The Baltics and Russia


The Baltic States - Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania - are three countries west of European Russia, south of the Gulf of Finland, and north of Poland and Belarus.


Andrey Meleschevich has recently noted:


"In sum, the academic field of post-Soviet studies in political science currently suffers from several significant limitations: (1) it is dominated by one country; (2) it lacks a comparative perspective; and (3) it lacks a unified approach for consistent cross-national comparisons of the former Soviet republics. Our knowledge of post-Communist transitional societies would be greatly enhanced if social scientists pay more attention to all nations that achieved their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union."


Both the Balkans and the Baltics have been largely forgotten in much political analysis of recent times..perhaps the exception of the Ukraine when trouble flares up every so often.


and Nikitina (2013) has commented:


Studies of the post-Soviet space usually present Russia as a regional hegemon because its territory is larger and its natural, demographic, economic, military and political resources are greater than those of all the other former Soviet republics put together. Moreover, most Western analyses argue that Russian policies in the post-Soviet space1 stem exclusively from Moscow’s imperial ambitions, inherited from the USSR. The newly independent states and the West perceive Russia as not only the legal but also the political successor of the Soviet Union. Such perceptions are also partly cultivated by the Russian leadership, which, at the official level, simultaneously issues calls for overcoming the legacy of the Cold War.



and James Corum (2018) has claimed:


If one wants to understand what is going on in Russia and also to look at the most likely main confrontation points between the West and Putin the three Baltic States are the best place to start. The three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are not well known to most Western leaders or academics, but these small countries are a special place to understand modern Russia and its politics. The Baltic republics were not only under Soviet domination, like so many of new East European NATO allies, but they were part of the USSR from 1940 to 1991




Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania - Profile






Anatol Lieven (1994, p. xiii) argued that in the early 1990s ‘the Baltic states continued to wrestle with problems and dangers on a scale unknown to any [W]estern government’.


a) The three countries had inherited a large Russian military presence as well as enormous fiscal problems caused by the break with the Soviet Union.


b) Their societies were enveloped by crises as inflation soared, public salaries went unpaid, and government services collapsed. Many Western analysts feared that armed conflict would erupt between the ascendant majority titular and the minority Russophone communities in Estonia and Latvia.


c)The likelihood of a successful transition to democracy, market economy and integration with the West was in the balance.


d) A quarter century later the situation is very different. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been members of the two pillars of European security and prosperity – the European Union (EU) and NATO – since 2004. As of 2015 all three had adopted the euro as their currency.


All three states are prone to corruption. The Estonian government resigned in 1995 after Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar admitted to secretly recording highlevel political meetings and passing them on to a shadowy security company with alleged links to the local mafia.


Lithuanians are Catholic and often consider themselves Central European,


Estonians are Lutheran (or actually agnostic according to the latest data) and increasingly Nordic; and


Latvia has considerable Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox communities.


The Estonians are a bit richer (although Lithuania has caught up), and the Latvians more corrupt (although Lithuania has again caught up). With the exception of defence, the Baltic states cooperate little.




The discontinuities between the Baltics and their Europan neighbours with whom they wish to be partners is a result in many ways of a strange brew of history and language.


Political discourse in the Baltic states is marked by debates on the past as much as on the future.


The 1980s drive to break from the Soviet Union, driven by an overwhelming sense of historical injustice, began with small ‘calendar demonstrations’ marking significant dates in Baltic history.


Key domestic and international disputes are based on contested interpretations of history.


In March in Latvia a number of Latvian Waffen SS Legion veterans, along with several hundred nationalist supporters, march in Riga to the towering Freedom Monument, the symbol of Latvia’s independent statehood. There they are confronted by counter-demonstrating Russophone ‘anti-fascist’ protesters. In May, the positions are reversed as Latvia’s Russophone community celebrates Victory in Europe day (which marks the end of the Second World War for the Soviet Union) at the Soviet-era Victory Monument. Protesting Latvians accuse participants of honouring totalitarian communism. 


There is no common ground between the two groups.


As Auers (2014) has noted: History lives, breathes, provokes and mobilises Baltic publics to an extent almost unimaginable in neighbouring Western European democracies.




Bit of History:


At the beginning of the 18th century the Swedish Empire was attacked by a coalition of several European powers in the Great Northern War. Among these powers was Russia, seeking to restore its access to the Baltic Sea.


During the course of the war Tsarist Russia conquered all of the Swedish provinces on the Eastern Baltic coast. This acquisition was legalized by the Treaty of Nystad in which the Baltic Dominions were ceded to Russia. The treaty also granted the Baltic-German nobility within Estonia and Livonia the rights to self-government, maintaining their financial system, existing customs border, Lutheran religion, and the German language; this special position in the Russian Empire was reconfirmed by all Russian Tsars from Peter the Great to Alexander II. Initially these were two governorates named after the largest cities: Riga and (now Tallinn)



Modernisation began with the emancipation of Estonian and Latvian peasants in 1816 and 1819, well before the rest of the Russian Empire (including Lithuania and Latgale) in 1861.


