As Russia seeks to return to the ‘spheres of influence’ politics and gathers troops on Ukraine’s border, where do the Kremlin’s ultimatums leave the Baltic states? Andrey Makarychev, professor of regional political studies at Estonia’s University of Tartu, writes for LRT English.
As never before, reactions to Vladimir Putin’s ultimatum to the US and NATO among Russian commentators were unusually polarised. Some of them (such as Gleb Pavlovsky) speak about the inevitability of a war, while others (like Andrey Piontkovsky) are convinced that Putin is bluffing, has no trump cards in his hands and ultimately will be looking for a face-saving strategy.
In a more conspiratorial way, Valery Solovey deems that Putin is in a hurry due to his alleged illness, which makes his erratic behaviour even more dangerous, while Andrey Illarionov avers that the whole verbal escalation in December was coordinated with the administrations of Biden and Zelensky, and meant to convince the Ukrainian political elite to accept and implement the Minsk agreements. Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the meantime assumes that Moscow is motivated by a perspective of financially capitalising on the Western unwillingness to wage wars: “There will be no big war, they will pay us for peace.”
In this panoply of Russian voices, the Baltic states do not seem to be often mentioned.
Yet given the very nature of the Russian ultimatum – to step back to the status quo of 1997 – it directly and dramatically affects the security of all the three Baltic nations.
This perspective is discernible in the initial reaction to the Russian reckless demands: the Biden administration has accepted the very idea of directly and bilaterally negotiating with Moscow on behalf of the entire trans-Atlantic West, which in the language of international relations is tantamount to great power management, even if Russia would prefer to formulate it as a concern for “European security”.
What the study of international politics teaches us as well is that the antiquated idea of a concert of great powers ends up with spheres of influence. And, as we know, this is exactly what all countries of Eastern, Central and Baltic Europe so desperately wanted to avoid since 1991 through contributing to a drastically different type of international system shaped by norms and values, rather than by geopolitical decisions and divides.
Apart from that, the White House has also accepted the Kremlin-imposed urgency of the talks, as well as the clear hierarchy inscribed into their scenario – Russians are scheduled to talk to the US first (January 10, 2022), then to NATO (January 12), and afterward – to OSCE (January 13).
This sequence seems to reflect Russia's rather than Europe's vision of the world. And a key point is: if meetings with NATO and OSCE have been already scheduled, does this mean that both Moscow and Washington have good reasons to expect a fast success in the Putin-Biden talks?
For small countries this question implies greater uncertainty and ambiguity, especially when it comes to understanding the limits of US concessions to the Kremlin. One of the strongest conciliatory words have been already pronounced – Biden has made clear that the US Army won’t militarily assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces in fighting back Russians, but since the proverbial “red lines” have not been charted in advance, many could suspect that Biden might make other steps not duly coordinated with all the allies or agreed upon on a consensual basis.
In the words of Kadri Liik, “it is a paradigm shift that he is offering to discuss things, which no one has discussed with Russia for decades. But Biden's proposed scenario is very confusing. No one liked this plan, including the major allies themselves“.
What exacerbates the problem is that interests of the Baltic states might be hypothetically or practically compromised in the cases of two diametrically opposed scenarios of both success of negotiations between Russia and the United States, and their failure.
In the first case, a major risk comes from a probable language of exchange and compromise that might temporarily satisfy, but not appease Putin. If ultimately the debilitation of NATO for the Kremlin becomes a more important strategic goal than the forceful conquest of Ukraine, then in exchange for withdrawal from Donbass and security guarantees to Ukraine, Putin can demand a withdrawal of all NATO military infrastructure from the Baltic states and Poland.
Of course, this is a highly hypothetical scenario, but it can’t be completely ruled out. Biden’s even rhetorical engagement in discussing this issue in whatever context would mean a greater victory for Putin than a military action with uncertain outcomes against Ukraine.
In the second case, if Putin gets nothing tangible from the negotiations, the Kremlin would need to somehow materialise its threats to “make the West listen to us”.
As a possible counter-reaction, it might be expected that Moscow would increase its military activity in the Baltic Sea. Estonia in this regard might be in a rather vulnerable condition due to the deadlock in the ratification of a bilateral border treaty with Russia.
