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On the way to more resilience
Problem and recommendations
The Baltic states have increasingly become the focus of foreign and security policy interests in Europe. As a result of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine since 2014, the vulnerability of the three countries to destabilization has become an important issue in the transatlantic and European structures. For a long time, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania felt like warning shouters who did not always hear their fears about Russia in the North Atlantic Alliance and in the European Union. But now their urge to receive more effective protection against security-political uncertainties met with more understanding. The most visible sign of this development is NATO's stronger commitment to the three countries, on their national territory and generally in the eastern Baltic region. There has now been a noticeable gain in reinsurance, defensibility and deterrence. There are mutliple reasons for this. One of these is the deployment of allied forces on the territory of the Baltic states, known as Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP). In addition, numerous measures have been taken to link the region more effectively with the partners in the alliance in terms of defense and military policy, and to improve crisis response capabilities.
The “hybrid” interventions by the Russian side in Ukraine also resulted in many “soft” areas as a sphere of possible instability becoming more conscious than before. The focus was on the Russian and Russian-speaking communities, which make up large proportions of the population, especially in Estonia and Latvia. It soon became clear that the violent secession of areas with a Russian majority, for example in Northeast Estonia or East Latvia, is unlikely. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that parts of the Russian and Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states will be dissatisfied with their situation. It is also to be expected that these communities will refer to the Russian culture and language more and more frequently. Although they are becoming more and more differentiated and new groups are emerging that identify with the respective state, large sections of Russian minorities keep a certain distance from them. This creates opportunities for outside influence.
Not only in connection with the Russian minorities, there are also a number of challenges for the security of the Baltic states. These include, for example, energy policy, questions of social cohesion, non-transparent economic practices, security in the digital space or attempts at active disinformation.
Since multiple threats overlap in the region and the Baltic states are geostrategically exposed, their security is extremely relevant for NATO and the EU. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as the “north-east shoulder” of NATO, form an area that needs to be consolidated in terms of security policy. With its commitment, the alliance must counter the impression that the three countries constitute a zone of limited solidarity or effectiveness of the alliance. Otherwise, incentives would be created for Russia to test the cohesion of NATO, be it with military intervention or with low-threshold destabilization. At the same time, it must be avoided that more security for the Baltic states results in an uncontrollable remilitarization of the eastern Baltic region.
If one looks at the vulnerabilities of the three countries vis-à-vis Russia in different policy areas, it becomes apparent that in some cases considerable progress has been made, but that »open flanks« still exist.
For Germany this means further developing its relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and helping to build a sustainable resilience partnership in the EU and NATO. This partnership is already in its infancy and would be based on three pillars:
the in-depth commitment to security policy, especially in NATO,
joint efforts to reduce social, economic, digital and other hybrid risks in the EU and NATO as well as bilateral measures and
the strategic exchange on the reform of the EU, the direction of NATO and the future of the West.
More intensive German-Baltic cooperation would be helpful, among other things, because the dialogue with smaller partners and a policy of trust in them towards German foreign and European policy and also German Russia and Eastern policy legitimized. Signals to Northern Europe and Poland also emanate from an empathic approach to the Baltic states. This could create a counterbalance to the efforts of the USA to develop new multilateral or bilateral forms of cooperation outside of NATO in the region. If Germany turns to the Baltic republics, it has the chance to remain an important security policy reference country for them and thus to consolidate the European policy dimension of striving for more security in these countries. For this purpose, it would be advisable, for example, to create a Baltic Sea energy platform of the foreign, economic and energy ministries together with other EU countries bordering the Baltic Sea. It could serve as a forum to discuss issues of security of supply, climate-friendly conversion and the competitiveness of energy systems in the region. In addition, the Northern Group of Defense Ministers, which also includes Germany and the three Baltic countries, could initiate a process of dialogue and measures to increase maritime security in the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, a concept group "Eastern Partnership" between the planning staff of the foreign ministries in the format 1 + 3 (Germany plus Baltic states) could actively involve the three countries in the deliberations on a "new European Eastern policy".
New uncertainty from Russia
In hardly any other part of NATO and the EU is the Ukraine crisis being followed so closely as in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Not only do the three countries feel confirmed in their assessment that Russia, after years of intensified foreign policy rhetoric, is now implementing an offensive »neighborhood policy« with a neo-imperial and pan-Russian orientation. In addition, the three countries were again shown how susceptible they are to Russian disruptive maneuvers and attempts at destabilization. In contrast to most of the member states of NATO and the EU, from the point of view of the Baltic states, the Ukraine crisis is not a conflict "on Europe's doorstep", but rather a dispute mutatis mutandis could also take place in your own country.
Since the Baltic states have regained their independence, Russia has been a central factor in their foreign and security policy.
