Opinion: Why Russia’s threat to Baltic states is so real

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Marius Laurinavičius

Professor Kęstutis Girnius has once again decided on DELFI to calm everyone down by saying there is no real danger of Russian aggression against Lithuania. I once again risk becoming what Mr. Girnius calls a “professional Cassandra” by constantly scaring people with the Russian threat.

I am not someone who considers each action of Russia the first step to an attack on an eastern European country, like a “Cassandra”, a term Prof. Girnius uses. Quite the opposite. I constantly say that today’s Russia is more complex than most are led to believe in the West and in Lithuania, where there is the same-old “Putin-centric” approach.

It therefore seemed – and still seems to some – that in one or other case in attempting to explain that certain processes in Russia can be understood in other ways than normal, I am directly “defending” Vladimir Putin which in actual fact I have never done and don’t intend to.

Arguments for and against

On the other hand, I have said publicly many times that that if we do not stop Mr. Putin’s regime in Ukraine, we’ll have to stop it in our own backyard. And this time I will try once again to argue why if we in Lithuania and the West do not do everything we can, Russian aggression in our country will be something very conceivable.

Firstly, I will acknowledge that my colleague Prof. Girnius has well-founded arguments. I will therefore attempt to do the same by presenting arguments for and arguments against.

If I understand correctly, Mr. Grinius bases his opinion on the following principle arguments:

1. Ukraine is not a NATO member and does not qualify for a NATO defence guarantee. Lithuania does;

2. The Baltic states are important to NATO and not to Russia;

3. It is vitally important for NATO to maintain its credibility, especially amongst the EU countries. Therefore in the case of aggression Russia can expect the appropriate reaction;

4. The US and NATO are clearly superior, have more experienced soldiers and heavier, more sophisticated weaponry, especially in the critical aviation sphere;

5. There is no reason to assume that Mr. Putin and his milieu are irrational fanatics. For the time-being they are deliberating nicely on what it is they can and can’t do.

These are weighty arguments. However, I would like to begin this open discussion with what Mr. Grinius does not look closely at - Russia’s approach to the current world situation.

About the bear – master of the taiga

I’ll say nothing more about Mr. Putin’s speech at the so-called Valdai Club in Sochi - all the analysts of the world have been discussing it. And it’s not in vain that they’re comparing it to Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech which was made at the beginning of the Cold War.

It will be remembered however that Mr. Churchill was speaking about the “iron curtain” that had descended over Europe and about the two marauders - war and tyranny - who were threatening the world and against which the world had to defend itself. Mr. Putin spoke of the “bear that is master of the taiga and who does not intend asking anybody’s permission”. In other words, when Mr. Churchill was declaring the beginning of the Cold War, he was threatening nobody. Yet that’s what Mr. Putin is doing and very openly at that.

An there are some that will remind us that Mr. Putin stated outright that the bear roaring in his head doesn’t invade “other climate zones” where he’d never feel comfortable. Some in reply will ask, in which climate zone will Mr. Putin’s bear stop feeling comfortable?

At least one interpretation of the celebrated concept of the “Russian World” states that it’s not only the territories of the former Soviet Union that belong to the “Russian World”. It also includes territories with large Russian-speaking communities that at one time were in the Russian Empire. Even Finland, for example. As far as the Baltic states are concerned, no more need to be said.

War on the minds of Russia’s elite

I always maintain that Russia is more than just Mr. Putin. And so let’s take a closer look at at other statements made by Russia’s elite. The secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev is much the same, as was seen in an interview in mid-October with the newspaper Rosiskaya Gazeta. The interview wasn’t so much about “aggressive actions of the US” as Washington coveting Russia’s resources.

When reading the thoughts of one of Russia’s most influential officials (at least in terms of his position), it is seemingly apparent that he is an echo of the Russian president’s assistant Sergei Glaziev who has of late been making constant predictions that a Third World War is now inevitable.

Incidentally, I am mentioning Mr. Glaziev only because he has hitherto been a prominent assistant of the Russian president. He has, furthermore, played a very big role in engineering the aggression against Ukraine.

If I wanted to scare you head on with something, then it would be far easier to pick out Alexandr Dugin’s expounded theories or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s bellicose remarks that the Baltic states can be wiped off the face of the earth. Not to mention the well-grounded comparisons with the situation prior to the Second World War. There’s also the bold announcement of Kremlin political expert Andranik Migranian who compares Mr. Putin to the “good Hitler”.

