- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
Sowing discontent and disruption is a tactic that the West has accustomed itself to when dealing with the Kremlin. The Baltic states are in a unique position in the face of these threats. Estonia and Latvia, specifically, have significant Russian-speaking minority populations that the Russian media can attempt to manipulate. Many of these people are stateless, having refused to go through the citizenship process after the fall of the Soviet Union. The presence of the Russian military in Kaliningrad and on the eastern borders of Latvia and Estonia are contributing to the growing fear inside Baltic governments of the possibility of a Russian destabilization operation. Deciphering the validity of the Baltics’ fear and the likelihood of a Russian operation of some sort is important for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s regional security strategy.
It has been about three decades since the end of communism in the Baltic region. In the years after, the Baltic states trailblazed a new, rapid course towards integration with the West. Within 15 years of regaining independence, all three of the Baltic states joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The rise of a more aggressive Russia over the course of the last decade, however, has raised fears amongst the Baltic states and their new allies in the West about their relative security. Each of the Baltic states has significant Russian-speaking ethnic minority populations, especially so in Latvia and Estonia, where the number is at least 25%. The Kremlin looks for ways to interact with and support Russian populations in foreign lands as way to build its own power. Moscow used this tactic in its ongoing involvement in the Donbas conflict and for its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. NATO, in response, has stepped up its defense apparatus considerably since 2014 with an enhanced forward presence of Alliance troops in the Baltics and Poland. On the other hand, Russia has increased its troop presence in Kaliningrad and Belarus. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not shied away from acting aggressively towards former Soviet republics that house significant Russian populations.
Putin has publicly stated in the past that he has a “right and a duty” to be a protector of Russian-speaking peoples all over the world, not just in Russia. In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, Putin remarked, “Do you think it’s normal that 25 million Russian people were abroad all of a sudden? Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world. It’s not a problem? Well, maybe not for you. But it’s a problem for me.” This sentiment has set up a dangerous security dilemma for those in Western organizations worried about the integrity and defenses of its member states, especially in the years after NATO- and EU-prospective Ukraine was attacked by Russia.
The NATO defense apparatus in the Baltics was light before 2014 as the perceived Russian threat at the time was not significantly high. To add some perspective, the most significant example of escalation between a Baltic state and Russia had been a major cyber-attack on Estonia in 2006. The conflict was sparked by Estonia’s decision to relocate a statue commemorating the Soviet liberation of Estonia during World War II. Russians, having felt irked by Tallinn’s “insensitivity,” responded with diplomatic and hostile measures, such as cyber-targeting government and civil infrastructure and deploying a media campaign that was aggressively anti-Estonia and pro-Russia. None of these tactics succeeded in doing any noticeable damage to Estonia and its Western orientation.
For Estonia and Latvia, especially, the influence of Russian media has been known to have a profound effect on civil life. In Estonia, about 225,000 of the country’s 300,000 Russian-speakers watch the same type of television programs as people in Moscow. This level of exposure to Russian media is concerning to many inside the Estonian government. Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the National Defense Committee in the Estonian Parliament, commented in 2015 on the Russian media permeations in his country, “The level of sophistication of their [Russian] use of media, both in TV and social media, the Internet, whatever, is on the highest level.” He further added, “There is the potential to generate some sort of anti-government action, if it is needed.” Domestic security services in Estonia, and Latvia as well, have commented in more recent years that the media operations the Kremlin has been conducting are meant to erode the integrity of Estonia and Latvia’s sovereignty. These operations are intended to reverse current perceptions of Soviet rule and portray the current governments in Tallinn and Riga as fascist.
In Latvia, of the top 10 TV channels based on consolidated viewing timeshare percentage, five are Russian or Russian-produced and then translated into Latvian. These five cover a timeshare percentage of over 25%. Additionally, a 2014 survey in Latvia showcased significant trust in Russian media. Presented with a scale of one to five with five meaning “full trust,” one third of citizens chose either four or five. In 2020, another survey found that about one-third of Latvian adults find Russian TV/radio media at least somewhat reliable, and an even larger percentage, almost 50%, access news in Russian. Russian media is thus a significant voice in the ear of many Latvian citizens and can be used as a mobilizing tool for pro-Russian causes. The U.S. Agency for Global Media conducted a study in 2016 that showed that ethnic Russians living in the Baltics who trust Russian media are significantly more likely to support the Putin regime. Even those ethnic Russians who do not trust Russian media but still watch it are more likely than non-watchers of Russian media to agree with statements, such as, “Putin’s leadership has strengthened Russia’s standing in the world,” or “It is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union collapsed.” Russian media has thus shown moderate effectiveness in growing support for Russia amongst ethnic Russians in the near abroad.
