a broad program of military deception. The Soviet Union excelled at this, but modern Russia has taken it to a new level.

Its central feature is deniability.Cutting off the gas?A purely business decision.Cyberattack?Patriotic Russian hackers are acting on their own initiative.Propaganda?