Fear of Putin and a Baltic War Intensifies With Trump’s Victory

Desperation, anger, and distrust permeate both sides of the Russian frontier.

There isn’t panic, but there is fear.

War has been a buzzword for some time on both sides of the frontier between Russia and the Baltic states. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and as relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated—over the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, the catastrophe in Syria, and charges the Kremlin tried to influence the U.S. election—these three small countries found themselves caught in the middle. 

But now there’s a different reason for worry. Campaign proclamations by Donald Trump that NATO states must pay more for defense, his ambivalence about Crimea, and allusions to how America may not defend members against Russian military action had already unnerved many before Nov. 8. Now that this self-professed fan of Vladimir Putin is headed for the White House, the wonder on both sides of the border is what happens next.

Over the past month, Russian TV channels widely watched in the Baltics filled airtime with apocalyptic rhetoric about world war. Russia recently made a show of moving short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its militarized Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad, wedged between Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic Sea. And a recent military exercise near the Latvian border involved Russian servicemen using loudspeakers to call on NATO soldiers to surrender. The Baltics, with a combined population of 6.1 million (Russia has 142.4 million), have responded by raising defense expenditures and training their military—and general population—in guerrilla warfare. During the last days of October, Latvia staged a major military exercise involving 3,000 troops from the U.S. and other NATO countries, as well as a nationwide civil defense drill.

On the streets of Latvian cities and in the western Russian countryside there is indignation, anger, and concern. There are people in the Baltics who say America is at fault, and Russians who say they don’t believe Moscow’s line about oppressed ethnic Russians. But while they still see the potential for conflict in their own backyards as remote, the common refrain is wariness—and a sense that the new cold war has thrown the whole region into an accelerating, downward economic spiral.

This week, the Russian defense ministry announced a rapid deployment force was being scrambled near the city of Pskov, bordering the Baltic states. Soldiers and equipment were flown in to storm a building occupied by mock terrorists. It was a drill, but the sort of sudden mobilization that’s become common in this region. Aleksandrs Bartaševičs, the mayor of the east Latvian town of Rezekne, finds such actions alarming, but places blame on a surprising party: his own country. “The Latvian government is undertaking too many actions suggestive of imminent war, like military exercises on a scale unseen in the last 25 years and civil defense drills that feel like preparation for an invasion or a nuclear strike,” he says.

Aleksandrs Bartaševičs, the mayor of Rezekne.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Rezekne is the capital of Latvia’s historic region of Latgale, a land of scenic lakes and forests. Roughly 30 miles from the Russian border, it has a mixed and largely bilingual population. Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its stealth war in Ukraine, Latgale featured in various scenarios played out in think-tank forecasts, military drills, and even a controversial BBC mockumentary, The War Room, as a potential target for a similar “hybrid war”—an intervention disguised as a local pro-Russian insurgency.

Despite his criticism of Latvia’s government, Bartaševičs says the Ukraine analogy doesn’t work. Locals have no appetite for separatism or autonomy in the way Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine do. A member of the Harmony Centre party associated with Latvia’s Russian-speaking community, he disagrees with the central government’s endorsement of EU sanctions adopted in retaliation for Russia’s takeover of Crimea. He says the sanctions, or rather the Russian counter-sanctions banning agricultural imports from the EU, are badly hurting the regional economy.

Such views are typical of the region. Andrejs Elksninš, a national parliament deputy from Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city, has a long list of grievances tied to sanctions. He says local meat and dairy producers have lost their markets in Russia. Trains that pass through Daugavpils and Rezekne, once major hubs, are vanishing as Russia diverts cargo from Latvian ports to its own. Mairis Trupavnieks, manager of Rezekne’s Meat Factory, says the company is losing €1 million ($1.07 million) a month because of the Russian import ban.

Rezekne Meat Factory
Russia accounted for a quarter of all Rezekne Meat Factory exports—€1 million ($1.06 million) a month—before sanctions that now prevent the company from doing business there.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Heavily dependent on Russian orders, the Daugavpils railway carriage repair plant has fired almost half its workers since 2015. On Oct. 25, the company pleaded with the government to help secure a Swedbank AB loan crucial for keeping it operational. The bank had refused, citing the lack of orders. Management blames poor relations between Russia and the EU for its predicament.

On top of direct export bans, the devaluation of the Russian ruble in 2014 made it harder for Latvian businesses to compete with Russian producers. It also affected many local pensioners (at least 10,000 are in Daugavpils) who have dual citizenship and thus receive a second, Russian pension. Basic pensions used to be equal in both countries, around €250 per month, but after the Russian ruble lost half its value two years ago, Russian pensions collapsed as well.

