Washington policymakers are overlooking a potentially serious foreign policy crisis: the mounting Russian pressure, economic, political and military, on the tiny but strategically located Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Within the Baltic states, all of which have sizeable Russian populations, Moscow is conducting an intensive Russification campaign. It is, for example, underwriting pro-Russian non-governmental organizations, supporting Russian cultural and sports events, helping the Russian Orthodox Church expand its reach and directing private Russian companies to pressure their Baltic partners to make pro-Russian business decisions.
All this activity is calculated to build a Russian presence in the Baltics that would justify Moscow coming to the aid of “threatened” compatriots as it has done in eastern Ukraine.
Then there is the multi-million dollar Russian effort to sow confusion and uncertainty about what is happening in Ukraine, whose future is intertwined with that of the three Baltic states. With a mammoth $300 million budget personally approved by President Putin, the Russian TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today) highlights the most extreme spokesmen of the left and right, who fulminate about the pro-Kyiv “hooligans” who started the shooting in eastern Ukraine. At an all-day conference sponsored by the Joint Baltic American National Committee, I was stunned to learn that RT—barely two years old—is the most popular international channel on YouTube with a billion hits in recent months.
It was not all doom and despair at the conference, run with usual smooth efficiency by Karl Altau, the committee’s managing director. Speakers, including President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, Artis Pabriks, the former foreign minister and defense minister of Latvia, and Andrius Kubilius, the former prime minister of Lithuania, offered specific actions the West should take to block the imperial ambitions of Russia’s Putin, particularly in Ukraine:
- Place meaningful defensive weapons in the hands of the Ukraine military now, not next month. “Ukraine cannot go it alone,” Kubilius said. “The West must help.” If the U.S. does not supply the right weapons and economic assistance soon, every speaker agreed, Russia will move to acquire more of Ukraine. And that would encourage Russia to attempt to annex some part of the Baltics.
- Facilitate Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. Economically, Ukraine is where the Baltics were in the early 1990s. European Union membership would be a giant economic step forward for Ukraine. Otherwise it likely will remain a Russian colony.
- Toughen the economic sanctions against Russia, which already has seen a 30 to 40 percent reduction of its GDP.
The West must resolve, and not just by governmental means, to counter RT and the other instruments of Russian soft power, especially online. Non-governmental organizations have a key role to play in establishing and disseminating the truth.
One speaker said Ukraine reminded him of someone trying to build a ship while at sea. Another, who had visited Kyiv recently, noted the growth of young armed brigades taking on the responsibility, instead of the police, of guaranteeing the security of people and neighborhoods. It was agreed the oligarchs still control too much of the Ukraine economy as they do in Russia—another legacy of communism.
There has always been a special relationship between Americans and the Baltic nations, whose seizure by the Soviets in 1939 we never recognized. By their courage and perseverance throughout the decades of the Cold War, the Baltic peoples set an inspiring example for the world. We must not ignore or overlook them now in their hour of trial. We also have a strategic obligation to them under our joint membership in NATO, whose charter states that if one member is attacked all members must respond.
America, as much as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, would do well to remember the words of Winston Churchill, who, in his famous Iron Curtain speech 60 years ago, said:
“I am convinced that there is nothing [Russians] admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.”