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Opinion: "We’ve got your back, Balts"

NATO, after year of tip-toeing, promises a plan to defend its small, eastern-most members.

Tensions and tantrums

Some argue these views amount to the worst kind of paranoia, and it is true that Baltic nationalists like to paper over the fact that many of their grandparents sided with the Germans when Hitler attacked Stalin’s realm in 1941. Moscow plays up this side of history, similarly failing to note that the Balts’ collaboration with Germany came at a time when Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians were being rounded up and murdered as enemies of the Soviet Union by Stalin’s secret police.

But in spite of the fact that Moscow recognized their independence in 1991, there remains a strong suspicion among politicians in the Baltics that Russia sees that — like the oil contracts it signed with western companies in that same era and ultimately declared as null and void — as the result of predatory instincts led by America.

In support of their fears, Balts cite a litany of slights and subterfuge since independence:

  • In 2007, Estonia claimed Russia unleashed hackers which brought its government to a standstill after the relocation of a Soviet-era monument to the Red Army angered Moscow.
  • Sparring over the rights of the large ethnic Russian minorities in all three states, but especially Latvia, where ethnic Russians make up 40 percent of the population of 2.3 million, most have failed Latvian language “citizenship tests” imposed by the newly independent states. Some have moved away, but the perverse effect of these tests has been to cement loyalties to Moscow.
  • Regular disputes as each side characterizes the history of the other as “terroristic” or “genocidal,” outbreaks of rhetorical venom which have often caused one or the other to recall ambassadors.

Stick and stones

Of late, however, Russia has been rattling sabers, too.

Last autumn, Russia held military exercises with its ally, Belarus, along the Lithuanian border. The premise was far-fetched, but pregnant with meaning for Russia’s neighbors. It presumed that ethnic Poles in Belarus, a Russian ally, had risen in concert with Lithuanian terrorists in an attempt to seize the enclave of Kaliningrad, a piece of Russian territory wedged between Lithuania and Poland. The Russian and Belarusian troops — over 10,000 of them — repelled the phantom “terrorists,” keeping both countries safe for oligarchy. The Balts responded by demanding NATO’s Baltic Sea wargames be expanded next spring — a decision that is still pending.

Patriot games

January brought more tensions. Poland’s announcement that it would accept a shipment of U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries — the consolation prize after the Obama administration cancelled the much larger anti-ballistic missile system the Bush administration wanted to build there — caused hyperventilation in Russia.

“The deployment of U.S. soldiers and missiles close to the Russian border will be seen as a serious provocation and our military chiefs will likely interpret it as evidence of America’s continued ill intent and treachery,” writes Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.

As Edward Lucas, a historian of the region, put it recently: “It used to be Belgium that was counted as the "cockpit of Europe” — the place where great-power interests clashed and were settled. Now it is the Baltic states.”

NATO’s development of a Baltic emergency plan, however, doesn’t answer any of the region’s real concerns. France and Britain, too, had contingency plans to protect Czechoslovakia, but they never dusted them off. Even when Poland was attacked, the best they could do in 1939 was to declare war from afar and watch Germany and Russia split Poland down the middle.

The Balts feel that history viscerally. What NATO could — or would — do about such a move in the Baltics remains as unclear today as it did for the Czechs in 1938 or the Danes in the 1970s. So we in the West may have to excuse them a bit of paranoia.