Russia looms large in the Baltic states

The Economist
June 28, 2007

WEST BERLIN, where your columnist lived during the cold war, was small, indefensible, symbolically vital and rather badly run. As Europe slides again into chilly division, West Berlin’s current equivalent may be the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are small: even their combined population of 8m would make them one of NATO’s bantamweight members. Though they shelter in theory under the alliance’s nuclear umbrella, in practice NATO offers little more than moral support.

The mood is anxious. Officials say that the Kremlin has quietly beefed up the Russian troops in Pskov, just across the border. Recent war games there apparently included practising the reconquest of the Baltic states. Lately, frequent and peremptory requests for airspace clearances for official Kremlin flights have underlined the three small countries’ vulnerability. “If we say yes every time it is a precedent; if we say no it is an incident”, says a Latvian official, worriedly. A small force of airplanes lent by NATO allies tries to patrol the skies, and there is an excellent radar system. But no air defences exist to deter intruders.

Any Russian knout-rattling, real or imagined, is more a psychological threat than a physical one. The aim is to sap the Balts’ self-confidence, perhaps weakening them on other fronts.

The hottest of these is energy. The Balts, dependent on Russia for their gas and subject to lengthy and frequent blockades of oil deliveries, want to build a new nuclear power station jointly with Poland. So far, a year’s haggling has produced little result. The argument is mainly a cultural one based perhaps on different religious traditions. Catholic Poland and Lithuania think texts are secondary to belief: they want firm emotional commitment to the project before focusing on the details. Protestant Estonia and Latvia want the details written down clearly before they can believe.

Russia would like to be involved too. “I hope there will be a public tender. Russian companies would put in a very competitive bid”, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, told a Latvian delegation during a recent visit. Such overtures highlight the Balts’ greatest weakness: their open, liberal economies. If even Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands (to name but a few countries in “old Europe”) are unable to keep Russian capital out of their economic citadels, how can the much poorer and weaker Balts be expected to withstand the colossal temptations of doing business with the enemy?

That’s a particular worry in Latvia, where business tycoons loom large in politics. Their greatest weakness—money—is also Russia’s greatest weapon. That worries the other Balts, who suspect Latvia is going squishy.

Latvian leaders see it differently: their Baltic neighbours are too prickly and don’t understand Russians properly. Mutual benefit is entirely possible. “Our line is ‘don’t tease, don’t appease’”, says a wily senior official. A much delayed border treaty is due to be ratified in the Russian parliament. Latvian diplomats hope breathlessly that a high-level Russian delegation may visit Riga for the formal exchange of documents.

Baltic disunity helps the Kremlin. Since 1990 its policy—consciously or unconsciously—has been to play one Balt against another. One country is flattered, a second is frozen and the third is ignored. At the moment, Estonia is in the deep freeze, while Latvia is basking in Kremlin approval. When Estonia was facing a blast of Russian disapproval in May, some top Latvians seemed hesitant in making statements to support their northern neighbour (though practical help and public sympathy were both strong and welcomed gratefully).

West Berlin survived thanks to its own and its allies’ willpower and unity—pretty much what the Baltic states need now.