Russia, with designs on Ukraine, tests NATO’s willingness to go to war by invading Estonia, a former Soviet republic that’s now part of the alliance.
That’s the plot of “Command Authority,” Tom Clancy’s last book, written with Mark Greaney and published before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where centuries of Soviet and Czarist oppression nurtured a deep mistrust of the Kremlin, leaders are seeking to make sure it remains fiction.
“A great many of us are worried because suddenly we sense the fragility of our civilization,” Estonian President Toomas Ilves said Aug. 20, when the nation celebrated regaining its independence in 1991.
The three Baltic countries, which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization a decade ago, have backed Poland in spearheading the call for permanent allied troops in the region. They’re looking to use U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Estonia and the military alliance’s summit this week to push their case, invoking the Soviet invasion in 1940.
Ukraine and its allies in the U.S. and Europe accuse Russia of dispatching troops and backing militias in the conflict that the United Nations estimates has claimed 2,600 lives. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement and is blaming its former Cold War foes of stoking the unrest.
“I expect the territorial integrity of the Baltic states to be preserved,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin today. The NATO summit will discuss stepping up rapid-reaction capabilities in response to Baltic concerns over the threat posed by Russia, she said.
In April, NATO added warplanes for air patrols and surveillance and stationed about 600 U.S. paratroopers in the Baltic countries and Poland. The U.S. will supply “additional air force units and aircraft for training exercises” in the Nordic-Baltic region, Obama told reporters in Tallinn. The jets may be hosted by Estonia’s Amari air base, he added.
“We’ll be here for Estonia,” Obama said. “We’ll be here for Latvia. We’ll be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you’ll never lose it again.”
Even if there’s no military threat now, Russian air and navy activity near the Baltic borders has increased, Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis told Latvian TV Aug. 14.
Vejonis said last night that Russian President Vladimir Putin retains an interest in the former Soviet space.
“It’s clear he has a geopolitical interest in the former post-Soviet territory, which he already showed once with the Russian-Georgian war,” he said in an interview with LTV.
In Clancy’s book, the invasion of Estonia is preceded by a bomb exploding over the border in Russia and killing civilians. The Kremlin announces an operation to eliminate terrorists in the Baltic nation, only to be foiled by NATO troops in a day of fighting.
In real life, Russian authorities would probably avoid a military confrontation with NATO, instead seeking to exploit the weaknesses of the Baltics’ open, democratic societies and free markets, according to Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who specializes in security issues.
“I absolutely do believe that the Kremlin constantly assesses the potential risks and opportunities in such operations,” Galeotti said. “The day the Russians feel the potential gains outweigh the dangers is the day they begin to move.”
Putin has repeatedly vowed to defend Russian speakers stranded abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has grievances with Latvia and Estonia over the treatment of ethnic minorities, who were denied automatic citizenship when the countries became independent that year, classifying them as non-citizens or stateless.
Latvia has about 46,000 Russian citizens and 291,000 non-citizens, while Estonia has 95,000 Russian citizens and 91,000 stateless people, government data show. The third Baltic state, Lithuania, which has fewer Russians among its population of 3 million, granted everyone citizenship after independence.
NATO members with such minorities may face threats from Russia given events in Ukraine, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, said in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag published Aug. 17.
“Educating separatists and giving them military advice can contribute to considerable destabilization of a country,” Breedlove was cited as saying. “We’ve seen that in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian population was organized. There is a risk that this also happens in other East European states.”
Russia has warned against building new bases in the Baltic countries. Such a move would make host countries “hostages of geopolitics conducted by people thousands of kilometers away,” Alexander Veshnyakov, Russia’s ambassador to Latvia, told Latvia’s Radio 4 in an Aug. 22 interview.
Russia plans to revise its military doctrine to counter new threats, the state-run RIA Novosti news service said yesterday, citing Security Council Deputy Secretary Mikhail Popov.
For the Baltics, events in Ukraine -- which accuses its neighbor of a “full-scale invasion” -- have already challenged the security balance and warrant a greater role for the alliance.
“Our concerns until recently were criticized as oversensitive, however, we were right about the potential threats stemming from our neighborhood,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a July interview. “We need NATO visibility and presence, the form is less important.”