Soviet attempt to crush Baltic independence is now often seen as among the last convulsions of the crumbling totalitarian empire. It also delivered several very important lessons to the Baltics today, writes Tomas Jermalavičius at International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Estonia.
Some of those lessons had been almost immediately applied and institutionalised, but others had been too easily forgotten, unlearned and even hijacked and distorted. In any case, this horrible assault still echoes through the politics and geopolitics of the region.
Lesson 1: Kick them out and keep them out
In late 1939, the creeping occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania started when the USSR imposed, through the ultimatums, presence of the Soviet troops and military bases in their territories. The very same presence provided a springboard for the assault against the democratically elected governments of the three countries that sought to re-establish their independence in 1990-91.
Although the most brutal and effective spearheading elements such as KGB Group Alfa and airborne assault troops were flown in from outside, the tanks and armoured vehicles employed in the deadly assault were garrisoned locally.
This fresh experience from 1991 reinforced the memories of 1939-40 and made it abundantly clear to the Baltic governments that sovereignty and independence would always remain in peril if these troops – by 1992 already under command of the legal successor of the USSR, Russia – remained on their soil.
Hence their uncompromising stance to get them fully withdrawn as expeditiously as possible – an outcome successfully negotiated with a reluctant government of Boris Yeltsin and completed in 1993 in Lithuania and 1994 in Estonia and Latvia (the latter continued to host a long-range early warning radar until 1998).
Lithuania’s Constitution adopted in a referendum of 1992 even included a clause (Article 137) stating that “foreign military bases may not be stationed on the territory of the Republic of Lithuania”. Vilnius also refused to bow to the pressure to negotiate military transit to the Kaliningrad exclave.
Russia’s current propaganda and its local ‘useful idiots’ turned the presence of NATO troops in the Baltics into a favourite informational attack vector. “That is occupation, too”, they claim in a fine example of a false equivalence, while desperately constructing numerous fake examples of the Alliance’s forces representing a safety hazard or even security threat to the civilian populations.
The occupant label – if constantly repeated to some segments of our societies that are less critical, less historically aware, and more receptive to conspiracy theories – may come to stick if there is no constant pushback from #WeAreNATO.
Lesson 2: Keep the information flowing
The Soviets acted by a typical playbook of a military coup and seized the conduits of free and unfettered information national public broadcasters, newspaper offices, printhouses, TV and radio infrastructure.
The ability of the Baltic governments and media to get the alternative channels up and running in no time to get the information out to the society and the international community proved essential.
Redundancy of the infrastructure, rapidity of its employment, and psychological resilience as well as resourcefulness of the heroic media staff were among those key elements that kept the hope alive and the Soviet atrocities well recorded and broadcasted. For the societies that endured fifty years of state propaganda and total control of the media, this was an adrenaline rush at its utmost, and has demonstrated the importance of such institutions as independent media.
The basics of such resilience remain much the same today, be it infrastructural or human in nature. Preventing informational isolation of a crisis-struck nation or region would be a major imperative, but the focus of security planning remains set on infrastructure and access to global networks and flows, not on the robustness and wellbeing of the most important part – the messengers and their home institutions.
To the contrary, time and again, the independent Baltic media and especially national broadcasters come under politically motivated attacks and attempts to impose ideological or corporate controls that undermine its fabric.
Unlearning the lesson about the pivotal role of the devotion, endurance, and self-sacrifice of the members of independent media – also lately manifest in the local mimicking of the instincts of the trumpist mob and orbanist state directed against them – puts the three countries at the increasing peril of undermining this vitally important source of their national resilience.
Lesson 3: Defend the facts and evidence
The evidence showing the deeds of the murderous regime in Moscow – if not pointing straight to the man at the top so revered at the time in the West, Mikhail Gorbachev – was everywhere in plain sight from the very first shot fired.
