Respect Thy Neighbor: Russia and the Baltic Region


Twenty-five years ago, soon after I joined Carnegie, I launched my first project at the Carnegie Moscow Center. It was focused on the Baltic Sea area. As a result, I even wrote a short book for CMC called The Baltic Chance: The Baltic States, Russia, and the West in the New Europe. The idea behind both the project and the book was to conceptualize the role of the Baltic Sea region as a laboratory for ever closer collaboration between Russia and the rest of Europe. 

Fast forward to today. The Baltic Sea area has become the part of Europe where Russia and NATO, as a result of its enlargement to the east, sit physically side by side along a broad front. To all intents and purposes, it is a de facto front line. Following the 2014 Ukraine crisis, relations between Russia and NATO have turned as hostile as they were during the Cold War. Small Western military contingents are now deployed in each of the Baltic states. Poland is emerging as a new hub for the U.S. military presence in Europe.

Russia’s relations with non-NATO countries in the Baltic Sea region—Sweden and Finland—have also become markedly strained. Stockholm has just decided on a major increase in its defense spending, citing the Russian threat. Moscow, of course, has always considered Sweden an informal member of NATO. What is new is that Finland, Russia’s direct neighbor and a neutral–friendly partner during the Cold War, is now cooperating very closely with the United States and NATO. The Baltic Sea has largely become a NATO lake. 

In response, Moscow reversed the post-Cold War policy that had long seen its western flank as its safest. New military formations have been established. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, rather than becoming a laboratory for close Russian-European cooperation, has been rebuilt as a military fortress, a behind-the-lines West Berlin on steroids. While Russians worry about defending Kaliningrad, Poland and the Baltic countries fear a Russian strike to cut off the Baltics by seizing the Suwalki gap.    

What we are witnessing here is not a new Cold War, but a new kind of confrontation, which is also fraught with high risks. The most likely danger is no longer a massive cross-border invasion or a large-scale nuclear attack, but an inadvertent direct collision between Russian and Western forces where they operate close to each other, or a miscalculation by one side linked to misperception about the other. 

After 2014, this is no longer too far-fetched. As NATO pilots are ordered to fly closer to Russia’s borders, Russian pilots fly close—very close—to NATO planes. Mid-air collisions have not yet occurred, mercifully, but incidents involving Russian aircraft and NATO missiles have. Russia’s 2017 Zapad exercises were widely seen in the West as preparation for invasion of NATO territory or, at the very least, for the permanent occupation of Belarus.  

While the Russia-NATO confrontation itself has deep roots and will not be resolved in the foreseeable future, something can and must be done about bolstering military security in the Baltic Sea region. A number of reasonably noncontroversial steps have been recommended by various experts from Russia and the West. These include:  

— Reliable 24/7 communications between Russian and NATO military headquarters, from the Chief of the General Staff/Supreme Allied Commander Europe level down to the operational headquarters; 
— Regular personal contacts between the Chief of the Russian General Staff and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, as well as national military headquarters;
— Incident prevention mechanisms; 
— Confidence-building measures;
— Exercising unilateral/bilateral restraint, such as—arguably, the most important issue at this point—non-deployment of nuclear- and non-nuclear-armed intermediate-range systems (INF) in Europe.

While these measures would not qualitatively change the adversarial relationships that exist today or even start rebuilding trust between the parties, they would reduce the likelihood of an inadvertent collision between Russia and NATO.  

Economic cooperation, which looked promising twenty-five years ago, has not lived up to expectations. Recently, economic sanctions have become a salient feature of the international landscape and a weapon of choice for those who feel economically superior to their adversaries. It is unlikely that the EU sanctions imposed on Russia will be eased, let alone lifted in the foreseeable future. 

The issue of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is an illustration of the complexities of and challenges to economic relations in the energy field. Whatever the ultimate fate of the project, one cannot help but conclude that energy is losing its former role as a principal strategic backbone in the relationship between Russia and Western Europe. That fifty-year era is drawing to a close, and there will be no substitute for the decades-old energy relationship as the material foundation of Russo-EU ties.  