The first significant changes in social structure began in the 1840s and 1850s when legislative reforms allowed ethnic Estonians and Latvians to purchase agricultural land and removed restrictions on migration to urban areas.


The resulting increases in agricultural efficiency and productivity led to higher incomes, educational opportunities and social mobility, while industrialisation meant increasing bluecollar and professional urban job opportunities.


By 1885 Estonians had ‘evolved into a nation with newspapers, theatre, poetry, and mass cultural events, expressing themselves in a rapidly modernizing language and sustained by a vigorous farm economy’

(Taagepera, 1993, p. 31). This was equally true of Latvians and, a few decades later, of Lithuanians, whose national movement only emerged in the 1880s (Balkelis, 2009). Rapid industrialisation of the port cities of

Riga, Liepaja and Tallinn, connected to the rest of the Russian Empire through newly constructed rail links, saw a corresponding growth in economic activity, jobs and population.


Historically across the 19th century many of the modernising development had been accompanied as well as presaged nationalist movements especially as the there was always an underpinning ambivalence towards the \Russian Empire despite the far higher degrees of autonomy afforded the Baltic states.



Early political movements:


Industrialisation allowed left-wing ideas to quickly spread beyond student debates in the universities and, by the turn of the century both urban and, to a lesser extent rural, Debate and discussion eventually led to the formation of political parties. The Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) was founded in 1896, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) in 1904 and the Estonian Social Democratic Workers’ Association (ESDTU) in 1905.



As World War I came to a close, Lithuania declared independence and Latvia formed a provisional government. Estonia had already obtained autonomy from tsarist Russia in 1917, but was subsequently occupied by the German Empire; they fought an independence war against Soviet Russia and Baltic nobility before gaining true independence from 1920 to 1939


In accordance with a secret protocol within the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that divided Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, the Soviet Army entered eastern Poland in September 1939, and then coerced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into mutual assistance treaties which granted them the right to establish military bases in these countries. In June 1940, the Red Army occupied all of the territory of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Red Army installed new, pro-Soviet governments in all three countries. Following rigged elections, in which only pro-communist candidates were allowed to run, the newly "elected" parliaments of the three countries formally applied to "join" the Soviet Union in August 1940 and were incorporated into it as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.


The German occupation lasted until late 1944 when the countries were reoccupied by the Red Army and Soviet rule was re-established, with the passive agreement of the United States and Britain (see Yalta Conference and Potsdam Agreement).


Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were considered to be under Soviet occupation


After the War:

James Corum has observed that "History is key to understanding the Baltic and Russian relationship

and the Baltic peoples’ relationship with the West. First of all, while the Baltic States are geographically in Eastern Europe, in terms of culture, economic relationships, religion, and political development, they are thoroughly Western European. The waves of Soviet repression in the 1940s and 1950s touched virtually every family in the Baltic States. Most Baltic families can recall a father who was jailed, an uncle who disappeared in the gulags or a grandfather sent to Siberia. The memories are still fresh."


In the era after Stalin death in 1953 to the 1980s, Soviet policy was to Russify the Baltic republics and Sovietize the national culture. On the surface the Baltics were “good Soviet citizens,” but under the surface the Baltic people worked to preserve their language, literature and unique national identities.


The American policy of never recognizing the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States as legitimate served as a beacon of hope to the Baltic peoples. The Helsinki Accords (1975) also put international

pressure on the Soviet Union to reduce the persecution of dissidents. With the difference in freedoms and standards of living between East and West so glaring, even the Soviet leaders could not maintain the façade of communist success.


Towards a loosening - and the end of Russian control

In the late 1980s a massive campaign of civil resistance against Soviet rule, known as the Singing revolution, began. In the wake of this campaign Gorbachev's government had privately concluded that the departure of the Baltic republics had become "inevitable". This process contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union setting a precedent for the other Soviet republics to secede from the USSR. Soviet Union recognized the independence of three Baltic states on 6 September 1991.


In the late 1980s, when Premier Gorbachev announced reforms in the Soviet Union, the Baltic peoples responded by organizing non-communist political parties (quite illegal even under Gorbachev) and initiating mass demonstrations opposing Soviet rule.



Lithuania declared its independence in 1990, and held free elections as KGB troops tried to suppress the new government in Vilnius in January 1991. Bloody repression attempts in Latvia and

displays by Soviet forces in Estonia were met with overwhelming public mobilization against the Soviet government.


August 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the three Baltic States all officially proclaimed independence and were soon recognized by the Western nations.


