Baltic Front of Counteraction to Hybrid Aggression

Not only the Ukrainian society, but also societies in the other Eastern Partnership countries and some member states of the EU are targeted by the Russian aggression. The methodology of the RF hybrid effects in these countries has similar characteristics, and, therefore, countermeasures developed in one country can be applied in other ones. Although Ukraine has the greatest experience in counteracting Russian hybrid aggression, the constant study and analysis of the situation in other countries of the Eastern Partnership and the EU is necessary because of Moscow's attempts to use them to scale up the hybrid offensive. During the survey conducted from 18 to 28 of August 2017 by the Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI” with the support of the EU and the International Renaissance Foundation, Ukrainian experts, who participated in it, called Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Latvia as examples for Ukraine in the development of its capabilities to guarantee the society security in conditions of hybrid threats.  

In the Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where large Russian-speaking minorities live, there is a danger that as a state with the large army and the nuclear component, realizing the military power of NATO and its readiness to defend its member countries, Russia uses nonlinear hybrid methods to harm the Baltic countries, especially taking into account that the Alliance has not decided on the mechanism of application of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the case of a hybrid war. Therefore, with the support of the EU, NATO and the United States, the Baltic countries pay great attention to countering hybrid threats, as exactly there Russia can inflict a tangible blow to the Euro-Atlantic unity and the authority of Brussels and Washington.

Among the three Baltic countries, the most vulnerable to Russian hybrid threats, as defined by the RAND Corporation, are Latvia and Estonia, as they have a common border with the continental part of the Russian Federation (excluding the Kaliningrad enclave) and quite numerous Russian minorities (27% of ethnic Russians are in Latvia, 25% - in Estonia, 6% - in Lithuania).

In Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, ones note that their countries have faced non-military attacks for decades, in particular, the influence of Russian propaganda and cyberattacks. According to their opinions, Russia seeks certain control over political decisions in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and also aspires to undermine the unity within the EU and NATO. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States turned to the creation of a clear identity in accordance with their nationalities and languages. Estonia and Latvia announced the legal continuation of the functioning of their governments that existed before 1940 and were in exile until independence was restored. Thus, these states succeeded, perhaps not completely, in filtering out the flow of old Soviet cadres to the central authorities. This helps now the Baltic States in confronting the hybrid effects of Russia and, together with membership in the EU and NATO, is an important factor of their security.

At the same time, the Baltic States believe that it will be difficult for NATO to launch a collective defense mechanism if the aggression against a member country is hybrid, for example, with the use of ethnic minorities, as Russia did in Ukraine, without resorting to or hiding the use of troops. Therefore, all three countries joined the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (although initially the leadership of Estonia did not support this idea) and now they are active in combating hybrid threats.

The probability of a military offensive of the Russian army to the Baltic countries is low, but Russia is likely to resort to actions that will show the lack of unity in NATO and the Alliance's readiness to defend its member countries. Such actions are violations by the Russian Federation of the air and maritime spaces of the Baltic States, provocative actions on their borders, demonstration of force through tactical and strategic exercises, and deployment of a powerful Russian grouping on the borders, which has led NATO to return to its deterrence strategy, especially on the eastern flank. According to the decision of the NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016, four battalion-sized battlegroups totaling approximately 4,500 troops have permanently deployed to the Baltic nations and Poland. The Alliance's air patrol mission in the Baltic airspace continues. On a non-permanent basis, there are warships of NATO countries in the Baltic Sea area. At the same time, NATO units are potential targets of provocations by the pro-Russian forces in the Baltic countries, as the Intelligence Service of Estonia warns.

The Baltic States also emphasize the need to strengthen the military component of the European Union. So, at a meeting of the EU ministers of defense in Tallinn in September 2017, Lithuania called for the creation of a “Military Schengen Area to expeditiously transfer troops across the territory of Europe. This initiative further led to the creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund. Lithuania, by the way, has headed one of the areas of PESCO cooperation - cyber security, with the creation of a rapid response group.

Taking into account the relatively small security and defense structures of the Baltic States, which are not capable of opposing Russian military units on their own, particular attention is paid to enhancing intelligence as a key component of timely warning about Russia's covert (hybrid) actions against these countries, as well as a way to study hybrid tactics of the RF in order to determine measures of counteraction and forces needed for their realization. So, in April 2017, the State Security Department (VSD) and Second Investigation Department at the Ministry of national defence (MND) of Lithuania published a report in which all major threats were linked to Russia and Belarus, and the main of these threats were espionage and cyberattacks from the Russian side.

With regard to the experience of Russia's use of “little green men” in Crimea and Donbas, in December 2016, Latvia forbade to wear a military uniform to persons who are not related to the Latvian Army. For the illegal wearing of military uniforms there is a fine of 2 thousand euro, and for unauthorized trade of the uniform or distinctive signs of the Lithuanian army – up to 20 thousand euro.

In the case of hidden aggression of the RF, an important task of the Baltic States is the detention of the entire territory under the control of national security structures. Therefore, the role of territorial defense (TD) and local security services has increased. For example, territorial defense in Estonia (Kaitseliit) is organized according to a regional principle in 15 counties. The structure of its units (about 20 thousand people) includes local residents who have been trained and formed in a unit. They keep arms at home, are subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and in wartime they are transferred to the operational subordination of the Estonian Armed Forces. Since Estonia's TD is based on the historical heritage (Kaitseliit appeared in 1917-1918), the TD forces consist mainly of ethnic Estonians with a high level of patriotism. In addition to TD troops, local police assistants and volunteer rescuers operate in Estonia. Their groups are formed on a regional basis in communities and include individuals who have been selected and trained and have the necessary equipment. The formation of such groups began with an information and awareness campaign, during which the population was told about the need to take responsibility for community security.

