The Next Stage of Russia’s Resurgence: The Baltic States

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The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are vulnerable because of their size but crucial to Russia because of their location on the North European Plain. All three Baltic countries are committed members of NATO and the European Union and therefore will be the most challenging states for Russia to pull back into its orbit. Estonia and Latvia both have sizable ethnic Russian populations living within their borders that give Moscow a foothold, particularly in Latvia and to a lesser extent in Estonia. Lithuania, meanwhile, will pose more of a challenge to Moscow than its fellow Baltic states, Eugene Chausovsky wrote in on 9 February.


Estonia’s location makes it integral to Russia’s security. It sits on the North European Plain, a traditional invasion route from the west and north, and is near St. Petersburg, part of Russia’s core. Estonia is also on the Gulf of Finland and can obstruct access to the Baltic Sea.

Russia’s Levers

  • Political: Russia has ties to the opposition Center party (the main party ethnic Russians in Estonia support) and its leader, Edgar Savisaar. Moscow has only limited connections to other elites in the realms of politics, business and security.
  • Social: Estonia has a sizable ethnic Russian minority (about 25 percent of the population). Roughly 10-15 percent of the country’s population is Russian Orthodox.
  • Security: Estonia is a committed member of NATO and has remained outside Russia’s alliance system. However, Russia flanks Estonia militarily, with 23,000 troops in Kaliningrad and 8,000 stationed outside St. Petersburg, with thousands more that train and rotate through there. There are numerous Russian nationalist movements within Estonia, and the country has been subject to cyberattacks traced back to Russia.
  • Economic: Russia controls more than one-third of Estonia’s energy firm Eesti Gas. Estonia imports all of its natural gas from Russia, but this makes up only about 10 percent of Estonia’s energy consumption because of its domestic production of oil shale and renewable energy.

Russia’s Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Militarily, Russia demonstrated its strength in the wider Baltic region between 2010 and 2012 with the purchase of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers from France and the buildup of its military presence in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and outside of St. Petersburg.

Estonia joined the eurozone in 2011, furthering its economic integration with the European Union. Moreover, Russia lost political ground in Estonia when the Center party lost seats in parliamentary elections in 2011, though it is still the largest party outside of the ruling coalition and the second-largest party overall.

Russia’s overall strategy is to keep NATO divided and to prevent it from becoming more active in and committed to Estonia. To this end, Moscow hopes to neutralize the country or weaken its external support. Part of this strategy is to prevent cross-Baltic economic and energy projects (particularly the construction of liquefied natural gas facilities) and rail projects (specifically the EU-oriented Rail Baltica line).

Estonia’s Position and Strategy

Estonia is a tiny country of 1.3 million people that sits in a geographically vulnerable area. Its size and location has made it necessary for Estonia to have an external power patron if it is to maintain its sovereignty and independence. Estonia has turned to the West, specifically the European Union and NATO, which are more favorable alliances for Estonia than bilateral relationships with stronger states or Russia-dominated groups. NATO is particularly important in preserving Estonian security as Russia continues its resurgence. Estonia reformed its economy in order to gain eurozone membership and has tried leveraging its technology sector in order to boost NATO’s commitment to the country’s security, particularly via the cybersecurity center based in Tallinn.

However, Estonia knows it cannot be too hostile toward Russia because of the countries’ geographic proximity and because any Estonian state must account for the large Russian minority in the country. Estonia has a more nuanced policy toward Moscow than Lithuania (which is more aggressive) and Latvia (which is more cooperative). Estonia’s eurozone membership limits Russia’s strategic economic penetration (outside of energy supplies, which themselves are limited because of Estonia’s domestic energy production). Estonia is more economically and financially integrated with Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland than are its Baltic neighbors. At the same time, Estonia is less inclined to directly challenge Russia’s energy policy and seeks to minimize the polarization of the ethnic Russian community in the country.

Estonia’s non-aggressive stance toward Russia and the difficulties Moscow faces in penetrating the country economically or politically mean that Russia’s resurgence likely will not affect Moscow’s relationship with Tallinn significantly in the near to mid-term. Russia will, however, continue to try to undermine Baltic unity and isolate the three Baltic states from each other and from NATO.


Like Estonia, Latvia is located on the North European Plain and thus is important to Russia’s sense of security. Furthermore, Riga is one of the most important ports in the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s Levers

  • Political: Russia is partnered with and supports the opposition Harmony Center party, the main party of the country’s ethnic Russian population, and its leader, Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs. Moscow also has ties to some of Latvia’s business elites, especially in Riga.
  • Social: Approximately 27 percent of Latvia’s population is ethnic Russian, and approximately 15 percent of its population is Russian Orthodox.
  • Security: Like Estonia, Latvia is a committed member of NATO and has stayed outside of Russia’s system of alliances. It is surrounded by Russia militarily, with Russian troops stationed in Kaliningrad (the base of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet) and outside St. Petersburg.
  • Economic: Russia controls one third of Latvia’s energy firm Latvijas Gaze and supplies 100 percent of the country’s natural gas and most of its oil.

Russia’s Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia made political gains in Latvia in 2011 when the Harmony Center party gained the most seats in parliamentary elections, though the party was excluded from the ruling coalition. Russia has made business deals with Latvia, and the countries are in talks about the Moscow-Riga rail project, which Latvia has indicated greater interest in than the EU-oriented Rail Baltica project.

Russia demonstrated its military strength in the Baltics with its military buildup in Kaliningrad and neighboring Belarus, but Latvia is still oriented toward NATO and the European Union and is interested in regional groupings like the Nordic-Baltic group, a forum for cooperation by Nordic and Baltic countries.

