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Ukraine War Leaves the Baltics Wondering If They Are Next

Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine has some Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians — particularly those old enough to have lived under Soviet domination — concerned that they may be the next target. The tensions have reawakened memories of deportations and tyranny in the past.

“My grandparents were sent to Siberia,” says the narrator. My father was subjected to KGB repression. “I now live in a free democratic nation, but it appears that nothing can be taken for granted,” remarked Jaunius Kazlauskas, a 50-year-old Lithuanian teacher in Vilnius.

During World War II, Stalin invaded and occupied all three Baltic republics, but they regained their freedom after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. In 2004, they became members of NATO, putting themselves under the military protection of the United States and its Western allies. Ukraine is not a NATO member.

The Baltic states, as well as Poland, a NATO member, have been among the most vocal proponents of tough sanctions against Russia and NATO reinforcements on the alliance’s eastern border. Baltic politicians have been to European cities in recent weeks, saying that unless the West makes Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for assaulting Ukraine, his tanks would continue to roll toward other areas of the old Soviet empire.

“The fight for Ukraine is also a fight for Europe.” In a joint press conference with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned that if Putin is not stopped there, he will move further.

President Joe Biden stated two days before Russia’s expected attack on Ukraine that certain American forces stationed in Europe, including 800 infantry soldiers, F-35 fighter jets, and Apache helicopters, would be sent to the three Baltic republics, portraying the action as strictly defensive.

In the Baltic capitals, the news was greeted with delight. While the NATO charter binds all allies to protect any member who is attacked, the Baltic states argue that NATO must demonstrate its determination not simply with words but with boots on the ground.

“Russia always assesses not just military capability, but also a country’s willingness to fight,” said Janis Garisons, state secretary at the Latvian Defense Ministry. “Once they spot a flaw, they’ll take advantage of it.”

While Putin has not officially stated his desire to reinstate Russian rule over the Baltic states, many Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are concerned that he wants to reassert Russian control over all former Soviet republics, which he previously described as a tragedy for the Russian people.

Putin claimed Ukraine is “not simply a neighboring nation for us” in a speech earlier this week setting the groundwork for Russia’s military action. It is inextricably linked to our own history, culture, and spiritual realm.”

Because of their cultural and linguistic differences, the Baltic nations do not have the same cultural and linguistic ties to Russian history and identity. They were, however, dominated by Moscow for the majority of the previous 200 years, first by the Russian Empire, then by the Soviet Union for the half-century after World War II. Ethnic Russian minority exist in all three nations; in Latvia and Estonia, they account for nearly a quarter of the population.

Hundreds of ethnic Russians rioted over government plans to move a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, in 2007, despite the fact that many of them are well integrated. Estonia suspected Russia of inciting protests and coordinating cyberattacks that brought government computer networks to a halt.

“When we hear Putin demeaning Ukraine, calling it a fake state with no history,” said Nerijus Maliukevicius, a political analyst at Vilnius University, “it reminds us of the same things that they have been repeating about all former Soviet countries for many years.” He went on to say that Russia’s “state propaganda machine” is now operating at “record levels of intensity,” and that the message isn’t only about Ukraine.

Lithuania has borders with both Kaliningrad, a Russian area where Russia’s Baltic Sea navy is stationed, and Belarus, a former Soviet republic where tens of thousands of Russian troops have been deployed for joint exercises. Because of the tensions in eastern Ukraine, Belarus just stated that the drills will continue.

Before Russia started its war on Ukraine, Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas declared, “It appears they are not going to quit.” “However, we must recognize that numbers do not imply everything. On our side of the border, there are forces that are technologically advanced. Their primary mission is deterrence — and, if necessary, defense.”

Ukraine has received considerable backing from the Baltic nations. Baltic leaders visited Kyiv to express their sympathy and supplied arms and humanitarian goods to Ukraine. Estonia, which has maintained close political and economic ties with Ukraine, has also volunteered to assist the country in strengthening its cybersecurity.

Estonia is taking a strong stand in the crisis, but not because it worries for its security, according to former President Kersti Kaljulaid, the first woman to occupy the position.

“We’re doing it because we believe it’s our moral responsibility,” she explained. “We believe that every nation should have the freedom to determine its own destiny.”

Despite the fact that the Baltics are Russia’s direct neighbors, she believes that other European nations should be concerned about the Ukraine situation as well.

“To be honest, I don’t think it affects the Baltics any more,” she remarked. “From Kyiv, it’s the same distance to Berlin as it is to Tallinn.”

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper is a global reporter for TheOptic, focusing on bringing insights and developments for global breaking news daily. With almost seven years of experience covering topics from all over the world, Brian strives to make sure you stay up-to-date with what's going on in the world.
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