“We haven’t even recovered from the 2009 crisis, and now comes this new wave,” says Elksninš. “It is the lack of investment, and population flight, that makes a war more possible,” he says. The city lost about a third of its residents since Latvia gained independence in 1991, with most becoming migrant workers in the U.K. and elsewhere in the EU.

Open support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine are easy to come by in Daugavpils, where Russian-speakers make up almost 80 percent of the population. In March 2014, city council deputy Yury Zaytsev went to Crimea to observe the referendum that followed the Russian invasion.

Yury Zaytsev
Yury Zaytsev, a city council member in Daugavpils, Latvia.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

“It was clear that a vast majority of the population was in favor of joining Russia,” he says. Like other Kremlin supporters, he believes America bears responsibility for Ukraine. And since the U.S. was the power behind the Euromaidan revolution, he contends, everything that followed was its fault. Asked if the Ukrainian scenario could be played out in Latvia, Zaytsev was indirect, responding that the U.S. could foment a military conflict in any corner of the world: “If they need another source of instability, they can certainly create one here.”

Despite this level of suspicion among Latvia’s Russian-speaking population, some have sought to embrace the odd contours of this tense state of affairs. Future American military commanders now study Russian here, just a few hours from the border. Daugavpils has long touted itself as the “EU’s most Russian-speaking city” and therefore an ideal place for U.S. military school cadets to study the language while staying with local families. According to Sergey Simonov, whose company Learnrussianineu.com runs the program in partnership with Daugavpils State University, about 250 students from schools including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have attended over the past three years. “They have an excellent time here, because locals are friendly, hospitable, and curious—even though they are influenced by Russian TV,” Simonov says.

Andrejs Faibuševičs, a local pub owner who caters to the students, doubled down in a fashion likely to agitate local Russophiles. “Don’t call them foreign troops,“ he says of the Americans. “They are our troops.”

Latvia is connected with Russia by two roads and a railway. Before the sanctions, lines of trucks often stretched for miles on both sides of the Terehova-Burachki checkpoint, along the Riga-Moscow road. These days, the queues have all but disappeared, erased by Russian bans on EU goods and the loss of rerouted cargo traffic. In 2015, Russia’s customs service reported a 44 percent reduction in commodity trade with Latvia. 

Nina Ivanova, 72, one of only two permanent residents left in a small village near Vikhno in the Pskov Region, Russia.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

The landscape hardly changes as you enter Russia, but the roadside looks unkempt, the buildings more run-down, and the hamlets almost lifeless. With agriculture in disarray since the Soviet Union’s collapse, traditional villagers are gradually being replaced by urbanites using local houses as vacation homes. Nina Ivanova, 72, is one of only two permanent residents left in a small village near Vikhno, 50 miles east of the Latvian border. Her 100-year-old wooden cottage is built around a massive firewood oven used for heat and cooking. Water comes from a well, and an unheated compost toilet stands outside. She says there were a thousand cows on a collective farm where she worked for 40 years as a milkmaid. Now only a few dozen are left and the cowsheds lie in ruin. Her children still work there, but they suffer from severe alcoholism: “They work for a bit, then drink for days on end.” She helps them using her meager pension of 9,400 rubles per month (€133) and subsists largely on vegetables she grows in the garden.

This is Russia’s Pskov region, where many residents can speak of their ties to the Baltics. People here have complex, often conflicting opinions about the nations on their western border, America, U.S. President Barack Obama, and now Trump. One local resident, Yuriy Yakovlev, 60, is emblematic of this nuanced worldview.

A former construction worker, Yakovlev moved to Russia from Estonia in 1993, two years after the Baltic states broke free. His wife died shortly after they settled in Vikhno, and a decade later he lost a leg to mistreated thrombosis. Disheveled and dressed in old, soiled clothes, he moves around the house on crutches, rarely going out. He lives on a monthly pension of 11,000 rubles ($170), part of which he sends to his daughter, who recently lost her job in Pskov. A mobile shop stops by once in a while, selling basic necessities. He claims that he eats well and has enough money, but by the look of him, it’s hard to believe.

“Russia Starts Here,“ Pskov.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Yakovlev speaks good Estonian and is keen to display his proficiency. Despite spending most of the day watching government-friendly TV, he doesn’t agree with Moscow’s claim that ethnic Russians are being persecuted in the Baltics. “Of course they have haters over there, as if we don’t have our own fascists,” he says.