According to the RAND Corporation, one of hybrid threats to the security of the Baltic States is a network of organized crime tied with Russia, which can be used as an intelligence tool in favor of the Kremlin and an instrument for internal political destabilization. A number of Latvian and foreign political scientists called Latvia one of the centres of Russian organized crime. However, forensic experts and Latvian deputies point out the success of national law enforcement agencies in reducing such presence and influence of the RF, although the use of the Latvian financial sector for money laundering is worrying even the European Commission.

With the aim of counteracting Russian propaganda, the Baltic States are resorting to prohibition of content and channels, which threaten national security, as well as soft countermeasures to stimulate alternative channels of informing the population. So, in order to create a counterbalance to the propaganda of Russian television channels, in February 2018, in the south-eastern regions of Lithuania, where a large number (200,000) of ethnic Poles live, broadcasting of Polish TV channels - TVP Info, Kino Polska International, Kino Polska Muzyka International - begins, for which the budget of. 350 thousand euro is foreseen. Polish TV channels should push the Russian ones, which have been still quite popular among the Polish population of Lithuania.

Pro-Russian organizations in the Baltic States are mainly aimed at protecting the Russian language or “anti-fascist” rhetoric, which is heated by Russian propaganda, but their separatist mood is very low. Russian-speaking residents of Estonia and Latvia are well aware of the difference between the quality of life in Putin's Russia and the Baltic States, and therefore they do not want to become citizens of the Russian Federation. Ethnic Russians are well integrated into societies in the Baltic States. In addition, living standards in areas of compact residence in Latvia and Estonia are higher than in neighboring regions of the Russian Federation. This powerful restraining factor does not allow the Kremlin to use ethnic Russians to inflame separatist sentiments but it is not an obstacle to “pouring” the domestic political situation in the Baltic States with the use of the thesis of minority rights, language protection and preservation of history. This shows that Ukraine should pay attention to the socio-economic development of the areas along the border with the Russian Federation, so that an unsatisfactory standard of living there does not become a basis for separatism, on which Russia played in the Crimea in 2014.

For residents of the Baltic States who are unable to integrate into their societies, there is a status of “non-citizens”. In most cases, these are ethnic Russians who have not been able to obtain the citizenship of the Baltic States mainly due to lack of knowledge of the state languages. In Latvia, non-citizens are accounted to 12.2% of the total population, and in Estonia - 6.2%. It would be useful to use this experience in Ukraine to prevent influence on state authorities and electoral processes of those people who have betrayed Ukraine and/or have destructive persuasions for the Ukrainian state.

The Tatar and Polish communities of Lithuania are under the hybrid attack. The VSD of Lithuania believes that the RF seeks to use local Tatars in the interests of legitimizing the annexation of Crimea. Russian diplomats constantly emphasize the fact that in Lithuania the rights of ethnic Russians and Poles are violated and they demand “to grant an exclusive rights to the Polish community of the Vilnius region”, trying to create the preconditions for exerting the same rights for ethnic Russians in the Baltic States.

Russia is also trying to act through political forces. For example, in Latvia, it is worrying that the Harmony Centre (a political party) is financed and has close ties with Moscow that poses risks to the security of the country. A similar attitude to Savisaar Centre Party. However, to neutralize these risks no Latvian or Estonian political forces go to a coalition with a pro-Russian political force. The fuse is a strong pro-European and pro-NATO political consensus in these countries. 

Security Services of Estonia and Latvia have expressed concern about the use of a "distorted history" by Russia to undermine the sovereignty and security of the countries, in particular the imposition of an alternative vision of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, in which the Baltic governments are referred to as "fascist". In 2007, correction of the Soviet-distorted history in Estonia led to a serious aggravation of the internal political situation, when after the replacement of the monument “Bronze Soldier” from the center of Tallinn to the military cemetery about two thousand ethnic Russians attended the massive riots. Then the adviser to the President of Estonia Merlo Maigre called these events “a conflict of a hybrid nature”, and the Estonian people “woke up” and the work on developing measures to prevent the recurrence of such cases began.

Ukraine should attentively study the experience of the Baltic States in countering hybrid threats from the Russian side, paying attention to the mechanisms of aggression that the Kremlin is repeating in the Baltic States and in Ukraine. Permanent interaction will allow timely detection of new hybrid threats and tools of their use and to jointly develop countermeasures, as well as reduce the risk of manipulations when an aggressor uses one country to distract attention or cause more damage to another country. Under such conditions, it would be expedient to initiate the creation of a security platform to counter current hybrid threats and resolve protracted conflicts within the framework of the Eastern Partnership with the active participation of the EU. The platform can be organized according to the "voluntary principle” that exists within PESCO, starting with the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. As a first step, such a platform can be developed at an expert level with the main objective to prepare the basis and proposals for moving to an intergovernmental level.


The article is prepared within the project “Promoting building of Ukraine's capacities to guarantee citizens' security in the conditions of hybrid threats” implemented by The Centre for Global Studies Strategy XXIsupported by the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation within the project “Civic Synergy”

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