During the events that unfolded in Georgia in 2008 and later in Ukraine in 2014, Russia has demonstrated great resolve in attaining geopolitical leverage by using brute force within manageable risks. Russian incursions into other countries have left the world in shock.
Beyond the West’s economic sanctions, which did play a significant part in crippling segments of the Russian economy, and a lot of coverage in the Western media, Moscow was not subjected to considerable punishment for Russia’s actions. There was no actual firm military answer from NATO. This has helped fuel the Kremlin’s confidence in its ability to carry out various forms of warfare abroad.
For the Kremlin, external incursions are not just a matter of rebuilding its power and influence nearly thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s internal complexities with regards to its economic and political dynamics push the Kremlin to consistently search for temporary silver-bullet solutions.
Whenever Vladimir Putin wants to bring people together and relieve social or elite pressure, he organizes a war meant that plays on the idea that Russia is under siege. Putin has been a great exploiter of his and his country’s interests and has perfected the poisonous recipe of offering the prospect of a new Russian Empire in the face of growing economic and social unrest.
As a result, Putin’s external incursions into neighboring countries and his tsar-like public appearances are meant to mollify the fact that he simply cannot offer Russia a better economic future without reforms that would severely weaken his personal power. This leads him to formulate policies that focus on returning Russia to the great power status that it enjoyed during the Soviet period.
The tsar’s chair is shaking in the Moscow cold
Russia is in a full pandemic and economic crisis. The turmoil caused by COVID-19 to Russia’s economy has overlapped with growing concerns over perpetual grip on power and, ultimately, who will succeed him when his term comes to an end in 2036.
The imprisonment and growing popularity of opposition leader Alexey Navalny has not helped the situation in any respect. For the first time since coming to power more than two decades ago, Putin is now facing a formidable opponent who carries significant political and social clout that has led to Navalny gaining loads of popular support throughout the country.
An increasing percentage of the Russian public has begun to adopt Navalny’s message about the future of the country. Navalny has also garnered growing public support from the United States, Germany and some in the European Union’s institutions, as well as from rival factions within Russia’s power structures. The single fact remains that if Navalny hadn’t had some internal support, he would have ceased to be an issue for the Kremlin long ago.
All these factors deeply frighten Putin as he looks to remain in power for years to come.
The anti-Putin movement was enabled by, amongst other things, Russia’s weakened economy. A study released by the Moscow Economic School in 2019 shows the collective deficit of all regional budgets in Russia is running as high as $9.09 billion or 677 billion rubles, the highest level recorded in the last 14 years. According to jamestown.org, 57 of the 85 constitutive territories of Russia (including the illegally annexed Crimea region) ran a deficit last year.
The problems that Putin is now facing have a direct link to the downfall of Russians’ living standards. Roostat, the Federal Statistics Service, identified a 7.9% increase in food and beverages costs, with an extra increase of 1.2% registered as of this February. According to gazeta.ru, cited by jamestown.org, several Russian experts have suggested that the Duma, Russia’s parliament, will have to pass legislation for the introduction of free food stamps for bread, milk and sugar for the poor.
This economic unrest that is simmering throughout the country is further compounded by a band of powerful oligarchs that cannot be happy to see that London and Paris are not as willing to offer them either refuge or shopping sprees anymore.
The Kremlin’s hand in the crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus and its role as a mediator – with specific self-interests – following the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia, were operations that were not carried out nearly as deftly as in Georgia and Ukraine. In order to save himself, yet again, Putin would need a forceful external action that would help him regain credibility and that prompts the Russian population into enduring more cold and hungry winter in order to expand on Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions.
30 years of actual siege for the Baltics
Putin is no stranger to building and riding on propaganda. In 2015, after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, Putin was interviewed by Charlie Rose, a former American talkshow host. Putin took advantage of the opportunity to reiterate his desire to reunite all Russian-speaking peoples with the Russian Federation, saying in the interview: “Do you think it’s normal that 25 million Russian people were ‘abroad’ all of a sudden? Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world. It’s not a problem? Well, maybe not for you. But it’s a problem for me.”
The Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but were only militarily free from post-Soviet influence in 1998. The Baltics are now full members of NATO and the European Union, but are still wary of Russia and its tendency to pressure governments through aid from Russian-speaking minorities living abroad.
According to available stats, 25% of Estonian citizens speak Russian as their primary language. The number rises to 36% in Latvia (including 53% in the Latvian capital, Riga) and 4.5% in Lithuania. This ethno-linguistic puzzle has always been firm ground for Russian mischief.
A cybernetic attack that was organized by Russia’s intelligence services against Estonia in 2007 is a perfect example of how the Kremlin manipulates certain issues to drum up support from Russian-speaking minorities. A decision by the Estonian government to move a statue located in the country’s capital, Tallinn, which was dedicated to Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II became a hot-button dispute between Estonian and Russian speakers. Fake news spread by Moscow continuously poured gasoline over the fire, leading to vandalism and street fights.
This atmosphere of hostility was followed by a full-blown cyberattack on Estonia’s government institutions, banks and newspapers. The event revealed the depth of Russia’s strategy to fully destabilize neighboring countries with sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. Consequently, that realization has, in the years since the statue incident, prompted the three Baltic states to vastly improve their cyber-defense capabilities.
Rattling the ethnic beehive is not the only ace up Kremlin’s sleeve. Russia also uses his military assets. The general sentiment of uncertainty is governed by the massive army presence in Kaliningrad, especially because Russian aircraft are fond to be in frequent violation of Baltic air space. According to a RAND corporation report and a recent Swedish report, NATO would have great difficulty in protecting the Baltic states against a full-blown direct attack of Russia.
Though they remain in danger as a result of the geographic positions, as NATO members the Baltic States have a powerful ally that can act as an effective strategic defense buffer in the event that Moscow makes any attempt to launch an incursion into one of the three countries. Furthermore, the Baltics know that Russia has never lacked the theoretical ability to occupy their capitals – Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn. Regardless, Russia’s intelligence services – the FSB (the successor to the KGB) and GRU – will try to destabilize the Baltics, even if those actions do not risk sparking a full-blown war with NATO.
The threat from Russia has, in fact, ceased to be a long line of tanks ripping through the countryside of Eastern Europe, in a relentless march towards one of the region’s national capitals.
Instead, Moscow’s means of applying pressure has greatly diversified in recent years and includes a mix of tactics, disinformation and fake news, propaganda, messianic prophecies, Russian capital, organized crime and money hidden deep in certain offshore fiscal paradises that are at the core of Russia’s power that it uses against the Baltics and other countries in Europe.
This new mixture is far more powerful than the full scope of Russia’s historic military might.