The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office (Genprocuratura) announced it was investigating the legality of the independence of the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—which were recognized by the State Council of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in September 1991. In late June, the Genprocuratura announced as illegal the transfer, in 1954, of Crimea and Sevastopol within the Soviet Union from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Interfax, June 27). An unnamed Genprocuratura source told Interfax news agency: “The transfer of Crimea to Ukraine violated the Soviet constitution and was illegal. Most likely the Baltic States’ independence will be found to be equally illegal.” According to the source, “the transfer of Crimea and Sevastopol was unconstitutional in 1954, but it is irrelevant, since they have returned to Russia.” The source added: “While investigating the legalities of past events, we must be cautious—the legitimacy of many other states, including the USSR, could be called into question” (Interfax, June 30).
The investigation into the Baltic States’ independence was reportedly initiated by Duma deputies from the ruling United Russia (UR) party, Anton Romanov and Eugenie Fedorov. The flamboyant nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Duma fraction of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), supported the move and declared that a referendum must be organized in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to make them part of Russia, since their independence is illegal. “Russia abandoned its people in the Baltic States,” announced Zhirinovsky, “They were Soviet citizens, they did not want to live in independent Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania” (MK, July 1). Two out of the three Baltic countries have large Russian-speaking minorities, and these three post-Soviet states’ fear of a Russian intervention has been amplified by the annexation of Crimea and the Moscow-instigated rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Baltic political leaders have denounced the Genprocuratura investigation as “absurd” (Interfax, June 30).
The Kremlin distanced itself from the Genprocuratura investigation: President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary told journalists he cannot comment, since he does not know anything. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also claimed ignorance and insisted that, since Moscow has diplomatic relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it subsequently recognizes their independence. According to first deputy leader of the UR Duma fraction Frantz Klintsevitch: “It is a lost cause—the Baltic States will hardly return to Russia. Let them live their European lifestyle with gay rights and legalized prostitution.” A deputy leader of the Duma’s Just Russia fraction, Mikhail Yemelyanov, told journalists: “The Americans are most likely spreading the rumors about a Genprocuratura investigation to scare the Baltic States and cause mayhem. The Russian authorities do not want to exacerbate the Baltic question” (Kommersant, July 2).
The Genprocuratura, too, backpedaled. Its spokeswoman, Marina Gridneva, explained that the letter by Romanov and Fedorov called to investigate the creation, in 1991, of the USSR State Council and its subsequent decisions, which “caused loss of territory and hindered gravely the sovereignty and national security of our nation [sic].” According to Gridneva, “the Genprocuratura must investigate all complaints it receives, even if they are utterly senseless.” Gridneva told reporters the investigation of the Baltic States’ independence “does not have any positive legal perspective” (RIA Novosti, July 1).
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are internationally recognized sovereign states and members of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as the European Union. It seems counterproductive to officially challenge their independence and publicly connect such an investigation with the annexation of Crimea and the continued conflict in eastern Ukraine—especially at a time when NATO and the United States are already scrambling to reinforce the Alliance’s “eastern flank” to defend the Baltic States, Poland and Romania against possible aggressive Russian activities. The untimely Genprocuratura investigations of the legality of long-past Soviet history could be a manifestation of the organizational chaos in the Putin power machine, which has led to Russia’s present economic doldrums and political isolation (Rosbalt, July 1).
The official reaction to the news of the investigation has been hesitant. The Genprocuratura does not investigate “senseless,” politically explosive complaints without a nod from the Kremlin and does not boast about it to the press. Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky’s lurid acclamations are always carefully calculated to be in tune with the Kremlin’s unspoken wishes. Just recently, Russian National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev told Interfax: “NATO is advancing and has incorporated some former Soviet republics [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania]. We are forced to react to the emanating treat” (Interfax, June 25).
In recent weeks, Putin seems to have been actively seeking ways to defuse the mounting confrontation with the West over Ukraine and break Russia out of its isolation. Putin took the initiative to phone President Barack Obama: They spoke for the first time since last February about Ukraine and agreed to have consultations between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin. According to the Kremlin, the two leaders also discussed terrorism, the Islamic State, Syria and the Iranian nuclear problem—all issues where the US needs Russia’s help and where their overall interests seem to somewhat coincide. It was agreed that Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet once again to discuss these issues (Kremlin.ru, June 26).
Putin also phoned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to discuss Ukraine and “other issues.” Abe invited Putin to visit Japan, and multilevel bilateral meetings were agreed “to prepare this important visit” (Kremlin.ru, June 24). Previously, Putin told Japanese journalists he wants to meet Abe “to discuss the Kuril Island issue” and is reported to have declared: “The Kuril issue could be solved” (Kyodo, June 20). Last week, Putin entertained former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the Mountain Altay region of Siberia. Berlusconi was apparently given a message to take to the West that could resolve the crisis in relations (Interfax, July 29).
Putin could be seeking some sort of quid pro quo on Crimea and Ukraine or poking for a crack in the G7’s united front by offering the US help on Iran and the Islamic State; Japan hope on the South Kurils; and the Europeans, say, to abandon all possible future claims on the Baltic States in exchange for acceptance of Russia’s special rights in Ukraine and tacit recognition of the status quo in Crimea. But to use the Baltic States as a possible bargaining chip, they must be first legally claimed by the Genprocuratura. Desperate times call for desperate gambles.