Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania bristle as Russia rattles its sabre

Nato sees sharp rise in warplanes and ships approaching Baltic states’ territory

A girl lights a candle during Latvian Freedom Fighters’ Remembrance Day, or Lacplesis Day, to commemorate those who fought in the 1919 Latvian War of Independence, near Riga castle on November 11th. In Latvia, Russia’s increased military activity is seen as an echo of the cold war. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

A girl lights a candle during Latvian Freedom Fighters’ Remembrance Day, or Lacplesis Day, to commemorate those who fought in the 1919 Latvian War of Independence, near Riga castle on November 11th. In Latvia, Russia’s increased military activity is seen as an echo of the cold war. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

 

In the cold, slate-grey skies and seas of northeast Europe, an old game is being played out under new rules.

Where for decades the Soviet Union probed the West’s defences and eavesdropped on Nato, now three sovereign Baltic states form the military alliance’s first line of protection against a belligerent Russia, as it casts an ever-longer shadow over its former empire.

Nowhere are shockwaves from Moscow’s undeclared, “hybrid” war in Ukraine felt more strongly than Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and here a simultaneous surge in Russian military and intelligence activity is causing most alarm.

This week, Nato fighter jets were again scrambled to shadow a Russian military plane as it neared the airspace of the Baltic states, before it turned and made for Kaliningrad – a Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania that hosts a major naval base. Latvia also reported another approach by a Russian military ship to within a few kilometres of its territorial waters.

Moscow’s fighters, strategic bombers, surveillance and military cargo planes are again becoming a common sight for Nato’s air-defence crews, which already this year have intercepted three times as many Russian aircraft as in 2013.

In one 24-hour period in late October, 26 Russian warplanes were detected across Europe, prompting interceptors from as far apart as Denmark, Portugal and Turkey to scramble over the Baltic, North and Black Seas, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Nato says Russian military planes are not only flying more frequently near foreign airspace, but in larger formations and on “more provocative” routes; actual Russian incursions into national airspace have also increased sharply in the Baltic.

Last month, Sweden launched its biggest naval operation since the cold war to hunt for a suspected foreign submarine in the Stockholm archipelago; though nothing was found, it highlighted what Scandinavian and Baltic states say is rising Russian submarine activity near their coasts.

On land too, tension is growing. The Baltic countries were alarmed in September, when Russian agents allegedly kidnapped an Estonian counterintelligence operative near the countries’ shared border, where he was investigating smuggling operations.

Cross-border abduction

Moscow

The alleged snatch took place just two days after US president Barack Obama visited Estonia and lambasted Russia’s “brazen assault” on Ukraine and told the Baltic states that Nato considered the defence of their capitals – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – “just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London”.

“An attack on one is an attack on all, and so if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘Who’ll come to help?’ you’ll know the answer: the Nato alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America,” Obama told his audience. “You lost your independence once before. With Nato you will never lose it again.”

The Baltic states believe that, but do not take it for granted.

Like Ukraine, they are former Soviet lands that parts of the Russian establishment – now dominated by men who share President Vladimir Putin’s security-service background – do not recognise as immutably sovereign territory.

In annexing Crimea and fomenting a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Moscow used tactics that could be effective in the Baltic states: a massive propaganda campaign in Russian-language media, support for pro-Moscow activists and exploitation of the grievances held by many in the local Russian community.

“This is a profound development for us,” Andrejs Pildegovics, state secretary at Latvia’s foreign ministry, said of Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. “The invasion of Crimea and Ukraine has put relations back many years. Trust has been destroyed on many levels. This cynical changing of borders is very serious.”

In Latvia, which will assume the six-month presidency of the European Union in January, Russia’s increased military activity in the Baltic and beyond is seen as a “troublesome” echo of the “cold-war situation”, at a time when the West is threatening further sanctions against Moscow for actions in Ukraine.

“We take [Russia’s exercises] not as a direct threat, but as a reminder of its military presence and an attempt to influence the mood of Nato and the EU,” Pildegovics said.

“This crisis is not going to go away in days or weeks. It looks like a deliberate policy of internal isolation of Russia . . . and a clear statement that the West and the United States are seen as adversaries. These developments must be taken very seriously.”

Soured relations

Janis Kazocins

“Things changed fundamentally with the annexation of Crimea,” he said, calling it a long-planned operation that Moscow was forced to implement earlier than intended due to last winter’s pro-western revolution in Ukraine.

Kazocins said Russian activity in Latvia changed about eight years ago. “From 2006, we noticed an improvement in [Russian] intelligence conducted against Latvia, control of non-governmental organisations and media development,” he said.

Moscow claims Latvia abuses the rights of its large Russian-speaking minority, and politicians from that community took part in pro-Kremlin “monitoring” missions that gave glowing praise to dubious votes in Crimea and rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

Scores of Russian activists are banned from Latvia due to their allegedly subversive activities, including Riga-born Alexander Kazakov, who is an adviser to Ukraine’s separatist leaders and was in Donetsk for their “elections” this month. Several Latvians are known to be fighting in the militants’ ranks.

The Baltic states are now forming a joint defence battalion, Nato is conducting war games in Lithuania and Estonia, and the alliance’s jets patrol the region’s airspace. “We are very worried about the future of Ukraine and the Russian neighbourhood,” said Pildegovics.

“We are not planning any provocative military bases or missile silos . . . But we take our defence very seriously. We need to be safe.”

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