Mutual grievances between neighboring states can easily be passed on from generation to generation and become central to a nation’s self-perception, guaranteeing that efforts to resolve the issue in question are viewed as attacks on that country’s identity and foreign policy traditions. Such is the sad present and likely future state of Russia’s relations with the Baltic states.

The 2014 Ukraine crisis left a deep impression on the Baltic states, which watched in horror as a territory with a population comparable to that of the entire Baltic region was thrown into turmoil. It led NATO to expand its virtually permanent presence in the Baltics: a presence that Baltic political elites expect will be strengthened further still.

Russians, for their part, are perplexed as to why the region’s small republics have assumed the role of the anti-Russia vanguard of the EU and NATO and seek to sever ties with Russia instead of engaging in economic cooperation with their gigantic neighbor.

Some anticipate that in the long term, the Baltic states’ material interests will prevail and their leaders will recognize that their countries remain peripheral, notwithstanding their EU membership. Others see the current state of affairs as natural and believe that as long as the Baltic states sit on the front line between Russia and the West, they will seek to get as much as possible out of the tensions between the two power centers, and will even have an interest in perpetuating them.

For centuries, the fate of the Baltics was decided by military preparations and actions, explaining why matters of defense have been at the center of attention since the three countries gained independence. First there was the full withdrawal of Russian troops, treated by locals as an end to occupation; then there was the Baltic states’ pursuit of NATO membership. The military potential of the Baltic states themselves continues to be limited, which is typical of small states. They can rely, however, on the support of their allies, which include all neighboring states save Russia and Belarus.

For the Baltic countries, defending themselves from the outside world while maintaining ties with it, especially trade ones, is ideal. Even if in the distant future it becomes possible to resolve today’s tensions, the Baltic states—and other EU member states—will continue to oppose opening their borders with Russia and making it part of the Schengen Area. They have no desire to give up their roles as sentries at the gates of the EU.

For Russia, these three states are a convenient conduit for trade with the EU, but by no means the only one. In the Baltic Sea, Russia has been developing its own port infrastructure, opening up new sea routes. Against the backdrop of difficult political relations, Moscow anticipates new restrictions on economic activities and the redistribution of trade flows, not only as a result of sanctions.

Still, neither side plans on closing the gates completely. Border checkpoints are being modernized, and the two sides engage in cross-border cooperation. These nascent examples of healthy engagement have the potential to stimulate the development of border regions that need help exiting economic depression, but they could easily become casualties of political battles. 

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, tourists and businesspeople kept Russia’s relations with the Baltic countries afloat with surprising consistency, despite the political hopelessness of that cause. Yet people-to-people contacts do not always survive the deterioration of political relations as the political dynamic spreads to nonpolitical areas. 

When economic and political relations are in decline, historical issues take the central place in Russia’s relationship with the Baltic states. The two sides see the events of World War II and the three republics’ subsequent entry into the Soviet Union very differently.

It might seem that the opening of archives would give a boost to meaningful dialogue between historians. Yet their work is often in the public eye, politically instrumentalized with ease, and amid international tensions seized on by states to land blows on others. Admitting one’s own wrongdoing, however far in the past it may be, is seen as an unacceptable concession to the enemy.

With relations between Russia and the Baltic states deadlocked, Baltic voters have continued (through various leaders, parties, and governments) to view Russia not as a prospective partner but as a source of problems, real and imagined.

On the Russian side, domestic political changes in the Baltic region appear insignificant, since they are seen to have done nothing to change the state of relations. Russia’s grievances with Estonian and Latvian politicians over the treatment of their countries’ Russian-speaking minorities—some of whom are still classified as non-citizens—may have deepened amid a rollback of opportunities to attend Russian schools in the region and the marginalization of the political forces representing the region’s Russian communities.

Russia’s diplomatic demarches on this issue and the development of contacts with the Baltic region’s Russian speakers have only served to confirm for local elites the wisdom of their ways. In turn, their reaction has further convinced Russia that the Baltic states are unconstructive, and that investing in relations with them is pointless.

Paradoxically, it is with Lithuania—which has the smallest Russian community of the three countries, and no non-citizens—that Russia has had the worst relations since 2014. Latvia and Estonia have made efforts, however limited, to engage in dialogue at the state level.

In today’s political circumstances, the Baltic countries’ policies toward Russia act as a constraint on Russia’s relations with the EU. The Baltic states will oppose, not welcome, any push for a new EU–Russia reset. Russia, for its part, does not care to waste its time on trifles and, given the general intransigence of the West, is looking to other fronts for victories. Both sides’ political elites, then, must be persuaded of the need to avoid a total collapse of contacts, a sad state of affairs that is most likely here to stay. 

This publication is part of the Security in the Baltic Sea Region project carried out with the support of the Royal Danish Embassy in Moscow.

  • Sergei Utkin