My aim, though, is not to allude to history but rather to turn attention to the present – to Russia’s war with the West which has been called the Third World War and which has been called even the Fourth World War (because it was Joseph Stalin who said that the Cold War is the Third World War). This idea is already entrenched in the greater part of the Russian elite’s psyche.

Are the examples of Msrs. Putin, Patrushev and Glaziev’s public announcements insignificant? Let’s then remember the interview given last year to the Financial Times by Vladimir Yakunin, another especially influential and long-established representative of the KGB in the Russian leadership.

Already then Mr. Yakunin (who, for what it’s worth, should be considered close not only to Mr. Putin but also to the oligarchs suffering the most from sanctions) sombrely explained that it wasn’t the Maidan but the US that overthrew president Yanukovich. It did that simply to “destroy Russia” as a geopolitical opponent.

If you believe that in Russia it’s only the so-called strong-handed champions who think in terms of Third and Fourth World Wars, ask then what it is that long-time opponent of Mr. Putin’s regime, political expert Stanislav Belkovsky says, for example.

Mr. Belkovsky in recent times has been closer to the oligarchs than to the inescapable representatives of the KGB in the Kremlin. He is nevertheless well-aware of the moods of the Russian leadership. He also talks of a Fourth World War into which Mr. Putin is already dragging the country. Only Mr. Belkovsky hopes that this time the “current Russian Federation” will lose and the “future Russia – a European example of a nation state” - will win.

The idea of a Fourth World War (whatever form it may take) is now so much ingrained in the minds of the Russian elite that I am convinced that it is impossible to gauge the rising Russian threat without considering it.

Three security dilemmas

Now let’s try to imagine how, in the context of this new world war, Russia views the so-called “Kaliningrad problem”. Russia has always considered Kaliningrad an outpost or beachhead of its struggle with the West. That was always clear to the West, which is why in the famous 1996 RAND Corporation studio Kaliningrad was declared as being an example as to why the Baltic States shouldn’t have been granted NATO membership.

The West, first and foremost the US, changed its stance. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have become NATO members. But will Russia change its stance?

The Kremlin’s fictional world war with the West within the context of the Kaliningrad problem emerges as more dangerous even than the so-called issues of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. That’s because from Russia’s point of view Kaliningrad has become both a military, economic and security problem for all of Russia.

There’s not much to say about the military security of Kaliningrad. The Russian military itself has made it known and makes it known in threats to deploy offensive weapons in Kaliningrad to counter aggression in Ukraine.

The problem of Kaliningrad’s economic security finds an analogy in Crimea. In the context of Ukraine, there is constant talk about Russia’s potential drive to “break a land corridor through” into Crimea so that it would be much simpler to guarantee supplies to the annexed territory.

Let’s take a look at the map: Kaliningrad’s position isn’t as dramatic as Crimea’s, where electricity and fresh water supplies are dependent on Ukraine showing or not showing good will. Still, in the wider context, the position of Kaliningrad and Crimea aren’t much different. For Russia not even Kaliningrad’s energy security is guaranteed.

Lastly, there’s the security problem of Kaliningrad, looming under the conditions of a world war against the West as perceived by Russia’s elite. It may not be in vain that the Kaliningrad governor himself, Nikolai Tsukanov, last summer spoke publicly about the incessant plans of the West to organise a Maidan in the Russian enclave.

Occupation of the Baltic states as a last resort?

It’s worth listening to what none-too-candid Russian defence experts are saying all the more loudly about Kaliningrad’s security. Colonel General of security Leonid Ivashov makes a point of reminding us that, during the Soviet times, Kaliningrad was a beachhead against the West, a force that was made up not only of Kaliningrad but of the entire Baltic military region of which Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were a part. Will today’s Russia make an example of this for the sake of its security?

Mr. Ivashov, as it happens, has personally experienced a NATO challenge; he participated actively in the well-known 1999 Russian military stand-off at Pristina airport.

Another expert, Viktor Myasnikov, notes: “If necessary, Lithuania could easily be converted into a corridor between Kaliningrad and the main territory of Russia.”

Lithuanian military experts have more than once mentioned that the scenario of an occupation of Lithuania and at least a corridor into Kaliningrad has already been played out in military exercises. It is therefore quite possible that plans like this were entertained even when there wasn’t open talk in Russia of a world war with the West.

Lithuana then is more than an obvious target, especially in the minds of the Russian elite with their embedded idea of a world war with the West.

To my mind, as the threat of certain confrontation with NATO emerges, Russia would not limit its ambitions to a corridor from Kaliningrad to Belarus, its military ally, via Lithuania. It would sooner attack all three Baltic States at once so that there’s no need to resolve later any complicated conundrums of security corridors. The Kaliningrad problem would then be solved with a newly-formed Baltic military region. And that is not a so-called hybrid but rather the scenarios of a simple conventional war.

What good are guarantees?

Most important for us in the discussion with Mr Grinius are the possible threat scenarios to Lithuania. It is time to debate my colleague’s arguments.

It is obvious that in the event of an attack on Lithuania, Russia risks being drawn into a direct confrontation with NATO. That’s indisputable. But is it actually Russia’s and not our view that this confrontation is so menacing?

I mentioned General Ivashov and the Russian paratrooper move on Pristina on purpose. It was there that both the US and NATO were clearly superior in terms of more experienced troops and more advanced military equipment, especially in the critical aviation sphere (Mr. Girnius’s 4th argument).

But General Ivashov, as we already know now, didn’t doubt for a moment that the said Russian operation “was from the start doomed to succeed”. And that was in 1999 when nobody would ever have conceived of Russia being so arrogant with strategic bombers dispatched not far from America’s shores.

Yet I myself realise that it’s never a sufficient argument to rebuff with guarantees of NATO security. What’s more, I do not intend to rebuff them. I am convinced that this time we’ll defend ourselves (there is at least a written guarantee that there will not be a repeat of 1941 when the occupation took place without a shot being fired and of which we’ve heard enough) and we’ll get help from our allies.

But that’s not why this time some sort of political guarantee is needed. Prof. Girnius is right when he states that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and does not qualify for NATO security guarantees. Lithuania does.

It must nevertheless not be forgotten that in Ukraine Russia has truly tested how guarantees granted by the US stand. I’m talking here about the so-called Budapest Memorandum presented not just by Russia but by the US and the United Kingdom, which we’ve heard much about and which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for abandoning nuclear weapons.

It is clear that Russia is the aggressor. For the United Kingdom, it was just a political declaration. However, for the United States, that sees the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons as one of its vital national interests, violation of this memorandum is a serious problem which undoubtedly has serious consequences. Yet the US shows no signs of actively stopping Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Are NATO guarantees really credible in this context? Especially from the point of view of Russia which, let’s not kid ourselves, is testing them all in the minutest of detail.

Mr. Girnius argues that maintaining NATO’s credibility is vitally important, especially for the countries of the EU. That’s why in the event of aggression, Russia could expect a response. But does the behaviour of France, for example, really attest to the importance of NATO’s credibility - when it cannot make a decision on selling major military technology, the Mistral warships, to Russia? And the threat here is "just" losing several billion euros rather than putting in danger the lives of its citizens?

Blackmail by nuclear weapons

When it comes to Mr. Girnius’s second argument that the Baltic states are important to NATO and not to Russia, I dare say that the Kremlin has the opposite opinion. I’ve already argued for the strategic importance of the Baltic states to Russia, bearing in mind especially Kaliningrad. And it’s no secret that, according to Russia, the Batic states are of no importance to NATO. That’s been spoken of quite openly.

In this regard, well-known Russian military expert and editor of the magazine Natsionalnaya Oborona Igor Korochenko recently explained this point. He actually blasphemed saying that Russia does not have and cannot have plans to attack NATO countries, because this would ostensibly mean war with the US.

And what if Russia indeed manages to avoid a war with the US and NATO? In this case it would do well to examine the theory of the “Narva Paradox” expounded by prominent Russian political expert Andrei Piontkovsky. Mr. Pionkovsky, unlike myself, focuses not on the Kaliningrad problem as being the most significant threat to the Baltic states but on the so-called issue of Russian-speakers in Latvia and Estonia.

After choosing scenarios of an alleged referendum for union with Russia, Mr. Piontkovsky, emphasizing historical parallels, quite sensibly asks if we’ll not once again hear the old phrase “we don’t want to die for Danzig [Narva]”? If this specifically is Mr. Pionkovsky’s principle contention, the West (US) will collide with nothing other than Russian nuclear blackmail.

