Why a War in the Baltics is Unlikely

With the geopolitical situation between the Russian Federation and the United States becoming increasingly belligerent, some American and European leaders have grown concerned. In both the U.S. and the European Union, attention in some circles have turned to the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Having been occupied by the Soviet Union from 1945 until 1991, many in these nations are worried about the return of Russian rule in the face of perceived Russian revanchism. Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, has claimed that Western tension with Russia has not been this bad since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lithuania has recently issued a “war manual” regarding what its citizens should do in the event of a Russian invasion. With the same scenario in mind, Estonia has begun training its citizens as a Swiss-style mass militia capable of combat and, in particular, insurgent operations. Western media has not shied away from the illusion of a World War III with Russia either. The Independent released an article titled “Former Nato commander’s new book predicts invasion of Baltic as Putin bids to ‘make Russia a great power again’” detailing the anxiety expressed by a former NATO general about Russo-Baltic tensions erupting into war. A FOX News Opinion piece titled “Prince Charles is right, Similarities between Putin and Hitler are uncanny”, compares similarities between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, Adolf Hitler, through the occupation of territories with the pretext of protecting ethnic minorities.

As recently as 2009 with President Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia, the prospect of conflict with the Bear seemed unlikely. In 2012, Mr. Obama responded to Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s concerns about Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation by saying that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” However, tensions renewed in the face of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, the subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation, and a Russian-supported separatist insurgency in the eastern regions of Donbass, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Paranoia has taken hold in Europe and the United States, resulting in many Americans and Europeans feeling as if the three small formerly Soviet-occupied Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are next for Russia just as Memel and Danzig were next for Germany after the Sudetenland. However, these comparisons are drawn with limited understanding of the specific conditions that led to the Crimean referendum in 2014. A Russian invasion of any of the Baltic states is highly unlikely today or any time in the near future.

Jokes about Americans not knowing geography aside, Crimea is not the Baltics. The specific circumstances that led to the annexation of Crimea are simply not present in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. Before the 2014 referendum regarding who should control the peninsula, polling done by the United Nations Development Program found that in 2011, roughly 67% of Crimeans supported reunification with Russia. After the referendum, a series of polling conducted by Gallup discovered that over 82% of Crimeans believe that the referendum accurately reflect the attitudes of the people. Along with this, according to an article published in Forbes magazine, German polling firm GfK found that 82% of Crimeans supported the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Widespread support for the reunification of Crimea was how Russia justified the actualization of that sentiment. However, no significant polling data exists to corroborate any hypothetical claims of a groundswell of enthusiasm among Baltic Russians for annexation of the Baltic states by the Russian Federation. With the absence of similar figures for the Russian population in the Baltics, there is also an absence of a justification for Russian intervention.

As of November 9st, 2016, Russia still denies that it has regular military presence in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin did concede that Russian specialists including those “in the military sphere” were present but that this does not mean that Russian ground troops in a conventional capacity are operating there. At first glance, this looks like a highly suspect and tactical point but to a degree, Putin has a point. There is an important distinction: military advisors are not ground forces. The United States has military advisors in nations such as Thailand and Greece, they serve to advise and train the armed forces of the nation in which they are stationed. At this point, the extent of Russian military action in Ukraine has been limited to the “little green men,” who are suspected to be Russian military advisors in unmarked uniforms stationed in eastern Ukraine who can easily blend in with pro-Russian separatist forces. If the intervention in Ukraine is the precedent that should be examined, similar actions would hypothetically take place in the Baltics.

Baltic states creating these minutemen militias have done so largely at the suggestion of Baltic NATO veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Many saw firsthand how a military colossus such as the United States can be bled dry in a brutal insurgency using methods such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and hit and run ambushes. Estonia in particular has begun instructing its militiamen to keep firearms in their homes, how to construct IEDs, and how to hide in the woods. If the war in Ukraine tells us anything, is that a hypothetical Russo-Baltic war would actually be the opposite of what they are currently preparing for.

Rather than the massive military invasion against three states with NATO membership envisioned by American neoconservatives, conflict would hypothetically take the form of a Russian-backed insurgency, complete with little green men, as it did in Novorossiya. However, as alluded to earlier, there are no major Baltic Russian separatist insurgencies for the little green men to latch onto. With few Baltic Russians backing Russian separatism, Moscow has no discontent to capitalize upon and it seems highly unlikely that war will erupt in the Baltics as it has in Ukraine.


Author: Dana Cahoon