Briefs

Russia ratchets up rhetoric in the Baltics

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  • Krievijas sūtņi brīdina NATO un sankcijas padara Baltijas valstis par raķešu mērķiem  Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
Russia's envoys warns: NATO expansion, sanctions make the Baltic states targets for missiles.

Since early June, Russia’s ambassadors to the Baltic states have actively promoted strategic narratives that seek to counter Western sanctions as well as NATO’s deployment of forces in the Baltics. On 7 June, Evgeny Lukyanov, Russia’s new envoy to Latvia, held a press conference in which he repeated the Kremlin’s narrative that NATO did not keep its promise after the collapse of the USSR not to enlarge eastward. “Today a NATO member, Estonia, is located 140 km from my native St. Petersburg,” he said. “We were deceived. Not the first time.” Stories complaining about NATO expansion or Western conspiracies to undermine the Kremlin are frequent themes in Russian political discourse. They ignore the rights of Baltic states to choose their geopolitical identity, as well as the fact that in the 1990s, Baltic countries were more determined to join NATO than the alliance was to accept them.

At the same time, Lukyanov—who reportedly belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle—said NATO forces in Latvia do not threaten Russia. Instead, he argued, territories hosting NATO installations have become targets for Russia’s armed forces. To expand upon this deterrence argument, outlined in previous briefs, Lukayanov rhetorically asked: “Do you think it is good to be such a frontier? Do you want to be frontline states or rear?” Alexander Udalcov, Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania, made a similar point in an interview with the Lithuanian Russian-language newspaper Litovskiy Kurier. Commenting on the need to deploy Iskander ballistic missile systems in Kaliningrad, Udalcov said it was NATO that “moved the zone of responsibility to our country, forcing us to take reciprocal steps.” 

By their comments, Lukayanov and Udalcov overlook Russia’s role in destabilizing regional security over the last 10 years by attacking Georgia, annexing Crimea and supporting separatism in Ukraine’s Donbas. They took NATO’s deployment of forces in the Baltics out of a broader context, making NATO look aggressive rather than defensive. 

Both ambassadors also claimed Russia has overcome the negative impact of Western sanctions, and that those countries which imposed the sanctions are the main losers; for example, Lukyanov said the sanctions have cost Germany 300,000 jobs. Official statistics, however, say otherwise. In fact, Germany’s unemployment rate has continued falling since Russia imposed countersanctions and its jobless rate now stands at a record low. Moreover, as has been argued in previous briefs, it was the ruble’s enormous devaluation—not Russian countersanctions—that caused European companies, including those from Latvia and Lithuania, to suffer an export collapse.

Regarding its support of anti-Russia sanctions, Lukyanov stressed that NATO and the EU force Latvia to maintain them—thereby downplaying Latvia’s right and ability to independently decide its view with respect to sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Lukyanov reinforced his claim by comparing Latvia to other Western countries whose companies are still doing business with Russia, despite the sanctions. This is, however, a misleading juxtaposition, because Lukyanov mentioned companies that operate in the engineering industry, while Russian countersanctions are targeted at Western food producers.

Udalcov also claimed that other countries are advancing their economic relations with Russia, while Lithuanian politicians ignore such opportunities. Unlike Lukyanov, however, he blamed Lithuania for being the most extreme supporter of sanctions, implicitly comparing it to other EU countries which allegedly maintain more moderate attitudes toward Russia: “It seems that official Vilnius likes to position itself almost as a locomotive of Western sanctions ... One gets an impression that the lifting of sanctions can become a national catastrophe for Lithuania.”

Lukyanov and Udalcov advocate longstanding Kremlin positions toward NATO and Western sanctions that largely disqualify the Baltic countries as sovereign actors of international relations. Yet, the salience of the claim that Latvia and Lithuania have become new targets for Russian missiles has increased, along with regional tensions in 2017. This helps the Kremlin to counter the central message of NATO’s deployment of forces, that it hopes to strengthen a sense of security in the Baltics. Likewise, the Kremlin’s divide et impera strategy also becomes more salient in the discourse on sanctions. Namely, pro-Kremlin media and diplomats constantly search for and highlight examples that supposedly prove that the West is divided on the issue of sanctions, or that consistent Baltic support for sanctions will turn these countries into Russophobic outcasts at odds with more pragmatic Western countries. These allegations are not supported by facts on the ground.