Since the Baltic states regained their independence in the early 1990s, Russia has always been a formative element of their foreign and security policy and an overriding determinant of their risk assessment. This did not change fundamentally when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU in 2004, because the integration into the Western alliance structures was paired with growing unease about their cohesion, strategic direction and the scope of solidarity and support. A "period of relief"1 therefore, new concerns and uncertainties soon followed. Despite phases of pragmatic coexistence and despite attempts to normalize bilateral relations, the relationship between all three countries and Russia was never really free of tension. Again and again there were frictions and collisions, which not only testified to the fragility of the Baltic-Russian relationship, but also documented the asymmetries and power imbalances between the three countries and their large neighboring countries. As early as the 2000s, especially after the Georgia war in 2008, and because of Russia's generally accelerated foreign policy pace, doubts about its predictability had increased. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the Baltic states have seen numerous conflicts, which previously were at best the subject of abstract scenarios, now move into the realm of the possible. Russia has turned out to be a "revanchist and revisionist neighbor" who wants to actively change the existing European order.2In addition, fears in the Baltic states are fueled by the fact that Russia does not see them as part of its »near abroad«, but at least indirectly as belonging to its sphere of influence, and that Moscow's new policy of protecting its own »compatriots« can create pretexts for interventions. Against this background, the three countries became painfully aware of their still existing open flanks. These are not only in the area of military security or with the Russian or Russian-speaking minorities. They also result from the situation in energy policy as well as domestic political and economic structures.
Military security: deterrence, reinsurance and defense
The Baltic states are members of NATO and thus part of the North Atlantic security community with its assistance obligations. Notwithstanding this, the three countries face many serious threats to their national security. From Estonia to Lithuania, the view dominates that a "traditional" military attack by Russia is still extremely unlikely, but it is not ruled out either. In addition, it is feared that a military component could also be used in the course of hybrid destabilization attempts.
The fears in the Baltic states are fed by several sources. This includes Russia's behavior in the post-Soviet area, i.e. how it dealt with Georgia in 2008 and the conflict with Ukraine since 2014. Moscow's programs for reform and modernization of the armed forces, its nuclear doctrine and the (from a Baltic point of view) existing military imbalance are also observed with concern the region (see Table 1). It is also assumed that the three countries are still militarily vulnerable, despite better precautionary measures within the framework of NATO.
Special attention is paid to Russian measures in the vicinity of the Baltic states. This is not only about the airspace violations that have been recorded for years or the large-scale Russian maneuvers Zapad and Ladoga 2009, Zapad 2013 and Zapad 2017, but also the Russian military presence in the wider neighborhood of the three countries. Iskander short-range missile systems are said to have been stationed in Luga, in the western military district of the Russian armed forces, as early as 2011. As for the land forces, there is a divisional headquarters with three airborne regiments in Pskov, in close proximity to Estonia. In Luga and Kamenka, 110 and 22 kilometers from Estonia, respectively, there are two motorized rifle brigades, in Kaliningrad one motorized brigade, one regiment and one marine brigade. These forces, in fact three motorized rifle brigades, one motorized regiment and three airborne regiments, could attack the Baltic states as part of a larger conventional operation via three axes, namely from northern Estonia, from Pskov to Latvia or the north, and from Kaliningrad to Lithuania. However, this would, among other things, weaken Russia's important military presence in Kaliningrad.3 In addition, since the conflict in eastern Ukraine, larger units have been stationed primarily in regions near the border with Ukraine. For an attack on the Baltic states on a large scale, extensive regroupings would have to be undertaken, which are currently rather unlikely or would have to go hand in hand with new security policy priorities. Short-term reinforcements from other parts of the Western Military District to support extensive measures in the Baltic states could not be accomplished without complications. So there is some evidence that Russia is not looking for a major conventional attack. The intensely discussed simulation from the US think tank Rand Corporation, for example, according to which Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could be overrun by Russian troops within 72 hours as a result of a concentration of various battalions near the three countries that lasted only a few weeks,4 Western authors believe that they are exaggerated and that they contradict the principles of Russian operational warfare.5
On the NATO side, the capabilities of the Baltic states, the eFP and the bilateral one
Source: Rand Corporation, Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe, Boston 2018,
The situation in Belarus also seems to confirm this. The country remains a close ally of Russia militarily. There are important radar stations on its territory, namely near the city of Baranovichi, and communication facilities for the Russian Navy not far from the city of Vileika. The Zapad exercises are also held together with Belarus. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Russia has not yet stationed any major units in Belarus.6 However, it can be assumed that limited actions, for example with the participation of special forces, would be feasible in connection with a hybrid scenario. An Army Aviation Brigade, which was newly formed at the end of 2013 and is equipped with modern combat and transport helicopters, is stationed at the Ostrow Air Force Base, about 30 kilometers from the Latvian eastern border.7 As early as 2012, units of the Western Military District and airborne troops held joint maneuvers. The use of reconnaissance units behind enemy lines was also practiced there.8
After the NATO summit resolutions in 2014 and 2016, their cooperation with the Baltic states intensified.
The Baltic states alone would have little to oppose Russia. Despite increased efforts in the current decade9 there remains a considerable asymmetry vis-à-vis Russia in terms of military potential. The three countries do not have their own warplanes; the number of their active soldiers is around 18 to 19,000 compared to just under 80,000 on the Russian side in the region. If the territorial defense forces are involved, the number in the Baltic states increases by 25 to 30,000.10 Because of this inferiority, the three countries have always pushed for a more effective deterrent strategy of NATO, which is oriented towards collective defense and above all should include a significant military presence of the allies including "boots on the ground". This request was made both bilaterally and within the framework of NATO.11 Only the events in Ukraine since 2014 brought a change in the alliance. As a result of the summit resolutions of Newport in 2014 and Warsaw in 2016, which aimed to better secure NATO's eastern flank, alliance activities in and with the Baltic states became more intense. The engagement of the United States and neutral countries also increased. Overall, NATO's strategy shifted from "deterrence by tripwire.") to an approach based on the rapid introduction of substantial reinforcements (deterrence by rapid reinforcement).12 The following developments in particular can be observed:
The NATO presence on site will be increased by deploying battalion-strength multinational combat units on a steady rotation basis in each of the three countries (Enhanced Forward Presence, eFP, also in Poland). Air policing for air surveillance is being improved.
NATO's rapid reaction forces are being expanded. The NATO Response Force will be reformed and a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) will be created, also known as the »spearhead«. In addition, assistance in the event of a crisis is improved. Small management units in every Baltic state (NATO Force Integration Units, NFIU) serve this purpose. They are intended to improve the absorption capacity of allied units as well as communication and coordination between the host country and the partners.
More military exercises are being held in the region.
The bilateral American presence will be increased and cooperation with US armed forces intensified, including within the framework of the European Deterrence Initiative.
NATO is expanding its cooperation with the neutral countries Sweden and Finland.
The clashes in Ukraine also had a further effect on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which has to do with the orientation of their defense. They became more and more aware that their territory could become the scene of unconventional variants of warfare. As early as 2007, when the Estonian authorities had a Soviet memorial, the bronze soldier, removed from its pedestal, the reactions had given those responsible a foretaste of future forms of threat. For example, there had been massive cyber attacks on government agencies. But it was only the escalation in Ukraine that began in 2014 that sharpened the perception of Russia's “New Generation Warfare” and the associated security-political uncertainties for the three countries. In August 2014, under the influence of the events in eastern Ukraine, the Latvian National Guard practiced for the first time the crackdown on informal fighters in their own country who are supported by parts of the population.13 According to an analysis by the Defense Academy, the greatest security and defense risk in Latvia is the lack of preparation for a scenario of destabilization and irregular military confrontation.14 The threat assessment in the Baltic states has thus become broader and more comprehensive.
In the eyes of the three countries, this has already increased their security. At the same time, the Newport and Warsaw measures are seen as an immensely important step, but only as an intermediate stage for further protection against military threats. One of the priorities for the near future is the improvement of air defense capabilities according to the motto "From Air Policing to Air Defense"15 and maritime security.16 These horizontal topics are about increasing readiness and reinforcement,17 which is why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania supported the Readiness Initiative decided at the NATO summit in July 2018 from the start.18
Regardless of these steps, a structural space-time handicap towards Russia may remain the central challenge for the military security of the Baltic states. Because the three countries are not only in a geopolitical peripheral location, but also in a zone that limits their defense capabilities geographically and militarily. For this reason, and because NATO is not yet too strongly present in the region, the alliance relies on functioning "trip wires" on site. They should help to gain time until substantial reinforcements arrive from the ranks of the allies.19
However, it is precisely this process that can become more complicated. Russia has considerable capabilities in the area of anti-access / area denial (A2 / AD). It can, as it were, lay "iron bells" over parts of the region, making it difficult or impossible to rush to help, be it by land, air or water (see map, p. 12).20 In north-west Russia and especially in Kaliningrad, Moscow installed effective distance capabilities that can significantly limit the rapid relocation of alliance units to conflict areas. In Kaliningrad, for example, there are apparently S-300 or S-400 mobile air defense systems, Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and the Bastion coastal defense system. Cruise missiles can also be fired from submarines. Not to be missed are electronic warfare devices that impair enemy communication and reconnaissance capabilities.21
The A2 / AD problem can undermine NATO's undoubted general air superiority over Russia.22 In order to bypass the so-called A2 / AD bubbles - that is, potential spheres that can be sealed off by military defense systems, the alliance would have to switch to the airspace of the neutral countries Sweden or Finland. It would also be easy to block the sea route, since the geography of the Baltic Sea allows only narrow corridors for shipping. However, military ways can certainly be found to avoid the A2 / AD problem.23 The situation on the so-called Suwalki Corridor is also precarious: the only land connection between the Baltic states and NATO, the 100-kilometer-long Lithuanian-Polish border section including the infrastructure there, could easily be controlled from the enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, creating a barrier between them Poland and Lithuania would be pushed.
Given Russia's strong A2 / AD capabilities, NATO could at least lose important time trying to prevent Russia from creating a fait accompli. It is also possible that the alliance would not be able to give up space in order to gain time for a counterattack. After all, it would be extremely costly to recapture areas that were lost as a result of a localized operation in parts of one or more Baltic states.24 It is no coincidence that the A2 / AD problem is at the center of numerous considerations as to how the security of the three countries can be further improved.
In all of this, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are confronted with the political, including the domestic, dimensions of alliance cohesion. They fear that there is little willingness in many NATO states to provide military support if a local, “hybrid” or low-threshold conflict occurs in the Baltic republics. The reason for this concern is that a different approach to Russia dominates there and an armed confrontation with the larger neighbor should be avoided at all costs. Moscow's rhetorical exercises on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts could easily help undermine solidarity in the allied countries. When discussing the defense capabilities of the three countries, it must be clear to them and all their allies that Russia can easily use the escalation ladder to reduce the West's ability to react.
The Russian minorities between differentiation, loyalty and Russkij Mir
Significant Russian and Russian-speaking communities live in all three Baltic states. The relationship between the members of the titular nation and the Russian minorities is tense and characterized by mutual distrust. A critical attitude towards the majority populations and the states re-established in the early 1990s is widespread among the minorities. The use of the Russian language in school lessons, the question of citizenship, conflicting understandings of history or different habits in media consumption have repeatedly caused conflicts between the ethnic groups.
There is mistrust between the members of the titular nation and the Russian minorities.
The share of the Russian minorities in the total population in Estonia and Latvia amounts to about a quarter of the total population, in Lithuania to just under 5%.25 Large proportions of the Russian population can be found in the capital cities (Riga 40%, Tallinn 37%, Vilnius 12%) and in peripheral regions on the border with Russia (three quarters in the northeast Estonian Narva region, almost 40% in the east Latvian Latgale, one fifth in the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda). The numbers are higher if the group of "Russian speakers" is taken as a basis, some of which include people of Ukrainian or Belarusian nationality: In Latvia 37% of the population is Russophon, in Estonia values around 30% are assumed, in Lithuania the Share estimated at 15%.26 In Lithuania there is a strong Polish minority with a share of around 6% who live in the capital Vilnius and surrounding municipalities.
The linguistic dimension of the minority problem is important, because Russian or Slavic native speakers, even if they do not define themselves as Russian, have shown themselves to be receptive to Moscow's "soft power" and especially the consumption of media from Russia. In addition, one can speak of a largely divided media space in which Russian speakers mainly obtain information from Russian television channels or printed matter.27 In Latvia, only a good 30% of Russian speakers believe that the Russian media are grossly flawed in reporting Latvian history, while more than two-thirds of the Latvian majority share this opinion.28 Of the members of the Polish minority in Lithuania, 48% read Russian newspapers and 43% watch Russian television.29 In Daugavpils, the largest city in Latgale, in the referendum on the state language in early 2012, 85% of the voters voted for Russian as the second state language, although the official share of the local Russian population is only 54%. Campaigns by Russian non-governmental organizations for the consolidation of Russian-language teaching in schools and for the upgrading of the Russian language as a whole have met with varying degrees of approval in the past. Nevertheless, they can serve at any time to mobilize the Russophone communities and repeatedly create diplomatic entanglements with Russia. The most recent example of the language dispute is an educational reform in Latvia, which was initiated in spring 2018. Its aim is to strengthen the Latvian language by making it the language of instruction in minority schools from the tenth grade onwards. The Kremlin threatened a deterioration in mutual relations and spoke of discrimination and forced assimilation. The Latvian side referred to the need for integration and language skills and claimed that the Russian language occupies a similar position in Russia as it is now being planned in Latvia.30 The language issue is also raised at the international level. In spring 2014, Russia expressed its concern about Estonia's language policy at the United Nations Human Rights Council and compared it with alleged attempts by Ukraine to reduce the use of Russian.31
Another ongoing issue related to the Russian communities is citizenship quarrels. According to their constitutional doctrine, Estonia and Latvia only granted citizenship after 1991 to persons who had it before 1940 or to their descendants. Large parts of the Russian and Russian-speaking groups therefore remained entirely without a passport or took on Russian citizenship. In order to become Estonian or Latvian citizens, they must first go through a naturalization procedure, which includes proof of language skills in the titular language. The situation has changed, however, as numerous former »non-citizens« as well as children born in the meantime have been naturalized by members of this group, so far on application, in Estonia and since the beginning of 2020 also automatically in Latvia. In Estonia, therefore, the proportion of “non-citizens” in the total population fell from around a third in 1992 to 5.7% at the beginning of 2019.32 In Latvia in mid-2019, 27% of the members of the Russian population group did not have a passport, 64% were Latvian citizens, and 8% had other citizenships, probably mostly Russian.33 Overall, the proportion of people without Latvian citizenship in the country is just under 11%.34 If attention in the European environment for the citizenship regulation decreased because it was not a hurdle for accession to the EU and NATO, Russian non-governmental organizations continue to raise the issue at national and international level. In Latvia, the “Congress of Non-Citizens”, which was founded in 2012 and mentioned by the Latvian security police in their 2013 annual report, has stood out through protests and letters to top EU representatives, among other things.
The politics of the past and memory are particularly hotly debated.
A sensitive problem complex with explosive power are disputes about the politics of the past and memory, especially about the interpretations of events and processes in the 20th century. The most glaring conflict to date as a result of conflicting interpretations of the recent past were riots that sparked off when the authorities removed the so-called bronze soldier from downtown Tallinn in 2007. This statue had been used to commemorate the Red Army and the "liberation" of Estonia in 1944. Here, diametrically opposed narratives collide, as does the rituals that sow discord to commemorate the end of the war on May 9th, when Russian veterans remember the victory of the Red Army, while others remember Estonian and Latvian soldiers from the Waffen SS. None of this is new, but in the light of recent developments it has been given two more facets.