Exit the Baltics and advance Russian security doctrines

After the fall of the Berlin Wall the old Soviet Union morphed in the CIS - Confederation of Independent States - which did not include any of the Baltics. These were states such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijstan and so forth where they recognised the status of Russia as 'first among equals'. However,  a new term emerged to describe CIS states...the FSU - 'Formerly Soviet Union' which included all the Baltics.


The collapse of the SU gave rise to anxieties of russian identity as well as the range of threats to Russian security during he Yeltsin years in the early 1990s. What was truly 'post-soviet space' - not least of which was the degree to which the Baltics could be seen as somehow Russian inasmuch as there were many Russsian nationals living there and its had been russofied since the early 20th C.


Russia felt beset by Western, European and US military forces via NATO and the EU bloc as it spread east


12 March 1999

 Czech Republic


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991 as part of Czechoslovakia.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1990.

29 March 2004



Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991 as part of the Soviet Union.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991 as part of the Soviet Union.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1990 as part of the Soviet Union.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991.


Member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991 as part of Czechoslovakia.


Previously part of Yugoslavia 1945–1991 (Non-aligned)



Equally Russia felt pressure from the chaotic period of post-communism and the transition to an attempt at a liberal market economy.


It developed a National Security Doctrine in 1997 that tried to face up to perceived external threats (NATO enlargement on its own doorstep) to complement its Military doctrine of 1993 that emphasised the internal threats. A 2000 version further emphasised the external threats and the need for nuclear deterrence.


Broadly Russia saw the extension of NATO in particular as a threat to Russian sovereignty ad the 2000 Doctrine seemed to war against Baltic membership of NATO - which was to occur in 2004 anyway.


One must remember that one must not simply see the feeling of Russian identity in security terms only but trace it back to its ongoing cultural even religious sense. Its anti-democratic habits partly derive from the idea that the sovereign vast lands of Russia need a strong state and the nurturing of national identity unfragmented by the independent nationalist tendencies of its federated states.


When the collapse of communism came along it opened up those damned up senses of nationhood within the formerly federated states of the USSR not least in  the Baltics.


Andrei Kozyrev, foreign Minister under Yeltsin (1990-96) pursued an Atlanticist policy of Russian involvement in refiguring a post-Cold War world but many in Russia saw this as a failure as Russia was excluded from European security matters. Despite this Kozyrev stressed that when it cam to the 'near abroad' stated that 'the countries of the CIS and the Baltics are a region where the vital interests of the Russia are concentrated...We should not withdraw from those regions which have been the sphere of Russia's interests for centuries.


Foreign minister Primakov (1996-98) took Russia in a turn towards multi-polar ideas of policy looking towards China, India, Iran for alliances and thereby to offer an alternative to a US dominated NATO structure. The very weakness of Russia at the time meant that China in particular did not see much scope for teaming up with Russia.


The conclusion to be drawn is that across the ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall Russian foreign policy and its military policy was confused, swaying from one priority to another..but that its attitude towards the Baltics and more generally the various CIS states that now were notionally independent was that they should still be much under the influence and umbrella of Russia and that NATO was a threat to Russian interests in respects of several of the former states likely to join NATO as they did the Baltics finally in 2004. Furthermore despite the temptation, be and large, Russia did not play the 'protection of compatriots' card - of pressurising former states by claiming that they were only protecting the interests of a russian minority in these states.


And of course given the Baltic Sea was a key naval gateway for Russia, its narrowing to about 200 km after 1990 was another element of  threat perception. Equally the loss of control over the Baltic territories mean a reduction in availability of airports ad so forth.



The Nordic-Baltic divergence – the Russian policy


Russia’s policies in the N-B area, distinguish between the two very different elements

which make up the Nordic-Baltic region, from Moscow’s perspective.


a)      the Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, which the Russian ministry of foreign affairs collectively refers to as Northern Europe


b)      and the three Baltic States



Russia’s current policy goals in Northern Europe include:


a) keeping a stable security environment in the area which abuts the country’s strategic assets: its “second capital,” St. Petersburg; the Kola Peninsula, which hosts Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent; and Russia’s only exclave, Kaliningrad;


getting access to the Nordic countries’ advanced technology and investment resources;


and being able to use the Baltic Sea for direct and unimpeded access, including by pipelines, to Russia’s principal partner in Europe: Germany.


The Baltic states are treated wholly differently by Moscow. Although their independence is not

questioned, they are seen, historically, as former provinces of the Russian, and later the Soviet empires, still ungrateful for Moscow graciously freeing them in 1991.


Having only grudgingly accepted the three countries’ 2004 integration into NATO and the European Union, Moscow regards them as essentially anti-Russian in their foreign policies.

Moscow believes that the Baltic states form a vocal anti-Russian lobby in both NATO and the EU.