Not much can be done about this in the present circumstances. Geoeconomics, alas, now follows geopolitics, not the other way around. However, a post-pandemic revitalization of the economies might open new opportunities, and any sustained growth in Russia—supported by structural improvements, whenever that happens—would doubtless make the country more attractive to European businesses. Europe, of course, will remain attractive to Russia as a source of advanced technology—albeit, within the constraints of sanctions. 

One new thing that might be attempted with some hope of a breakthrough is Russia-EU collaboration on the issue of climate. This is now seen as a priority not only in the European Union, but increasingly in Russia as well. What is particularly interesting here is exploring the nexus between climate and energy.  

The humanitarian dimension demonstrates a host of problems that are of a fundamental nature and are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Little can be hoped for there, except for salvaging some cultural ties, academic and scientific exchanges, and, the pandemic permitting, cross-border travel and tourism. Even where active engagement is not possible, staying in touch or restoring contacts is a down payment for hopefully better times.

Certainly, the present situation in the Baltic Sea area is unsatisfactory. Looking ahead, it is important to set our sights on something more secure, more productive, and more positive. While doing that, it is also important to be realistic. Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the next decade—and a lot will. 

Given these precepts, one could consciously start repairing the badly broken relationship on a common basis of neighborliness. This would fall far short of partnership, but it would end unchecked hostility. Russia and its Baltic Sea neighbors will continue to disagree bitterly about many things, but they would seek to:

— manage these conflicts and disagreements in order to prevent a war that neither side wants or needs;
— desist from provoking their neighbors; 
— give those neighbors a modicum of respect, no matter how grudging; 
— find niches, however small, for productive dialogue and even cooperation, including on environmental protection, climate change, the Arctic, and the like.     

A special mention needs to be made about Russia’s relations with the three Baltic states. The fundamental issues that breed distrust and resentment on both sides will not have gone away in a decade’s time. Historical reconciliation between Russia and each of its three Baltic neighbors is way beyond the horizon. The issue of ethnic Russian non-citizens in the Baltics will be eventually resolved by demographics rather than politics. 

Russians would be advised that they will be able to deal with their Baltic neighbors more productively if they manage to put history to one side and learn to control their emotions, particularly when reacting to critical or unfriendly statements. Russian residents of the Baltic states can be part of the Russian world culturally, but should not be regarded as a pro-Russian lobby in their countries. The Russian world itself can only exist as a cultural phenomenon. Any attempt to use it for geopolitical purposes compromises and kills it. 

Contacts between Russia and the Baltic states are best maintained and developed between actual neighbors. On the Russian side, these are the residents of St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region, Kaliningrad, and Pskov. The issues on which cooperation is possible and desirable are all mundane and nonpolitical. Political contacts may be possible and reasonably productive in multilateral fora where politics takes a back seat, such as the Baltic Sea Cooperation Council (but are extremely unlikely within the Council of Europe).   

Finally, Russians should take the trouble to study their neighbors more closely. Expertise in the Baltic countries in Russia is light: a situation that is hardly surprising, but far from ideal. Setting up or expanding centers of Baltic studies at the federal and regional universities in Russia’s northwestern regions makes sense. Writing this piece from my dacha in the snow-covered Moscow countryside, I can only say that neighbors may be big or small, but they are all neighbors, and are ignored at one’s own peril.

From our partner RIAC

Dmitri Trenin
Dmitri Trenin
Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center


India’s Engagement with BIMSTEC: Contributions and Priorities

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and...

The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

Social media has become a vital part of our...

Bangladesh Faces Political Upheaval Ahead of January Polls

The political milieu in Bangladesh has been fraught with...

FT: EU ports help sell on over 20% of LNG imports from Russia

More than a fifth of Russia’s liquefied natural gas...