Putin Sets His Sights on the Baltic States

Russia says the Soviet government who gave away the Baltics was illegitimate and its decisions are illegal. Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Reuters

President Obama's nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, startled members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week when he called Russia the gravest potential "existential threat to the United States."

But countries along Russia's borders know exactly what the general means.

Russia's Prosecutor General's Office has launched an improbable but nonetheless outrageous investigation into the legality of the independence of the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania).

Similar questions were raised about the legality of Crimea's status as part of Ukraine prior to Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian province in March 2014—so this could be more than the bluster and bullying Russia routinely directs at its neighbors.

In the context of Russia's recent aggression, it cannot, unfortunately, be dismissed.

The Baltic countries were grabbed by the Soviet Union during World War II and added to the long line of oppressed neighboring states along Russia's borders.

As in Crimea, the Soviet government used a massive influx of ethnic Russians to cement its control, populations that remain and continue to cause a host of problems.

The three Baltic countries regained their independence in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

Brave candlelight demonstrations in Riga, Latvia, were among the crucial acts of public defiance against the Soviet rulers that year.

Since then, the three countries, whose national cultures are clearly northern European rather than Slavic, have been outstanding success stories, implementing economic reforms, and gaining membership of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations.

The Russian trial on the legal status of their independence is based on the idea that the interim Soviet government in place in 1991 was illegitimate and its decisions therefore also illegitimate.

The Baltic governments reacted swiftly and derisively to the Russian Prosecutor General's announcement.

And following international pushback, the Russian prosecutor hurried to state that the investigation was a mere "formality" in response to demands by some of Russia's fringe politicians.

Should the Baltic governments and NATO feel reassured? Not exactly, and here are several reasons why.

For starters, there is the example of Crimea to be considered.

As far back as 1992, the Supreme Council of Russia ruled that Crimea had been delivered to Ukraine illegitimately by Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

Then there is Russia's military posture. There are increasingly frequent incursions by Russian military aircraft into Baltic airspace and submarines into the Baltic Sea.

According to a report by the European Leadership Network, "Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters between Russian and the West in 2014," these are reaching Cold War levels.

Russian planes and submarines have greatly increased their movements into the airspace and waters along NATO's borders, including the Baltic Sea.

The report identifies 11 such serious incidents including; a Russian kidnapping of an Estonian border agent in September; the detention of a Lithuanian vessel by the Russian coast guard, which towed it to the port of Murmansk; and the near collision of a Swedish passenger plane with Russian fighters (Sweden has also reported Russian submarines in the Stockholm archipelago).

The report also details a massive outburst of Russian aviation activity along NATO borders in late October.

"Each of these incidents could have evolved into a more serious situation, both in terms of possible casualties or broader political and diplomatic consequences," write the authors.

These incursions are clearly tests of NATO resolve to defend its Baltic members and meant to rattle the nerves of Baltic politicians.

In the absence of a firm NATO response, these Russian movements may amount someday to more than mere provocations.

NATO, though always slow to act, did in fact announce in June that it will preposition supplies for 5,000 troops on the territory of new NATO states. Congressional approval for this move is still pending.

This would provide enough supplies for a brigade that includes tanks, armored vehicles, ammunitions and provisions.

For NATO this is important logistically as well as symbolically.

During the Cold War, the existence of the NATO Berlin Brigade helped ensure the free status of West Berlin, in the face of endless Soviet threats and provocations.

The way President Vladimir Putin's Russia is moving, it will require that kind of Western resolve to protect freedom of the Baltic states.

Helle C. Dale is the Heritage Foundation's senior fellow in public diplomacy. This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

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