Baltic states the line Russia will not dare to cross?

Vladimir Putin and Russian navy soldiers
Vladimir Putin and Russian navy soldiers AP/Scanpix

Prof. Naimark has authored a number of books on the subject, including The Russians In Germany: The History Of The Soviet Zone Of Occupation (1995); Stalin’s Genocides (2010); Fires Of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing In 20th Century Europe (2001).

In view of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and military threat to the rest of Europe, Lithuania has re-introduced conscription. Do you believe Russia will invade the Baltics? Will NATO and the US come to our aid if this happens?

Although it is perfectly understandable that people in the Baltic States are extremely anxious about their own security from what’s going on in Ukraine, I believe that fundamentally there is no reason for it. I think that NATO is going to honor its commitment to the Baltic States, and the US will honor its commitment.

The US does not like going to war in Europe anymore, it does not think it should be the one to do so. But my view is that Russian intervention in the Baltics would be seen as crossing the line that has been informally drawn. And that line – if the Russians would cross it – would cause enormous grief for them, and I think they know it. If they do cross that line they would be seriously hurt.

Where exactly is that line?

Let’s assume for a second the Russians move on Mariupol or something happens in Kharkiv. Or they mass troops in such a way that it looks that they may even drive to Kiev. I think that would do it. I am not sure about Mariupol but I do not think we are ready to let Mariupol fall. At least I don’t think we are.

And what would the United States do?

It could be that in such case we would arm Ukrainians first. But the problem with arming Ukrainians is that you have to send the advisors. You have to show them how to use these weapons and to make sure that they are not simply wasted or sold. There is an enormous amount of corruption in Ukraine. Part of the problem is that – and God bless them, I really feel for the Ukrainians – it is a society that does not work well and still has a lot of internal problems and corruption.

But Russian intervention in the Baltics would be seen as crossing the line and would cause enormous grief for the Russians, and I think they know it. If they do cross that line, they would be seriously hurt.

And one of the reasons is that – and I do not know whether people understand that in the Baltics – Russia is not that strong militarily compared to the US, to NATO. It does not have the equipment, it does not have men, it does not have the ability to fight in the same way.

Yes, they can do damage as they did in Georgia. But kicking around Georgia is like kicking around Panama, and kicking around Ukraine is even easier because even now the Ukrainians still do not have a real army.

I think that the Russians understand perfectly well their strengths and weaknesses. And I think this means that they understand that they cannot – under any circumstances – get involved in a fight that would involve the US and its extensive firepower. This means to me that the Baltic peoples anxiety is perfectly justifiable – given their history one could expect nothing else – but I do not think the danger is real.

Aside from military force there is a strong concern about the dangers of hybrid warfare, of Russian propaganda broadcast to the Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics. What do you think of moves made to restrict such broadcasting on television?

I do not think they should block broadcasts. I think the Baltic States should behave as they have been, that is, like good democracies. This would even improve the loyalty of their populations, Russian and non-Russian. But then again – that does not mean that they should not take action, that they should not get prepared and do nothing. I like the fact that the Lithuanians are reintroducing the draft, they are arming people for a potential fight against the Russians – they should do that, prepare themselves to fight, though ultimately I don’t think they will have to, because the US will honor its commitment to NATO.

How do you understand Putin’s motivation? What is the best historical model against which to measure his decision?

Putin’s motivation? That is a complicated question. What is the best historical model? It is not the Soviet Union. For a lot of reasons this is not a new cold war. The cold war was between the two powers that were relatively equal, in terms of their militarily power. Clearly the US was a stronger country, with a stronger alliance politically and economically, but militarily the Soviets were very strong, so the reason why one could not fight a hard war was that there would have been mutual destruction and nobody was ready to do that – on either side. So you fought cold war or you fought surrogate wars in different parts of the world – some of which we won, some of which we lost. So that was a cold war.

Now the situation is different. Now we have a bully and a thug who has managed to seize control of his country, Russia, and to use its resources for his own and his clique’s purposes – both for domestic reasons, meaning that they are very rich and very powerful, and in terms of causing trouble in the periphery. But again, remember, Russia is causing trouble only on the weak points on the periphery. Georgia is a great example; Ukraine, Crimea is another good example of pushing Russian interests in order to gain popularity, to bolster some sense that it is a strong country, when it is not. I think it is a myth that Russia is powerful – it is not – but that does not mean they are not big and powerful enough to cause trouble.

What’s the model for that? As I said, it is not the Soviet period. It is more the Russian empire. The Russian empire also caused trouble on the periphery. The Russian empire also pushed on the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was hopelessly weak. So think about it – the Russians were pushing on the Ottoman Turks because they were the only ones they could really push on. Nicholas I called the Ottoman Empire the “sick man of Europe,” when Russia was suffering from some of the same sickness.

So you think the Baltics are no longer in that crowd?

