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Confrontation or Co-operation?

Assessing the first five years of Russian-Baltic relations after re-independence, it is interesting to attempt an evaluation of the basic thrust of Russian policy in terms of whether it has primarily been a matter of confrontation or of co-operation. On one hand, vocally publicised political disagreements and mutual recriminations concerning security, minority and economic issues built up an environment of hostility, which replaced the previous (albeit short-lived) phase of co-operation in the fight against Gorbachev and the organs of central power of the Soviet Union. Russian statements on the continuous 'human rights violations' and its threats to use economic sanctions against the Baltics were very harsh from the end of 1992 onwards. In terms of practical policy, Russia's refusal to implement or even sign economic agreements with Estonia and Latvia was confrontational.

Nevertheless, there has been no serious conflict -seeking on the part of the Russian leadership, and its hostility has been largely rhetorical. Threats of a military nature - veiled references to a Transdniester "scenario", where the Russian army intervened in the conflict between the Russian minority and the titular population, or to outright aggression - have come from outside the government. Russia's hard posture on troop withdrawal timetables and its constant criticism of even the amendments that were made to laws on citizenship or foreigners were not followed up by action: the troops left, and regional separatism in the regions with high percentages of Russians was not fostered. There is some correlation between Russia's threats to impose economic sanctions and the legislative process on citizenship, but hardly any correlation to when gas supply cuts actually happened. On the occasions when there was an interruption, there was, at the very least, some kind of economic element included: the Baltic States were constantly running up debts to the oil and gas companies that supplied their energy. Finally, Russia has accepted the involvement of a third part - the international community - in its relations with the Baltics.

This can be considered to reflect a significant transformation in the range of policy options Russia has traditionally had vis-à-vis this region. Security interests clearly still exist, but the international factor has to be taken into account - no unilateral steps can be taken to combat perceived threats. Conversely, Russia can attempt to persuade the West not to ignore Russian security interests in the Baltic region. Also, the occasional but well publicised economic threats have obscured the reality of the economic relationship: the Baltic side has a passive economic leverage in its ports, and thus the interdependence of the countries leads the economic threat to be somewhat obsolete. An active "defence" of the Russian minorities with the intention of coercing Estonia and Latvia into granting more inclusive citizenship laws through bilateral negotiations (in connection with troop withdrawal) and through continuous protests failed, and the only way to secure progress was to involve the international community as mediator in the problem.

In essence, Russia's policy has shown relative restraint - a degree of confrontation but no outright threats to the existence of the Baltic States as independent entities.

Evaluation of Russian policy as a reflection of a coherent strategy has its pitfalls, and the rationalisation of something irrational is not valid research. Nevertheless, my conclusion is that although the policy-making process did not come across as following a logical modus operandi, the task was to define the factors that created the environment of policy-making. By assessing these elements, one can arrive at an estimate on "rationality". This rationality is portrayed by the way it has acknowledged the restraints that confound its options in its policy, while seeking to further its interests in all available ways.

The post-Soviet period began in Russia with general confusion over the separation of powers between various foreign policy actors, which led to occasional contradictions in its Baltic policy. Initially, the aim was to deal with the pressing issues at hand - withdrawal and the minorities - and this can be described as a reactive rather than proactive response. In connection with the development of strategic thinking on the "near abroad" and reorientation away from co-operation with the West, more emphasis began to be placed on the Baltics. Various tactics were implemented, but it took until February 1997 for the government to produce an official strategy for the Baltic region. This strategy can be assessed to embrace a determination to prevent any further losses in the security sphere and an aspiration to retain what influence remains in the region.

Relative Restraint

The elements shaping Russian policy end up representing contradictory forces. Security matters and minority questions have been leading Russia to take a tougher stance towards the Baltics. History and geography dictate a major part of these considerations - it is a significant strategic region, and has experienced extensive immigration from Russia. Running counter to these stimuli are the international and economic aspects of policy, which constitute constraints that motivate Russia to modify its policy. These restricting influences have provided the backdrop for policy- making, and although it has seemed that the security and minority issues have made more impact on policy (as they have been continuously discussed through official statements and the media), their strength has not overridden the basic premises of policy that Russia has to deal with.

The security dimension of Baltic policy is surely a clear case of Russian interests in the region being counteracted by negative developments. The troop withdrawal process was concluded despite the major problems it caused for the Russian armed forces both in terms of defence and logistics. NATO expansion is considered a serious threat: the historical fear of the Baltic region being used as a base for intervention from the West, and the old enemy-image of the organisation, are still present. Therefore the potential enemy establishing bases on Baltic territory would increase Russia's already substantial vulnerability: it is hard enough to conform to the loss of its cordon sanitaire of the other Soviet republics and the Warsaw Pact countries. On the level of verbal interchanges, security issues have been prominent in Russian policy alongside minority problems. However, in practice the range of responses is more limited and therefore a hardening of practical policy, that could have been the expected outcome of such pressures, did not emerge.

