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Jun 10, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

Russian Influence Fades in the Baltics

Russian Influence Fades in the Baltics
(ILMARS ZNOTINS/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Russia will find it difficult to extend economic and political influence in the Baltic states amid its ongoing standoff with the West.
  • The Baltic states will continue to diversify their energy sources and forge economic and transport links with the broader Nordic-Baltic region. They will also push for other former Soviet states to further integrate with the West.
  • An increasing NATO and U.S. presence in the Baltic states will deter Russian military action, but it will not neutralize other security risks.

Competition between Russia and the West over the Baltic region is not new. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania occupy a strategic location in the flat borderlands of northeastern Europe, making them attractive to powers with regional ambitions. Attempts to control them began in the Middle Ages, with a period of Scandinavian domination in which Sweden and Denmark took prominent roles. By the end of the 18th century, the Baltic states were swept into the growing Russian Empire. Their subordination was briefly broken by a short period of independence in the early 20th century, before Nazi Germany invaded during World War II. Not long after, the region was annexed into the Soviet Union. After regaining independence in 1990 just prior to the Soviet Union's collapse, the three nations entered a new phase: integrating with the West. It culminated with each of the Baltic states joining the European Union and NATO in 2004.

But Baltic accession to the two Western bodies did not end Russian influence in the region. All three nations still have substantial ethnic Russian minorities: 24 percent in Estonia, 27 percent in Latvia and 6 percent in Lithuania. These populations, in turn, exercise political power through parties such as Estonia's Center Party and Latvia's Harmony Center. Russia also remained a key energy provider for the Baltic states, holding a near-monopoly over their oil and natural gas imports. This became problematic when Russia resumed its role as a regional powerhouse with the rapid defeat of Georgia in August 2008 and use of natural gas cutoffs to punish Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. The small and vulnerable Baltic states became increasingly nervous that Moscow would set its sights on them next.

As a result, these states did their utmost to increase their economic integration with the European Union. Estonia joined the eurozone in 2011. Latvia and Lithuania followed suit in 2014 and 2015. The three nations also actively pursued energy diversification projects. Lithuania began construction on a floating liquefied natural gas terminal in 2012 that went online in 2014, initiating the first non-Russian natural gas imports to the region. The construction of natural gas pipeline interconnectors among the Baltic states also gave them more energy options, as did other energy and electricity infrastructure connections with Poland and Nordic countries, such as the LitPol electricity link and NordBalt subsea electricity cable. These projects have given the Baltic states greater negotiating power with Russian energy firm Gazprom as well. As a result, Lithuania has received a 23 percent discount on its Russian natural gas imports for the past two years.

In spite of the latitude the Baltic states managed to gain, the 2014 Ukraine crisis reminded them of their vulnerabilities to Russia. Concern grew that pro-Russia separatist groups, like those supported by Moscow in Ukraine's Donbas region, could rise up in parts of Estonia or Latvia. Indeed, ethnic Russians did mount protests in support of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine. But the rallies did not attract many people — the largest drew only a few hundred supporters — and the feared pro-Russia uprisings never materialized. On the contrary, even mainstream Russia-oriented parties stagnated. Latvia's Harmony Center lost seven seats in 2014 parliamentary elections while Estonia's Center Party gained only one seat in 2015 parliamentary elections; both were kept out of their countries' ruling coalitions.

The Baltic states are now seeking to build on their success at keeping Russian influence at bay. They have been leading proponents in shoring up the European Union and NATO to respond aggressively to Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict. They have also assertively advocated passing and extending EU sanctions on Russia and strengthening Western cooperation with other former Soviet states in the European borderlands. Their support for the EU Eastern Partnership program saw Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia sign EU association agreements in 2014 and EU sanctions eased on Belarus in 2015. Moreover, the Baltic states have made an effort to boost security cooperation between Lithuania and Ukraine via the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade.

But the conventional military threat posed by Russia is still a significant concern for the Baltic states. The Ukraine crisis has intensified military buildups by Russia and the West that have had a direct impact on the Baltic states. Russia has fortified its forces and weaponry in the Western Military District, which abuts the Baltic states. Russia has also increased overflights near the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea. NATO, too, has ramped up its security commitment in the area, with air policing missions and military exercises growing in size and frequency.

The West's military commitment to the Baltics will intensify in the coming months. NATO's July Warsaw summit is expected to produce an official agreement for the bloc to station four battalions in Poland and the Baltic states on a semi-permanent, rotational basis. This is not quite the permanent basing that the Baltic states have requested, but it shows NATO's commitment to staving off potential Russian military action. The deal will not completely mitigate the Russian risk, which also involves unconventional and hybrid tactics such as cyberattacks and economic restrictions. But in terms of influence in areas such as energy and political manipulation, Moscow's reach in the Baltics can be expected to continue its gradual decline.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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