19 Feb 2015

After Ukraine, is Russia a threat to Baltic states?

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon warns of the “real and present danger” of Russia trying to destabilise the Baltic states, and says Nato will be ready to respond. But is he right about the threat?

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon

“Nato has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia whatever form it takes,” he told journalists accompanying him on a trip to Sierra Leone.

Mr Fallon said he was “worried” about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pressure he was putting on the Baltic Nato member states.

He also warned that the situation in regard to Russia was “warming up” and that it might try and use similar tactics to those it used in Ukraine to annex Crimea in the former Soviet bloc countries.

“You have tanks and armour rolling across the Ukrainian border, and you have an Estonian border guard being captured and not yet still returned,” he said.

Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia share borders with Russia and achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, all three countries also have large Russian-speaking minorities which experts have said could provide a pretext for Russian engagement.

Minister for Defence of the Republic of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis appeared to downplay the threat. Speaking to reporters at an informal defence conference on Thursday Vejonis saying that the probability of these threats was “very low”.

However he also added that the EU and Nato “would not be surprised” if Russia attempted to destabilise the region and that Latvia was “ready to react” to any potential threat.

Different situation

Sarah Lain, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said the situation in Ukraine was different from the Baltic states.

She told Channel 4 News: “Although we’ve seen an increase in the Russian air force and naval activity around the Baltics – and there are a high number of ethnic Russians particularly in Estonia and Latvia that could provide the pretext for a Russian intervention – the conflict in Ukraine is really about Ukraine, not further expansion of Russian influence and frozen conflicts.

“That’s not to say, given the chance and conditions, Russia wouldn’t jump in,” she added, “but this isn’t about wider expansion, it’s about preventing the complete loss of Ukraine from Russia’s influence.”

‘Economic and financial consequences’

Michael Fallon’s comments on Wednesday came after Prime Minister David Cameron said that Europe could no longer ignore Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict, and warned that it could face economic and financial consequences for “many years to come” if they did not desist from their actions in Ukraine.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a joint press conference with Latvian President Andris Berzins on Wednesday to announce the opening of a new Nato command and control unit in Latvia and to discuss key security issues for the region. During the press conference Stoltenberg stressed that Nato stands “shoulder to shoulder with Latvia“.

“The alliance’s responsibility is to protect and defend each and every ally against any threat,” he said, “Nato aircraft continue to police Baltic skies. Nato ships continue to patrol the Baltic Sea.”

Collective mobilisation

Stoltenberg’s comments mirror those made by former Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen a fortnight ago saying that there was a “high probability” that Putin would try to intervene in the Baltic states to test Nato’s article five, which states that a military attack on any Nato member is an attack on all of them and would automatically trigger collective mobilisation.

Since Nato’s inception 66 years ago it has been invoked only once, in response to the 11 September attacks in New York.

Russia has repeatedly denied aiding pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, despite frequent accusations that it has provided separatists with forces, training and advanced weapons”. Nato’s chief military commander General Phil Breedlove has claimed: “Forces, money, support, supplies, weapons are flowing back and forth across this border completely at will.”