On the one hand, the Foreign Ministry announced in Moscow that attempts to "revise history and glorify fascism" must be countered and that Russians living abroad should also actively participate.35 Estonia and Latvia complain that in this way Russian organizations would be encouraged to intervene in socio-political disputes in the Baltic states and to act under the guise of "anti-fascism" in accordance with Moscow's foreign policy and in accordance with the Russian reading of the past. The weakness of Tallinn and Riga's politics so far has been that they have not succeeded in consistently distancing themselves from the legacy of the "freedom fighters". Therefore, they could not refute the Russian core argument that the commitment to "fascist" organizations was part of the founding myth of the old-new Baltic republics.
On the other hand, even more pragmatic Russian forces in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are often unwilling to openly deal with the ambivalent "liberation" of the Baltic states and to call the Soviet era what it was, namely a dictatorship in the form of a totalitarian system. This can be illustrated symbolically and exemplarily by the procrastination of the harmony-Party in Latvia, the majority of which are Russian-speaking voters. In contrast to its image as a modern inter-ethnic party, it could not bring itself to call the half-century of the Baltic republics in the Soviet Union an "occupation".
Since the early 1990s, the interpretations prevailing among the titular nations and the Russian minorities have not moved closer to one another, but rather diverged from one another. Hence the "geopolitics of history"36also the internal situation, especially in Latvia and Estonia. The memory patterns continue to create identity for both the majority and the minority population. In addition, they are politically relevant to action, perhaps even more today than in the past.
Against the background of the Ukraine crisis and in the face of obvious conflicts, the question arises of how loyal the Russian (speaking) population groups are to their countries and how receptive to possible destabilization measures from Moscow. In acute situations, clear differences of opinion between the majority and the minority are repeatedly revealed. In Latvia, for example, two-thirds of respondents from the Russian community consider Moscow's action against Ukraine to be justified, while almost four-fifths of the Latvian population group take the opposite view.37 Surveys in Estonia and Latvia show that the relationship between Russophones and their home countries is heterogeneous. Neither a clear pro-Russia stance nor a dominance of “Euro-Russian” or “Baltic-Russian” attitudes can be discerned. In this respect, in Estonia or Latvia one has to speak of several Russian minorities rather than just one. In Estonia, five groups were identified with regard to integration: a total of 50% of Russophones are consequently poorly or not at all integrated, 16% of this population group are "Russian-speaking patriots". Compared to this, 21% are “successfully integrated”. On the other hand, 13% of the respondents are critical of politics in both Estonia and Russia, have good knowledge of the Estonian language, but only have a weak civic identity.38 According to a study carried out on behalf of a Russian university based in Kaliningrad in Latvia, around a quarter of the Russian minority are clearly dissatisfied with their current situation (11% "radical opposition", 13% "socially frustrated").In contrast, two fifths of those questioned feel that they are reasonably well integrated into Latvian society (29% "moderate citizens" with middle incomes, 13% "adapted youth").39
Overall, the picture is contradictory. On the one hand, there are signs of differentiation within the Russian-speaking communities and partial successes in integration into the majority societies. On the other hand, the discrepancy between the two sides in terms of identity seems to be widening. This is not least due to the different and apparently more divergent interpretations of the history of the 20th century: historical narratives have proven to be "incompatible" or even "antagonistic".40 The associated “clash of identities” cannot be counteracted with traditional integration measures alone. Language skills, access to citizenship, or wealth are not the only factors that determine a sense of belonging. Rather, it is about building a culture of acceptance and trust in the long term.
Russians in the Baltic states see themselves as part of the Russian cultural world, but do not want to belong to the political world.
From a security policy perspective, the behavior of the Russian minorities can therefore on the one hand be assessed as relatively unproblematic. Moscow's support for minority movements in the Baltic states appears to be of limited effectiveness,41 and the Russian groups are hardly susceptible to separatism simply because of their living conditions. An Estonian political scientist therefore suggests not asking his Russian-speaking compatriots how they feel about the annexation of Crimea or Vladimir Putin, but rather whether they would prefer to pay in rubles instead of euros or whether they would prefer the Russian health system to the Estonian one.42 On the other hand, identity differences, insufficient integration of parts of the Russian community and the presence of Russian media offer opportunities for external destabilization. For the majority of the Russian minorities, Estonia or Latvia are economically and politically attractive, but cultural and linguistic ties to Russia still exist. Russophones or Russians in the Baltic states therefore see themselves as part of the cultural Russian world (russkij me), but do not want the political (rossiysky me) belong.43
The open flanks of the Baltic states include the disadvantages of their economic model, which is successful in many ways, but is strongly oriented towards market considerations and is associated with considerable hardship for the population. Growing social differences are weakening social cohesion, especially since they worsened again as a result of the economic and financial crisis that severely affected the Baltic states. Serious problems arise here, especially with regard to the Russian minority. In eastern Latvia, for example, with its high proportion of Russian-speaking population, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is only half the national average.44 Unemployment is around 10 percentage points above the level in the capital.45 In the East Estonian district of Ida-Virumaa, also a region with a high proportion of Russian-speaking residents, GDP per capita is 57% of the national level. The region is by no means the poorest in the country, but its level of prosperity has fallen further and further below the average in recent years.46 The Russian ambassador to Latvia indirectly admitted in March 2014 that there is a kind of ethnic poverty there. He said that "non-citizens" in Latvia could improve their material situation in the future because they could obtain Russian citizenship and a pension without having to live in Russia.47
The interplay of identity differences, insufficient political participation, a lack of social integration and economic marginalization as well as the influence of the Russian media offer a reservoir of opportunities to exert influence from outside. This is a potential for escalation that should not be underestimated in the event that tensions arise as a result of specific conflicts.
