The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has announced its intention to review whether or not the 1991 decision to grant the Baltic States independence was legal. The move comes amidst growing tension between Russia and NATO, marked by an increasing number of military confrontations.
On the 1st of July 2015, a ‘source familiar with the situation’ spoke to Interfax stating that the Prosecutor General had begun proceedings. Reportedly, the investigation was launched in response to requests made by two parliamentary deputies. Reassurances were provided that there would be no ‘legal consequences’ if the independence of the three countries was found to be illegitimate.
The Baltic States: Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia initially gained independence from the Russian Empire following the 1916 revolution. However, this was cut short by a Soviet invasion in 1940. After years of nationalist protests, Mikhail Gorbachev granted the three countries independence in 1991 as part of the diet of democratic reform implemented across the Soviet Union.
The unnamed source alleged that ‘the decision to recognise the independence of the Baltic States was defective due to the fact that it was taken by an unconstitutional body’. The Kremlin attempted to distance itself from these developments. A spokeswoman acting on behalf of the Prosecutor-General’s office stated that it ‘was required by law to consider all requests … receive[d], regardless of their content. Some of them lack common sense’. In addition, spokesman Dimitry Peskov said ‘In the Kremlin, we are not familiar with this initiative’.
Reassurances by the Kremlin have done little to diffuse anger and suspicion in the Baltic States where memories of Russian oppression are still raw. ‘No one has the right to threaten our independence’, said Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė. ‘Our independence was gained through the blood and sacrifice of the Lithuanian people’. Meanwhile, Estonia’s Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus condemned the Russian Prosecutor-General’s office for wasting ‘time and resources on [this] nonsense’.
Taken at face value, these developments can be dismissed as sabre rattling by the Russian Federation. However, when placed in context, a more disturbing picture can be drawn. As tensions between Russia and the West have grown, the Baltic states have become a frontline for confrontations between Russian and NATO military forces. In June, an RAF aircraft patrolling the area intercepted Russian warplanes whilst a NATO naval force was ‘buzzed’ by the Russian Air Force.
Moscow’s stance towards the Baltic States has becoming increasingly antagonistic. During the period of Soviet rule, large numbers of Russians settled in the countries leaving a substantially-sized expatriate population. The Kremlin has previously warned that it reserves the right to use military force to protect Russian-speaking populations abroad. It is also troubling that a similar ‘review’ of Khrushchev’s 1954 decision to cede Crimea to the Ukraine prompted Russia’s recent annexation of the region.
Across the capitals of the Baltic States, there are increasing concerns that Russia will use a similar strategy as it did in Ukraine to create political unrest and potentially annex territory. By inflaming ethnic tensions and deploying irregular troops, Moscow has been able to assert its interests effectively. There are already signs that Russia is preparing the ground for such a campaign. In March 2015, Lithuania’s internal security department arrested nine individuals who had engaged in anti-constitutional activities which had alleged links to Russia.
The governments of the Baltic States have responded to these developments in kind, requesting a far larger military commitment on the part of NATO. Meanwhile, all three states have engaged in a comprehensive review of their defence strategies to ensure they are better prepared for a so-called ‘hybrid conflict’, (no declaration of war, the use of armed civilians, strikes against critical infrastructure, information warfare and special forces operations) the likes of which has been waged in the Ukraine.
Russia’s inquiry into the legality of the Baltic States’ independence is unlikely to have any immediate impact. As all three are members of the NATO alliance, it is probable that the Kremlin will think twice before resorting to actions such as those seen in the Ukraine. However, in front of a backdrop of deteriorating relations it will increase Russia-NATO tensions, heightening the possibility of a violent confrontation in Eastern Europe which could hold disastrous results.