This evidence has been extremely detailed, comprehensive, reliable and meticulously recorded, and therefore it has never been put to any doubt until recently, when Russia’s propaganda and its local cronies brushed up and rolled out the same old Soviet lies of the “the nationalist paramilitary forces” as guilty of these massacres and of the Baltic governments faking the images of civilians being crushed under the tanks or even faking the casualties.
For some time, these lies and the accompanying set of narratives seemed to be safely confined to the political and societal fringes. But they have nonetheless seeped into the societal discourse and became toxic partly due to their relentless propagation by Moscow’s agents of influence and but mostly due to the overall political polarisation in which they became instrumental in channelling the dissatisfaction of some sections of the societies with the established political order.
Unfortunately, contrary to the naïve expectations, facts and evidence cannot defend themselves against a sustained assault of lies, and the toxic narratives are not going away by themselves if ignored or dismissed.
The question of how to defend those obvious and well-established facts – even of a very recent past that has many thousands of living witnesses – is as acute in the Baltics now as in any post-truth society.
Lithuania chose a heavy-handed way: denying or diminishing the Soviet crimes in this thirty-years old episode is now a criminal offence, under the same clause (Penal Code, paragraph 170, part 2) that criminalises denial of crimes against humanity by the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
But will that fully deter the fans of ‘alternative facts’ driven by the hatred of their political enemies and the existing democratic political order, and helpfully supported by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine?
This is hard to say, but the lesson is clear: in the present environment, no fact and no piece of evidence are safe from vicious subversion and distortion, and our societies have every duty to constantly remember, recall, relive and pass on to their younger generations the truth about what happened during that very dark January.
Lesson 4: Seek justice
All crimes must be punished in order to deter future crimes, and their surviving victims must have a clear point of closure to be able to live with some peace of mind.
Lithuania has completed a long process of criminal investigations and court proceedings against the individuals who planned, led and executed the Soviet assault or collaborated with it. It has resulted in some sentences that have been enforced – mainly of the local Soviet communist party bosses some of whom even had to be snatched by the Lithuanian intelligence operatives from the neighbouring Belarus.
Most of the accused from the Soviet KGB, interior troops and the military, however, have been tried in absentia and will probably never face the full consequences of their actions.
Russia has never cooperated with the Lithuanian judicial authorities in this matter and has been shielding the suspects. It has successfully pressured one EU member state, Austria – that acted upon the Lithuania-issued European arrest warrant to detain a former KGB officer who led the Soviet special forces during the atrocities – to release the suspect, thus causing a brief crisis in Lithuanian–Austrian bilateral relations.
And, more recently, Putin’s regime has opened its own criminal investigation against the Lithuanian prosecutors and judges who have been involved in prosecuting case, seeking to intimidate and punish them for upholding justice.
Still, despite all the despondence that accompanies their inability to dispense justice in this case and despite all the intimidation from the geopolitical bully that owns the crime, the lesson that the Baltics are learning from this is not that the might makes it right, but that insistence on justice and persistence in upholding it are of fundamental importance in their exercise of constitutional duty to their citizens.
It sends a powerful message to the victims of crime that nothing has been forgotten nor forgiven, and that all instruments available to the small nations will be used to achieve justice, no matter how long it takes and no matter against how powerful geopolitical forces.
And it sends a message to those that may get involved in similar acts of aggression in the future that their actions would potentially face consequences far greater than just inability to freely travel around, shop and enjoy life in Europe.
There have been ups and downs in this strive – and some downs have been more painful than others – but failing to sustain it would damage the principle, harm the society and erode deterrence against future aggression.
Lesson 5: We need foreign friends
Few Western governments of the time wanted to rock the boat and damage the prospects of détente with the USSR under the reformist Gorbachev. And Saddam Hussein’s occupation of oil-rich Kuwait seemed more important to many Western diplomatic and security establishments.
Lithuania dispatched its foreign minister to Warsaw, in preparation of government continuity in exile. But then, almost as a miracle, outpours of outrage at the Soviet onslaught and expressions of solidarity and support started streaming in, making the image-conscious “new style” top leadership of the Soviet regime pause.
