Is It Prudent or Paranoid to Worry about Russia’s Influence in the Baltics?

Russia has been busy spreading its influence in Europe and Eurasia. Alexander J. Motyl worries that the Baltic states are “the most vulnerable to a complete [Russian] takeover,” and security expert Paul D. Miller predicts that World War III could break out in Latvia. Last month Lithuania issued a manual on what to do if Russia invades. These scenarios might sound far-fetched from well-appointed conference rooms in Washington, but in Eastern Europe, they do not.

The security services of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all sounded the alarm. According to Lithuania’s 2015 National Security Threat Assessment, Russia views the post-Soviet space as an “arena of geopolitical competition,” refuses to acknowledge their sovereignty, and has responded to greater tensions with the West by renewed efforts to influence its neighbors. We know that Russia uses a variety of tools to project power and exert influence, but here’s what it’s doing in the Baltics:

  • Supporting extremists: Pro-Kremlin media gives air time to national populists and far-right groups to spread their message on the refugee crisis. The aim is for irrational fear of refugees or concerns about the rise of the far-right to overshadow criticism of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In Latvia, pro-Kremlin media depict asylum seekers as threats to European security and values while portraying Russia as Europe’s true friend. In Estonia, Russian journalists were sent to Estonia on tourist visas to cover anti-refugee meetings and visit the Vao refugee center. They were seeking material to support the line that Estonia hates foreigners, including refugees and Russians.
  • Manipulating the Russian diaspora: Russia uses real and imaginary violations of rights of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics to justify intervention in its neighbors’ affairs. Government agencies and funds promoting the so-called “compatriot policy” seek to shift the loyalty of Russian speakers abroad toward Russia and put them at odds with the societies in which they live. In Lithuania, the Russian Embassy aims to develop a young generation of activists loyal to Russia through its language schools. Conferences, trainings, and camps have been used to promote a version of history favorable to the Kremlin’s interests and cast doubt on Lithuania’s independence and statehood.
  • Using government-organized NGOs: The Russian government offers grants to organizations and activists to produce reports condemning the human rights situation in the Baltics and present them in international fora. The Kremlin then uses this self-created evidence to support its message. In Estonia, the Russian government covered the participation costs for two Tallinn-based organizations (the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights and the Russian School of Estonia) in OSCE events in Warsaw and Vienna, where they submitted their comments on minorities and the human rights situation in Estonia for inclusion in the final assessment.
  • Using history as a tool: History is a weapon. Russia chooses which historical moments suit its propaganda, constructs new narratives compatible with Kremlin goals, and appeals to emotional themes of patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice to defend it. Celebrations of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II were used to influence public sentiment.
  • Launching and expanding media projects: Pro-Kremlin media takes bias to the next level and turns information into a weapon. Disinformation, fakes, distortion, manipulation, misrepresentation, and conspiracy theories are frequently presented as fact by RT, Sputnik, and other related media. This makes it possible, for example, to depict Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (with a combined population of approximately 6.2 million people) as hostile and threatening to Russia (population 143 million).
  • Stepping up the activities of Russia’s spy organizations: The Russian security and intelligence services (FSB, GRU, and SVR) are active in the Baltics, where they attempt to recruit public officials into illegal collaboration, build positions of influence, and conduct operations to influence policy and affairs of the target country. Areas of specific interest are the EU and NATO; military, intelligence, security, and law enforcement institutions; political, sociological, and economic data, energy policy, and strategic infrastructure. According to Lithuania’s State Security Department, Russian intelligence services attempted to build a web within the Lithuanian Interior Ministry, and there have been continuous attempts to infiltrate its military recruits.
  • Launching cyber-attacks: Russian hackers are some of the best in the world. The Russian government uses its security and intelligence services as well as hackers to gain an advantage, influence operations by obtaining and disclosing confidential information at the “right” time for maximum impact, and sabotage by rendering systems inoperative at key moments. In Lithuania, the webpage of the Joint Staff of the Lithuanian Armed Forces was hacked and false information was planted to suggest an invasion of Russia in 2015.
  • Using energy as leverage: Russia is sensitive to changes in the energy sector, which its main source of revenue and influence. It attempts to slow down and weaken the EU Energy Union Strategy by acquiring strategic energy infrastructure, offering profitable projects or transactions to certain EU member states, and lobbying against market liberalization. The Kremlin also employs politically motivated protectionist policies, corrupts local business elites, and pressures neighbors to join regional integration projects.

Despite serious concerns about the Kremlin’s range of activities in the Baltics, it would be wrong to conclude it is succeeding. Its aggression and manipulations are constrained by an economic downturn (compounded by Western sanctions and low oil prices), increasing internal competition and hostility among its agencies and supporters, and limited credibility abroad, as observed reality is demonstrably different from what is depicted by Kremlin propaganda. These weaknesses should be the focus of efforts to safeguard national and European security.

Jakub Janda is head of the Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the European Values Think Tank based in Prague. He is the author of Security Situation in the Baltic States in 2015: The Role of Russia, from which this article has been adapted. He tweets @_JakubJanda.

Image: Pro-Kremlin media like Sputnik give air time to national populists and far-right groups to spread their message on the refugee crisis. The aim is for irrational fear of refugees or concerns about the rise of the far-right to overshadow criticism of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Credit: Screenshot Sputnik