What is the geopolitical significance of relatively small countries like the Baltic states? This is a question many in Europe and North America are grappling with, not least due to the recent summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Wales. Since Russia’s illegitimate annexation of Crimea by force, concerns have grown about the security of much of NATO’s eastern flank. The prospect of an increasingly assertive Russia in Eastern Europe underscores the geostrategic importance of Poland and Romania, given that their size and geographical position makes both pivotal to any Western effort to defend Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. However, it is in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where the immediacy of the Russian threat is most strongly felt. In contrast to Poland, Romania or other Eastern European countries, the Baltic states are far smaller and more exposed. And what is happening in today’s Ukraine happened only very recently to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The twentieth-century crosswinds of geopolitics subjected each of them to mayhem, murder and tyranny – experiences they finally managed to shake off only twenty years ago. Over the past two decades, the Baltic states have taken the time to reform themselves into successful liberal democracies, which are as intrinsically ‘Western’ as Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.
The Baltic states’ twentieth-century history should serve as a warning as to what happens when powerful illiberal forces go on the rampage. This is why Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius have been so vocal over Russia’s territorial revisionism in Ukraine. They know that Moscow has always held them on its geostrategic radar: after all, in a geopolitical context, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sit in between the respective industrial heartlands of Russia and the key Western powers. They are in very close proximity to St. Petersburg and Moscow, a region that forms the economic, industrial and political eucemene of Russia. Rightly or wrongly, for the Kremlin, the Baltic states’ admission to NATO and the European Union (EU) is understood to have compounded Russia’s strategic inferiority in the Baltic Sea. For example, the Russians see Estonia’s membership of NATO – in the event of hostilities – to better help enable the alliance to ‘bottle-up’ the Russian Baltic Flotilla within the Gulf of Finland and prevent its reinforcement from the Northern Fleet (or vice-versa). Moreover, the Baltic states straddle the Russian mainland and Moscow’s enclave of Kaliningrad (in the central Baltic Sea), thus breaking up Russian territorial contiguity.
For the West – which now includes the Baltic states – the geographic location of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reinforces NATO’s position in Eastern Europe and the ‘Wider Baltic’, effectively rendering the Baltic Sea an Allied lake. In addition, and arguably more importantly, in a political context, the Baltic states have become – as well as affirm and signify – everything the West supports, promotes and believes in: political order, where constitutional government usurps the rule of the autocrat; where democracy, embedded in national communities, enables peoples to take control of their own destiny; and a system where everyone, from ethnic groups to sexual minorities, is afforded the same rights and protection – as national citizens – as everyone else.
Indeed, the existence of fully-integrated Russian-speaking and sexual minorities, for example, into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, poses a fundamental threat to the closed, sectarian and authoritarian model of ‘sovereign democracy’ being installed by Mr. Putin’s regime in Russia. This last point is critical: as NATO Deputy Secretary-General, Alexander Vershbow, recently pointed out at a high-level conference (attended by both authors) at the University of Cardiff, Moscow’s move in Ukraine is being driven by its need to undermine the prospect of a democratic and prosperous Ukrainian nation, whose example would represent an existential threat to ‘sovereign democracy’ in Russia itself. The Kremlin has come to consider any country surrounding Russia, either with, or trying to form, a successful democratic system, as a threat to its own existence.
In this context, given their geostrategic and ideological significance, nobody should be in any doubt that Moscow will continue to watch developments in the Baltic states with keen eyes; likewise, no-one should be under any illusion that other countries surrounding Russia are also threatened by increased economic and political penetration by the Kremlin’s levers of power, which aim towards their progressive corruption. Ukraine is therefore a kind of test-case for the West: other Europeans and North Americans must understand that if they allow Russia to succeed to liquidating Kyiv’s democratic aspirations, the Kremlin would undoubtedly grow emboldened and set about trying to extinguish what it sees as its opponents in other neighbouring countries too.
Russia’s attempt to push back against the rules-based liberal order in Europe should only serve to underscore the geostrategic significance of the Baltic states for the wider West. Any questions as to whether Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian security is worth the strategic and political commitment involved must be silenced. The Baltic states may be relatively small and sparsely populated nations, and potentially quite vulnerable. Yet they are not just small countries of which we know nothing: they are the geopolitical frontier of Western civilisation and a symbol and affirmation of everything a people can achieve when they commit themselves to inclusiveness, liberalism and constitutional democracy. For make no mistake, the continued prosperity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is more than merely about the geographic defence of NATO: it is also tied intrinsically to the credibility of the rest of the West, and in almost every area. It is about the success and security of Western liberalism, in Europe and beyond. Lithuania’s Ambassador to the US, Zygimantas Pavilionis, put it aptly to Focus Washington in 2013: ‘[We are] the frontier of democracy.’ Indeed, there should be no misunderstanding here: what happens in the Baltic states over the coming years will determine the kind of geopolitical system in which all Western citizens will continue to live.
Vol. 6, No. 68 (2014)
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