The pinnacle was Iceland’s recognition of the Lithuanian independence in February 1991 – a full half a year ahead of anyone else, while the Soviets still posed a major threat and continued their deadly forays against the Baltic independence.
It should not have come as a surprise that the three nations almost immediately sought membership in core Western alliances – NATO and the EU. “Never alone” was a maxim on par with “never again”.
This broad consensus and comprehensive effort brought us into both organisations in 2004. Yet, some domestic political players in all three countries sometimes seem to forget or ignore what kind of invisible glue keeps us all together in these organisations, or why it is important to protect our reputational capital in them.
For the sake of energising their electoral base and under the cover of freedom of expression, they spew around rhetorical dissolvents of that glue, and at some point, someone among our more mature allies will ask themselves – is this or that country the politics of which allows, even perhaps necessitates, degenerating into insults towards and conspiracy theories about their closest allies and friends, worth our blood and treasure to support and defend it?
It feels almost surreal that we have to reassert to ourselves, once again, that our international friendships, partnerships and alliances are our most important strategic assets.
(Fundamental) Lesson 6: Build the cohesion
In that January of 1991, the Soviet act of aggression drew hundreds of thousands of Baltic people to the streets determined to protect their newly regained freedom and independence.
Some may currently draw an entirely wrong conclusion from this: that peaceful resistance is more important in countering military aggression than military capability.
Baltic policymakers are thus sometimes prompted to explain a massive difference between then, when not much else was available and possible, and now, when the three sovereign nations are part of a collective defence alliance that requires upholding their commitment to ensure a certain level of military self-defence capability as well as ability to assist their allies.
Such a conclusion seems ever more misguided considering that civic resistance, political resolve and military defence work hand in glove when it comes to mustering total defence.
More insidious and corrosive view gladly fanned by Russia’s agitprop is that, should push come to shove, the three Baltic parliaments would struggle to call the crowds to protect them or take up the arms to fight the aggressors.
Indeed, over the last 30 years, the trajectory of public trust in and support to the parliaments, governments or political parties has not been very positive in the three nations, to put it mildly. In a scenario of a strategic coup orchestrated and/or supported by a foreign power, this narrative goes, many members of the society might feel too estranged, indifferent or even angry with the political establishment to be bothered with the civic mobilisation to protect their core institutions.
Herein lies perhaps one of the biggest distortions or misrepresentations of a strategic lesson from 1991.
The true lesson is that people rallied and came to the defence not of their politicians, government ministers or parliament buildings, but to the defence of their most fundamental value – freedom and human dignity.
In 2021, we might feel divided and bitterly argue about many issues and aspects of life – such is the nature and character of pluralist and competitive democratic political system – but we certainly retain our capacity to come together when we must protect our freedom and dignity, be it from the enemies within or outside.
Our cohesion is built not around one opinion or some single uniform worldview, or around some particular organisational entity, but around our hard-earned freedom and dignity—as individuals, societies and nations.
The regime in the Kremlin has correctly identified this as our centre of gravity and is attacking it with all possible means – to obscure or erode the value of such cohesion, to distract from its centrality and muddle our thinking about it, to distort and delegitimise the principle norms and institutions upholding it, and to destroy our will to act in defence of it.
This is where we in the Baltics – men and women, young and old, religious and atheist, straight and LGBT, rich and poor, of whichever skin colour, ethnicity or country of birth – must keep our razor-sharp focus in the future, and be ready to mobilise ourselves and defend at all costs.
Day in and day out, in military uniform or in civilian attire, with guns or laptops, in a parliament square or in the woods and fields. Only this can ensure the darkness of January can be kept at bay – as back then, in 1991.
Tomas Jermalavičius is a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, Estonia. Previously, he was a lecturer at the Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL) in Tartu, Estonia, and also a civil servant at the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence.