VILNIUS/RIGA (Reuters) - The Baltics fear Russia’s military buildup over Ukraine will lead to Moscow sowing more trouble in their region after it curbed important exports last year and buzzed their borders, forcing NATO to scramble jets dozens of times.
The former Soviet republics of Estonia and Latvia have their own large ethnic Russian minorities and are alarmed by President Vladimir Putin’s justification for Russian actions in and around Ukraine as protection for Russian speakers there.
While all three Baltic republics have joined NATO - and Lithuania next year should be the last of the three to adopt the euro - these small countries are largely dependent on energy from Russia and have strong trade ties.
“Thanks be to God, we are NATO members,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters on Monday.
Grybauskaite said she was concerned about Russian military exercises in Kalinigrad, a Russian enclave tucked between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic sea and headquarters of Russian Baltic fleet.
“We are following the situation with (Russia’s) increased military readiness and drills at our borders,” said Grybauskaite, adding Lithuania and Poland could bring up the issue with NATO.
A repeat of a situation like in Crimea is highly unlikely in the Baltics because of the region’s NATO and EU membership, which Ukraine does not have.
“The risk is much lower for Russia intervening in the Baltic states,” said Michael Taylor, a senior analyst for Europe at Oxford Analytica. “It will be a real challenge to the U.S. and EU, and the West will not be able to ignore that,”
But Russia has long complained the rights of ethnic Russians are being undermined in the Baltics and they have long been vocal in warning of Russian soft power assertiveness.
Ahead of Latvia joining the euro this year, foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics was unequivocal - entry was an “insurance policy” over Russia.
ARE THEY NEXT?
Reacting to Russian moves in Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia summoned Russian ambassadors. Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics on Monday called for a European arms embargo against Russia.
Many in the Baltics want a strong Western response, worried their region could be next if Russia senses diplomatic victory.
“They (Russian actions) must be worrisome to all its neighbors, even those which are members of NATO. Leaders of Russia are unpredictable,” said Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s head of state in early 1990s and a European Parliament member.
Their reaction follows a year in which Moscow has appeared increasingly frustrated at its lost influence and used remaining leverage to pressure them to stay close.
Russia suspended dairy products imports from Lithuania last year and Russia and Belarus also held one of their largest military exercises near Latvia.
NATO scrambled jets more than 40 times to check on Russian jets approaching Baltic borders last year. That compares to once in 2004 when NATO first began patrolling here.
One pressure point could the fact that around a quarter of Estonia’s and Latvia’s population are ethnic Russian. Lithuania only has a small percentage of Russians.
Russian speakers are a majority in Narva, one of Estonia’s biggest cities as well as the Latvian city of Daugavpils.
There is distrust between Estonians and Latvians on the one side and ethnic Russians, who came over in their thousands during the Soviet era to work in industry. Many Russians say they have become second class citizens in the last two decades.
“Putin is doing the right thing. To get things done, you have to use brute force, like Stalin did,” said Vladimir German, a 25-year-old Russian-speaking businessman from Estonia, referring to Russian’s stance in the Crimea.
In some of the worst unrest since independence, ethnic Russians rioted in 2007 over the removal of a Soviet-era Bronze Soldier victory statue. That was followed by cyber attacks on Estonian computers, which the government blamed on Russia.
Ties may be improving. Estonia’s Eurovision song contest candidate was, for the first time, an ethnic Russian. But the fear is recent events will just add to latent tensions.
“Russian speakers continue to get their main source of information from the Russians, that is the press in Russia,” said Andres Kasekamp, political science professor at Estonia’s Tartu University.
“By using this compatriots card then the Kremlin is making people in neighboring countries like Estonia look at the Russian minority perhaps as a potential fifth column.
While the Latvian government is mainly Latvian-speaking, the opposition is mostly supported by Russian-speakers.
The split has been reflected in voters. Some ethnic Latvians say Russian-speakers were hostile to Latvia’s euro entry because of a reliance on Russian media for the news.
In one of the latest examples of concern in the Baltics about Russian media influence, Lithuanians have looked warily at allegations on Russian state TV that Ukraine’s pro-Western demonstrators were trained in Lithuania.
“I have been thinking recently about what I am going to do,” said Latvian Katrina Purina, who protested on Sunday against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine outside the Russian embassy in Riga.
“If ... one day I wake up in a land of fluttering Russian flags.”
Writing by Alistair Scrutton; additional reporting by David Mardiste in Tallin and Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; editing by Philippa Fletcher
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