In January 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the formation of three new divisions in the Western Military District of Russia. Two of them will be located near the border with Ukraine and one—near the Belarusian border (Vedomosti, January 12).
At first glance, this military orientation contradicts official Russian policy statements that declare Russia’s main enemy to be the Islamic State, which operates mainly in Syria and Iraq (Interfax, April 22, 2015). Moreover, the Russian government has never publicly admitted to preparing for a war against Ukraine; rather, its officials continuously insist on the need to implement the Minsk ceasefire agreements (see EDM, November 10, 2015).
However, Russian media have increasingly been harping on the alleged threat from the West, particularly from the Baltic countries. Indeed, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, Ivan Konovalov, directly compares the strengthening of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in the Baltic region to the concentration of Nazi German troops in Eastern Europe, in 1941 (Svobodnaya Pressa, January 15). In similarly inverted logic, President Vladimir Putin has himself claimed that the war in Ukraine was the result of Western sanctions against Russia (Interfax, July 3, 2015).
The small Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—fearful of Russia’s imperial revanchist policies, particularly following the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas, have asked NATO to strengthen its defensive presence in Central-Eastern Europe. Such fear has regularly been fueled by threatening statements made by Russian experts close to the Kremlin. For example, Mikhail Alexandrov, a military expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), says: “If NATO supports Turkey” after the incident with the downed Russian bomber, then “the most logical answer from the Russian side [will be] the invasion of the Baltic States. And all of them will be ours—without any losses [and] fast enough.” Notably, his published interview was entitled “Time to Correct Gorbachev’s Mistake” (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 23, 2015).
An invasion of Russian troops in the Baltic countries, of course, would mean a direct military confrontation with the North Atlantic Alliance. Does Russia really want this? Or is it just bluffing and trying to use psychological intimidation against the West?
Arguably, the Kremlin has now become hostage to its own propaganda, which is based strongly on a nostalgia for the former Soviet Union. Just like in Soviet times, Russia’s current military doctrine identifies NATO and the United States as enemies (Russia Today, December 26, 2014). And this is the fundamental difference between Putin’s Russia and the more democratic Russia of 1991. Then, the Russia Federation sought to integrate itself into the modern world and recognized the independence of the Baltic countries. In general, all the former Soviet republics began to build entirely new states—except Russia. Instead, Russia proclaimed itself the “legal successor” to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and this succession gradually became not only legal, but also mental. Today’s Russia sees itself as a direct continuation of the Soviet Union. Illustratively, in 2005, Putin called the Soviet collapse “a major geopolitical disaster of the century” (Kremlin.ru, April 25, 2005). Current Kremlin policy appears designed to correct this “disaster.”
Putin’s Russia evidently considers all of the post-Soviet space as falling under Moscow’s influence. To institutionalize this arrangement, Moscow spearheaded the formation of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2010–2012, whose members now include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was a reaction to the fact that Ukraine, after the victory of the Maidan Revolution in 2014, chose another integration path—not with the EEU, but with the European Union.
In its war against Ukraine, Russia has used a number of “hybrid” technologies in addition to conventional tactics. So a possible future aggression against the Baltic State would not necessarily have the character of a direct military invasion (see “Baltic Defense & Security After Ukraine: New Challenges, New Threats,” The Jamestown Foundation, April 30, 2015). For example, the Estonian region of Ida-Viru (which includes the majority-ethnic-Russian border city of Narva) and Latvian Latgale are similarly dominated by Russian-speaking populations, which receive most of their news from Russian TV channels that express an imperial viewpoint. As in eastern Ukraine, such media sources try to implant their audiences with a “Russian world” (“Russkiy mir”) ideology, designed to destabilize the Baltic countries. Preventing this negative scenario will require more effective information policies and a fuller integration of these regions’ populations into the broader society.
A further element complicating the regional security situation is the presence of the Russian Federation’s coastal Kaliningrad exclave. In the 1990s, this Baltic littoral oblast, nestled between Poland and Lithuania, was perhaps Russia’s most pro-European territory. At the time, Kaliningrad’s Baltic Republican Party advocated turning the exclave into an autonomous “Baltic republic.” However, in the Putin years, Kaliningrad was overcome by a mental transformation, akin to the one experienced by Chechnya. Throughout the 1990s, Chechnya tried to secede from Russia and become an independent state; but today, under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, it positions itself as a bastion of Russian patriotism. Today’s Kaliningrad region has also given up any further rumblings on the subject of autonomy—and the Baltic Republican Party has long been prohibited. Rather, Kaliningrad has turned into a military and propaganda bastion of Russia in the middle of NATO and the EU. Notably, the exclave reportedly hosts Iskander theater ballistic missiles (Il Giornale, January 18) as well as active informational web portals like Rubaltic.ru, which lead aggressive propaganda campaigns against the Baltic States.
“Opposition to the West” in the Russian propaganda over the past two years has essentially become an end in itself. The present-day situation is reminiscent of the levels of Soviet informational campaigns prior to the launch of Perestroika in the late 1980s. However, Communist and anti-Western propaganda quickly lost its influence as the economic crisis overtook the USSR in its final years. Today, the Russian authorities, by pumping out anti-Western propaganda, try to distract its people from the economic crisis, which they have created (see Hot Issue, August 13, 2014; Ecfr.eu, March 13, 2015). When discussing the effectiveness of propaganda versus economic realities, Russians sometimes repeat the idiomatic phrase “a war between the TV-set and the refrigerator.” But when television propaganda vaunting “great Russia” comes into sharp contrast with falling living standards, the refrigerator inevitably triumphs over the TV-set in people’s minds. Current Russian authorities, however, apparently believe in their own propaganda, and do not want to see reality as it is.