Lithuania’s Presidential Election Is Boring — And That’s Fine

Lithuania's outgoing president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, speaks at an event celebrating the country's fifteen years in the EU, May 1
Lithuania’s outgoing president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, speaks at an event celebrating the country’s fifteen years in the EU, May 1 (Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania/Robertas Dačkus)

Former finance minister Ingrida Šimonytė and economist Gitanas Nausėda have advanced to the second round of Lithuania’s presidential election. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis placed third and has announced he will step down in July.

The remaining candidates are both center-right, so the outcome of the runoff on May 26 should not affect Lithuania’s politics in a major way. Even so, the result is largely a happy one. Read more

Estonia’s President Sends Wrong Message Meeting Putin

President Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia meets with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Kremlin in Moscow, April 18
President Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia meets with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Kremlin in Moscow, April 18 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

For the past decade, the Baltic states have maintained a strict policy toward Russia: no official state visits by presidents, prime ministers or other high-ranking officials.

That changed last week, when Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid visited a newly renovated embassy in Moscow and stopped by the Kremlin for a cup of tea with Vladimir Putin.

In itself, the meeting does not carry much weight, as nothing crucial was said or done. But it sent the wrong message. Read more

Three Seas Initiative Breathes New Life into Central Europe

Central and Eastern European leaders meet in Bucharest, Romania for the Three Seas Initiative summit, September 18
Central and Eastern European leaders meet in Bucharest, Romania for the Three Seas Initiative summit, September 18 (Three Seas Initiative)

The Financial Times reports that Central and Eastern European countries are putting flesh on the bones of the Three Seas Initiative, a forum dreamed up by Croatia and Poland to promote regional integration. Read more

Baltic States Have Most to Fear from Trump Victory

Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen deliver a news conference in Brussels, April 3, 2014
Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen deliver a news conference in Brussels, April 3, 2014 (NATO)

For Eastern Europe and the Baltic states in particular, a Donald Trump presidency could be disastrous. The Republican has created doubt about whether or not the United States would honor NATO’s collective defense clause, Article 5, under his leadership.

Hillary Clinton, the likely winner on Tuesday, will have to ease Eastern European anxieties while at the same time supporting a genuine European defense policy that is based on a considerable hike in budgets. Read more

United States Deploy Artillery, Tanks to Eastern Europe

American defense secretary Ashton Carter is welcomed in Tallinn, Estonia, June 22
American defense secretary Ashton Carter is welcomed in Tallinn, Estonia, June 22 (DoD/Adrian Cadiz)

The United States will permanently deploy artillery and tanks in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, announced on Tuesday in a move that is almost certain to upset their former Soviet master, Russia.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, announced earlier that the country would add more than forty intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal to offset NATO deployments in the east.

The deployments are meant to reassure NATO member states that joined the alliance after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The three Baltic states, which have few armed forces of their own, have been especially unnerved by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in the last year.

In Tallinn, Estonia’s Baltic Sea capital, Carter said the former Soviet republics as well as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania — three former Russian satellite states — had agreed to host American heavy equipment.

“That’s because the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” Carter said.

Under the NATO treaty, an attack on one member states constitutes an attack against all.

Russia has accused the West of violating a post-Cold War agreement not to extend NATO to Russia’s borders. European countries and the United States deny no such an agreement was ever made.

Nevertheless, until Russia invaded Ukraine last year and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the Western allies stationed no troops east of the old Icon Curtain frontier.

Since then, NATO has stepped up military exercises in the east, deployed fighter jets to the Baltics to defend their airspace and created a high-readiness force of 5,000 troops that can instantly react to threats on NATO’s border.

New command and control units are set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania to support NATO operations.

Estonia’s defense minister, Sven Mikser, welcomed the American decision on Tuesday, saying, “We have reasons to believe that Russia views the Baltic region as one of NATO’s most vulnerable areas, a place where NATO’s resolve and commitment could be tested.”

Estonia has among the region’s relatively largest ethnic Russian populations. A quarter of its citizens claims Russian descent.

Russia justified its military intervention in Ukraine by claiming a right to protect Russian speakers and “compatriots” in the former Soviet sphere. Russian diplomats last year raised concerns about the treatment of Russian speakers in Estonia, comparing the Baltic state’s policy to that of Ukraine.

Russia denies any intention to stir up trouble in the Baltics but NATO fighter jets have repeatedly scrambled to intercept Russian bombers and other airplanes in the area. Poland complained last year about “unprecedented” Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea region and said the country seemed to be testing NATO.

Poland, which has the eight largest army in NATO, responded by moving the bulk of its armed forces to its eastern border under a three-year modernization plan.

