High Anxiety in the Baltics

Putin’s nervous neighbors.

In fall 1991, a member of the Slovenian parliament visited me at my office at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss her country’s campaign to join NATO. I recall the intensity of the conversation and how odd her zeal seemed to me at that moment. The Cold War was over. Slovenia’s fate as a peaceful little Switzerland hugging Austria, Italy, and the Adriatic Sea struck me as fairly assured. My guest insisted, however, that this mostly mountainous, relatively prosperous, southeastern European nation—formerly part of Communist Yugoslavia—needed an insurance policy to protect itself, should history come roaring back in the Balkans. The next spring, history returned. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic started his war against Bosnia, and soon much of the former Yugoslavia was engulfed in flames.

A quarter-century later, in northeastern Europe, there’s growing anxiety that history will grab Latvia and Lithuania by the throat again. Both have been NATO members since 2004. But they’re eager for more assurance these days.

That’s because Vladimir Putin has been working tirelessly to bring Russia back to its nationalistic, narcissistic glory, and the tiny Baltic states feel especially vulnerable. Both border Russia (Lithuania through the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad). Both have salient ethnic Russian populations. Both were occupied by Soviet forces and incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Moscow is clingy. This summer, the Russian chief prosecutor’s office, acting at the request of members of Putin’s United Russia party, announced it would examine whether the Soviet Union acted legally when it recognized Baltic independence in 1991. It sounds ominous. This is the same chief prosecutor that ruled in June that Russia’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine had been illegal.

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