Ah, World War III rumors. They used to be a regular feature of the Cold War, but it seemed like they’d been relegated to conspiracy fringes following the fall of the Soviet Union. After all, what on Earth could provoke nuclear war?
Alas, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has bad news. The group, which tracks the possibility of nuclear war, uses a clock to calculate how close the world is to “midnight” – that is, nuclear Armageddon. They’ve been doing this for some 50 years, with the closest calculation in 1953 with the world at 2 minutes to midnight.
Back in 1991, we were at a luxurious 17 minutes.
Now, we’re at 3.
If this proxy conflict between Russia and the West is the new Cold War, then the Baltic Republics could be seen as the new Cuba or West Berlin: the place where World War III might actually break out.
Before we get to all that, let’s cliff note this baby.
- The Baltic republics – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – are essential for domination of the Baltic Sea, and consequently are vital to Russian efforts to rebuild their great power status.
- Alas for Russia, the Baltic republics were wise enough to join both NATO and the EU when they could.
- Like Ukraine, all three nation-states are vulnerable to not-quite-war pressure from Russia.
- And like Ukraine, Putin has incentive to carry out some of those acts.
First, the neighborhood, and why the Baltic states matter to both the West and Russia.
The three Baltic states sit in an unenviable geographical place. In ancient times, their northern position, with its short growing season and accompanying low population, prevented them from developing beyond tribes. As new technology moved slowly northwards from the Mediterranean and Central Europe, the Baltics were increasingly able to overcome some of these natural difficulties.
But no amount of tech could solve their eastern frontier problem. Like Germany, anyone trying to organize a state along this stretch of Baltic coastline must contend with the Great European Plain. Invaders from as far afield as Mongolia have few obstacles to raiding, sacking, and conquering anyone trying to set up states in the region.
During the Middle Ages, the Baltic states were controlled by German adventurers and raiders, who imported German technology and military techniques to establish the first independent Baltic kingdoms. Connected to Central Europe by way of the Baltic Sea, these regions were safe so long as Russia to the east was disorganized and thrown off by successive invasions from Asia.
By the Renaissance, northern European states had advanced technologically enough to turn the tables on Central Europe: having been ignored for so long by the contestants in mainland Europe, states like Sweden and Denmark had few internal divisions and directed their better organized power outwards. By the middle of the 1600s, Sweden had become a great power, dominating the Baltic Sea and sending ships as far afield as America. A brief period of Swedish imperialism emerged: not coincidentally, it was dependent on domination of the Baltic.
Meanwhile, however, newer technologies were enabling Russia to put an end to its Asian raider problem and centralize its vast territory. With guns and modern cavalry tactics, Moscow pushed outwards and outwards in a perpetual attempt to establish secure frontiers. Key to security on its northwestern flank was the Baltic Sea; thus the czars (and one czarina) turned their gaze upon it.
That’s because access to the Baltic Sea gives access tot the Atlantic and all the prosperity therein.
Russia’s sheer size is misleading; it lacks critical sea access to gain the advantages of Britain, France, and other states closer to the Atlantic. For any European state, getting to the Atlantic is key to prosperity and power. From 1600 onward, the Atlantic was the doorway to the riches of the New World and colonial empire. Even states without formal empires wanted to find ways to its trade routes.
But Russia, based from land-locked Moscow, started off as severely disadvantaged. Russian elites needed to find paths to the wealth of Atlantic trade and the more ports they had, the better. Hence the Russian obsession with “warm water ports” – the year-round ice-free cities that can support great merchant fleets.
18th century Russia pushed in several directions to do this: south towards Crimea and the Black Sea, east towards the Pacific, and west towards the Baltics. Key to success in the Baltics was having a secure base nearby: hence the czarist decision to build St. Petersburg as the new capital of the empire. Russian power would be based from there until 1918, when the communists moved it back to more secure Moscow in the wake of losses after World War I.
That decision paid dividends. By 1900, Russia had pushed out the Swedes, conquered the Finns, and were competing with Germany for total domination of the Baltic Sea.
Alas, World War I disrupted all that success and created a living memory for why the Baltics are vital to Russian security.
The Russian civil war severely disrupted Russian power, and the edges of empire frayed away, especially its valuable Eastern European provinces like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Finland. These losses severely weakened Russian power from 1920-40 in the Baltic Sea, and Stalin, a late-comer geopolitical master, knew Soviet world domination plans could not be achieved without securing it.
When Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II, Stalin took advantage of Europe’s chaos to swallow up the three Baltic states in 1940. (He also unsuccessfully invaded Finland, learning a hard geopolitical lesson about how purging your own army too much can be a bad idea.)
After the war, Stalin went to work binding the three states to the Soviet Union as permanently as possible.
With German power destroyed, Stalin grabbed up East Prussia to extend Soviet frontiers further along the Baltic coastline. He also began a colonization scheme that continued throughout the Soviet period, bringing in tens of thousands of Russians into lands once occupied by Germans. Germans were forced out, Russians were brought in (as was the Red Army), and the Baltic states remained key strategic assets for Soviet access to the Atlantic Ocean.
And those Russian migrants didn’t really go anywhere when the USSR fell.
Like other post-Soviet states in Europe, the end of the USSR didn’t mean Russians just packed up and left en masse. Similar to Ukraine, Russians remained in their homes: Estonia today has a high percentage of ethnic Russians with some 24% of the total population.