Russia hopes to strengthen Harmony Center by creating instability within Latvia (protests, language referendums and the like) for as long as the party remains outside the ruling coalition. In line with its strategy to keep NATO divided and prevent further commitments to the Baltic states, Russia wants to neutralize Latvia or weaken its support base. Moscow wants to undermine Baltic unity by striking more business and economic deals with Latvia and creating a perception of partnership. Russia also wants to limit Latvia’s participation in the European Union’s Third Energy Package.

Latvia’s Position and Strategy

Like Estonia, Latvia is a small country whose population includes a large ethnic Russian minority. This Russian population contributes to a political polarization between Latvian parties and ethnic Russian parties that any Latvian government must overcome in order to rule with a strong mandate. The strongest political lever Russia has in any of the Baltic states is the Harmony Center in Latvia, but the Latvian government has tried to limit Russia’s political influence at all costs — including leaving the largest party in parliament out of the ruling coalition. In 2011, this created a weak government.

Latvia also needs an external power patron to maintain its sovereignty and independence. Like the other Baltic states, Riga has chosen the European Union and NATO to fill this role. But since Latvia is more dependent on Russian energy than Estonia and has less room to maneuver than Lithuania, it has been more cooperative with Russia on economic matters, regardless of the specific composition of its government. Latvia has been in discussions with Russia on the Riga-Moscow railway (which has complicated talks about the EU-oriented Rail Baltic project and thus could threaten Baltic unity) and has been less active in enforcing anti-Russian policies such as the Third Energy Package. Still, Latvia is strategically aligned with the West and has supplemented this relationship via its strong bilateral ties to Sweden and Finland and regional groupings like the Nordic-Baltic group.

Given the current government’s weak status and the gains that Russia has made politically and socially in the country, 2012 will be a volatile year in Latvia. Russia will be able to limit Baltic and other regional projects meant to lure Latvia away from Russia, but it will not be able to change the country’s Western orientation in a more strategic sense.


Like the other Baltics, Lithuania is located on the North European Plain. It has served as a traditional invasion route from the west and (along with Poland) has challenged Russia’s control of Eastern Europe, particularly Belarus and Ukraine. Lithuania also borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Russia’s Levers

  • Political: Russia has only limited ties to Lithuania’s business elites and marginal political parties that lack representation in parliament.
  • Social: Less than 10 percent of Lithuania’s population is ethnic Russian, and roughly 4 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox.
  • Security: Like the other Baltic states, Lithuania is a committed member of NATO and outside Russia’s alliance system. Lithuania is flanked by Russian troops in Kaliningrad and outside of St. Petersburg, and has an alliance with Belarus.
  • Economic: Russia controls 37 percent of Lithuania’s energy firm Lietuvos Dujos and supplies 100 percent of the country’s natural gas and most of its oil.

Russia’s Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Lithuania has been one of Russia’s most aggressive challengers, enacting the Third Energy Package relatively quickly and taking Gazprom to court. Lithuania is also pursuing the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal and a nuclear power station, though Russia has worked to undermine these plans by pursuing the construction of nuclear power plants in Kaliningrad and Belarus. Russia’s talks with Latvia about the Moscow-Riga rail project are part of its plan to undermine Baltic unity over the EU-oriented Rail Baltica project.

Russia displayed its military strength in the Baltic region with a weapons buildup in Kaliningrad and showed its might in the field of energy with two projects in Kaliningrad and Belarus, both near Lithuania’s borders. However, Lithuania is still oriented toward NATO and the European Union and is interested in regional groupings like the Nordic-Baltic group. Lithuania is also seeking more interest from NATO via its energy security center and from the United States by supporting its ballistic missile defense plans.

As in the other Baltic states, Russia wants to prevent cross-Baltic economic, energy and rail projects. It wants to neutralize Lithuania or weaken the support it gets from external players, particularly Germany. This strategy with Lithuania is part of Moscow’s overall strategy to keep NATO divided and prevent further commitments to Baltic security.

Lithuania’s Position and Strategy

Lithuania is unique among the Baltic states in that it has its own tradition of being a legitimate power whose interests historically have overlapped with Russia’s in areas like Belarus and Ukraine. Lithuania is also unique in that it is more oriented (geopolitically and economically) toward Eastern and Central Europe than it is towards the Baltic region and Scandinavia. Additionally, Lithuania’s relatively small population of ethnic Russians does not give Moscow the same foothold it has in Estonia and Latvia. All of this adds up to a government in Lithuania that is more willing to stand up to Russia in key areas such as energy (the Third Energy Package) and political ties to Eastern Europe (hosting and supporting Belarusian opposition figures).

Because Lithuania is a small country, it knows it cannot challenge Moscow alone, so it has sought regional partners. This can be seen in its efforts to secure NATO involvement in its energy diversification projects and support of regional security initiatives such as the Nordic-Baltic grouping and the U.S. ballistic missile defense system in Central Europe. It has partnered with Poland to counter Russian influence in Belarus and Ukraine, though traditional cultural and historical tensions with Poland have complicated this effort. Lithuania’s overall strategy regarding Russia has been confrontational, resisting any overtures from Moscow in the economic or political spheres and attempting to reverse Russia’s gains in the wider region.

Russia will find it difficult to make direct inroads into Lithuania because its levers there are relatively weak. Instead, Russia will work to undermine the regional and institutional support that Lithuania is trying to secure from the likes of NATO and regional countries like Poland and the other Baltic states. This will create increasing tensions that could lead to an eventual confrontation between the two countries, though is not likely to play out militarily.

Click here for The Next Stage of Russia’s Resurgence: Introduction

Click here for The Next Stage of Russia’s Resurgence: Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova

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