Moreover, Latvia and Estonia are faulted with refusing to grant automatic citizenship to their sizable Russophone minorities, and restricting Russian-language education.


Russia’s policy goals regarding the Baltic States include:

preventing the deployment of NATO’s infrastructure in the Baltics;


acquiring some key infrastructure assets in the Baltic States;


getting Tallinn and Riga to lower the barriers for acquiring citizenship, and enhancing the political weight of Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia;


and defending the Soviet Union’s role in liberating Europe from nazism.




The Baltics NATO from Yeltsin to Putin


Perhaps quite simple to sum up. A kind of neo-realist approach was taken by the Baltic states who looked to NATO and to the EU to act a buffer zone against Russia increasing foreign and military aggression. The age old forces of distrust by the Baltics towards Russia and the historical territorial ambition and sense of identity as a great power drove the Baltics towards the west. However this approach did not suit the EU or NATO who did not want to be a shelter for them - Europe wanted a kind of detente - a kind of engagement with Russia on who western states depended for oil and gas increasingly.


Western interests could not be pushed into a neo-realist power play of a relative balances of forces where the west would be traded of against the East in the protection and indeed promotion of the protection of the Baltics sovereignty and national identity. Arguably in pursuit of their identitarian goals,


 "from the mid-1990s, the Baltic States made a concerted effort to develop economic and security policies and institutions that met the NATO and EU standards.15 Most significantly, the Baltic States have made an impressive effort to visibly support the West in military operations. All three Baltic countries have sent troops to operate under U.S. and NATO command in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike some other NATO allies and major U.S. partners, the Baltic States have sent

combat troops and have not placed caveats on the use of their forces in combat." (Corum. 2018, p.135)


In other words the pay off as far as it can be, for NATO and western Europe is that the Baltics are very keen to show their co-operation and commitment to a western alliance...presumably so long as that alliance protect the Baltics from the predatory character of Putin's Russia


The focus of the Obama administration away from Europe, coupled with major U.S. force reductions in Europe in the face of major Russian military increases from 2009 to 2014 left the Baltic nations very worried about the long-term commitment of America. The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the open use of force to support Eastern Ukrainian insurgents who want to bring the Eastern Ukraine under Russian control finally killed the hopes of a reset and forced the Western states to take action against Russia in the form of economic sanctions.


And so for the moment the Baltics have their assurances and even under Trump NATO is currently increasing its forces in the Baltic region.



Small state Theory


There is a theory of small states that runs around the following propositions...


(1) Small states are less secure than large states because of their size (highlighting

the exceptional position of small states). Consequently, we should expect the

small states to act differently from large states.


(2) Small states join alliances because they allow them to punch above their weight

and allow them to choose their own size. In other words, alliances allow them to

act large.


(3) Small states are international norm setters/upholders and often occupy the

highroad vis-à-vis large states. Again, this allows them to act large.


(4) Small states can be more important economically than they are militarily, which

explains their importance to alliances and organizations.

Prob here is that the Baltics do the reverse!


And of course each - Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia seem to satisfy all of these criteria and as such the Baltics seem to provide a perfect case study of the truth of small state theory.


Lamoreaux (2014) has questioned all this essentially on the grounds that small states do not actually seem to behave any differently or from different orientations and motives from large states.


"small state expectations are not actually unique to small states, and that there is not much

difference in small-and large-state actions provided similar circumstances." (p.567)





"The same expectations are equally applicable to the largest states in the international system. Large states care about sovereignty just as much as small states, including not only political, military and economic sovereignty but also societal sovereignty. Large states appeal to (and inform) international norms and laws just as much as small states and are generally founding members of the largest and most influential international organizations. Large states form alliances just as much and just as readily as small states. And, just like small states, they will do all of the above in the face

of perceived threats. Consequently, I argue that “small-state” expectations are not unique to small states, but that we can expect any state to act the same way in the face of perceived threats. In other words, these are not small-state expectations: rather, they are expectations for any state facing a perceived threat to its sovereignty and identity..."


So what do we say about the constructivist symmetry between the Russian Federation and the Baltics yesterday and today?




An economic note:


Despite the very great stresses between the Baltics and Russia the varying degrees of trade with Russia, despite the sanctions that the western alliance has imposed on Russia, is very strong...and that is in the direction of a dependency relation between Baltics and Russia.


As Sineviciene & Krusinskas (2018) point out n their recent discussion: We can conclude that the economies of the Baltic states are still dependent on the Russian economy and that international trade of the Baltic states has not been comprehensively reoriented towards other countries, especially in the case of Lithuania. There is a high correlation between the gross investment rate of non-financial corporations in Baltic states and Russia’s GDP growth. From a policy viewpoint, as a powerful neighbour, Russia may exert political influence over the Baltic states through economic retaliation. And this is a warning of a more subtle threat that that generated by politico-military manoverings.