The use of force, military intervention, is not an accepted policy tactic, but because of the legacy of Russian-Baltic relations, it is valid to consider whether it is still regarded as an option by Russian decision-makers. Does Russia's policy reflect implicit neo- imperial ambitions, or has is renounced its traditional objective of control of the Baltic region? It is not easy to define where legitimate interests end, and neo-imperialist tendencies begin. Military concerns have not disappeared, and security is still thought of in conventional terms - there is certainly no evidence of any tendency to replace these with a post-modern concept of "the new security" that would embrace environmental and welfare -related factors instead of territorial ones. On the question of NATO expansion, Russia's objections seem to reflect great power -thinking, because it sees its own security interests as overriding Baltic ones. On the other hand, from the economic point of view, territorial control is no longer that necessary: the interests of private business are well served by ports in Baltic possession, and possible EU-membership for the Baltic States would increase Russia's contacts with this economically important organisation (which Russia has scant hopes of ever joining itself). This juxtaposition between security and economics is at the heart of Russian policy. In this case, however, even the military considerations do not add up to a claim of "imperial ambitions" - such a weighty allegation would need more substantiation (for example, a forceful attempt to coerce the countries into a Russian-led security mechanism) to be justifiable.

The question of Russian minorities residing in the Baltic States with stringent citizenship laws to overcome is a more complex issue. Initial fears of refugee-flows were decreased after the first two years, and Russia has portrayed itself as only protecting the interests of its co-ethnics, "compatriots", and not driving its own agenda. Increased rhetorical assertiveness has certainly been in evidence since 1993, but the issue has not acted as a stimulus for separatist claims or forceful action in official policy as might have been expected, given the significant numbers of Russian-speakers in the region. Thus Russia cannot be criticised for attempting to use the minorities as a subversive "5th column". This is not to say that Russia does not find in the issue a convenient way to influence internal politics in Latvia and Estonia and a convenient potential lever in the future. In addition, Russian interest in the wellbeing of its compatriots is probably authentic, but in many respects its policy has not been conducive to improving their situation. Russia has criticised each amendment (not constructively) and threatened economic sanctions that would hurt the Russian minorities more than others. It has also relied on biased information on the Baltic situation passed on from the extremist elements within the minority communities, because moderates have little media access and because Russia has not been interested in seeking more reliable sources of information. Therefore it cannot be maintained that Russia has acted resolutely in the protection of the minorities in the bilateral sphere: security and economic considerations have overridden ethnic ones. But minority and security issues are clearly closely linked. Ethnic conflicts can escalate and endanger international stability. Russia itself has throughout claimed its right to protect all its "compatriots", all ethnic Russians or even Russian-speakers who consider themselves Russian. In Estonia's case it is particularly noticeable that the high numbers of people who have decided to take Russian citizenship is an additional danger - Russia has better claims to come to the defence of its own citizens.

The second constraint on Russia is more intricate. The economic aspect in terms of Russia's economic crisis, leading to its growing dependency on the West and its goodwill, has definitely had a moderating effect on Baltic policy during the period under consideration. The need for Western co-operation and the admittance of Russia into international financial organisations has been such critical bases of Russian foreign policy in general that even strong security concerns vis-à-vis the Baltics have not prevailed, as in the case of troop withdrawal. Similarly significant is the level of interdependency between the Baltic States and Russia. The existing economic links between the countries, dating from the Soviet planned economy, have acted as a constraining factor in Russia's policy-making. On one hand, retaining and rebuilding economic contacts has been a reflection of attempts to attain influence in the region, but Russia's capacity for economic coercion is less than it seems: dependency on Baltic ports for its trade with the West has made rediscovered trade links mutually beneficial. The important economic interests that different actors have in the Baltic region (Russian neighbouring regions, private enterprises and investors, semi-governmental companies such as Lukoil and Gazprom) have made it rather unprofitable for the Russian state to make any kind of intervention in the Baltics. Moreover, the Baltic region has always been economically advanced, and so far, Russia has attempted to exploit the region's and peoples' capacities. However, the Baltic States would thrive economically as members of the EU in a way totally impossible under Russian control.

