Baltics Next for Putin?

Original Article

Tsar Vlad the Bad may have more in mind….

Ukraine’s Ill Wind.  Begin with President Obama’s flaccid remarks re Ukraine, ISO common ground with Vladimir Putin, delivered yesterday, announcing sanctions so weak the WaPo editors ridiculed them–“…we’ll know that the president’s calibrations are adequate when they cause Russia’s markets to plunge rather than rally.”  They led Russia’s deputy PM to call The One “a prankster.”  Factor in ex-Bush 43 UN ambassador John Bolton’s witty, acerbic analogy (0:58) on the weekend, re SecState John Kerry negotiating with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “like sending a cupcake to negotiate with a steak knife.”  Or was Putin scared when Kerry said: “We hope President Putin will recognize that none of what we’re saying is meant as a threat, it’s not meant in a personal way.” Putin proceeds, having formally annexed Crimea yesterday; Crimea will on March 30 “reset” its clocks to Moscow time.

Confirming weakness also applies to our allies, France plans to send helicopter-carrier ships to Russia–ideal for ferrying commandos to combat areas.  There is a 4-day ceasefire in effect now in Crimea, whose complex ethnic history augurs more strife to come. Russia (pre-Putin) armed that allowing the Kosovo breakaway in 1998 without Serbia’s consent created a precedent; but there the “ethnic cleansing” was real, not trumped up as here.

Mitt Romney cites The Bard on Obama’s dithering:

In foreign affairs as in life, there is, as Shakespeare had it, “a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Baltic Chill.  Now, consider the populations Putin might target in the three Baltic members of NATO: Estonia is 26 percent ethnic Russian + Belorussian (White Russian–Belarus today); Latvia is 30 percent R+B; Lithuania is 7 percent R+B.  Compare these to Ukraine, where the R+B population share is 18 percent.  In each of these countries the R+B population is concentrated in provinces closest to Russia.  So these countries might be seen by Putin as ripe for the taking.

Recall that in 1939, after Britain & France let Germany swallow Czechoslovakia in March, Germany invaded Poland September 1, having secured its eastern flank (for a time, at least) via the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23.  Hitler did not believe that Britain or France would honor commitments to come to Poland’s aid by declaring war.

In that Hitler was, of course, wrong.  But his expectation that his monstrous act would go unanswered had ample basis in the string of victories he had won in previous years: invading the Rhineland in 1936; the Austria anschluss “connection”) in 1938; getting Czechoslovakia for nothing in 1939.  Hitler’s miscalculation proved fatal, not only for him, but for 50 million others over the next six years.

August 2008.  Putin annexes two provinces of Georgia after trumped up ethnic agitation; the West does nothing.  Now he invades Ukraine and annexes the Crimea, with the rest of East Ukraine his for the taking.  Why should he stop now?  Because the Baltics are in NATO?  Maybe.  But Georgia was allied with the US in 2008, though not in NATO; 2,000 Georgian troops were serving with US forces in Iraq–on a per capita basis, for Georgia’s 4 million population, equivalent to a 150,000 troop commitment for a nation of 300 million (about the US population in 2008).

Estonians rightly fear Moscow’s menace:

As in Ukraine, Estonia’s Russian speaking population isn’t evenly dispersed. In Narva, on the Russian border, over 90 per cent are Russian speakers.

On the wooded islands off Estonia’s west coast, conversely, there are hardly any native Russian speakers. On Saaremaa, Estonia’s biggest island, I spend a day with Erika, who grew up here under the Soviet regime. ‘Estonians have always wanted their own home, their own piece of land,’ she says. ‘We’re individualistic.’

Russia’s brutality towards Ukraine also chills the Baltics.  Genocide has a way of instilling fear.  Vlad does not have that in mind this time; brutal subjugation will do.

Geopolitical Climate Change?  Scholar George Weigel suggests that the Eastern Europe NATO countries call vigorously for sterner action against Putin.  Scholar Leon Wieseltier calls for intellectual pushback, as Ukraine is not Putin’s last whistle-stop:

There is the question of how to respond practically to Putin’s aggression and there is the question of how to respond intellectually. The latter is no less important than the former, because the Ukrainian crisis is not a transient event but a lasting circumstance with which we will be wrestling for a long time. We must mentally arm ourselves against a reality about which we only recently disarmed ourselves: the reality of protracted conflict. The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. “Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said after meeting with Obama last year. The sentence reverberates. That lack of coincidence is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance. Putin is “in another world,” Merkel recently remarked after a conversation with Putin. But the world is composed of all the worlds, and reality of all the realities. Our minds must make room for them all, not least for purposes of resistance….

Wieseltier identifies several dangerous assumptions driving Obama’s world view: pervasive rational actors; an increasingly interdependent world; a new century springing free of hidebound historical precedents; we must avoid a new cold war;

Russia scholar Leon Aron sees Putin’s home front vulnerability.  This Aron argues, is driving Putin’s push abroad:

With the vicious inevitability of Greek tragedy, the Kremlin’s strategy has brought about precisely the outcome that Putin feared most. When, on the Maidan, those who were willing to die outlasted those who were willing to kill — when the revolution triumphed, after almost three months of a deafening propaganda campaign, this triumph could not be interpreted domestically other than as a victory for the West, Russia’s strategic defeat, and a blow to the Putin regime’s domestic legitimacy. The huge wound needed to be cauterized. A revanche and recovery effort became a key domestic political imperative; the fate of Ukraine — a country of 46 million — is merely the means to that end.

Hence the seizure of Crimea, Ukraine’s political Achilles heel. If anywhere could help whip up a wave of patriotism large enough to wipe away the damage done by Putin’s handling of the Ukrainian relationship that spawned the Maidan protest, it is the peninsula. Crimea has been a target of Russian populist, nationalist, and Communist politicians for years, with its large Russian naval base and a majority-Russian population, including some fervently patriotic Soviet military retirees.

It had all the hallmarks of an easy sell: Father Putin, protecting the “compatriots” in a place where Ukrainian sovereignty has been contested in the minds of many Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But, Aron notes, the Russian public has not yet bought into Putin’s game

Bottom Line. If I were the Baltic states, I’d relocate to Australia.

John Wohlstetter

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (beg. 2001) and the Gold Institute for International Strategy (beg. 2021). His primary areas of expertise are national security and foreign policy, and the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He is author of Sleepwalking With The Bomb (2nd ed. 2014), and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us (2008). He was founder and editor of the issues blog Letter From The Capitol (2005-2015). His articles have been published by The American Spectator, National Review Online, Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Daily Caller, PJ Media, Washington Times and others. He is an amateur concert pianist, residing in Charleston, South Carolina.