But he also believes Estonia is entirely on the American payroll, and good living standards there have nothing to do with its own economy. “My friend’s daughter gets €750 on maternity leave, his wife works for €1,000 as a cleaning lady—we can’t dream of such money here,” he says. And despite his cynicism toward state media, he venerates Putin as “the cleverest man who has seen off Obama in Syria” and calls America “an enemy to the whole world.”

“We can’t reconcile with them,” he says. “Only keep them at bay.”

As confusing as Yakovlev’s mix of sentiments may sound, Yuriy Ryzhov, one of those urbanites who escaped to the country, echoed the familiar refrain that Russians dislike the U.S. government but like Americans. He should know, being a U.S. citizen known to locals as, what else, “the American.” A native of St. Petersburg, he returned to Russia after a 10-year stint in the IT business in New Jersey.

“They are very kind and decent folks, but they have no inner strength to sift through the news, and they need someone to trust, so they end up trusting personalities presented as demigods,” Ryzhov says, referring to Putin. As for Trump, he says the Kremlin may not portray him as a friend for very long.

“They’ve lost the enemy, so I wonder how they will maintain the besieged fortress mentality in their constituency,” Ryzhov says.

As you move from the countryside into the city of Pskov, the economic picture brightens, though only slightly. Pskov is one of Russia’s oldest urban centers, once a republic ruled by popular assembly in medieval times. Its living standards are comparable to eastern Latvia’s, but local businesses have been hit hard by a hobbled Russian economy. The owner of a small construction business, Andrey Zaytsev, says orders are down 15 percent and his competitors are failing. Zaytsev, 29, was born in Riga, but his parents moved to Russia after the USSR imploded because they were scared of being outside Moscow’s umbrella. They regretted it soon after, he says. “On the 10th anniversary of our move, my dad says: ‘I feel like I’ve gone through labor camps.’”

paratrooper memorial
Memorial to 84 Pskov paratroopers who died fighting in Chechnya in 2000.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Pskov is also the base for Russia’s 76th airborne division, one of its most combat-ready military units and a key player in many recent Russian conflicts. Zaytsev’s friend, Yury Alekseyev, 58, is a politically active military pensioner. He calls himself a history buff and a Russian nationalist who is nevertheless vehemently anti-Putin. He blames the Russian president for plunging the country into the Ukrainian and Syrian wars, as well as the economic crisis.

The prospect of a confrontation between Russia and the West worries Alekseyev, who criticized the deployment of thousands of NATO troops he says “showed off at the border with their hardware and weapons.” A veteran of Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya, where he received a shrapnel wound, Alekseyev says he once caught himself “thinking about escape routes from the city that bypass bridges, which will be blocked or blown up first.”

Of the newly elected Trump, he professes to envy “Americans because they can decide the fate of their country in honest and democratic elections, but I would have certainly preferred a more predictable president like Clinton, because Trump’s decisions will depend on how he feels when he wakes up in the morning.”

He warned Russian officials not to be so certain Trump will be a friend: “They think their candidate won, but things can turn against them.”

When the war in Ukraine began in 2014, many Russian news outlets reported the emergence of fresh graves of young paratroopers at cemeteries around Pskov, including some dated at the peak of the battle of Ilovaysk, the deadliest in the Ukraine war. Journalists who attempted to investigate were chased out by thugs, but the local newspaper, Pskovskaya Guberniya, eventually managed to interview 76th division servicemen who fought in Ukraine disguised as local rebels. Following the publication, the paper’s publisher, Lev Schlossberg, was hospitalized after being attacked by unknown assailants.

Grave in Pskov of a paratrooper presumed to have died fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Photographer: Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Now fully recovered, he serves as an opposition deputy in the regional parliament. He says the subject of war has been grossly exaggerated by state-sponsored media. “What we have here is psychosis deliberately created by the authorities to mobilize the underclass and make it forget about poverty and violation of human rights,” he says. As of last year, 20 percent of the population in and around Pskov lived in poverty, he says. People he meets tell him: “‘War? So what—it won’t make our lives any worse.’”

Another local, Aleksandr Rogov, is an ardent admirer of Putin who heads the Communist faction in the regional council. He dismisses such talk, as well as Latvian fears about the perceived Russian threat, as “complete nonsense.”

“I am sorry about those Latvians and their rulers who believe in it,” Rogov says. But, he warns, if Russian interests are threatened in Baltic states or anywhere in the world, the country will not turn the other cheek: “If they turn to threats, our tanks will be there within an hour.”