A Fragile Baltic Balance
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States struggled to rebuild their societies and economies while establishing new diplomatic relations with the West. Initially, the Baltic States were somewhat successful in establishing positive bilateral relations with Russia. However, as they continued to align more with the West, relations with Russia have deteriorated, leaving great potential for international conflict.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have a combined population of approximately six million people. The three countries are roughly equivalent to size of Florida, and are located in Northeastern Europe. Many Russians believe that Russia has a modern claim to the region due to the Soviet Union’s annexation of the states in 1940. Almost immediately after the annexation, officials in Moscow began the systematic deportation of native citizens. People could be deported for involvement with the former government or openly opposing the Soviet Union. Families of these individuals were also deported. The total number of deportees is unknown, but it is estimated to be 200,000 people. Baltic citizens were deported to work camps in Siberia, and tens of thousands of people died from exposure, exhaustion, and illness.
While deporting Baltic citizens, the Soviets developed a strong Russian minority in Estonia and Latvia. Today, approximately one quarter of all citizens in Estonia and Latvia are ethnically Russian. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Estonian and Latvian majority discriminated against the Russian minority, gaining the attention of the Council of Europe. The European Union even threatened to reject membership applications from Estonia and Latvia if they did not establish laws to protect the Russian minority. The Estonian and Latvian governments enacted these prescribed laws, and though there have been societal changes, tension remains. The ethnic groups are largely isolated due to linguistic barriers, different occupations, and different school systems, which exacerbates the tension and propagates harmful stereotypes.
When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania collectively joined NATO in 2004, many Russians considered it a slap in the face. Russia and NATO already had negative relations, partially due to NATO’s response to the conflict in Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Additionally, a clause in the NATO agreement states that an attack on one member-state should be treated as an attack on all member states. If Russia evokes military action in Estonia similar to that in Crimea in 2014, the United States and other NATO members must come to Estonia’s defense. Although the world was furious towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine was not a member of NATO, and the implications of military intervention at that time would have been too costly. A similar move in the Baltic States, however, may escalate to a serious conflict. However, the United States is one of the main military-backers of NATO, and President Donald Trump has stated that the United States will not go to war against Russia if Estonia is annexed. This leads to questions about the future of NATO, and if the alliance will dissolve completely in the event of a Russian invasion.