Domestic politics and party systems
A closer look at the domestic political and social situation and the state of the community reveals numerous weaknesses that endanger the stability of the Baltic states in the event of a crisis. In this context, the structure and functioning of domestic and party politics are particularly important.
Protest parties with an unclear profile repeatedly achieved success.
All three countries are parliamentary party democracies. However, the political parties are mostly weakly organized, the party systems fragmented and, except in Estonia, volatile. While radical, openly anti-European and nationalist parties have so far found little support, protest parties with an unclear profile have repeatedly achieved success. Characteristic of the political systems of the Baltic states is the existence of relevant, programmatically poorly defined parties, which position themselves in the political center, which in government responsibility usually act with little ideology and among whose representatives some are supposed to be involved in opaque business relationships, including with Russia . The Estonian ones belong to this important type of party Center Party, the Latvian Alliance of Greens and Peasants and the Lithuanian Federation of Peasants and Greens, the parties that are very important in their countries and are the largest governing parties in Estonia and Lithuania. Overall, especially for Latvia and Lithuania, a considerable "commercialization of politics" is identified, that is, its "penetration by business interests".48
In Latvia, oligarchs with close ties to Russia have long been able to exert considerable influence on politics. So-called oligarchic parties emerged noticeably weakened from the parliamentary elections in the current decade, but people such as the controversial major entrepreneur and mayor of the port city of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, are still present in the public and political arena. Lembergs, an important background figure in the parliament and formerly in the government Alliance of Greens and Peasants, compared in spring 2014 a possible stationing of NATO troops in Latvia with the Soviet "occupation" of the country.49 At the end of 2019, Lviv and some of the companies he controlled were subject to US sanctions because he had been accused of money laundering, bribery and abuse of office for years.50 In Latvia there is also the sharpest dividing line in the party system between primarily conservative, liberal, nationally oriented and all pro-Western »Latvian« parties on the one hand and the party harmony on the other hand, behind which predominantly Russian or Russian-speaking groups of voters stand. harmony is social democratic and has been accepted as a member by European social democracy. However, it has so far been avoided by the other parties and therefore did not find its way into the government. Also in connection with the elections of autumn 2018, in which harmony Once again achieved a relative majority, most of the other groups showed no readiness to form a coalition with the most popular party. The rejection by the »Latvian« parties also results from the fact that harmony with a clear commitment to security-political integration in NATO and, moreover, takes positions in terms of historical politics or in relation to Russia that are out of the question for the Latvian part of the political spectrum. Until 2016 it had harmony a cooperation agreement with the Putin-affiliated Russian party United Russia.51
In the past there were parties in the government in Lithuania, the leaders of which were in close contact with Russia. These groups include the populist Order and justice of the former President Rolandas Paksas, who was removed from office for, among other things, passing on state secrets to a Russian businessman, and the Labor Partywhose founder Viktor Uspaskich, a colorful entrepreneur of Russian origin, was sentenced to four years in prison for illegal activities with the party coffers. Raimundas Karbauskis, the chairman of the Lithuanian ruling party, is also said to have business relationships with Russian companies Greens and farmers and owner of the largest agricultural company in Lithuania, Agrokoncernas.
A more recent phenomenon is the strengthening of national-conservative parties, some of which are critical of Europe. In Estonia, for example, in the 2015 elections, the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) established a noteworthy national-conservative force for the first time (it won 8% of the votes), which is critical of Russia but also skeptical of the EU. In the parliamentary elections in March 2019, EKRE won almost 18% of the vote. Since spring 2019, it has been together with the moderately conservative party Fatherland, Part of the governing coalition with the Center Party at its head and provides, among other things, the interior and finance ministers. Latvia had to vote in the parliamentary elections in October 2018 National Alliance accept losses, but the grouping Who Owns the State?, a demagogically polarizing party, made it into parliament with 14% of the vote. In spite of everything, it can be stated that neither oligarchs and their affiliated groups, nor Eurosceptics nor the supposedly more "pragmatic" parties in Russia (such as the Estonian Center Party) have brought about a fundamental change in foreign and security policy.
Energy industry asymmetries
Traditionally, all Baltic states are heavily dependent on the import of energy sources from Russia and are asymmetrically interwoven with the Russian energy industry. The reason is that a large part of the existing supply networks and transport arteries was created in Soviet times, when the Baltic republics were part of a political-economic and energy-related network. In particular, the infrastructural conditions in the gas sector and the electricity industry meant that the three countries were mostly or exclusively connected to Russia for a long time. Even if the import dependency on Russia or the share of Russian energy imports in total consumption vary considerably between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,52 After joining the European Union, the three countries were regarded as "energy islands" in the community.
