Prisoners of geology, Icelanders make it their business to understand volcanoes. Prisoners of geography, the peoples of the Baltic States do the best they can to understand the unruly, dangerous, and enigmatic superpower next door.
So, when Janis Berzins of Latvia’s National Defense Academy published a report in April titled “Russia’s New-Generation Warfare in Ukraine,” it was worth paying attention. Since then, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have evolved beyond the deployment of “little green men” and other irregulars of nominally uncertain provenance into an old-fashioned invasion, plain, simple, and bloody, but the West still needs to focus on what Berzins had to say. His subtitle — “Implications for Latvian Defense Policy” — suggests why.
With Putin seemingly set, so far as opportunity will allow, on reconstituting the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) that fell apart with the Soviet Union, it’s easy to imagine that Latvia and Estonia might be somewhere on the target list. They are both former Soviet republics. For two centuries, they were part of the Russian Empire. Both have large, imperfectly assimilated Russian minorities, who, Putin reckons, belong within that Russian World, a status that entitles them — lucky “compatriots” — to his “protection.” Each has a major, almost 100 percent Russian-speaking city (Daugavpils, Latvia, and Narva, Estonia) temptingly close to the Russian border.
Both countries are in NATO, and thus theoretically covered by Article V of the NATO Treaty, which provides that all the alliance’s member states “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But in an age in which war can proceed by half-denied incursions and bogus popular uprisings (“non-traditional combat,” in Berzins’s phrase), who is to say what an “armed attack” really is? Berzins asks what would happen if a “Crimea-like situation” were to erupt in Narva. After all, Russia would undoubtedly insist that this too was the exercise of a “democratic right of self-determination.” And that, Berzins clearly fears, would cloud the picture enough for some Western politicians to claim that Article V should not apply. If that sounds too cynical, recall the lengths that some of them went last month to avoid calling the Russian assault on Ukraine (a country without the benefit of an Article V guarantee) by its right name: invasion.
According to the (anti-Putin) Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky, Putin is well aware that many NATO countries would be reluctant to be drawn into conflict by Article V. And even if they did come to Estonia’s aid, “Putin [could] respond with a very limited nuclear strike and destroy for example two European capitals. Not London and not Paris, of course.” Were that to happen, Piontkovsky believes, Putin would calculate that “all progressive and even all reactionary American society” would shout “‘We do not want to die for f***ing Narva, Mr. President!’”
Far-fetched? Probably. Putin is a gambler, but he’s not reckless. That said, it is worth noting, as did Anne Applebaum in a recent article for the Washington Post, that “Vladimir Zhirinovsky — the Russian member of parliament and court jester who sometimes says things that those in power cannot — argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries . . . and show the West who really holds power in Europe.” Zhirinovsky is not, thankfully, in a position to shape policy, but he is occasionally used by those in the Kremlin to float ideas that they would like to see in circulation. As (notes Applebaum) Putin has put it, he “gets the party going.”
That this sort of talk is even out there will, as Putin knows, encourage a good number of NATO members to define Article V as narrowly as they can. Psychological pressure has always been a part of warfare, but it has an even larger role to play in Russia’s notion of a “New Generation” war. Within that, writes Berzins, “the main battle-space is the mind. . . . The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary, making the opponent’s military and civil[ian] population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country,” a strategy (essentially what once might have been called subversion, but taken to a whole new level) peculiarly suited to some of the more fragile countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. In this respect, Berzins’s account of the early months of the Russian onslaught in Ukraine makes depressing reading: “In just three weeks, and without a shot being fired, the morale of the Ukrainian military was broken [in the Crimea] and all of their 190 bases had surrendered.”
But Ukraine, I was repeatedly told during a visit to the Latvian capital, Riga, in June, was a failed state. Latvia is not. Nor is Estonia. Both have made remarkable strides since winning back their freedom from the USSR. They are members of the EU as well as NATO. Their economies have grown fast (if not smoothly), delivering a standard of living far better than that of their Russian neighbor. That is not the case in Ukraine. At their core, Latvia and Estonia have a powerful sense of national identity. Memories of their independent inter-war republics and the nearly half a century of brutal Soviet occupation that followed still sear. In 1940 they were annexed by Moscow without a fight. That would not happen again.
Nevertheless, their political structures are not yet as developed as they could be, and their economies are far from robust. There is a lot of Russian money floating around, particularly in Latvia, and their Russian-speaking populations (30 percent or so of the population in Latvia and approximately 25 percent in Estonia) are not only a cause for Putin, but a potential source of instability that the Kremlin is continually trying to exploit. This should not be overestimated: Most Latvian and Estonian Russians feel at least a degree of loyalty to those countries, and the approval that some of them show for Russian adventurism abroad (in the Crimea, for example) does not necessarily mean that they want Russian troops showing up at their front door.
Looking specifically at Latvia, Berzins cites instances of the early phases of New Generation warfare, including “supporting pseudo human-rights organizations, backing the organization of a referendum for Russian to be the second official language [it failed, but, tellingly, won a majority in Eastern Latvia], and surveying the population of the eastern border to get intelligence on their inclination to support a [Crimean-style] scenario.” Plus, adds Berzins, “in a more subtle way, Russia has been successfully influencing internal politics through some of the political parties.” That may be a reference to, amongst others, Harmony Center, Latvia’s largest, a party that draws most of its support from the country’s Russians, and that has links to Putin’s United Russia party. Its leader is the mayor of Riga, a city in which the population divides roughly evenly between Russian-speakers and ethnic Latvians.
Then throw the Russian media into the mix. It’s no secret that Russian television has become a pathway to a world of nationalist delirium, a world where two plus two does indeed equal five, a “parallel reality,” in Berzins’s words, “legitimizing . . . Russian actions in the realm of ideas.” And this is the TV that most Baltic Russians watch most of the time (local Russian programming is thin gruel). Its poison may be diluted by the fact that these viewers live in the West, but still . . .
And then there is the constant saber-rattling at the border, the incursions into Latvian or Estonian airspace, military exercises such as, most notoriously, Zapad-2013 (“West 2013”), in which some 70,000 Russian and Belarusian troops massed near the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish borders to war-game a scenario in which “Baltic terrorists” were the villains, an exercise designed to demonstrate who was really boss in this part of the world.
But for now, the spying, the probing, the pressing, occasional trade embargoes, cyber-attacks, dirty tricks (check out the way that Interpol was abused in the 2013 mayoral elections in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, for one example), a gnawing at the foundations is “all” that there has been. Polling the inhabitants of the border region is as close as Russia has come to crossing the line that would herald the next phase of a New Generation war — the seizing, maybe, of a building or two in Narva or Daugavpils by a bogus “people’s republic” and the arrival of those “little green men” — a phase that, for now, seems mercifully far off.
Berzins has suggestions as to how Latvia might head off that moment. These include increased funding for economic development in the poorer regions, a boost to military spending (Latvia has since committed to hike its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, the minimum NATO target that nonetheless hardly any member states hit), and the introduction of something like Swiss-style conscription. But perhaps the most important — and the most optimistic — revolves around securing the revision of Article V to reduce the dangerous ambiguity that New Generation warfare has opened up, an ambiguity that quite a few NATO members might well prefer to keep intact.
It’s an ambiguity that comes with terrible perils — not just for Latvia and Estonia (and, quite probably, Lithuania as well: the third of the Baltic trio has a far smaller Russian-speaking population, but cuts off the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad from Moscow-friendly Belarus), but for NATO too. Standing by our Baltic allies — three democracies that have emerged from Soviet darkness — is the right thing to do, but it is a matter of self-interest too. If Putin prevails over the Baltic countries despite their NATO membership, that would, argues Piontkovsky, “mean the end of NATO, and the end of the U.S. as a world power, and the complete political dominance of Putin’s Russia not only in the area of the Russian World but in the entire European continent.” That may be overstating it, but such a blow to the prestige of Article V would at least risk an unraveling of NATO, with all the nightmares that would come in its wake.
Ambiguity can tempt the aggressor into believing that he get can get away with his next coup at little cost. This can, in turn, lead to catastrophe. Hitler was unconvinced that the British and the French would truly stand by Poland in 1939. The ambiguity over the Baltic guarantee can never be eliminated, but it can be reduced. The symbolism of Obama’s speech in Tallinn this week — and the promise to send additional U.S. Air Force units and aircraft to the Baltics — will have done no harm. The increasing presence of NATO aircraft in Baltic airspace in recent months is a good move, as is the stepped-up pace of joint NATO exercises on Baltic territory. A NATO rapid-response force of several thousand troops, capable of deployment within 48 hours, is now being proposed. Its equipment and supplies would be based in the east. Permanent manned NATO bases would be better still. As Estonia’s President Ilves remarked earlier this week, maintaining a “two-tier” NATO, divided between those countries with permanent bases and those without, sends the “wrong signal” to a “potential aggressor.” We can’t be sure that even bases would be enough to do the trick, but the more the West does now, the less likely it is that Americans will ever be asked whether they are prepared to die for Narva.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.