By Paul Goble
The Soviet Union disintegrated when Moscow attempted to hold the periphery and in the first instance the illegally occupied Baltic countries by force alone, Vadiim Shtepa says. And if the Russian Federation is foolish enough to invade the Baltic countries now, it will share the Soviet Union’s fate.
Indeed, the Russian regionalist who now lives in Tallinn says, “in this way, the Baltic countries which at one time began the disintegration of the USSR will in a paradoxical way play a similar historical role also for its ‘legal successor’” (spektr.press/rossiya-i-baltiya-kto-kogo-perepugaet/).
In an article yesterday entitled “Russia and the Baltics: Who is Scaring Whom?” Shtepa writes that this month is the 25th anniversary of Moscow’s efforts to hold the USSR together by using force in Lithuania and Latvia, actions that had the unintended effect of accelerating the demise of that country because few wanted to live in a state held together by force alone.
As the world knows, “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia played a leading role in the liquidation of the Soviet empire,” above all by insisting on the denunciation of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by which Stalin and Hitler divided up Eastern Europe, Shtepa says.
“The democratic Russia of 1991 willingly recognized the independence of the Baltic countries,” he continues. “But present-day Putin Russia has rapidly evolved in the direction of the former Soviet imperial worldview. Now the president of the Russian Federation declares that the disintegration of the USSR was ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.’”
Tragically, that has become “mainstream” thinking in Moscow, with Putin and his supporters viewing “all the rest of the post-Soviet countries not as really independent state but as some kind of political misunderstanding which by accident” appeared on the map. “And if they insist on their independence, Russia will begin to treat them in a hostile way up to and including using military force against them” as in Georgia and Ukraine.
The Baltic countries, however, by joining NATO in 2004 “have turned out to be beyond reach” and “possibly therefore they generate particular hostility among the restorers of empire” who know that they cannot act against the three the way they have elsewhere lest Russia find itself in a conflict with “the most important military alliance on the planet.”
But that hasn’t stopped Russian commentators from talking about using force against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Shtepa says. An MGIMO military expert, for example, has suggested that Moscow should do just that if NATO backs its member Turkey against Russia, something he says it could do easily and quickly (svpressa.ru/war21/article/138968/).
It hasn’t prevented Vladimir Putin from promulgating a new security doctrine which identifies NATO and of course NATO countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as “potential enemies” of the Russian Federation (rus.delfi.lv/news/daily/abroad/rossiya-oficialno-vklyuchila-nato-i-ssha-v-spisok-ugroz-bezopasnosti.d?id=46901963).
And it has not stopped the Russian defense ministry from announcing the formation of new divisions in the west, divisions that could be deployed at the Baltic countries, an action that Russian commentators have suggested is simply a reasonable Moscow response to NATO’s efforts to support its members (rbc.ru/politics/22/01/2016/56a1e4999a794761d2b7f9f5).
A few people in the West have been intimidated by Moscow’s statements and actions, but they forget the facts of history, the Russian regionalist says. “The Baltic countries sought to join NATO precisely in order to secure themselves forever from possible repetition of aggression by their eastern neighbor.”
Shtepa adds: “it is instructive that today, 48 percent of the citizens of Ukraine support joining NATO, when only a year ago the figure was 34 percent.” Thus, in Ukraine as in the Baltic countries, Russian aggression has led to a result opposite to what Moscow intends, to growing interest in the Western alliance.
Unfortunately, Moscow does not appear to have learned this lesson or to be constrained from doing the unthinkable. Two years ago, a Russian war against Ukraine “seemed improbably absurd but then it became a tragic reality.” Consequently, one should not dismiss Russia rhetoric as “a simple bluff” or as playing to a domestic audience.”
Moreover, Shtepa writes, “Russia in the course of the [Ukrainian] war has used a plethora of technologies which it is now customary to call ‘hybrid.’” And it is quite likely that any Russin aggression against the Baltics would not at least at the beginning have the form of “a direct military invasion.”
“For a Kremlin filled with nostalgia for the USSR,” he concludes, “opposition to ‘the hostile West’ has been transformed already into an end in itself,” and “in this artificially pumped up atmosphere, it is impossible to exclude that some kind of tragic accident could trigger” a real military clash between Russia and NATO in the Baltic countries.
But given what such an action would lead to for Russia itself in the first instance, it is thus worth asking who should be more afraid of such a move, those in Moscow possibly considering it or those Moscow thinks would be its only victims?