A few hours drive east of Riga through a snow-carpeted landscape of forest, fields and frozen lakes, motorists are told in Latvian and English that they are entering “Borderland.” Cars are forbidden from stopping and photographs are not allowed. Watch towers look out across a belt of birch and pine trees that mark the frontier with Russia.
This is the edge of the EU and the limit of NATO’s reach. It is a boundary bristling with the latest camera and sensor technology in anticipation that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be preparing to breach it.
The signs of apprehension are not without reason: The warnings from Moscow have been coming thick and fast lately, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have bitter experience of what that might mean.
Illustration: Mountain People
As he campaigns before March’s presidential election, Putin cited Latvia’s treatment of ethnic Russians as a security issue on Jan. 16 — similar rhetoric to that used before Russia invaded Ukraine. Posters visible at the frontier with Estonia proclaim: “Russia’s borders — they never end.”
More ominously, Russia targeted Estonian cities in simulated attacks during military exercises in the summer of 2022, a few months after attacking Ukraine for real. The Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment at the time.
“They aim their weapons at us, enter all the data, but don’t actually pull the trigger,” Estonian Defense Forces Commander General Martin Herem said in an interview at the headquarters of the joint military command in Tallinn. He compares the actions to those of “a thug” picking a fight on the street: “They are trying to create a pretext.”
The Baltics are used to intimidation by Moscow, something that membership of the EU and NATO had helped to blunt, but Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine changed the equation. Now the West’s faltering efforts to aid Kyiv and Russia’s inexorable shift to a war economy while maintaining public support are creating the sense that a new threat is emerging.
What has become clear in the past six months is that Russia is capable of producing many times more ammunition than was previously assumed, according to Herem, who cited a volume of several million shells per year. Plus, it has no problem finding troops, he said. At his press conference in December, Putin said Russia was recruiting 1,500 volunteers a day.
“Military specialists haven’t had any illusions in the last two years, but we lacked facts,” said Herem, who entered service in 1992, the year after Estonia’s independence, and habitually wears camouflage fatigues. “Now, we can back up our instincts with concrete facts and no one can accuse us of warmongering.”
The three Baltic countries have long been hawkish on Russia, warning of Moscow’s aggression long before Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Their leaders have since spearheaded the calls to stand by Ukraine and bolster defenses, forging ahead with purchases of military hardware from missiles to drones while fortifying the border.
No one expects Putin to launch an immediate attack, not least because Russia is fully engaged in Ukraine and is busy trying to replenish its military personnel and hardware.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Jan. 30 that Western claims that the Baltics, Sweden and Finland would follow the “special operation” in Ukraine were an “absurdity.” Putin has also said Russia has no “reason or interest” in a fight with NATO countries. Last week, the EU managed to overcome opposition from Hungary to agree on a 50 billion euros ($54 billion) financial aid package for Ukraine.
However, Baltic officials see Putin as emboldened to consider expanding his imperialistic ambitions. As small former Soviet republics bordering Russian territory containing sizeable Russian-speaking minorities, they say they are prime candidates to be next in the line of fire.
“I treat the situation today as a great temptation for Russia to attack the West and NATO countries because they are seeing our indecisiveness in support of Ukraine,” said Dalia Grybauskaite, who met with Putin while she was Lithuania’s president for a decade until 2019.
In the eastern border region of Latvia on a recent January morning, it was minus 14 degrees Celsius, the sun low in the sky and reflecting the snow with a remarkable intensity. Locals had been warned to expect aerial NATO exercises that week.
It is here, in the village of Baltinava, that Antra Keisa looks after an exhibit commemorating what is known as the Maslenki incident, a moment that presaged the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. It came on June 15, 1940, with a surprise attack at dawn by Soviet NKVD troops on Latvian border posts, resulting in the deaths of three border guards and two civilians, a mother and son, all Latvian.
This was the outbreak of open hostilities that saw the Red Army invade Lithuania the same day, followed by the Soviets seizing Latvia and Estonia, securing a prize that Josef Stalin had wanted from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact struck with Nazi Germany the previous year.
It did not last long: German troops rolled in and occupied the Baltics from 1941-1944, before they were driven out by advancing Soviet forces, who stayed until 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What happened at Maslenki is mapped out in intricate detail at the exhibit like a crime scene reconstruction. The incident was covered up at the time and only came to light in 1996, when a criminal case was opened by the Latvian authorities five years after regaining independence.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has only increased the relevance of the Maslenki exhibit. Many come who were unaware of it before.
“In my youth none of us were told or knew about such an event,” Keisa said. The Latvian president visited in 2020; Russians do not come, she said.
Keisa visited the border post, where the guards gave a presentation on the latest electronic gadgetry deployed.
“It’s all so modernized,” she said beside a scale model of the attack in 1940. Today, “people calmly cultivate the border like farmers cultivate their fields,” she said.
