Trump, Russia and the new geopolitics of the Baltics
Late Saturday, the President of the United States Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call. The Kremlin gave an official statement mentioning “the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, strategic stability and non-proliferation, the situation with Iran’s nuclear programme, and the Korean Peninsula issue,” adding that aspects of the Ukraine crisis had also been discussed. Its tone was typical of official statements from any country.
Despite this, early Sunday, Aleksey Pushkov, a member of the Russian parliament’s upper house (and one who is reputed to “regularly” make “incendiary statements”), tweeted: “Kiev, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw, Oslo, Stockholm, NATO – horrified by the results of the conversation Putin-Trump. They are preparing for ‘hardtimes’.” Pushkov did not attribute his comments to any specific institutions or individuals.
There is indeed evidence of concern for the region. Towards the beginning of January, former state Duma member Ilya Ponomarev– the only Russian politician to have voted against the annexation of Crimea – gave an interview to analytic website Hvylia, alleging that Putin seeks the fragmentation of NATO.
“To do this by military means is now impossible for Russia. But it is possible to ensure that NATO collapses,” he wrote. He went on to say that Putin would provoke a conflict in one of the Baltic states in order to see at least one of them trigger NATO’s Article 5 – that is that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” necessitating any actions, including armed force, to restore the status quo. He posited that this could come in the form of a provocation on the railroad linking Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
If NATO refuses to implement Article 5, the NATO alliance would invariably come to an end, Ponomarev said. Interestingly, shortly after this article appeared, on January 17th, Lithuania announced plans to erect a two-meter-high fence covering 130km (81 miles)between Vistytis and the Neman River, on the border with Kaliningrad – in part, for “geopolitical reasons,” Interior Minister Eimutis Misiunastold the Ziniu Radijas radio station on January 24th.
The future of the Baltic states during Trump’s presidency is still very much a talking point across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Feelings remain mixed.
“There were a number of leading Russian politicians/officials celebrating the Trump-Putin conversation as a breakthrough,” said Estonian political scientist and journalist Ahto Lobjakas. “Personally, I don’t think anything is going to happen any time soon.”
“He [Pushkov] just points out a general trend… the Baltic and other small eastern European states who are historically located in the ‘buffer’ zone have always been afraid of great powers arriving to decisions over their shoulders. A colleague of mine has called this Yaltaphobia,” said a research fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Diāna Potjomkina.
Trump’s presidency involves a “definite change in style, and we will probably have to get accustomed to that,” said Kalev Stoicescu, a research fellow with the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security.“The question is, what will be the difference in content?”
According to Stoicescu, the fact “no details as such” had been released of the phone conversation could be cause for concern. It means “there was a mutual agreement not to do that,” he said.
In the wake of Trump taking up the presidency, bubbling concerns about the future of Eastern Europe erupted. These predominantly related to comments made by Trump on the campaign trail in July, when he said that he would only decide whether to attend to the needs of the Baltic states in the event of an attack from Russia “if they fulfill their obligations to us.” While there was an initial wave of articles outlining fears for the future of the Baltic states, the internal atmosphere appears ambivalent: a quiet confidence in the continuity of US support and an unsettled undertow of apprehention.
It is something of a surprise that this concern is so generalised, as Estonia is presently the only country meeting its NATO spending commitments, and thus, it should be most certain of the United States’ support in the event of an encroachment from the east. Latvia and Lithuania’s responses have, on the surface of things, been a little more relaxed. However, a common theme among them is a firm belief in the need to stay united and integrated, with one another, but especially with their western allies and Europe as a whole.
During US President Barack Obama’s first press conference since the results of the 2016 US election, he underscored that “there is no weakening of resolve when it comes to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship”. “There’s enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order and promoting prosperity around the world,” he said.
The Baltic States too, are taking into account continuity in geopolitics, and acknowledging that Donald Trump’s campaign statements and the actuality of policy under his presidency will likely be very different things.
Latvia – “our defense budget is amongst the fastest growing in the world”
“We have to distinguish between statements made before and after the election. Donald Trump has not questioned the US commitments to NATO after being elected. Rather, we see flexibility entering Donald Trump’s position as of late,” said Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement. “It can hardly be imagined that the US would refuse to honour its commitments with regards to collective defence under crisis.”
The Ministry added that while Latvia is not currently meeting its defence spending commitments, and recognises that “we have to invest more in defence,” it is “close to that target” and will very soon have met it. “Our defence budget is amongst the fastest growing in the world in terms of percentage of GDP,” the MFA stated. “Our government’s commitment to achieve two percent by 2018 remains firm.”
The confidence, could nevertheless deflect a deeper sense of unease. “They won’t admit it but I’m pretty sure they are very troubled,” said Diāna Potjomkina, Research Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.
