U.S. Fighters Circle Baltics as Putin Fans Fear of Russia
Centuries of Soviet and tsarist oppression taught the three Baltic states to bar their doors whenever the Kremlin issues marching orders. Now they also scramble NATO jets.
President Vladimir Putin’s decision to hold snap military drills in the Baltic Sea last week just as he was pouring troops into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula sent shock waves through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which demanded, and got, military support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The U.S. deployed six warplanes to Lithuania yesterday to bolster defenses in the Baltics for the first time since they joined the alliance in 2004, expanding the squadron to 10. Another dozen will arrive in Poland on March 10, the country’s Defense Ministry said. About 150,000 soldiers took part in Putin’s drills, including 3,500 from the Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
“Russia today is dangerous,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters at an emergency meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels. “After Ukraine will be Moldova, and after Moldova will be different countries. They are trying to rewrite the borders after the Second World War in Europe.”
Angst over Russian expansionism is spreading across the former Soviet Union.
Moldova, which borders Ukraine and Romania, has its own secessionist region, Transnistria, where Russian troops are stationed. The former Soviet state is very “anxious” about Putin’s brinkmanship, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said in an interview in New York. Leanca said he called on President Barack Obama during a meeting this week to provide “strong U.S. leadership” to contain Putin.
The fear is particularly acute in Lithuania, the first republic to declare independence from the Soviet Union, in 1990. Putin, who’s called the Soviet breakup the following year the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, accused Lithuania and Poland on March 4 of training the “extremists” who ousted Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in an “unconstitutional” coup. Russian state television aired footage of a Lithuanian farm where it said the rebels stayed.
Those “groundless insinuations” are attempts “to justify aggression and to incite hatred against Lithuanians,” Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on his Twitter account.
A senior U.S. military official said yesterday that the Pentagon isn’t planning additional moves for now beyond the deployments of F-16s to Poland and F-15s to Lithuania. Further actions to signal U.S. resolve would only be taken if Russia adds to tensions in Crimea, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.
Putin on March 1 sought and obtained parliamentary approval to use force to defend Russian speakers abroad if they are threatened. That prompted U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Army General Martin Dempsey to call leaders in the three nations to pledge U.S. support.
“The Crimea scenario resembles the occupation of the Baltic states by the USSR in 1940,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgards Rinkevics said on his Twitter account. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Trying to build up their defenses against Russia, the Baltic countries rushed toward integration with the West, joining the EU and NATO in 2004. While Estonia and Latvia have already adopted the euro, Lithuania is on track to join the monetary union next year.
The Baltic states need more NATO military drills on land and at sea to ensure their security, Grybauskaite said in a statement today. The military alliance said on March 5 that it halted day-to-day civilan and military contacts with Russia to protest the Kremlin’s moves in Ukraine.
NATO’s decision shows a “prejudiced, biased approach” to the events unfolding in Ukraine, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
Like Ukraine, the Baltics, home to more than 6 million people, have a large Russian minority. About a quarter of the population in Latvia and Estonia consider themselves Russian. In Lithuania, about 6 percent do.
Latvia and Estonia didn’t grant citizenship automatically to people who moved there during the Soviet era, classifying them as either non-citizens or stateless. Latvia has about 46,000 Russian citizens and 291,000 non-citizens, while Estonia has 95,000 Russian citizens and 91,000 stateless people, government data show. Lithuania, which has fewer Russians, granted everyone citizenship after independence.
“The real problem is how the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s response to it might unleash other forces in places like eastern Latvia,” said Michael E. Smith, professor of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen.
“Even if he has no intention to support local nationalist movements, these kinds of things can spiral out of control,” Smith said by phone from Scotland. “Given the size of the Russian diaspora in the various former Soviet republics, there is a huge capacity for miscalculation.”
Russia’s ambassador to Latvia, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, said on national TV there are “no grounds” for concern that Russia may intervene militarily in the Baltics.
Ukraine was set to take a major step on the path toward EU membership with an association and free-trade accord with the bloc. Yanukovych backed out of the agreement a week before its scheduled signing in November, opting instead for $15 billion of Russian aid and cheaper gas. The ousted leader, who is now in Russia, also pursued closer ties with Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, Putin’s answer to the EU.
EU and NATO membership for the Baltic states hasn’t stopped Putin from continuing to exert Russian influence in the region. In September, as Lithuania led the EU’s push for a trade accord with Ukraine, Russia imposed a ban on Lithuanian dairy products, one of the country’s biggest exports. It also increased checks at the border, slowing trade.
“Propaganda against Lithuania sends the message that Russia does not accept Lithuania’s activeness in Ukraine,” said Kristi Raik, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. “If Lithuania continues vocal support to Ukraine and other eastern neighbors, Moscow has ways to punish Lithuania.”
In 2006, irked by Lithuania’s decision to sell the only oil refinery in the Baltics to Poland’s PKN Orlen rather than a Russian company, Russia halted oil supplies by pipeline, forcing the refiner to seek more expensive transportation by sea. The link remains idle today.
In 2007, after Estonia relocated a Soviet World War II memorial, the entire country came under cyberattack. Computers from around the world were used to overload servers with a barrage of access requests that disabled government, banking and media websites. Estonia’s government said the assault was coordinated from inside Russia. Russia denied any involvement.
A year later, after Russia invaded Georgia to defend two breakaway regions, Lithuania led calls for the EU to halt trade talks with the Kremlin in protest. The bloc’s leadership opted at the time against isolating Russia, its largest gas supplier and third-largest trading partner.
“The Georgian war in 2008 was a very bad precedent,” Linkevicius, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said by phone on March 1. “We haven’t learned the lesson and we are seeing something very similar now continuing at another location.”
This time the EU is reacting. Heads of state and government agreed to prepare sanctions against selected Russian officials after the Crimean referendum decision swayed some leaders who wanted to delay such a move. Trade and visa negotiations were also halted.
Lithuanian officials say Russia’s OAO Gazprom (OGZD), the sole gas supplier in the Baltic states, charges the country at least 25 percent more than other consumers in Europe, where it has a quarter of the market. Lithuania is suing the state-run company for more than 4 billion litai ($1.6 billion), the amount the government says it overpaid.
“Our experience with our big neighbor is definitely complicated,” Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, said in an interview on Nov. 18. “With smaller countries, it’s either total obedience or you’re an enemy. There’s no desire to recognize others as equals, but rather various means are used to pressure other countries, economically and politically.”