Last week I had a quick look at the purchase by Latvia of surplus armoured vehicles from Britain as part of the Baltic nation’s commitments to its NATO membership. The questionable utility of the decades-old armour for modern battlefield conditions was obvious, even in the operational deployments planned for by the strategists in Brussels. However, as I pointed out, dealing with a serious domestic security challenge in Latvia itself would be a different matter. This was a reference to the country’s large and heretofore relatively acquiescent ethnic Russian population, not to mention recent events in Ukraine. Which makes this (slightly overexcited) Vox article a wee bit worrying:
“A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official says that Moscow has a responsibility to protect ethnic Russian citizens of other countries, “regardless of where they live,” and that “we will do everything possible to defend the rights and interests” of ethnic Russian minorities in the neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The comments came from Anatoly Makarov, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Interaction with Compatriots Abroad.
Here’s why that’s a bad sign: Russia premised its two invasions of Ukraine (first to annex Crimea in March, then to invade eastern Ukraine in August) on protecting ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the country. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has embraced the imperial-era idea that Moscow is the real authority responsible for ethnic Russian minorities in other countries. The fear has always been that Putin might extend this thinking to Russian minorities in the Baltic states, as possible prelude to a Ukraine-style invasion there.
Putin may well be merely testing his limits in the Baltic states, which is probably why President Obama himself flew to Estonia and gave a speech warning Russia that the American military would defend it and other Baltics from any Russian aggression. Less than 48 hours later, though, Russian agents crossed the border into Estonia and kidnapped an Estonian state security officer who works on counterintelligence. While far short of an act of war, it certainly seemed like a provocation intended to signal Moscow’s willingness and desire to bully its Baltic neighbours, NATO mutual defence treaties be damned.
After speaking with Putin in early March, Chancellor Angela Merkel described him as out of touch with reality and “in another world.””
As I stated in the Comments beneath my original post I can’t see Vladimir Putin risking a confrontation with NATO, the European Union and the United States by undermining the authority of a member government or ally of all three. Exploiting existing chaos and disorder in a faraway politically, diplomatically and militarily weak Black Sea state is one thing. Attempting to foster the same situation in a nation on the periphery of the EU is something else altogether. Now that really would be another world.