In 2020, Latvia and Lithuania have taken concrete steps at purging Russian media from national airwaves. Both countries banned RT, the Russian broadcast channel, after information surfaced that suggested Dmitri Kiselyov, who has been sanctioned by the EU for pushing Russian propaganda in connection to Russia’s military actions in Crimea, was in control of the channel. While the government decided to ban the channel, Latvian citizens as a whole are largely against banning media originating from Russia. Fifty percent of Latvian adults believe that no Russian broadcasts should be blocked, and another 28% believe that only a small fraction should be blocked. These number far surpass the percentage of Russian-speakers in the Latvian population and suggest that most Latvians, regardless of native language, support media, to some degree, emanating from Russia.
However, presence alone may not be enough for the Kremlin to win hearts and minds. For example, Narva, a city in northeast Estonia, has a Russian-speaking population of over 80%. However, Narvians are more closely attached to their locality than they are to Moscow and see Russia as unimportant to their overall identity; they express little-to-no interest in living in or having their town become part of Russia. These studies suggest that while Russian media has exposure, the people being exposed to it may not actually be listening.
A similar, non-media, scenario is playing out in the southeast Latvian city of Daugavpils. The city’s majority ethnic population is Russian (around 55%), and 80% of residents speak Russian as their native tongue. In the 2012 nationwide referendum on whether Russian should be adopted as a second official language, the city voted 85% in favor, in contrast to the rest of the country, which voted 75% against. While it may look concerning on the surface for Latvian sovereignty, surveys show that youth in the city have a much stronger connection to Latvia than Russia. They refrain from saying that they are “Russian” and prefer the term “Russian-speaking.”
Given that Putin will not shy away from his commitment to protect the lives of Russians living beyond Russia’s borders, the military force stationed on the outskirts of the Baltics can give some insight into how the Kremlin views the security situation, as well as the country’s goals going forward. Around the time of the Crimean annexation and in its aftermath, Russia began to enhance its military equipment presence in Kaliningrad. Added capabilities were anti-ship weaponry, air defenses, electronic warfare equipment, and about 20,000 military personnel. On top of that, in Russia’s Western Military District, which includes St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, and border regions around the Baltic states, additional ground units were stationed along with modernized equipment, and the military conducted more intense exercises. About 120,000 troops and a tank division are stationed in this district. These units, hypothetically, can be used for attacks against the Baltic states through the likes of Belarus. The Kremlin has also stationed at different periods of time nuclear capabilities in Kaliningrad, alarming NATO greatly.
The West has seen military exercises led by Russia turn into full-blown interventions before. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is one such example. Czechoslovakia was not technically part of the Soviet Union, only a satellite state, at the time, but was seen by the Kremlin as part of the Soviet sphere. That same logic could be partly applied to the Baltic states, which are not connected to Russia politically. Putin has stated his feelings clearly about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conditions of Russians living abroad. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that a Prague-like attack would occur today.
Rather, the Baltic states are worried about a disturbance operation on their borders that can be supported militarily by Russia. An increase of aircraft in the region could be particularly dangerous, as demonstrated by what happened with the Russian Su-24 bomber shot down by Turkey in 2015. An incident like that happening in the Baltics could prove disastrous for relations and the overall state of peace in the region. The Baltic governments are thus often boisterous in their talks with Western allies in augmenting Western military presence in the region to combat Russian threats. These efforts have been successful in recent years as each Baltic state plus Poland have a NATO forward presence base inside their respective borders.
Putin, at least on the outside, is not intimidated by NATO and is more than willing to push the envelope with the Alliance to get an increase of Russian influence. Invading a prospective NATO member like Ukraine is a clear example. Taking into account Putin’s statements on Russians abroad, his desire for regaining influence over the region, and the strategic placement of military forces, the Kremlin can make the Baltic region a delicate one, if it is not already. NATO has responded starkly so far by stationing troops there, but the potential for conflict in the Baltic region between NATO and Russia will still require attention going forward. The Baltic states have been a shining example of former Soviet republics in achieving full democratic transition—that progress should be honored and protected.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.