No. The Baltics have serious fighting capabilities. Let me give you an example. The Estonians fought in Afghanistan. Not a huge contingent. I don’t know how big their contingent was – 150, 200 people – but they fought very bravely and very well. They were among the Alliance’s most valued contributors, because they were well equipped and they knew what they were doing. It is true that one could not expect tiny Estonia to withstand an attack by Russia for a very long time, but I think the Russians know they would get hurt a lot if they cross that line.

So far the Russians are creating the impression of success in the Donbass. Yes, they do send people back home in body bags, but they hide it; they do not want anybody to know. So far there were no losses in their rhetoric, only victories. And they calculate that way. They are counting on victory after victory. They cannot afford to lose.

How well do American politicians and the American public understand the historical background to the current tensions between Russia and its neighbors? Is it an important factor in determining US policy?

The absolute majority does not understand anything. We have a problem like we had in the Balkans. At least a very similar one like at the beginning in the 1990s in the Balkans. What was the problem? It was that Europeans – particularly the Germans, but also the French and the British, who can exert power, did not want to get involved militarily. They are scared and worried about Russia, and they are essentially appeasers. In other words, they are hopeful that if they give more to Russia, maybe Putin will start behaving.

The Americans, at least people at the US government who understand better, know that appeasement does not work. Yet the problem is that the U.S. is very far away. They say to the European allies: c’mon guys, you are in NATO and we are far away. We are glad to back you up and follow your lead but you have to lead. In the Balkans, remember, nothing happened until 1995 when Bill Clinton was forced to act by the outrage of Srebrenica. Something like this may happen in Ukraine – right now Putin manages to push ahead at just the right speed. But at some point, like Slobodan Milosevic at that time, he may just go too far. What do you call that? The straw that breaks the camel’s back. Putin may just go too far, in which case things will change very rapidly.

Who has the biggest ideological ‘blind spot’ when it comes to analyzing and understanding Russia? East Europeans, West Europeans or Americans?

Well it is clear that in many parts of Eastern Europe and the Baltics in particular you have a strong anti-Russian reaction. This is perfectly understandable, and I do not think that people are wrong in their analysis of Russia’s actions because of this, but still it is not helpful.

Mind you, I have no brief with what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. But it is also true that this is not all Russians, and many are just as disappointed as you and I are that Russian democracy did not take hold and has been too easily undermined by Putin. Still, I hear from some East Europeans and Balts that “Russians just do not understand democracy”, or that “Russian have fallen completely for Putin”. Well, not all Russians have fallen for Putin. We know from the Boris Nemtsov’s case, where tens of thousands of people who turned up grief stricken that this man has been taken away from them. Yes, it is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the country as a whole, but what it means is that Putin has betrayed the Russians too – or at least that’s my view.

I feel badly for the Russians too. I do not feel as badly for them as I feel for the Ukrainians in this situation, but I do feel badly for them as well. They are not all crazy right-wing ultra-patriots who think that the empire should be reestablished. And in fact in the 1990s it looked like there were a substantial number of people in Russia who were ready to accept a kind of new Russia in a new Europe. It did not happen for a lot of different reasons.

So I don’t think that East Europeans have any particular ideological blind spot. They probably are more accurate in their assessments than most Americans, or certainly most Western Europeans, for example, Germans. This entire “Putin Versteher” business is wrong, but East Europeans – all of us – should understand that Russians are losing a lot from Putin’s aggression, too.

As for the US, you would be surprised how little people here know or care about the situation in Ukraine. It is in the newspapers, but people do not make much of it. Also Putin’s propaganda has been pretty good, advancing the argument that Ukraine is really his territory and that the expansion of NATO to the east was a threat to Moscow’s legitimate interests. This had a dulling effect on the US public.

And yet there are some outspoken public figures who take action in support of Ukraine and they are from the USA, like Timothy Snyder.

The role of historians or other public intellectuals here is very marginal – that is different from Europe. In Europe, I can open up a newspaper and often see opinion pieces written by my friends, colleagues. You can often see Timothy Snyder on television in Austria. But here, the media really does not care. You might sometimes see Michael McFaul on television, because he is a former the US ambassador to Russia. But otherwise public intellectuals have very little influence on public opinion here.

In the USA, like in Germany, decisions about foreign policy are made by the political class. If the people in National Security Council, in the center of Government, decide that it is in our interests to do something, they will do it. They just have not yet come to that decision. They argue about It. Possibly every day. But those who say that we have to be careful, we do not want another war, still have the upper hand. But another thing – the political system is probably going to change. I do not know whether Hillary Clinton or another Democrat will win or not; if she does not win, then there will be very little restraint on people who want to do something in the arena, like John McCain.

This also depends on how Putin continues his pressure on Kiev. He has been very careful not to overplay his hand. He backs off every time it looks like the West might seriously escalate their involvement. Then he does another thing: signs another agreement, or talks to Merkel again and makes some other of internal agreement with the Europeans. Merkel is crucial – absolutely crucial in all this.

So if the question is how far will Putin go, I do not think very far because he is afraid of tripping across the wire that will then send the US over the brink. In my view he does not want to do that and is afraid of it. Obviously he is not going to show that fear, but he is afraid because he knows how bad off they are militarily as much as in many other ways.

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