These economic aspects have affected Russia's policy during the period under consideration, but are transitory as opposed to the more permanent international aspect. In whichever direction the Russian economic development proceeds, the result can be expected to have an impact on Russia's Baltic policy. Russia has the potential to reinstate its economic power. In that scenario, its dependency on the West would be reduced and its own ports on the Baltic Sea built, leading to more possible assertiveness in action. If on the other hand, the Russian economy disintegrates further into chaos, the Russian leadership will find it even more expedient to nurture good ties with the West. The same scenarios cannot be painted concerning international involvement: the attitude of the West is unlikely to change, in particular as the Baltic States, particularly Estonia, are well on their way to membership in the EU. Russian policy has therefore presented a relatively restrained pattern, with economic threats and pressure taking the place of military ones in policy-making, although the significance of security aspect remains. In the case of the interconnections between security and economic, it cannot be conclusively maintained that economic calculations would have overtaken security considerations, but that the former have become much more important than before.

Western attention towards the Baltic States provides a permanent constraining influence on Russian decision-making. Western influence is very important in the evaluation of overall circumstances of policy-making: it establishes a second dimension, a triangular pattern. The West regards the Baltic region in different terms from the rest of the former Soviet empire because of their historical and cultural ties to Central and Northern Europe, and because their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union was never officially recognised by most Western countries. The importance the West attaches to the Baltic States was evident from the time of the troop withdrawal negotiations, when it was made clear by different states and multinational organisations that Russian military presence in the sovereign Baltic region was unacceptable. It can be maintained that the international aspect constrains Russia from taking harsh or violent action against the Baltics for fear of the West cutting its links with it in retaliation. Even though Russia (nor the Baltic States themselves, for that matter) cannot be certain of a determined Western response in this kind of scenario, it does not consider it to be plausible to risk serious confrontation with the West. However, the conflicting pressures of the need for Western support and of Russia's 'vital' security interests have not been put to the test during the period in question. Even so, the validity of the point remains. International pressures and dependency on the West restrict action against the Baltic States. Even if the West does not support Baltic entry into NATO or does not always side with them, this does not take away from the conclusion that they have extended special care and support to the region. This is exemplified by the comparison to the CIS states.

The international context modifies Russian policy in another significant way. By taking the dispute on citizenship to the international arena, Russia has gained much more than with bilateral negotiations with Estonia or Latvia, and it can feel judged by the same rules. The modification that this brings to policy-making is the way Russia has not taken unilateral steps in defence of the Russian-speaking minorities. This can be maintained to have had worse results for the Baltic States (even in only in terms of economic boycotts and generally even worse relations than what they were). The acceptance of the inclusion of the third party as a mediator is interesting also in that Russian policy has become at the same time more constrained and more successful. This can be interpreted as a variation of the "if you can't beat them, join them" -axiom: Russia is unable to pressure the Baltic States as much as it wants to because of the protection extended to the region by the West. Hence it is very convenient for Russia to have an issue through which it can portray the Baltics as the culprits, and thus direct the western pressure on them.

The attitude of the West towards the Baltic States is also unique in that there is no other area in conflict with Russia that the West supports in a similar way. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe that previously belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence are not experiencing the same problems with Russia. This constellation would be an interesting one to do further research on - comparing the Baltic region to the former "Eastern block" in the 1990s. Following from here, another very interesting research project would be to compare Russia's policy towards Finland to the Baltics, considering the legacy of the recent past and of the Tsarist times. Such an assessment would bring forth the reasons for the particularity of the Baltic case in much more depth. Certainly one must not forget that in my thesis, I have had to treat the Baltic region itself as too much of a single entity. I have attempted to make room for differentiation, and as the issues Lithuania faces are so different (more transit, less minorities) that it was not possible to include full analysis of this case. A variety of possibilities for further research exist: taking either one of the elements I have discussed and going into more depth in that specific theme, or choosing one of the Baltic countries and analysing Russia's policy towards it through the four themes I have worked on here.

Looking into the future, the most intriguing aspect of Russia's Baltic policy is the development of differentiation among the three Baltic States, or between Estonia and the two others. Throughout the period, Russian responses varied among the Baltic States, in a typical "divide and rule" -pattern. It is interesting to note that Russia's attention has turned away from Estonia and towards Latvia in the year 1998. The massive protests against alleged police mishandling of a pensioners' demonstration in Riga and the commemoration of the Latvian SS-troops in the summer were the most conspicuous examples of this shift. The reasons behind it lie in the EU acquis of June 1997, which set Estonia clearly apart from the other two states. How this constellation will develop in the future, and whether Russia will attempt to use Latvia as a wedge is worth a mention as a concluding thought, even though these developments have not been covered in my research.

Russian policy towards the Baltic States has differed considerably from its CIS-policy, as we saw in the brief description of the last chapter. On the other hand, despite attempts by western observers to describe Russia's Baltic policy as a "litmus test", Russia itself does not consider it to reflect any attitude towards the West. The Baltic States do not belong to the West in Russian eyes. They fall into a conceptual gap between the West and the CIS and constitute a unique corner of foreign policy, much more prominent than the small size of the region might imply, and containing a mixture of elements missing from the other areas.

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