Until a few years ago, all gas imports came from Russia. Until the middle of the current decade, the three countries were among the EU member states that were most dependent on Russian gas supplies (see Table 2, p. 22). The supply infrastructure for gas is also traditionally one-sided designed for the import of Russian gas. Alternative pipeline routes for connections to EU countries did not exist.
For a long time, the three countries were largely or completely dependent on Russia for gas and electricity.
For a long time it was the Russian energy company Gazprom and the German energy company E.ON Ruhrgas that jointly controlled the gas suppliers in all three countries. These dependencies were put into perspective by two factors. On the one hand, there are large gas storage capacities in Latvia, which cover more than twice the annual consumption of the country.53 The storage facilities supply Latvia, but also Estonia and neighboring Russian regions in autumn and winter. Lithuania is also connected with a pipeline. On the other hand, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is supplied with gas via a pipeline that runs through Lithuania. However, Russia has overcome this transit dependency by pushing ahead with the expansion of storage facilities in Kaliningrad and opening a terminal for liquefied natural gas (LNG) there at the beginning of 2019.
The Baltic states also gradually lost "transit power" in the transport of crude oil and petroleum products, as Russia pursues a resolute route policy, above all by building its own oil terminals such as in Ust-Luga and Primorsk and new pipelines such as BTS-2. That is why it relies less and less on the once important Baltic ports such as Ventspils, Riga, Tallinn-Muuga and others. After the crude oil pipeline from Polotsk in Belarus to the Latvian port city of Ventspils was shut down at the end of 2002, the loading business there temporarily collapsed. At least some of the losses could be quickly absorbed by Latvia having oil transported by rail. In addition, the pipeline through which oil products are exported from Belarus remained operational. Although the Russian side is trying to bring its own terminals more into play for this, too, cost reasons have largely prevented this so far.54
Sources: Estonia: Statistics Estonia,
The region's only refinery, ORLEN Lietuva, is located in Mažeikiai, northwest Lithuania. In the summer of 2006, the Polish energy company PKN Orlen took over the plant. Shortly thereafter, Russia interrupted the refinery's traditional supply route, which ran via a branch of the Druzhba pipeline from Belarus. Moscow cited an operational disruption as the reason. Not least in Lithuania and Poland, however, this approach was interpreted as a politically motivated reaction on the part of the Russian side, as Russian interested parties did not get a chance to sell the refinery in 2006. This, in turn, had previously been interpreted as a political decision, namely to the detriment of Russia.
Since then, the plant in Mažeikiai has been mainly supplied via a terminal in Būtingė on the Lithuanian Baltic Sea coast and a pipeline from there. Because of the good infrastructure, the operation of the refinery was not endangered. However, the alternative delivery route for crude oil and transport problems had a negative economic impact.55
When it comes to generating electricity, the degree of dependence on Russia, as well as cooperation with the larger neighbor, varies considerably. Estonia's electricity supply is largely based on domestic oil shale deposits. They cover more than four fifths of electricity production and make Estonia a net exporter of electricity.56 In Latvia, the hydropower plants on the Daugava in particular ensure that almost half of the electricity can be generated from renewable energies. When the second block of Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power plant was shut down in 2009, which had covered around 70% of domestic consumption, a large gap in the country's electricity supply had to be closed. As a result, not only energy prices increased, but also the share of natural gas in electricity production and electricity imports to Lithuania, a large part of it from Kaliningrad and Belarus.57 A follow-up project for a joint nuclear power plant of all three Baltic states and possibly with the participation of Poland, which is to be built in Visaginas, Lithuania, has not made progress so far. The fact that a nuclear power plant with two reactor blocks is being built in Ostrovets, Belarus, not far from the Lithuanian border, and which should be ready for operation in 2020, has caused great concern in Lithuania. Lithuania, like other countries in the region, considers the project extremely questionable because of allegedly dubious precautions for reactor safety. In addition, the nuclear reactor, which is being built by Russian companies and co-financed by the Russian side through a ten billion dollar loan, is regarded as Russia's “geopolitical weapon”.58 It is also feared that cheap electricity from the new power plant will destroy plans for a Baltic nuclear power plant. Lithuania therefore wants to take measures to prevent electricity from the Belarusian plant from reaching the regional electricity markets. While Poland, which is also considering building a nuclear power plant in the medium term, is obviously close to the Lithuanian position on this issue, Latvia is hesitant for the time being, hoping for cheap electricity imports.Finally, it is also suspected that Latvia is speculating on increasing the transit volume in the Latvian ports for goods from and to Belarus due to its pragmatic attitude.59
Diversification and new connections for the Baltic energy markets
The energy sector in particular, with its diverse dependencies and imbalances, shows that vulnerability can be reduced. After little had been done for a long time, efforts in this regard have taken concrete forms in recent years. At the end of 2014, Lithuania opened a terminal for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Klaipeda. The plant has an annual capacity of up to 4 billion m³ and can fundamentally change the framework conditions on the manageable gas markets of the three Baltic states, as their combined annual consumption is only around 4 to 5 billion m³. Initially, the delivery volume agreed by the Lithuanian utility LITGAS and the Norwegian energy company Statoil (now Equinor) was 540 million m³ per year.60 The LNG landfall facility went online before a long-term gas supply contract with Gazprom expired at the end of 2015. The Lithuanian side said that even before the LNG terminal was completed, Gazprom had managed to get a noticeable price reduction of around 20%.61 Overall, the liquid gas terminal is in a much better negotiating position than before, as Gazprom has lost its supply monopoly. In 2017, the share of gas sold by Gazprom in Lithuanian imports was 54%, after having fallen to almost 39% in the previous year.62 In 2019, 42% of imports came from the Russian group up to October. Nonetheless, the question arises from which directions gas in the form of LNG is being imported. Voices rose from politics expressing their displeasure that Lithuanian companies were buying liquefied gas from Russia's Novatek. Instead, they are striving, among other things, to expand American deliveries.63 All of this also has an impact on the other Baltic states. Gas was sold from Lithuania to Estonia immediately after the LNG terminal went into operation.64 Gas was also supplied to the Latvian storage facilities.
