Scared of Russia? Baltics geopolitically a lot luckier than many other regions

Scared of Russia? Baltics geopolitically a lot luckier than many other regions

Andres Ilmar Kasekamp, the Canadian-born and educated scholar, is an expert when it comes to analysing the intricacies of the politics of the Baltic States.


A lecturer at the University of Tartu, Estonia, Kasekamp was also the director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute from 2000 until recently. However, he has now moved into the role of Deputy Director.


 He holds a PhD in history from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University College of London and has also written two books — “The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia” and “A History of the Baltic States.”


 “Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been the battleground for neighbouring powers and the site of intense rivalry — but also interaction — between East and West,” Kasekamp told The Baltic Times, before he agreed to answer a number of questions concerning the perceived Russian threat to the region.


When speaking about the Baltic States, most tend to focus on the region’s geopolitical proximity to Russia and threats arising from this. How important will that factor be for the region in the long term?


 We in the Baltic States tend to think that we live in a tough geopolitical neighbourhood, but in fact we are quite fortunate compared to many. Think, for example, of the Kurds, a much larger nation than ours, whose territory is split among several countries and is currently suffering war from many sides.


 Russia will always be our neighbour and as such it will be the source of both potential threats as well as opportunities, depending on its internal developments. Russia will always be a factor — unfortunately a volatile and sometimes unpredictable one — that the Baltic States have to take into account.


 The threat emanating from Russia that I personally worry about most is not a military one, but the potential catastrophe at the ageing nuclear power plant Sosnovy Bor close to the Estonian border.


As an expert on Slavonic studies, can you please sketch out likely scenarios of Russia’s development? How each of them would interact with the Baltics States’ day-to-day functioning?


 The optimistic scenario for the Kremlin is that the oil price will recover and sanctions will be lifted.


 That would ensure stability for the ruling system. The current trend, however, does not give much ground for such optimism. Putin is increasingly clamping down on the opposition and is evidently increasingly concerned about maintaining power.


 Like Yeltsin and Gorbachev before him, Putin has deliberately frightened the West with the prospect that whoever comes after him might be worse.


 The optimal scenario for the Baltic States, Russia becoming a true democracy, does not appear likely. In all scenarios, the Baltic States have to balance between achieving trade benefits and security interests.


 In other words, a prosperous and stable Russia would be good for the Baltic economies. However, a Russia which is mainly spending its profits from oil and gas on strengthening its military undermines Baltic security.


Contrary to the numerous predictions amid the standoff with the West, Russia has not targeted the Baltics yet. What apart from NATO has served as a deterrent?


 Though there has been speculation about the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario being repeated in Narva or Daugavpils, the differences are quite significant. First of all, Russia could intervene (in Ukraine) because Ukraine was in a chaotic revolutionary situation when the legitimacy of authority was contested, Ukraine’s state institutions were pervaded with Russian sympathisers, and it was unprepared for aggression from a fraternal Slavic nation. In other words, it was unique set of circumstances that are not applicable to the Baltic States.


 Nevertheless, many observers draw their conclusions based on the common denominator of the existence of large Russian minorities.


 However, the fact that many ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia believe that the annexation of Crimea was justified does not mean that they themselves would want to exchange the euros in their pockets for Russian rubles.


Many Lithuanian politicians preach the idea of Ukraine being the guarantor of our independence and security. In their words, Putin will not eye the Baltic States while the Ukraine issue remains hot. Do you share it?


 It is an axiom that as long as Ukraine is independent, Russia cannot be an empire. However, Putin’s intervention in eastern Ukraine was not about territory, but to ensure that Ukraine remains a crippled state.


 I believe that Putin’s main goal was to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful democracy following a European path. From his perspective, such an outcome would be a very dangerous example for the Russian people.


 I don’t believe that Putin is intending to attack the Baltic States. His aim in the Baltic Sea region is to test NATO’s resolve and divide the West. This has been the constant objective which has now become much more visible to the outside world.


How devastating to Ukraine do you believe will be the ramifications of the Dutch vote against the European Union-Ukraine partnership deal?


 The EU and Dutch will find the legal and political means to muddle through. Most parts of the Association Agreement are still being implemented despite the result of the referendum. But the result is certainly demoralising for Ukraine and for any other countries that want to get closer to the EU.


 The only candidate country engaged in membership negotiations currently is Turkey, but even if negotiations are ever successfully concluded, Turkey’s membership bid would presumably be scuttled by a referendum in one of the EU member states.


 Enlargement has been the EU’s most successful foreign policy, but the rise of populist parties and the increasing use of referenda put any further growth in doubt. If there had been referenda in the old member states at the time when the Baltic States joined the EU in 2004, then we probably would have been left out.


Is it just the migrant situation in Europe that can be blamed for The Netherlands’ vote?


 No. This was the first trial of the new instrument of popular initiative which Dutch eurosceptics gladly seized upon.


 Unfortunately, the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine simply happened to be the issue at hand. The EU has always suffered from a “democratic deficit,” but often when this has been addressed by use of a referendum it has resulted in political blowback.


