It’s no fun being chastised by a babushka. On a recent research trip to Moscow, I found myself at a boutique private medical center, waiting in reception with a colleague who had unfortunately fallen ill. We conversed in a mix of English and Russian quite lackadaisically after a long week of interviews. Suddenly, an elderly Russian woman sitting nearby commented on us in Russian to the whole room. To paraphrase, she wondered aloud: if Russians have to speak English when in Europe, shouldn’t Americans have to speak Russian when in Russia? A prolonged silence followed her outburst. The young receptionists of the ‘international’ center – proudly advertising in their brochures the foreign language fluency of the staff – glanced nervously at us and stayed quiet. We said nothing. When the woman left, we got free calendars.
Being publicly shamed for speaking my native tongue was a new, unsettling experience for me, a privileged, white American studying Russian and Eurasian affairs. It captured a microcosm of the increasing polarization between Russians and Westerners since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Alarmingly, a ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russian relations just a few years ago has now been replaced by talk of World War III. One of the most contentious issues in this current standoff is the ‘Russian threat’ to the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. As NATO members with sizeable Russian-speaking minorities – some harboring legitimate grievances over language laws and economic inequality, these three ‘vulnerable’ countries have sent hawkish politicians, defense planners, and Russia ‘experts’ into a tizzy of calls for rearmament in Eastern Europe.
In the run up to the NATO summit in Warsaw next month, a plethora of commentators have sparred over how the West should respond (militarily) to Russia’s (re)assertiveness in the post-Soviet space. One of the best debates has played out at the realist publication War on the Rocks (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), with many taking shots at the RAND study “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” which called for a permanent troop presence to deter a Russian military force that could seize Tallinn or Riga in less than three days. Indeed, NATO cannot currently defend the Baltics against a Russian invasion.
The wickedness of the problem stems from trying to assess capabilities and intentions. Are the four multinational rotating battalions recently announced for the Baltics and Poland enough to deter Russia? Will Russia escalate with its own conventional arms buildup, punishing the West for purportedly violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act? What is the NATO red line for invoking collective defense under Article V in an irregular i.e. ‘hybrid’ i.e. ‘little green men’ i.e. ‘little green fans’ warfare scenario? Would Baltic Russians mobilize for such a fight? Why would Russia ever invade the Baltics? What does Putin think? Does his latest love affair make him more likely to start a war? And down the rabbit hole of endless assumptions we go.
My recent research proposes yet another policy approach to the problem, but one that has received less coverage in the media: deterrence through integration. Let’s integrate the Baltic Russians: not only because it fulfills the best of Western values but also since it will help deter a Russian invasion of the Baltics. More specifically, the West should act on the link between security and development and form a transnational working group on Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics.
Informed readers can immediately point out that the Baltics have already made notable efforts to integrate their Russian minority populations. Investigative journalists (see here and here) and academic researchers (see here) have even shown that Baltic Russians are not likely to be susceptible to ‘hybrid’ operations, despite Russia’s influence in the Baltic Russian information space and community concern over such issues as non-Russian language proficiency for legal citizenship and economic advancement. But this is not necessarily a counterargument.
What matters most is how Russians in Russia perceive this situation. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his popular rule on protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers around the world. The regime perpetuates a narrative of the country as a ‘besieged fortress,’ specifically the West is holding Russia and Russians back from a return to greatness, whether it be NATO enlargement, economic sanctions, ‘CIA-backed’ color revolutions, U.S. support of ‘terrorists,’ or the alleged rape of a Russian girl in Germany.
It is likely that Putin would only meddle in the Baltics if he first knew how to justify intervention, whether conventional or ‘hybrid,’ to the Russian public at home. Exploiting the ‘discrimination’ of Baltic Russian-speaking minorities is one of the best cards that could be played. Enough issues still exist to mix truth with myth into convincing propaganda. This is why deterrence through integration should be another line of effort discussed at the Warsaw Summit this July.
Deciding who should spearhead such a working group would be a complicated political dance. Baltic leaders will be skeptical of the initiative, claiming the minority integration issue as an internal matter and tangential to the conventional threat from Russia. This questioning is why emphasis should be placed on the link between security and development. Deterrence through integration can still go hand and hand with sensible reassurance measures, including a rotational troop presence, prepositioning of military equipment, and more training exercises. On the flip side, Germany is now publicly calling for a more balanced stance toward Russia, particularly following Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier’s comment on NATO ‘saber-rattling.’
Determining how to develop and execute recommendations of the working group is also tricky. In this case, minority integration is a potential security problem best approached with a combination of military and civilian means at the transnational level. Perhaps an EU-led program with NATO subject matter experts would be best to couple the tact of diplomatic and development professionals with military expertise. The European Regional Development Fund could be one organizing mechanism, with an additional mandate to boost Russian-dominated, economically disadvantaged areas, like Narva in Estonia. Despite tensions, the northwest districts of Russia are even slated to join an affiliated project called Interreg Baltic Sea Region.
In sum, a more committed and coordinated push to integrate Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics would address a key vulnerability in the face of a more assertive Russia across the post-Soviet space and beyond. It could even initiate a rare channel of positive dialogue amid the heated rhetoric between both sides. The West should seize this opportunity now.
Image Source: Stars and Stripes
Peter J. Marzalik recently graduated with a master’s degree in Security Policy Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs. His capstone research, supported by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined the reformulation of Western policy toward the post-Soviet space.