Peace From The Baltics – Analysis


Former Soviet republics directly feel the threat from Putin’s Russia. Ukraine is currently occupied, but the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia worry that they’ll be next. Former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reasserted last year that the Baltic countries belong to Russia. More recently, in Vilnius, an associate of recently deceased Russian dissident Alexey Navalny was assaulted with a hammer. The Baltic countries are already members of NATO, but it’s a sign of the intensity of regional anxiety that Finland and Sweden have recently joined NATO—to strengthen capabilities to respond to the Russian military threat.

The Western powers have been supporting Ukraine militarily in its war with Russia. But it’s as if the clock has been turned back to the Cold War with the Soviet Union 50 years ago: confronting a Russia determined to lead the world in an autocratic and militaristic direction. The Baltics, more than any other area, recognize that peace in Europe requires the emergence of a progressive government in Russia. Acknowledging that an existential conflict over global organization has reemerged, the West needs to focus on promoting the emergence of a new Russian government. Russian minorities in the Baltics could play a key role.

Russian minorities have long been a problem for the Baltics. The Soviet Union sent significant numbers of Russians into the Baltics specifically to dilute the indigenous populations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, as these newly independent states worked hard to reinforce their newfound sovereignty, their Russian populations were a real conundrum. Though citizens of their new countries of residence, it was difficult for them to integrate, due to language, cultural differences, and their location outside the main population areas of their new countries. Many held Russian passports to facilitate receipt of pensions from Russia. Over 250,000 in Latvia and Estonia did not have local citizenship because they or their families arrived during the Soviet occupation and failed to naturalize after the Baltics won independence. Many in these Russian minorities were sympathetic to the Russian government. As regional tensions increased, the local governments became increasingly wary of them and began to limit their contacts. There was no clear way to integrate them into their countries of residence and initial efforts were ineffective.

The situation changed dramatically with the war in Ukraine. The Baltic governments were understandably concerned about potential Russian attacks on their own countries, intensifying concerns about their own Russian minorities. But the growing repression within Russia immediately resulted in large numbers of Russians fleeing abroad, many into the Baltics. These new Russian emigres were strongly anti-Putin and immediately set up opposition groups with broad media connections back into Russia, aimed at supporting some kind of internal transition to a more progressive and democratic government.

Although sympathetic to efforts to promote a new Russian government, the Baltic governments were also highly concerned about a dynamic Russian minority actively corresponding and collaborating with Russians inside Russia while having little interest in their new countries of residence. Mixed feelings on integration led to varied restrictions on the use of the Russian language. Latvia, for example, now requires Russian citizens wishing to extend their residence permits to prove a proficiency in Latvian.

There cannot be peace and stability in the Baltics without the emergence of a new and progressive Russian government. As Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas recently stressed, NATO countries do not want to go to war with Russia, but they need to push Russia back to its borders. There is no easy way to make this happen, but the Russian minorities in the Baltics can play a key role. A new Russian government would not only be critical for peace in Europe. It would also give the Russian minorities in the Baltics an opportunity to play a significant positive role in their new countries as key intermediaries between the Baltic economies and a new, dynamic Russian economy. Collaboration with organizations within a new Russia would become a positive aspect of regional activities, benefiting societies on both sides of the border.

Consolidating the Russian Opposition

The central challenge is getting the Russian opposition to work cohesively at promoting a new Russian government. The Russian opposition generally agrees on the values they would like to see, detailed in a Declaration of the Russian Action Committee on the vision of the future of Russia. Unfortunately, this declaration is only a comprehensive list of positive principles. It gives no real concept of what a new Russia would look like.

Putin, meanwhile, has done a great job of integrating Russian cultural and historical elements into a coherent vision that resonates well with many Russians and provides a major pillar of legitimacy to his government. The Russian opposition has done a terrible job of developing an alternative, a short and powerful vision of a future Russia that can contrast with Putin’s medieval vision of Russian history. This concept of a Beautiful New Russia has to build around traditional concepts that resonate with the Russian people. It also has to address the broader pictures of how a dynamic Russia can be an active and contributing member of the international community, directly countering Putin’s empty claim of a threat from the West.

The Russian minorities in the Baltics can play a central role in making this happen. They can put together a New Russia Council that focuses on creating the Beautiful New Russia vision. They are geographically concentrated and can easily arrange regular open meetings to promote this new vision. There are already active Russian media organizations in the area, like Meduza, reaching out to the Russian public. This council could directly work with the major Russian opposition organizations already active in Europe, including the Free Russia Foundation and the Russian Anti-War Committee.  These organizations include a wide range of prominent Russian oppositionists, but they badly need to be integrated into a dynamic and coherent effort.

The active collaboration of these Russian minorities with the Baltic governments is critical. The Baltic governments and their Russian minorities now both want the same thing, the emergence of a new, progressive Russian government. But they have no history of working together, only of being wary of one another. This disparity is starkly demonstrated by differences in Baltic cities with large Russian minorities. In Daugavpils, Latvia, the Russian minority is strongly supporting Ukraine and the Russian language is being sidelined. In Vilnius, Lithuania, recently exiled Russians are hard at work supporting the political struggle inside Russia. In Narva, Estonia, however, some residents echo the Kremlin’s narrative about the war and bristle at a sidelining of the Russian language, which remains their language of public discourse.

Using the Baltic Conference

The Baltic governments need to use their Annual Baltic Conference on Defence to convince their NATO allies to commit to a long-term objective of promoting a new Russian government. The Baltic states also need to help the West shift from a military emphasis to a diplomatic and economic one, with a continuing Western focus on promoting a new Russian government. This is most critical for the Baltic nations which most need a cooperative Russian government to bring peace to Europe and to integrate their Russian minorities. A new Russian government would allow the return of many of the recent exiles. Together the Baltic nations can be a major factor promoting a new Russian government.

The Annual Baltic Conference on Defence can also play an important role for the Baltics in addressing their Russian minorities. Including the New Russia Council of the minorities, it could become a venue for the local governments to work constructively with their Russian ethnic elements. These elements can provide strong reassurance to their governments that they support their own countries by working with the broader Russian opposition to create the Beautiful New Russia concept that is critical to Baltic and European peace.  This New Russia Vision has to highlight Putin’s corruption, which is draining wealth from the country for himself and his cohorts. And it has to outline a new era of prosperity for Russia, Europe and the world, showing how a post-sanctions Russia can fit into the European and global economic and diplomatic situation.

By working together, the Baltic governments and their Russian minorities can help make a New Russia happen by increasing the impact of the Russian opposition on Putin’s Russian population.  There is in fact already active collaboration between the Russian opposition and European parliamentarians, including some prominent Baltic politicians. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has set up a “recurring contact platform” for dialogue with representatives of Russian democratic opposition forces who share Council of Europe values, fully respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemn Russia’s war of aggression. A recent meeting brought together an impressive list of major Russian opposition figures. What is lacking is focus and direction.

The Baltic governments do have to prepare defenses against the Russian threat, which is the natural focus of the Annual Baltic Conference on Defence. But they also need to look beyond the current confrontation. The last conference did address the need to have a more comprehensive approach to European defense, but it did not look past the need to deter Russia to the longer-term need of promoting the emergence of a more progressive Russian government. The Baltic nations in particular are in a position to strongly push their NATO allies to set this as a common, long-term objective for the West.

Edward Corcoran

Edward Corcoran is a senior fellow at and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He was a strategic analyst at the U.S. Army War College, where he chaired studies for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Operations.

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