A few days ago, it was reported that Russian Duma members Evgeny Fedorov and Anton Roman had requested that Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika assess the legitimacy of the 1991 decision by the then-State Council of the USSR to recognise the independence of the Baltic States. In their letter, the duo claim the State Council, also created in 1991, was an illegitimate and unconstitutional body, and that its decisions caused “great damage to the sovereignty, security and defence capability of the country”. Moreover, these decisions were, “criminal acts and especially dangerous crimes against the state”.
Worth noting is that these two Duma members belong to Putin’s ruling United Russia Party. Were these two on some frolic of their own, independent of the powers that be? The West might hope that this is the case. However there has been so far no sign of any disavowal from the Kremlin. This may be yet another sign of Russia’s reversion to its Soviet past. After Ukraine is reabsorbed into the empire, the Baltic States will be next on the menu. After all, if the means by which the Baltic States regained their independence were illegitimate, their continued independence is likewise illegitimate. Implicitly, Russia has the right to terminate their independence as opportunity offers.
Even the most cursory internet search reveals pointers to Russian intentions or, at the very least, aspirations. In an International Business Times report from March, 2014, we read:
One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ex-advisers has claimed that the ex-KGB agent ultimately wants to reclaim Finland for Russia.
Andrej Illiaronov, Putin’s economic adviser between 2000 and 2005 and now senior member of the Cato Institute think tank, said that “parts of Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland are states where Putin claims to have ownership.”
“Putin’s view is that he protects what belongs to him and his predecessors,” he said.
When asked if Putin wishes to return to the Russia of the last tsar, Nicholas II, Illiaronov said: “Yes, if it becomes possible.”
Illiaronov admits that Finland is not Putin’s primary concern at present but, if not stopped in other areas of Eastern Europe, the issue will one day arise. Russian troops are currently massing on the eastern border of Ukraine, following Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.
It may well be that Russia will not risk open war, as I indicated in an earlier piece. However, as a report on June 3, 2015, in Reuters, points out:
From sabotage of energy installations to cyber attacks and declarations of “independence” by Russian-speaking border villages, the Baltics are preparing for possible flashpoints of war.
Ukraine’s conflict with Moscow-backed separatists has unnerved Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the only parts of the former Soviet Union that have joined NATO and the European Union.
They are small, geographically-isolated from the rest of the EU, and have Russian-speaking minorities which President Vladimir Putin declared last year gives Moscow the right to intervene with military force.
Their fear is not only about a conventional war of tanks rolling across 627 miles (1,009 km) of border, but of smaller, ambiguous incidents similar to the tactics Moscow employed to wrest control of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.
For more than a year the three countries have prepared for a kind of murky conflict or “hybrid war”, with exercises against “saboteurs”, campaigns against Russian “propaganda” and increased spending on defense and border security.
Lithuania held a simulation in May of separatist groups attacking installations near Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad, a base of Moscow’s Baltic fleet which is connected to the rest of Russia by a train line through Lithuania.
The exercise was modeled on last year’s capture of Crimea by Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, who came to be known as the “little green men” when Moscow denied their identity until the takeover was complete.
“We need to learn lessons which we learned in Crimea, which we partly see in the east of Ukraine. Any possible attack, in any form, needs to be taken seriously,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told Reuters in May. “What makes sense for us is to be prepared for anything.”
Many Baltic residents say concerns over Russia have filtered down to daily life – to the extent the possibility of Russian occupation comes up when many people discuss buying homes.
The extent to which Putin will seek to rebuild the old Soviet/Russian Empire will depend very much on the Western response. Unfortunately, as Max Boot points out in Commentary, Obama remains opposed both to helping the Ukrainians fight back and permanently stationing combat troops in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. A company’s worth of equipment will be stored in each of the Baltic States, better than nothing, but as Max Boot argues:
The chief problem the U.S. faces vis-à-vis Russia (and every other bad actor on the planet) is a lack of credibility. Putin simply doesn’t believe we are going to make a substantial commitment to stop him—any more than Ayatollah Khamenei or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi imagine we’re gong to stop them. The only way to restore American deterrence and credibility is by putting U.S. troops on the frontlines, as we did in Germany during the Cold War and as we are still doing in South Korea. You don’t have to deploy a lot of American troops—certainly not enough by themselves to stop the Russian Army or even the North Korean army. Just enough to serve as a tripwire and delaying force, ensuring that any aggression will put American personnel in danger and thus require an American military response. Empty tanks and APCs aren’t the same—no one imagines that we would go to war to protect them.
And that’s why the Obama plan will fall far short of its objective, of deterring Russian aggression. Doing that effectively requires arming the Ukrainians and stationing U.S. brigade combat teams in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
We face a dangerous window of opportunity for the Russian Bear.