Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Do Baltic Russian Speakers Blame Russia for the War in Ukraine?
Do Baltic Russian Speakers Blame Russia for the War in Ukraine?

Do Baltic Russian Speakers Blame Russia for the War in Ukraine?

The Baltic states are among the most ardent supporters of Ukraine in the war against Russia. It is widely understood that Ukraine is fighting not only for its survival and the right to determine its path forward, but also for the Baltic states, the West, and global democracy writ large.

The war has also had notable domestic repercussions in the Baltic countries, including a wave of de-Russification and de-Sovietization. (Despite measures taken in the early 1990s, some Soviet-era symbols and policies have lingered over the last three decades.) Some examples in Latvia include banning Russia-registered media; renaming streets that previously bore names related to Russia and the Soviet Union; removing Soviet occupation-era monuments such as the so-called Victory Monument in 2022; and ending the linguistic segregation of the education system (by 2025, the language of instruction in schools and kindergartens will be Latvian, while Russian as a language of instruction will be phased out). However, perspectives on the war within Latvian society are not as straightforward as the political action might imply. Indeed, polling throughout the course of the war has highlighted splits in perspectives along ethnolinguistic lines. 

Russia has traditionally portrayed Russian speakers in Latvia as a monolithic group that faces discrimination, doing so to deepen ethnic cleavages domestically and complicate Latvia’s standing with Western partners. Russia has been wrong in both aspects, including ascribing a monolithic group identity to Russian speakers. According to official statistics from 2024, Latvia’s population identifies as 63% ethnic Latvian, 23% Russian, 3% Ukrainian, 3% Belarussian, and 2% Polish. However, according to official statistics from 2022, 62% of Latvia’s inhabitants spoke Latvian at home, while 35% spoke Russian. Many Belarussians and Ukrainians also speak Russian as their primary language as a result of Soviet Russification policies. The current ethnic and linguistic composition of the country is a direct consequence of Soviet occupation and its migration and assimilation policies. Before the occupation, in 1935, ethnic Latvians accounted for 77% of the population, while ethnic Russians accounted for only 9%. By 1989, the share of Latvians in the still-occupied Latvia had fallen to 52%, but the number of Russians had risen to 34%. In absolute numbers, while the number of Latvians decreased by more than 79,000 in the same period, the number of Russians increased by more than 737,000, while the number of Belarussians and Ukrainians increased by more than 90,000 each. 

For three concurrent years, Riga Stradiņš University in cooperation with the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga has explored the public’s views on whether Russia is to blame for the war in Ukraine in representative face-to-face public polls. All three surveys were conducted by the SKDS research center; 1010 respondents were surveyed in May 2022, 1002 in June 2023, and 1004 respondents were reached in March 2024. As is traditionally the case with domestic and foreign policy issues, the most notable difference across various socio-demographic backgrounds is among Latvian and Russian speakers. This poll was no exception to that rule. 

In each survey, at least 80% of Latvian-speaking respondents blamed Russia for the war in Ukraine (87% in 2022, 80% in 2023, and 82% in 2024). Around one-tenth of Latvian-speaking respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with blaming Russia (7-11% in each poll), while the share of other answers (disagree, don’t know, no answer) was not considerable (4% and below per category in each survey). 

Among Russian speakers, the share of those blaming Russia was less than half of Latvian-speaking counterparts (32% in 2022, 39% in 2023, and 38% in 2024). A smaller number on average neither agreed nor disagreed (22-33%), disagreed (16-24%), did not know (6-9%), or provided no answer (4-10%).

Views of the Latvian-speaking respondents were relatively stable over the three years. There was a slight decrease in those blaming Russia (down from 87% in 2022 to 82% in 2024) and a slight increase in those neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the statement (from 7% in 2022 to 11% in 2023 and 2024). 

Among Russian speakers, the trend has been slightly more dynamic. The share of those blaming Russia increased (from 32% in 2022 to 39% and 38% in 2023 and 2024), while the share of those neither agreeing nor disagreeing went down (33% and 32% in 2022 and 2023, but 22% in 2024). The share of those not blaming Russia decreased from 24% in 2022 to 16% in 2023 and again increased in 2024 to 21%. Meanwhile, the number of Russian-speaking respondents who responded “don’t know” increased (up from 6% in 2022 to 8% in 2023 and 9% in 2024). The number of Russian-speaking respondents providing no answer to this question increased (up from 5% and 4% in 2023 and 2022 to 10% in 2024), possibly indicating an unwillingness to disclose views that contradict the majority perspective in society. 

As is clear from this and other polls, Latvia’s Russian speakers are not a monolithic group. Not only does the term include multiple ethnicities, among whom are ethnic Ukrainians, but also views about the culpability of Russia in the war on Ukraine are not straightforward. The difference between those who use Russian or Latvian as their home language is notable. While close to 40% of Russian speakers attribute the blame over the war to Russia and thus share Latvia’s official position, the rest do not — they either have difficulties formulating or disclosing their opinion, or they do not blame Russia. Thus, there remains notable societal polarization regarding one of Latvia’s most defining national security issues — the war in Ukraine — and the clearest source of risks to its national security, Russia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.

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