This coming year, Latvia is set to spend 1.7 percent (449 million EUR) of its GDP on defence in comparison with 1.4 percent (367.9 million euros) last year. However, some in the country believe that this is not being done quickly enough, recognising that even though this is the case, economically the situation is complicated, especially in the long aftermath of economic crisis. “Everybody said that we should be raising the expenditure more quickly… this is totally not enough and people are really unhappy about it… we should have been quicker,” said Potjomkina. However, if money goes to the army, it’s difficult to divert into pensions and healthcare, she added.
Despite economic complexities, Latvian officials maintain a sense of continuing need to treat Russia with caution. Canada is preparing to dispatch troops to the country in the springtime. Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis told Canada’s National Post in December that“Russia does not abide by the laws of behaviour which have kept peace and stability in Europe since the Second World War.”The MFA reiterated reservations about Russia pursuing an “aggressive policy.”
“Tensions between Russia and the UShave considerably augmented over the past year. Russia continues to undermine European security and fuels further violence in the Middle East, first of all in Syria,” it said. Analysts appear to agree. “Among policymakers there are no illusions and Russia is perceived as the number one threat to national security,” said Nora Vanaga, a senior researcher at the Center for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defence Academy of Latvia, speaking in a personal capacity.
Estonia – “the panic was evident”
Estonian political scientist and journalist Ahto Lobjakas said that Trump’s early comments made it painfully obvious that, “Estonia’s reliance on NATO has always been an act of blind faith.”The country’s situation is slightly different to that of the other two Baltic states, in that it is meeting its defence commitments, yet former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich still saw fit to term Estonia as being “in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” in July last year.
“Trump’s (and Gingrich’s) comments were immediately dismissed by [then-Estonian] President [Toomas] Ilves and others, but the panic was evident,” Lobjakas said. In November, Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of Estonia’s Parliament and the country’s former intelligence coordinatortold the New York Times that “the idea that our country is just a suburb of St. Petersburg is a nightmare for every Estonian.”
Estonia has “bent over backwards with regard to its NATO commitments,” said Lobjakas. As well as contributing the required two percent, the country also covers also the costs associated with the extra NATO presence in the country, bringing the total to more than 2.1 percent of GDP.
Nonetheless, the country is on high alert. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser said in an interview at the end of November that Russian President Vladimir Putin may use the transitional period to “test” the metaphorical red line. While that period has passed, he did say that “that is preventable – the more clearly collective messages are communicated, the fewer attempts he will make to play with [it]”.
Lobjakas also spoke of a sense of collectivity, saying that “there’s been talk … of plans to set up a Baltic-Polish lobbying presence in Washington.” However, he added that in his opinion this could be futile and dangerous, as it could serve to distance the countries from Germany.
Estonia takes the possibility of a Russian threat very seriously, right down to talks of building its own ‘fence’ (as it was termed by former Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand) on the border with Russia. “The structure along the border with Russia is referred to here as a fence. A high-tech structure, it should be completed by about 2020,” said Lobjakas. “Even if fears are irrational, policy needn’t be,” he said.
Stoicescu and Lobjakas both said that in Estonia there has been some speculation that Trump could lift US sanctions against Russia. “To impose sanctions was the right thing to do,” said Stoicescu.
“For Trump to terminate the sanctions without Russia having done anything – what would this mean? Trump could try to serve this as a gesture of goodwill … The expectations are of course very high … But they [the Russians] have very little to offer, and they have done nothing to deserve these good intentions,” Stoicescu said.
The passage of time since last July has clearly reassured Estonia. “No, we won’t panic, to be frank,” said Stoicescu.
Lithuania – “Trump is softening his tone”
Linas Kojala, Director at Lithuania’s Eastern Europe Studies Centre also took the stance that Trump’s statements in the run-up to the election and actual policy may not converge too closely. “Both the government and public expect that ‘candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ will be two different personalities. It seems that he is softening his tone on many issues, security as well,” he said.
Nonetheless, Kojala sees this as no reason to underestimate Russia’s presence on the eastern border and regards Baltic unity as highly necessary. “Lithuania constantly feels pressure from Russia on many other levels – for example, Russian military planes are flying dangerously over the Baltic sea, military exercises take place in Kaliningrad, Russian propaganda is also very active,” he said.
While Kojala also considered the importance of Balitic unity, like Lobjakas he also expressed the necessity to remain fully integrated with western neighbours despite their shared concerns. “The Baltics are a unit. We all discussed the possibility (or threat) of being ‘cut off’ via the Suwalki corridor from other NATO allies in the West; we all agreed on the need to do more ourselves, but also ask [for] more guarantees from our partners in the West, to show that deterrence really works, he said.
Aliide Naylor is a British journalist, editor and researcher. She formerly worked at The Moscow Times in Russia and is a contributor to citizen media network Global Voices. She holds a BA in History from the University of London and an MA in Russian Studies from the European University at St. Petersburg.