Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Russian speakers in the Baltics

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war has unified Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian societies while Russian speakers in these countries remain divided.

During the early months of the war, a survey conducted in the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania found that the Baltics generally perceived Russia as a threat as evidenced by 83.4% of ethnic Estonians, 72.1% of ethnic Latvians, and 66.3% of ethnic Lithuanians responding that the threat posed by Russia was somewhat high. In the same survey Russian speakers did not perceive the threat the same way though with only 32.1% of Estonian Russian speakers and 18.2% of Latvian Russian speakers agreeing that Russia poses a threat. [1]

Fast forward to the summer of 2022. Another survey conducted in June in Latvia found that, 40% of Russian speaking residents in Latvia condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although this survey did not ask the same question as the first survey in March, this suggests the number of Russian speakers that disapprove of the war has increased. This number is, however, still surprisingly low given that local governments in all three Baltic nations have made attempts to limit access to Russian propaganda about the war and to try and persuade consumers with facts. This could mean that the limits and bans on Russian TV channels and print media sources in The Baltic States have been unsuccessful and that Vladimir Putin’s narratives and propaganda about the war in Ukraine are still getting through to them. There are plenty of tragic images of cities that have been destroyed and reports of Russia targeting civilian infrastructure. These acts are obviously outright illegal under international law. Nevertheless, this suggests some Russian speakers may still be receiving Kremlin propaganda narratives and are not receiving the facts or truth despite Baltic government efforts to limit and ban this kind of disinformation.

In the three Baltic nations, which were all illegally annexed, occupied, and colonized by the Soviet Union, many Russian speakers remained after the countries regained their independence in 1991. As a result, the Baltics today have significant Russian speaking minorities. Russian speaking minorities make up roughly 25% of Estonia’s population, 25% of Latvia’s population, and 5% of Lithuania’s population. Their presence has caused instances of internal tension ever since due to Baltic sensitivities based on their long, bloody and repressive historic experience under Russian and Soviet Russian rule.

Since regaining their independence though, the number on non-citizens in all three countries has diminished. Many older non-citizens have died over the past three decades, but the number of naturalized citizens has also increased. In Latvia today, only 26% of Russian speakers are non-citizens and in Estonia, they make up only 5.2% of the population. This means there are overall fewer non-citizen Russian speakers in the Baltic states.

Not surprisingly, most respondents who condemned Russia’s invasion in both surveys were younger Russian speakers (18 to 34 years old). Older Russian men supported the war. However, younger Russian speakers have grown up in a society free of Cold War communism and are less affected by Moscow’s persistent efforts of modern mind control. They are mostly EU citizens and have blended their cultures. It therefore makes sense that they would condemn Russia’s war.

Given that relations are generally strained right now between Russian speakers and ethnic Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, the Baltic governments have occasionally been the targets of criticism from the Kremlin for their policies. One example of this is when Latvia began considering adopting a law that would limit bilingualism – meaning the use of Russian would be restricted in workplaces and public places. Another example, is an Estonian political party that is considering introducing increased fines for “those who fail to meet language proficiency criteria.” In all three countries, the parliaments have declared Russia a terrorist regime and Russian TV channels are largely banned and regular Russian tourists are unable to get visas to enter any of the Baltic nations. Most recently, in December 2022, Latvia cancelled the license of exiled Russian TV station TV Rain or Dozhd after it was deemed by the government to be a threat to Latvian national security. The station had been broadcasting from Latvia after being forced to shut its Moscow studio following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of these measures have added to tensions. While the governments of each country were sending clear messages to the Russian Federation that those who support Russia’s war in Ukraine are not welcome in the Baltic states, Russian speakers are feeling the repercussions of the Kremlin’s war, even if many of them do not support the war.

Even so, the number of Russian speakers in Latvia, for instance, that support the war dropped from 20% in the early days to 12% during the summer of 2022. Although there have not been any more recent surveys conducted in any of the Baltics since the summer, Russia’s actions and tactics continued in their ruthlessness and brutality, it is possible that this trend will continue with time and more Russian speakers will probably continue to disapprove of the war as they learn about the crimes being committed by the Russian Army. There are, however, still plenty of Russian speakers in all three countries who have remained silent throughout the war, neither supporting nor condemning the war publicly. Only time will tell if they too are persuaded to join the majority of the Baltic populations in condemning the war.

Putin’s illegal actions in Ukraine have been eye opening and should be condemned, but the question remains in the Baltic states, how can those governments shed light on the harsh realities of the war and improve relationships with their Russian speaking populations?

[1] There is a much smaller population of Russian speakers in Lithuania, so they were not polled there.

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