Further infrastructure projects in the region are intended to make the delivery options for all three Baltic states more flexible. These include a gas pipeline running through the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Finland, the so-called Baltic Connector, construction of which began in June 2018 and which was completed in early 2020. Its annual capacity is around 2.5 billion m³.65 Another important project is the pipeline connection between Poland and Lithuania (Gas Interconnection Poland – Lithuania, GIPL), which should be completed by the end of 2021. Its capacity for gas transport from Poland to Lithuania will initially be 2.5, later 4.1 billion m³ annually, in the opposite direction around 2 billion m³ annually.66 The planned expansion of connections between Lithuania and Latvia as well as Latvia and Estonia should also be emphasized.
These and numerous other projects are also part of the EU plan to better integrate the Baltic states and the eastern Baltic Sea region into the EU energy market (Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan, BEMIP). The Baltic Connector and GIPL each receive substantial co-financing from the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) of the EU. If these measures are implemented, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would overcome the one-dimensional alignment of their infrastructure with Russia as well as their physical isolation from the EU gas market. After much back and forth, a better integration of the Baltic states with each other is also becoming apparent. At the end of 2016, the heads of government of the three countries announced their intention to create a common market for gas by 2020, which Finland should also join. Since mid-2017, the three network operators have been using a new model for flexible cross-border gas trading, the so-called implicit capacity allocation.67
Changes are also underway in regulation and ownership structures. Lithuania in particular has made rapid and extensive progress in gas ownership unbundling. Against resistance from Gazprom, the gas company Lietuvos Dujos was split into a utility, a transmission company (Amber Grid) and a distribution company (Lietuvos Dujos Tiekimas). Lietuvos Dujos later merged with another energy company. At the same time, the ownership structure changed: As part of a divestment strategy in the Baltic States, E.ON sold its 39% stakes in Lietuvos Dujos and Amber Grid in spring 2014. As a result, Gazprom also sold its shares, which had previously been 37%. They went to Lithuanian state-owned companies, which now control all three companies that were founded on the basis of the old Lietuvos Dujos.
In Estonia, the Finnish energy company Fortum acquired the E.ON package of 34% of the ownership of the gas supplier Eesti Gaas and increased its stake to 51%, while Gazprom has 37%. The gas network operator Võrguteenus Valdus is controlled by the state Elering. The most important Latvian energy company Latvijas Gāze, which also owns the large gas storage facilities in Inčukalns, completed the split relatively late. Gazprom and its Latvian subsidiary Itera still hold significant shares. Critics complained that the Latvian government had given in to the gas lobby and significantly delayed the liberalization of the domestic gas market, namely until spring 2016. In addition, no effective joint Baltic gas market was possible as long as Gazprom controlled the Latvian gas storage facilities through its shares in Latvijas Gāze.68
There were also innovations in the electricity supply. Above all, the new system connections help to bring the three countries out of their island position in the energy industry. Estonia is now connected by two cables to the Finnish system and thus also to the northern European electricity market Nordpool: Estlink 1 and 2 have a total transmission capacity of 1000 megawatts. A 400-kilometer cable through the Baltic Sea from Klaipeda in Lithuania to Nybro in southern Sweden has been in operation since the end of 2015, creating a further connection to northern Europe. In December 2015, an electricity bridge from northeast Poland to Lithuania (LitPol Link) was completed.
The major task in the electricity sector remains to reintegrate the networks in the three countries into the continental European network. Together with Russia and Belarus, the Baltic states are still part of the post-Soviet system (Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, BRELL) and consider this a security risk.69 An autonomous solution is considered uneconomical, a connection with Northern Europe seems too expensive. Synchronization with the continental European network, which is to be achieved by 2025, is therefore preferred. After several quarrels in the face of manifest differences in interests between the three countries, an agreement was reached in dialogue with the European Commission and Poland, so that the process was set in motion in 2019. The EU will fund 75% of the first phase of the conversion.70 The so-called BRELL exit - which includes the construction of an additional line through the Baltic Sea to connect Poland and Lithuania - is intended to enable the three countries to be definitively integrated into the EU's electricity markets. For security reasons, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want to eliminate the risk of destabilizing their electricity grids.
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