Opinion: The Russians are coming to occupy the Baltic states

In 1966, “The Russians are coming” was even used as a title for Norman Jewison’s comedy film while in politics the phrase has become a by-word for any unfounded threat-mongering. One should note, however, that it was in 1949 that NATO was founded – and for no other reason than to counter the Soviet threat. This alone indicates that whatever one thinks of Forrestal’s words, the threat they expressed was taken seriously. And this serious assessment might have been what helped prevent the potential threat from becoming very real.

This point has become relevant again, especially for the Baltic states. The shocking but far from unrealistic title is my attempt to make the point that Russia’s threat has transitioned from a theoretical issue to a very practical one, which calls for an adequate response, not unlike in 1949.

Back in 1949, NATO leaders did not stop at political commitments of Article Five – very soon impressive American forces were deployed in West Germany which at the time was the borderline between NATO and Warsaw Pact camps.

As RAND Corporation analyst F. Stephen Larrabee has aptly noted recently, Vladimir Putin’s regime is, in many respects, even more dangerous than the Soviet Union. In many respects, the West has already been caught unprepared.

Plans discussed in the open

What supports my point about the Russian threat becoming practical rather than merely theoretical is an article by Russian political analyst Rostislav Ishchenko entitled “Redemptive Ransom” (Искупительный выкуп). In it, he argues for the inevitability of “preventive occupation of the Baltic states” in the vital interest of the Kremlin and Russia.

The problem is that, both in the Baltic states and the West, this analytical piece by Ishchenko received less attention than it warrants, even if we were to dismiss it as pseudo-analysis.

I am convinced that this public analysis of the necessity for preemptive occupation of the Baltic states deserves as much, if not more, scrutiny than Russian Ambassador Miklail Vanin’s nuclear threats to Denmark (over its intention to join NATO’s anti-missile defence shield) or an even more serious nuclear blackmail by retired Russian generals at the Elbe Group meeting.

I will argue that Ishchenko’s analysis, which was made public, is not some absurd blather by a small-time analyst (as many in the West and the Baltic states probably think), but rather a consequential first step in Russia’s political preparation for aggression against Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

I’d like to emphasise that were this just one more public threat by the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky to sweep the Baltic states off the face of the earth, I would not lose any sleep over it nor waste time to try to explain my take on the present danger.

A recurrent pattern

I have already written, back in November, about why I think that the Baltic states are under a threat of a conventional military attack rather than some hybrid warfare. I argued that this scenario was very realistic and I could only reiterate my arguments now.

However, the threat has grown more serious since then and has transcended the merely theoretical guise precisely because Ishchenko’s article represents the first instance of Russia discussing occupation of the Baltic states in public and presenting arguments why it is an inevitable outcome of Putin’s regime pursuing its interests.

Even if we chose to ignore the name of the author of this analysis or agreed that he is unknown and inconsequential (which he is not), we’d still have to agree that this new public debate is a signal that Russia is entering the new stage, making a step from formulating a policy idea to carrying it out.

A more sustained analysis of contemporary Russia suggests one inevitable conclusion: despite the perceived closed character of this country (it is not true – one can find out many things about Russia from public sources, given consistent analysis), the first stage in any project it embarks on always begins with “information preparation”.

One can easily ascertain that this was the case before the annexation of Crimea or Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in general. This was also the pattern of the campaign against oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky which ended in his imprisonment. There are more examples, but these should be enough to make the point.

Whose ideas are these?

But even if we agree that the onset of a public discussion about the necessity of Baltic occupation alone is a sufficient sign of threat, we should still look closer at the author of this analysis. Ishchenko is neither someone unknown nor inconsequential, although he used to be presented as a Ukrainian political analyst rather than Russian.

To better understand whose ideas he is voicing, we only have to look at the platforms that publish his analyses and other experts he shares his bylines with. In Russia, it is hardly a secret that Ishchenko is a close associate of the “Izborsk Club” and an expert on its ideas.

He is therefore far from a lone voice. He is a spokesman for well-known figures like Alexander Dugin, Alexander Prokhanov, retired General Leonid Ivashov and Russian politicians who stand behind them: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, President Putin’s administration chief Sergey Ivanov and the like.

From analysis to action

To return to Ishchenko’s piece itself, it is important to note that his analysis is a herald of a campaign very similar to the one that preceded the attack on Ukraine. Deducing from this pattern, we should expect to see more analyses like that appearing on public platforms, after which Putin will receive a classified policy paper on his desk, drafted by some Russian strategic research institute or a thinktank, with an authoritative analysis urging to take tangible action – much like in the case of Crimean annexation or aggression in eastern Ukraine.

At this point, Putin’s decision will probably depend solely on the balance of power within Russia’s political elite or perceived costs of such an adventure.

Granted, the Russian political elite is still far from united even on the issue of the government’s massive military spending amidst general economic strain. The budget for defence, rearming and modernizing the army could be an important indication of Russia’s aggressive plans.

One must admit that the so-called Russian liberals, represented in this case by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov or even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, keep insisting that Russia can hardly afford the planned military spending. Even Russia’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies said in its report that Russia’s rearmament programme was in crisis.

Bearing this in mind – as well as the divergence of views on the future of Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine even within the Russian elite – there is not enough evidence to suggest that these intentions regarding the Baltic states (attributable to Rogozin, Ivanov, the entire Russian military-industrial complex behind their backs and their mouthpiece, the Izborsk Club) will necessarily be implemented. However, we must acknowledge the threat and react accordingly.

Moreover, both the precedent of the Ukraine war and Putin’s refusal to cut military spending even in the face of deteriorating economic situation and against the advice of government liberals in charge of economy, are a good indication of who has been winning similar battles in Russia and who has the balance of power tipped in their favour.

Political commitment is not enough

It is important to note that even when Ishchenko discusses the possible consequences of “preventive occupation of the Baltic states” for Russia, not once does he say that what might impede the plan is the Baltic membership in NATO.

Such conspicuous disregard for NATO’s security guarantees under Article Five, something that has been much talked about in the West (and I personally do not doubt them), serves only to confirm my oft-expounded argument that as long as NATO’s guarantees are not backed by adequate deployment of troops and weaponry, they will not be taken seriously in Moscow.

Quite the opposite – Ishchenko’s analysis suggests that at least those groups of the Russian elite that nurture bellicose plans regard the Western powers as not strong or decisive enough to ever dare to defend the Baltic states. Especially in the face of a threat of nuclear stand-off with Russia.

Therefore bearing in mind that political preparations for aggression against the Baltics – or at least political struggle within Russia’s power groups over it – have already started, the only way to truly guarantee security of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and prevent a serious challenge to the very existence of NATO is to urgently deploy allied forces sufficient not just to deter Russia, but to actually defend the Baltic states.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s recent public statements should be viewed in precisely this light: he said that symbolic NATO presence in the Baltics and political guarantees of Article Five were no longer enough.

Meanwhile the Baltic states themselves must insist in a united and loud voice on the necessity to deploy abundant and well-armed allied forces on their soil – at the same time as they mobilize their own resources in proportion to the seriousness of the present situation.


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

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