Baltinava is a pretty village of traditional wooden houses, some of them abandoned. It lies about 7 kilometers from the present border. Maslenki itself is now in Russian territory. The building in which it is housed originally belonged to a lawyer who was deported to the Soviet Union along with his family and never returned.
It is the rawness of experience that informs Baltic thinking about Russia and what it’s capable of under Putin. Political and military leaders in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn feel vindicated for raising the alarm early given Russia’s subsequent aggression toward Kyiv.
Now they are issuing a fresh warning over their vulnerability and are urging the West to act against Putin. Speaking on a Zoom call from Vilnius, Grybauskaite described the present vacillation over aiding Ukraine as a “huge strategic and tactical mistake because sooner or later he will see a window of opportunity and he will go for it.”
It is too late for deterrence, she said, and instead defenses need to be augmented — and urgently.
“Because we won’t have even a day,” Grybauskaite said. “Our territories are 300 kilometers wide and it’s not about days or weeks, it’s about hours.”
Hers is a known hawkish voice on Russia, but similar calls for the need to prepare for war have been coming from elsewhere, such as from Norway and Sweden, which is following Finland in the process of joining NATO, turning the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake.”
During a recent sale of government bonds, Estonia sought to reassure investors about the Russian threat.
Markus Villig, founder and chief executive officer of Tallinn-based mobility company Bolt Technologies OU, said in December that investors are being scared off, while Martin Gauss, CEO of Latvian-owned Air Baltic, complained higher interest rates are being demanded on debt.
NATO, meanwhile, is bolstering its presence through battle groups in each of the three Baltic states, but leaders complain that some NATO members still do not seem to appreciate the threat. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas bemoaned the fact that a decade after alliance allies agreed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, many are still well short despite the war.
“And why? I think because this war seems very far away and some leaders might still think that you don’t have to spend that on defense because the threat is not that real,” Kallas said in an interview in Tallinn on Jan. 16, contrasting the attitude to outlays during the Cold War. “Now we have a hot war in Europe and still we don’t see that movement.”
The Baltics are not waiting around for others. They are boosting defense spending, buying air and coastal defense systems, HIMARS rocket launchers and considering wider conscription.
Estonia, for example, was the biggest purchaser of 155mm artillery shells in the EU in the past year. They have agreed to build hundreds of bunkers along the Russian border, and Latvia briefly considered mining the area before abandoning the idea.
They have also taken other action. Latvia tightened residency criteria for some Russians, while Estonia expelled the head of the Orthodox church in Tallinn last month for activities against the state.
Moscow is watching closely.
“The events that are taking place in Latvia and other Baltic countries now, when the Russian people are being thrown out, are very serious and directly affect the security of our country,” Putin said, according to Russian state news agency Tass.
While raising Baltic government actions to the status of a national security issue for Russia rings alarm bells, western intelligence services put a timeframe of three to five years before Russia could pose a threat after rebuilding its military machine, assuming a halt to hostilities in Ukraine.
However, Estonia’s military commander, Herem, has a higher regard for Russia’s capabilities.
“Russia is not yet ready to engage in military conflict with NATO,” he said. “It won’t happen today or tomorrow. But even in one year or six months, they could do something very horrible to us. They do not need to march on Warsaw or Berlin or even Tallinn. It could take the form of small-scale military aggression.”
Memories of Soviet occupation loom over Tallinn. A vast memorial to the victims of communism carries 22,000 names — a fraction of those who suffered at the hands of the Soviets. It was established in 2018.
That recent past has become intertwined with Ukraine’s present reality: There are Ukrainian flags everywhere in the Estonian capital, as elsewhere in the Baltic region.
Martin Vaino, curator and head of exhibitions at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom, said there is “enormous solidarity” for Ukraine, driven by civil society: for some time his museum had a station for volunteers to make camouflage nets to send to Kyiv.
The museum hosts discussion events between younger generations and older people who spent their childhood in Siberia. A temporary exhibit on the war in Ukraine is planned, focusing on its impact on Estonia.
“War is not unavoidable,” Vaino said over coffee in the purpose-built museum just up the hill from Freedom Square, as the snow piled up outside. “But we should do everything that in the case of a war, we would win it. And even more, we should do everything in our power so that the war wouldn’t even begin in the first place.”
Four hundred kilometers to the southeast in Baltinava, fellow curator Antra Keisa is used to living in the border region with Russia, where restaurant menus are in Russian and Latvian and the road signs indicate the distance to Moscow.
She says she is relatively relaxed, but her husband is less so since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“He said, ‘I knew they would attack there,’ and now he tells me there will be war,” she said. “I say, ‘Well, don’t be foolish, there won’t be a war!’ I don’t know, maybe I’m too naive.”
With assistance from Anthony Halpin
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