“WE FEEL uneasy, but we must not get in a hysterical mood,” says Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister. As the Ukrainian crisis continues, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the three Baltic states, are increasingly exposed to Russian pressure, for historical, geographic and linguistic reasons. If it weren’t for their NATO membership, the Baltic trio would feel almost as vulnerable as in 1938-39, after Hitler had annexed the Sudetenland under the pretext of needing to protect the local German population and during the run-up to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Speaking of parallels between then and now, Mr Rinkevics notes that: “For us, there are a lot of emotions.”
Few countries know Russia as well as the Baltic states do. They were part of the Russian empire for centuries and were subjugated by the Soviet Union for 50 years. Around a quarter of Estonia’s people and 27% of Latvia’s are native Russian-speakers (see map), though nearly all Balts speak some Russian and many are bilingual. In Latvia one in five marriages is mixed.
Even so, Baltic leaders’ warnings about Russian expansionism have tended to go unheeded by their allies in NATO and the European Union. They were often dismissed as paranoid or Russophobe. “We said so many times: Russia is not a new Russia,” says Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of the Estonian parliament and a former Moscow correspondent for an Estonian daily. Russia continues with its expansionist tradition, according to Mr Mihkelson; the war with Georgia in 2008 was just a first step.
Although the West’s attitude has changed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, most west Europeans still disagree with the Balts (and Poles) about what to do. The European Union has penalised some Russians with travel bans and asset freezes.
But the Balts are scathing: “The list of 21 is a joke and it’s not even the right people who are on the list,” says an official at the Latvian foreign office. Diplomats in all the Baltic states argue that only robust economic sanctions, combined with strong signals about the West’s military commitment to the Baltic states, will deter Russians from further expansionism. “We would like to see a few American squadrons here, boots on the ground, maybe even an aircraft-carrier,” says a Latvian former minister.
Economic sanctions will come at a high price for the Balts. Russia is Lithuania’s largest trading partner, accounting for 25% of its total trade; the figure for Estonia and Latvia is around 10%. Agriculture and food-processing are especially dependent on Russian business, as are ports, transport and logistics. Most of all, the Baltic states depend on Russian energy, particularly gas. If Russia turned off the taps, a gas-storage facility in Latvia could bridge the gap for some months for the three countries (and for almost three years for Latvia alone), but it would take several years to find and route sufficient alternative gas supplies to the region.
Baltic leaders expect pressure to increase in proportion to the strength of the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. The Russians may use targeted sanctions, they say, such as a ban on certain Latvian imports or an increase in the gas price for Lithuanians. They will intensify their propaganda war (especially via Russian television, widely watched by Balts), possibly use cyber-warfare and try to destabilise everyday life. “Some Russians here live in a Russian bubble,” says Viktors Makarovs, a Russian at the Latvian foreign office. One survey finds that as many as two in three Russians in Latvia support Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Trying to look on the bright side, Baltic policymakers hope that Russian revanchism has awakened the West to the importance of their region—and the need to protect it. They hope it will encourage Sweden and Finland to join NATO and discourage their governments and those of other EU countries from more defence cuts. And—who knows?—today’s fractious EU may even unite around a more coherent security policy.