From this perspective, it’s important to note that Russia’s nuclear blackmailing of the West is already a reality. Besides, the concept has gained hold in Russia's military doctrines well before the current war in Ukraine.

Eminent US authority on politics Zbigniew Brzezinski mentions Russia’s nuclear blackmail as one of the most important realities of today.

“In reminding the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal the question immediately arises as to whether or not we are moving towards a nuclear conflict. In recent decades we have got used to the idea that nobody would ever seek nuclear suicide, and that the actual game that is being played in this court is Russian roulette with a pistol to the head,” said Mr. Brzezinski speaking at the USA Strategic and International Research Centre.

It might be worthwhile to add that “Russian roulette” is exactly that – Russian – and not French or American, and that “games” like this are quite normal for the Russians. And the Kremlin’s attempts to test everyone's nerves by pushing the world to the brink nuclear conflict won’t surprise anybody very much.

Conventional NATO military supremacy in such a case, again, seems of little relevance.

The temptation to destroy NATO

I believe that these arguments suffice to refute Prof. Girnius’s statements that the scenario of Russian aggression in the Baltic states is not real.

At the same time, though, I do agree with my colleague that there is no basis to consider “Mr. Putin and those around him as irrational fanatics”. For the time being, they are calculating accurately what they can and can’t do.

The problem is that, based on my above-mentioned arguments, we can expect that Mr. Putin or any other leader of the Russian regime (little would change if Mr. Putin should suddenly leave his post, for whatever reason) might calculate that aggression against the Baltic states is “an operation doomed to success”. As Mr. Ivashov, for example, reasoned flawlessly in Pristina.

In conclusion, I shall present another argument that, depending on one's point of view, makes the tragic scenario for the Baltic states either very improbable or almost unavoidable.

In my opinion, despite all of the above-mentioned arguments, NATO and notably the United States should defend the Baltic states. This is for the simple reason that the preservation of NATO is vitally important to the US’s status as a world superpower. It is also in the national interests of the US.

Since the US leadership, as well as all rational people, realises that NATO would cease to exist at the very moment when it does not defend one of its members. I believe that Washington would manifestly have a vital interest in defending the Baltic states.

But let’s take a look at it again through the eyes of Russia’s current regime. Indeed, the Kremlin realises just as we do that NATO will cease to exist the moment it doesn’t come to the defence of one of its member states. And the destruction of NATO for Mr. Putin and his fellow crusaders would be a goal one hundred times greater than occupying entire Ukraine or the Baltic states.

Yet what if Mr. Ivashov or his colleagues assume that because of a nuclear threat the West would never dare defend such “unimportant” NATO members as the Baltic states? And if we still bear in mind that most of the current Russian concepts (including the concept of the “Russian World”) and Mr. Putin’s own address in December 2013 to the Federal Assembly during which the so-called “Doctrine of Conservatism” was announced, are supported by ideas of Russian civilization and moral values which are superior to the “rotten West”?

Is it not too big a temptation to resolve in one blow the aforementioned Kaliningrad problem, destroy NATO and in effect win the Third and Fourth World Wars which, as I’ve said, are already entrenched in the minds of Russia’s elite?

And what if we believe that Russia is convinced that, should the operation fail, it would always be able to retreat, albeit dishonourably. We can’t even imagine a potential conflict in which NATO would be willing to fight until Russia is completely defeated and capitulates. And the Kremlin imagines such a scenario even less.

Really no need to panic

Do these arguments bring a feeling of hopelessness? There’s really no need to panic and I would not want my arguments to be taken as scaremongering.

As in Mr. Girnius’s case, the above is just a set of possible scenarios from an analytical point of view. These scenarios will not necessarily be realised. Much depends on us and on whether or not the West will finally understand the rising Russian threat - not only to Ukraine - and will adopt a coherent strategy against Mr. Putin’s regime. It also depends on the international situation in general and on the steadily falling price of oil.

There are therefore many factors that could turn all of my arguments into nothing more than a bad dream. However, in debating possible threat scenarios to Lithuania, I believe they must be considered, especially in planning against potential threats. Moreover, in this case Lithuania’s NATO partners should listen to them too.

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Marius Laurinavičius is senior analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

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