I was watching a video by one of my favorite political analysts recently – it involved a discussion of Turkey’s role in NATO. At one point in the video, she started talking about some hypothetical situations that would have implications for NATO and mentioned “Russia taking the Baltics” as one of them. It was then that I knew she was getting over her skis, as they say.
Of course, she’s not the only one to repeat this myth about Russia potentially having designs on the three small Baltic nations on its northwestern border: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. So let’s take a look at why the idea of Russia taking over the Baltic nations is a ridiculous notion.
First, as you can see from the map above, Russia has more territory than it knows what to do with. Trust me, they don’t need or want more territory.
Second, Russia already has plenty of resources to exploit for the next several decades, at least.
Third – and this is not intended to be offensive to anyone living in or from the Baltic nations – but they don’t have any resources to speak of and have a lot of economic problems. They aren’t exactly bright, shiny objects that a neighbor couldn’t resist coveting.
Therefore, if Russia were to take over the Baltic nations, it would be taking on an economic liability, it would be forced to try to govern over populations that would be openly hostile, and it would face even stronger international condemnation and sanctions. Tell me again why they would want to do this?
Now here is where some people might try to push another fallacy to support this one: Russia has shown that it is an aggressor with respect to Georgia and Ukraine. For anyone who still believes these assertions, please take a look at the 2009 EU report on the Georgian-Russian War of 2008. It concludes that Georgia started the war with military incursions into South Ossetia which killed Russian peacekeepers. Russia responded militarily. One can debate whether Russia’s military response was disproportionate or not, but it is demonstrably untrue to assert that Russia started it and was therefore the aggressor.
With respect to the Ukraine crisis, there was a provocative coup supported by the west in 2014 that removed a democratically elected leader in Kiev, which led to dangers against the Russian speaking populations in Donbas and Crimea. It also was a perceived threat to Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol. For a more in-depth deconstruction of what happened, please see my articles here and here. For a more in-depth discussion of what happened specifically with Crimea, please see the article I wrote based on my travels to Crimea and interviews with a cross-section of Crimeans about the events that took place there in 2013-2014. These articles show that Russia reacted to events but did not initiate them and was not the aggressor.
It should also be noted that Russia reacting strongly to these events was entirely predictable to anyone who had any substantive knowledge about Russia and wasn’t completely blinded by ideology. Georgia and, particularly, Ukraine in NATO is a red line for Russia’s national security interests. This has nothing to do with Putin personally. It has to do with Russia’s history and geography.
Russia does not have natural barriers like oceans and mountain ranges and consequently it has historically experienced numerous invasions. The Mongols viciously invaded twice in the 13th century, Napoleon invaded in the early 19th century, and Hitler invaded in 1941. It is the Nazi invasion that is the most poignant to consider here as virtually all Russian families were affected and many currently living Russians have heard stories directly from relatives (parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents) about the Great Patriotic War as WWII is referred to in Russia.
The Soviet Union lost 27 million people as a result of WWII – the most of any country – including 17-19 million civilians. It also saw around 1/3 of its country destroyed. By comparison, the United States lost around 400,000 and saw no damage to its homeland. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had referred to Slavs as sub-human in addition to Jews. For more on what the Soviets experienced as a result of the Nazi invasion, see this previous post.
Both times the Germans invaded Russia in the 20th century (WWI and WWII), they came in through the Ukrainian corridor. No Russian leader – whether Putin or anyone else – would survive politically if they just sat there with their thumb up their rear while Ukraine joined NATO. From the Russian point of view, it is a national security imperative to oppose this.
Now, back to the Baltics. The only conceivable way that Russia would enter the Baltics is if one or more of these nations became a battleground as the result of NATO attack against Russia. While NATO is a hostile military alliance that keeps needling Russia by expanding up to its borders, it’s unlikely that NATO would intentionally attack Russia, but mistakes or miscommunications can easily lead to dangerous escalations, particularly if they occur within the backdrop of tensions that have been continuously stoked to score domestic political points.
So who benefits from this myth that Russia wants to take over the Baltics? First of all, it’s a NATO talking point that provides justification for its existence. It also provides justification for continued weapons sales to the Baltics and other Eastern European countries that must keep up with NATO requirements – thus, feeding the voracious appetite of the military-industrial complex for profits. The political class in the Baltic countries are all too happy to go along with this because flogging the anti-Russia theme – easily exploiting historical grievances against Russia – is much easier than making the tough decisions required to actually solve the Baltic countries’ internal problems (e.g. economic).
One way to think of the NATO mentality metaphorically is with the song “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.” Some of you may remember this hit song from the 1970’s by Jim Croce. For those of you who don’t, you can listen to it here to refresh your memory. The gist of it is that Leroy Brown is the neighborhood bad-ass, a show-off bully, who’s got everyone running scared. But he eventually meets his match – someone who stomps a mud hole in his backside and puts him in his place. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
Now it may sound like I’m trying to be funny and I am, partly. But this is pretty close to the kind of primitive and self-reverential thinking that goes on in Washington and NATO headquarters. They want to keep everyone believing that Russia is Bad Bad Leroy Brown and that NATO is the hero who is an even bigger (but benevolent) bad-ass who will keep Russia in its place.
This is the story-line that is necessary to keep NATO in business, maintain Washington’s dominant role over Europe, and to keep profits flowing for defense contractors.