The United States, which account for more than 70 percent of NATO defense spending, increased training activities and the deployment of “rotational” forces in the Baltics and Poland. Fifty American armored fighting vehicles and battle tanks were prepositioned in those countries earlier this year.

North Europe Deepens Defense Cooperation Against Russia

A Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet
A Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet (Norden/Johannes Jansson)

Defense ministers from eight Northern European countries agreed on Thursday to expand cooperation in order to counter an increase in Russian incursions of their airspace.

Meeting in Oslo, the ministers from the three Baltic states, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom agreed to do more to share intelligence and widen cross-border air force training in the region. Officials from Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands and Poland also attended.

Norwegian defense minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide said existing air force training cooperation between Finland, Norway and Sweden would be extended to Denmark and cover all Nordic airspace. She also said NATO would help the Baltic states to improve their military capacities which are currently very limited.

Eriksen Søreide’s British counterpart, Michael Fallon, told reporters the immediate motivation for strengthening ties in the region was Russia’s regular “flouting” of aviation rules and its intimidation of neighbors by sending jets as far as Ireland and Portugal.

“NATO has recorded over one hundred intercepts so far this year, three times as many as in 2013 and the year is not yet finished,” he said. “We will not allow Russia to continue to invade our airspace.”

The Nordic region has seemed particularly vulnerable. In September, two Russian warplanes violated Sweden’s airspace. A Russian fighter jet later nearly collided with a Swedish surveillance aircraft when it flew without responders. The Swedish navy also hunted for what was believed to be a Russian submersible in its territorial waters the following month.

Russian nuclear bombers have also repeatedly entered or neared Dutch airspace without authorization. F-16 fighter jets most recently scrambled in August to intercept such a plane. A month later, a similar bomber aircraft came close to violating British airspace over Scotland. It, too, was intercepted by NATO fighters.

East-West tensions have mounted since Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March, following a row with the European Union about the bloc’s improving relations with the former Soviet republic and the overthrow of a relatively pro-Russian president in Kiev.

Estonian Border City Putin’s Likeliest Next Target

Alexander's Cathedral in Narva, Estonia, October 22, 2007
Alexander’s Cathedral in Narva, Estonia, October 22, 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria might seem the likeliest target for future Russian territorial claims. Indeed, the region, which, like the Crimea, has a majority ethnic Russian population, requested admission into the Russian Federation last week. In a 2006 referendum, 97 percent of Transnistrians voted to join Russia.

But Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, points out at his blog that Russian annexation of Transnistria is actually unlikely. Whereas the Crimea was historically part of Russia and is separated from the country only by a narrow waterway, Transnistria shares no border with Russia. Rather it borders on the west of Ukraine — the very region that seeks deeper integration with the rest of Europe instead of Russia.

The “next Crimea,” Berman suggests, is more likely to be the northeast of Estonia. The city of Narva there, the Baltic state’s third largest, has an 82 percent ethnic Russian population. 94 percent of the city’s residents speaks Russian. Like the Crimea’s Sevastopol, which headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Narva was a Russian port city and the site of major battles — against the Swedes, in the early eighteenth century, and the Germans, during World War II.

Russia justified its intervention in Ukraine by claiming a right to protect Russian speakers and their “compatriots” in the former Soviet republic. Last week, a Russian diplomat raised concerns over the treatment of Russian speakers in Estonia, saying, “Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups.” He expressed alarm “by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine.”

Russian worries are not without merit. As Berman writes, “Narva is a major symbol of what is one of Estonia’s largest domestic problems, its effort to reduce the size of its Russian minority population through the mechanism of denying a substantial percentage of its residents citizenship.”

Less than half of Narva’s residents have Estonian citizenship while some 36 percent are Russian citizens. Another 16 percent holds no citizenship at all.

Social problems disproportionately affect Estonia’s Russian speakers, from unemployment to crime to drug and alcohol abuse. 40 percent of Narva’s residents is jobless and the city has one of the highest HIV rates in Europe.

Berman assesses that Russia’s case for intervention in Narva is stronger than it was in the Crimea. The city is almost uniformly Russian in population and has more cause for discontent with the government in Tallinn than the Crimea did with the pro-Western authorities that replaced President Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev.

By contrast, he writes, the West has less reason to oppose a Russian attempt at annexation. Narva has little economic or strategic value, “the Estonian government’s treatment of the local population is indefensible and the locals, especially those who are stateless, have much to gain from Russian support.”

Yet the West would be compelled to respond, given that Estonia is a member of NATO and the other allies have committed to its defense.

Berman, then, describes Narva as “the point of maximum weakness for the alliance.” NATO is obligated to fight for it but if it did, the Western alliance “would be intervening to prevent a genuinely oppressed local population from exercising self-determination.” Russian president Vladimir Putin, he adds, “could ask for no better battlefield.”