The Baltic states do not want to go quietly back into the night of foreign domination and control. Between World War I and World War II, they have tried – unsuccessfully – to navigate dangerous international waters on their own. They failed and were conquered anyway. This time around, they were determined not to repeat their mistakes. They ran headfirst into both NATO and the EU, joining the two in 2004. Now they have the ultimate security guarantee: the nuclear weapons-backed treaty of NATO.
That should have, in some minds, put an end to Russian ambitions.
Except that, besides nuclear weapons, nothing has really changed regarding geopolitical needs.
Russia still needs strategic access to the Baltic. It has its Kalingrad enclave, carved out of Germany following World War II, which is stuffed full of nukes and ships. But that enclave could be cut off without going to war; better to have more bases.
Worse, NATO is on the Russian border. The Baltic states are safe havens for Western intelligence agencies, anti-Putin dissidents, and other soft expressions of Western power. They are potentially models for Russians to admire: they have successfully integrated into the West and kept pace with Russian GDP growth.
Thus Russia under Putin seeks to bring to bear Russia’s many means upon the Baltic states short of going to war. And since Putin’s Russia is not irrational, it will play by very well-defined rules.
Chief among those rules is that nuclear war has no winner.
So Putin will not invade any of the three Baltic republics, even vulnerable and seemingly appetizing Estonia.
But that’s not the end of his tool kit. And there’s evidence he has begun to employ short-of-war actions against Estonia, the most vulnerable of the three Baltic republics.
Not long after Estonia joined NATO, Russia launched a cyberwar on Estonia, trying to hamper Estonian internet service. This act forced NATO to build up Estonian cyberdefenses and was the first shot by Putin across NATO’s bow. Prior to this, Putin had been content to play the grandmaster with natural gas supplies, shutting off pipelines when some country displeased him. But this was a direct attack on a NATO state, and was meant to test the waters.
NATO did not escalate; those were the Bush years, when Iraq dominated the headlines, and when the Bush administration’s political capital to focus on other rising geopolitical threats had already been expended. Putin learned the lesson: the West didn’t care enough about asymmetrical war to carry out a hardball response.
It’s only been with the annexation of Crimea that NATO has started to realize the Russian threat. Putin has cleverly used ethnic grievances as a way to wedge Russian power into former Soviet states; he’s manipulated Ossetians and Armenians in the Caucasus to bludgeon pro-Western governments in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Ukraine, ethnic Russian fears of Ukrainian domination and abuse have allowed him to begin a proxy war that essentially means Ukraine can join neither NATO nor the EU anytime soon.
Putin has spotted where he thinks the West is weak and is exploiting those areas to the hilt.
The West, once the home of great imperial powers, is no longer capable of fighting insurgencies. The moral, economic, and military cost of putting down a popular uprising is beyond the political appetites of the sitting elite. Putin knows this: hence the reason Ukraine’s civil war remains simmering, and why he’s held off on sending in a full invasion force. A full invasion, he knows, will rally the West: they will see it as another Hitler marching to Warsaw. But a guerrilla war can sow just enough doubt to slow down NATO’s response; certainly no European powers are talking of expanding the defense budget these days.
To focus on the Baltic republics means playing all the cards the West is most weak against: cyberattacks, energy supply bullying, and even outright kidnapping of Estonian government personnel. None of these will rouse NATO citizens beyond Estonians themselves; that’s critical for Russian efforts.
And a partisan uprising is well within those cards, even though NATO already sees it.
It’s public knowledge that there are enough Russians in Estonia to try a repeat of events in Ukraine. Russian security services could engineer protests, provoke a violent or incompetent response by Estonia’s government, and then use that to begin a general military uprising that would destabilize Estonia entirely. NATO’s ability to put down such a rising is questionable: the last insurgency defeated by a Western power was the Malay Emergency by Britain in the 1960s. Putin, having crushed Chechnya, knows the lengths a state must go to in order to defeat popular insurgencies, and he knows the West will not follow his model.
Unleashing a guerrilla war on Estonia, however, is fraught with consequences, and risks sucking Russian troops to prop up the insurgency just as they have in Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, Estonian houses American troops, and a confrontation between Russian troops and American ones risks a genuine world war.
The better option is neutralizing Estonia through means that bring to power a new government that withdraws from NATO and aligns with Russia. With so many Russians in the country, that’s by no means impossible. Relentless propaganda and continued provocations that force the Estonian government to make bad decisions could drive Estonia’s Russians to organize pro-Russian political parties. This the West is least capable of dealing with: popular democracies voting against Western geopolitical interests. The days of Operation Ajax are long gone.
It’s a long task, but not an impossible one.
Putin has spent 15 years putting Russian power back together again. All his actions are calculated to grab power when it’s possible and then to consolidate it while the West loses interest in pushing him back. Estonia, if that is his next goal, should be no exception, and he must tread carefully to avoid a military confrontation that will literally end human civilization.
NATO is unprepared for the weapons he will employ: ethnic discontent, 21st century propaganda, and access to energy. More than that, NATO itself is divided over whether Russian expansion really is a threat to the continent, or a legitimate expression of Russian grievances brought about by an arrogant NATO. Putin will exploit that well.
Through it all, one thing remains true: Russia must have access to the Atlantic.
And more ports are always better than a few. Actions in Sweden have likely been aimed to ward Finland off getting too close to NATO, thereby keeping NATO from having bases that could strangle St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city. Up until now, Putin has been intent on arresting NATO and EU growth. That he has done in Ukraine and Georgia. The next logical step is to find places where he can push it back. The Baltic republics might be persuaded or strong armed into doing so. Should Putin believe that, the world will get more dangerous, and the clock will tick closer to midnight.