 As political scientists know, referenda are imperfect tools for policy decisions since voters don’t necessarily voice their opinion on the issue in question, but often simply use the opportunity to express dissatisfaction with their government.


 The “Leave” camp in the UK rejoiced at the result as a defeat for the EU’s ambitions, but they would be wise to reflect on the fact that in the future it might difficult for the UK to achieve new agreements with the EU if similar referenda are held.


Do you believe the tide of anti-EU sentiments will roll on and lead to Britain leaving the EU this summer?


 The possibility of the UK leaving the EU is quite high. British Prime Minister David Cameron has embarked on an extraordinarily reckless gamble to pacify the eurosceptics in his own party.


 Much depends on events, uncontrollable variables, and emotions — things such as the fallout from the Panama Papers leak which damage Cameron’s credibility as the chief spokesman for the “Remain” camp.


 I am afraid that British voters will be unable to adequately assess the grave strategic consequences for the UK and Europe that Brexit entails and will instead be swayed by chaotic images of desperate masses of refugees.


If Britain leaves the EU, will it be a trigger for the EU crumbling? What can act as an adhesive agent for the EU?


 There is the real danger that the exit of one member state may encourage others. On the other hand, the UK has always been regarded as an exception. I would not exclude the possibility that after an exit vote, a British government headed by Boris Johnson would attempt to negotiate a more advantageous deal to allow the EU to remain.


 However, the first thing I expect to happen would be the further crumbling of the United Kingdom. The Scots will likely demand a new independence referendum to keep Scotland within the EU. This, in turn, would certainly encourage the Catalan independence movement in Spain.


Where will the Baltics likely orbit to in the scenario of a possible EU breakdown? Can Germany be counted on in the situation?


I don’t believe that the EU will break down as a result of Brexit, however it will become unbalanced, with Germany and France being the only two major powers.


 The EU is currently engaged in the exercise of drafting a new “Global Strategy,” which undoubtedly would be a toothless document without the UK, which together with France, possesses the strongest military and widest global reach.


 The EU’s influence as an international actor would be significantly diminished, but the role of Britain in world affairs would weaken even more drastically.


 Additionally, the Baltic States very much want to the UK to remain because they are like-minded on many issues, such as competition and the digital single market. For reasons of power politics, the Baltic States have always gravitated towards Germany.


 Already during the euro crisis a few years ago, it was clear that the Baltic States lined up behind Germany and tried to stick as close as possible to the EU’s economic motor.


How important do you believe the US’s possible missteps in the Middle East have been? Do you believe the world would be different today if there had not been the United States-led invasion into Iraq back in 2003?


 In retrospect, the US invasion of Iraq was clearly a costly and unnecessary mistake, but the conflicts in the Middle East are complex and cannot put down to a single determining factor.


 The US is usually “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t” in its role as the “global policeman.” Syria is the case in point. The lack of US action earlier has led to the Syrian civil war becoming more horrific. US foreign policy tends to go in cycles and be a reaction to previous painful lessons.


 Obama’s policies have clearly been a reaction against those of the Bush administration. Listening to the rhetoric of the current presidential candidates, I find it possible that the US will move in an isolationist direction.


With Europe weakening, will the already-weaker Russia come in as the eventual winner at the end of the day?


 If transatlantic unity can be maintained, then that will not be the case. A great step forward for strengthening the bond between the US and the EU would be the signing of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). For the Baltic States, this would not only provide economic benefits, but even more importantly, it would bolster and cement the political alliance between the two continents.


Is there anything else the Baltics States can do to enhance their security?


 Russian aggression in Ukraine was a wake-up call for Baltic politicians, who finally realised the need to invest more in their defence. With NATO’s Warsaw summit approaching, the Baltic States will be seeking a permanent presence of NATO troops and equipment on their territory.


 That would be important for establishing credible deterrence; however, the key for the Baltic States is to develop their own forces. In a crisis, these would have to have the capabilities to effectively defend their own territory before NATO forces arrive.


 Attention also needs to be paid to non-military measures, most importantly to facilitating genuine societal integration, beyond simply language learning.


Perhaps greater co-operation could be a solution? Does the region do enough to speak as a single entity to the world, and is there any need for that?


 Baltic co-operation is an absolute necessity. For the outside world, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are treated as one unit. Regarding security issues, Russia, Ukraine, and the Eastern Neighbourood, the Baltic States are all conveying the same messages.


 Defence is an area where the Baltic States have been the most successful in working together during the past two decades.


 Looking at it from the inside, we tend to magnify our differences. The Baltic States all have the same strategic goals, such as lessening dependence on Russian energy supplies and building interconnecters, but when it comes to the implementation of various projects, then there is often squabbling over their location or sharing of the costs, especially regarding large infrastructure projects such as Rail Baltica, which is quite natural.



 What are the other detrimental developments in the Baltic States besides the geopolitical dangers?


 In the long term, the main challenge is a demographic one. The Baltic nations have high rates of emigration and low birthrates. At the moment, our societies are undergoing fierce debates about the influx of refugees to Europe, but it is clear that the labour force must be replenished with newcomers if the current demographic trends continue.



The Baltic Times




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