Reaction of Russian media to the recent construction of a border fence by the Estonian government was quite telling in this respect: “While Estonia is building walls instead of rebuilding relations, Russia can afford to sit back and relax, waiting for a moment to take a decision that would be costless for Moscow but costly for Tallinn,” Sputnik wrote last December.
Yet Russia may opt for a different – though not necessarily alternative – scenario of gradual escalation towards Ukraine.
Moscow may qualitatively increase its military presence in Belarus where large-scale bilateral military exercises are scheduled for February or March 2022. Moscow may recognise Luhansk and Donetsk (as it recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008) and perhaps even Transnistria, which may be used as an argument for demanding from Ukraine to secure an ex-territorial transportation corridor to this part of Moldova.
Russia may also take under its full naval control the Azov Sea which might lead to a de-facto blockade of Ukrainian port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
Under this scenario, the Baltic states may face a double challenge. First, they might need to be ready to host an increased inflow of escapees from Ukraine. Second, the Baltic states will need to decide on the specifics of their security assistance to Ukraine.
Estonia has already pledged to supply Ukrainian army with some military – and largely outdated – equipment. On a political level, the Estonian president has announced his official visit to Ukraine in January 2022. His message will most likely be in line with the joint policy of the defence ministers of Baltic and Nordic countries summarised as follows: Russia is a threat to Europe, and under no circumstances may Russian demands to the West be fulfilled.
Yet there are other opinions. Eerik-Niiles Kross, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Estonia’s parliament Riigikogu, formulated the country’s dilemma in a different way: “A half-hearted response to Moscow would put Estonia in the greatest danger. But if the West does not understand the seriousness of the current situation and does not find decisiveness for real countermeasures which can convince Putin that it is necessary to withdraw, it would unfortunately be safer for us if some sort of a new Yalta-like agreement is concluded and the Kremlin’s minimum list of demands is agreed to.”
“It would, of course, mean a continuation of a fundamental problem, a depressing precedent: the legitimation of Putin’s power by the West, and a tragedy for Ukraine and Belarus,” he said. “However, the instinct of self-preservation says that today this may be best for the Baltic states. And it would give us some years to convince NATO and the United States that the issue of credible, tangible, heavily-armed protection of the Baltic states is an absolute priority.”
This approach nicely illustrates the most fundamental problem that became apparent with the Western reply to Putin’s ultimatum: an obvious shift from the normative language of values and international law to the language of realpolitik imposed by the Kremlin and, as we see, involuntarily and reluctantly accepted by some politicians in the Baltic states.
This fact alone may be counted as the Kremlin’s success: Putin, Lavrov and other were trying hard to aver that Europe’s normativity as either a pretence or a miscalculation, and the comeback to the terrain of “real politics” is inevitable.
The migration crisis staged by Russia’s proxy in Minsk was to a large extent meant to test and shake the commitment of the three affected countries to liberal norms and values. The current military blackmail continues this tactic.
For Russia’s small neighbours the return to the archaic interest-based world is a trap: the Kremlin proposes to play a game with no consensually accepted rules.
Russian foreign policy might be reduced to the language of ultimatums: Georgia might be demanded to close the Lugar Laboratory, Latvia and Estonia – to “stop discriminating local Russophones” – and so on.
In this increasingly post-liberal world, in which many European “officials find it normal that Russia should claim a sphere of influence”, the Baltic states should most effectively use all possibilities embedded in NATO’s mechanisms (such as initiating consultations within the framework of Article 4, as the former Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu suggested), as well as in less formal connections between Baltic and Nordic defence ministries.
Even technical measures – such as joint military procurement of the Baltic states – might make practical difference.
Of high political importance were the statements of both the Finnish president and prime minister who left the prospects of Finland’s membership in NATO open to discussion, which might be treated as a gesture of political solidarity and practical calculations. Strategically, all forms of regional cohesion complementary to NATO – such as, for example, the Three Seas Initiative supported by the United States – should be enhanced and reactualised.
This is a type of realpolitik that the Baltic states can and ought to afford.
Andrey Makarychev is professor of regional political studies at Estonia’s University of Tartu.