Updated at 17:19,07-01-2021

The Weekly Standart: Under Russia's shadow

By Max Boot, The Weekly Standart, Tallinn, Estonia

The Baltic republics prepare for the worst

In the 20th century, few nations suffered as much as the Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their brief taste of freedom, made possible by the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-1918, was snuffed out in 1940 when Russian armies marched back in, this time under the banner of the commissars rather than the czars. When the German Army invaded the following year, many Balts saw them as liberators. But the cruel nature of Nazi rule soon became apparent. The Germans carried out genocide against the substantial Jewish population, a project in which some Balts unfortunately assisted. The return of the Red Army in 1944 brought no respite, with the Communists shipping tens of thousands of people to the Gulag. In all, more than a million people were killed in the Baltic states during World War II, representing nearly 20 percent of the prewar population of 5.4 million.

And of course the suffering did not end in 1945. For decades to come, the Balts were to be occupied by a totalitarian state whose will was enforced by the Red Army and the ever-pervasive secret police, the KGB (and its predecessors). Dissent was ruthlessly crushed. The economy was wrecked by collectivization. Religion was suppressed.

The Balts finally emerged from the Soviet prison in 1991, and in the quarter-century since, they have made nearly miraculous progress. All three countries are members of the European Union and NATO. They are all tolerant, liberal, free-market democracies that enjoy a standard of living higher than Russia's in spite of the absence of any natural resources such as the oil fields that fuel the Russian economy. (Russia's per capita GDP is $25,400; Estonia's is $28,600.)

To walk around their capitals, Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, as I did in early June in between meetings organized by the Jamestown Foundation with local political and military leaders, is to experience clean, modern European cities full of delicious restaurants, upscale bars, and chic hotels. The inhabitants are polite, speak English, and revere the United States. Indeed, many of the Balts I met had attended American universities ranging from the U.S. Air Force Academy to Georgetown. All three capitals have experienced a post-Communist building boom while also doing an impressive job of preserving their storybook Old Towns, which look as if they could have sprung from a Hollywood back lot. The only overt reminder of the grim past can be found in Museums of the Occupation, which chronicle the horrors inflicted upon these lands in the past century.

Yet the Baltic achievement remains as fragile as it is impressive. While Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in many ways feel like Denmark or the Netherlands, they can never forget that just across their borders lies the Russia of Vladimir Putin. This is not the Stalinist state of cursed memory but nor is it the more liberal regime of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. Putin is an increasingly repressive dictator who, unlike his Communist predecessors, is not restrained by the need for unity in the Politburo. He runs Russia as his personal fiefdom, and it is a fiefdom that has been expanding under his rule. Putin has invaded Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. He has illegally annexed Crimea—a forcible change of borders unknown in Europe since 1945—and he has sent his troops to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

Ever since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the fear has been that the Baltics could be next. Given Putin's proclivity for posturing as a defender of supposedly oppressed ethnic Russians, Latvia and Estonia especially have reason to be nervous. They both have large Russian-speaking minorities—numbering more than 550,000 people in Latvia (28 percent of the population) and more than 320,000 in Estonia (25 percent). By contrast Lithuania has only 175,000 Russians—6 percent of the population. The good news is that most of these Russian-speakers know they are better off where they are than under Putin's kleptocracy. The bad news is that local sentiments may not matter if Putin decides, as he did in eastern Ukraine, to manufacture an insurgency out of whole cloth.

Putin is making his intentions clear on a regular basis. His Russian-language TV channels broadcast a steady diet of propaganda into the Baltics, playing up Russian grievances and accusing the democratically elected leaders of those states of being fascists and Nazis—the same nonsense that was used to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia is also rumored to be providing funding to Russian political parties in Estonia and Latvia, and mysterious calls are circulating online to recognize "people's republics" among the Russian minorities. NATO generals believe that we are already seeing "Phase One" of a Russian "hybrid war" against the Baltics, playing out primarily in the realm of information warfare and cyberwar for the time being.

If an actual shooting war breaks out, Putin will be ready. He has been expanding and enhancing his forces in the Western Military District of Russia. This area now has an estimated 65,000 Russian troops, 850 artillery pieces, 750 tanks, and 320 combat aircraft, all located just a few miles from the Baltic borders. The Balts have gotten used to no-notice "snap" exercises that involve tens of thousands of Russian troops maneuvering nearby—exercises that could easily be employed in the future as a pretext for an actual invasion.