Teasing the bear: NATO, Russia and the Baltic States

By Leyla Aliyeva:

Latvian tanks in operation during NATO Operation Sabre Strike, 2013. Photo: Gatis Diezins, RYC (CC 2.0).
Latvian tanks in operation during NATO Operation Sabre Strike, 2013. Photo: Gatis Diezins, RYC (CC 2.0).

Russia’s President Putin statement a fortnight ago made on a conference with Finland’s President Sauli Niiniste sent a signal that Moscow is aware of NATO’s recent activities near Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe, and in the case of an attack Russia will strike back at the source of the attack.

Eastern European states, such as the Baltic States Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are looking to put their NATO membership to use as fears rise over further Russian expansionism. The Baltic authorities have expressed deep concerns over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the recent Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea and Baltic airspace. In May 2015 the Baltic countries made a joint request for a permanent detachment of NATO troops within their borders to serve as a counterweight to Russia’s military activities. United States deployed troops to the Baltic region and Poland following the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Germany has promised to deploy rotating troops to Estonia in early 2016. Also, NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system drones will be used in Baltic airspace from 2017.

Indeed, NATO continues to ramp up its presence in the region. NATO allies are taking up air patrols for a four-month rotation in the Baltic region. Until the end of August fighter jets from Belgium, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom are on duty in the Baltic air policing mission against Russian aggression. Scores of ships and aircraft from 17 countries recently took part in Baltic Sea naval drills as part of exercise ‘BALTOPS’, involving 5600 servicemen between 5-20 June. The NATO and U.S Army Europe-led ‘Saber Strike’ operation in the three Baltic States and Poland wound down on 19 June. It is the largest such operation since 2010, with more than 6000 troops from 13 NATO allies[1]. Indeed, the Baltic states seem determined to increase NATO’s presence in the area.

But should the Baltic States really feel threatened?

There is no doubt that Russia has increased its presence in the Baltic region. There has been an overall increase in Russian aviation activity in the international airspace and high military activity from Russia near Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian border and exclusive economic zones. Poland’s Minister of Defense Tomasz Seimoniak stated in 2014 that Russia’s military activity is a demonstration of strength and is a test of NATO.

This seems to be a view widely held by officials in the area. Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas wants to station heavy US equipment in Lithuania, after Polish and Lithuanian governments stated that they are currently in discussion with Washington about a potential increase of US military presence in Eastern Europe.

In turn, a Russian Defense Minister official has said that the cozying up of the Baltic region with NATO has left Russia with no option but to seek military re-arrangements on its strategic Western front, such as Kaliningrad and Belarus. These standoffs do not help to build good relationships.

Background of NATO expansion: the Baltic States

The NATO enlargement in eastern Europe originally occurred in the absence of the threat that produced NATO in the first place. It occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia was left weak and unstable.

NATO took cautious steps towards its expansion to the east of Europe. In 1999 the Alliance perceived the three countries out of the Visegrad group (Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary) as the most significant potential members in eastern Europe. The three former Warsaw Pact countries were left economically and military weak after the dissolution of the USSR; by joining NATO and then the European Union Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic established security, integration into the European community, and signaled the formal end of the Soviet domination which had lasted approximately half a century. None of the Visegrad group countries border Russia and therefore the 1999 expansion did not constitute a direct threat to Russia.[2]

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all had aspirations to join NATO right after the break up of the Soviet Union. Since gaining independence in 1991 the Baltic Trio for more than a decade tried as hard as they could to move further away from Russia towards Europe and the West. They succeeded in 2004 by joining both the European Union and NATO.

Russia’s reaction to their joining NATO was anger. One of the most important issues was that NATO expansion in the Baltic region would inevitably increase the likelihood that the Alliance would station troops closer to Russia’s borders than ever before. Border disputes between the Baltic States and Russia added danger to the overall situation. Lastly, a particular concern was the large number of long-term Soviet citizens who are disenfranchised in independent Estonia and Latvia – to this day they experience problems with obtaining Estonian and Latvian citizenship.[3]

NATO, the Baltics and Russia today 

NATO activities in the Baltic States today is a demonstration of Western strength, rather than a response to a direct identified threat. The suspension of all practical cooperation between NATO and Russia, including the NATO-Russia Council, only contributes to further tensions between the Alliance and Kremlin.

Of course, the Soviet past plays a major role in the reaction towards Russia coming from the Baltic States. By looking at Ukraine’s fate, the Baltic trio feels threatened by Russia. The Ukraine conflict demonstrated that Russia believes that the existence of ‘ethnic Russians’ abroad can justify intervention in former Soviet states. The fears over Russia fomenting rebellion among ethnic Russians in the Baltic states has led to NATO shifting its focus from Russia’s military activities to its information war. Indeed, Lithuanian President’s Dalia Grybaiskaite and Latvia’s interior minister Mikhail Kozlovskis recently raised concerns that Kremlin may try to influence and form a pro-Moscow rebellion in the Baltic states, just as they did in Eastern Ukraine, by manipulating the media.

Despite the significant part of the Baltic population that has ethnic Russian origin, the situation is different to Ukraine. Firstly, the ethnic Russian population is decreasing. From 1989 to 2011, the amount of ethnic Russians in Latvia decreased from 34% to 26.9%, in Lithuania from 9.4 % to 5.4%, and in Estonia from 30.3% to 25.5%. In comparison, the Russia-speaking population in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine makes up more than half of the population of Ukraine.

Secondly, modern Russian-speakers residing in the Baltic region are also different from their Russian counterparts. The Baltic Russian diaspora in each of the Baltic countries has its own characteristics. The Latvian Russian community is more or less united; the other two Baltic Russian communities are not. This makes it difficult for Russia to be able to formulate attractive policies or influence through propaganda for Baltic Russian-speaking communities, let alone to form a rebellion.[4]


There is no doubt that the Baltic States are concerned with Russia’s military activity and capability. While conflict is still ongoing in Ukraine, the Baltic States will feel threatened by Russian expansionism and will use their NATO membership as much as they can. Despite the fact that Russia has repeatedly stated that it has no interest in invading the Baltic States.

Although the Baltic states are unlikely to follow Ukraine’s fate of becoming the battlefield of the great powers. The authorities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania authorities are right to be wary. Russia may state that it has no interest in invading the Baltic States, but the 50-year long Soviet past, and the more recent actions of Russia in Eastern Ukraine play an important part in heightening the fear and suspicion of the Baltic States towards Russian bear, the bear that has been edging closer and closer in recent years.

Leyla Aliyeva studied International Politics at Middlesex University and is currently an LLM student at the same university. Her particular focus is on post-USSR and Eastern European  countries with a specific focus on human rights and minority rights. She also worked at the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre as an intern and worked on serious human rights violations in former Soviet states. 

For a more detailed look at the way that Russia’s relations with the world have changed since the Ukraine crisis, check out our recent 4-part series entitled ‘Russia and the World following Ukraine‘. 


[1] Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States

[2] (1995) NATO and the Baltic States, American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, 17:5, 22-22,

[3] (1995) NATO and the Baltic States, American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, 17:5, 22-22,

[4] Victoria V. Panova (2015) , Russia’s ‘Soft’ Policies towards the Baltic States Latvian Institute of International Affairs p.86

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