When nemesis wants to split
Tensions continue in the Baltic countries with more meetings and reports addressing the topic of its relationship with its neighbour Russia. On Monday the 3rd of April, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence published a National Security Threat Assessment by Lithuanian intelligence institutions. The first major threat mentioned in the report highlights Russia’s ‘aggressive’ foreign policy and attempts to create divides and exploit weaknesses. The reports speaks about Russia’s attempt to “strengthen” its dominance in the region and change the global balance of forces.
Edward Lucas discusses local tensions and threats
Edward Lucas, Senior Vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Senior Editor of current affairs magazine The Economist, addressed the American Chamber of Commerce and its guests including ambassadors, academics and business people at a luncheon held at the Grand Palace Hotel in Riga late last month. Lucas shared his expertise on political tensions between Russia and its neighbouring countries. He also highlighted other difficulties to keep an eye on within Europe including Brexit, which he called “one of the saddest days of my life”.
Lucas mentioned the growing discussion of the Baltic’s and especially Estonia among British policy makers, stating “Baltic security has become a thing in British politics… our commitment to the Baltic’s is going to get bigger rather than better.”
Lucas shared his views surrounding the current challenges in Europe from a political and economic perspective and Putin’s strategy to exploit these divisions and these weaknesses for political gain using three weapons: money, information and force. Lucas said, “the force ranges from military and armed conflict in the case of Ukraine and Georgia… cyber attacks and also targeted assassinations, which we have seen particularly in my country Britain…. the money ranges from creating economic bridgeheads and bastions, people who say my jobs, my profits, and my shareholders happiness depend on having good trade investment links with Russia, so please politicians, don’t get in the way, and that economic pressure is a strong counterweight to the kind of economic sanctions that we have been trying to impose on Russia recently…”
Information is the third weapon Lucas mentioned, which has its roots from the old Cold War practice. Lucas believes the Internet has given huge advantages to the attacking side in terms of using information as a weapon. Lucas also highlighted the issues of anonymity and the difficulty in finding the true agenda of different news sources. Lucas believes Russia’s main goal is not to conquer the West, but to divide it, as Russia finds the idea of these big, western multilateral organisations like the EU and NATO won’t work and finds them profoundly unfair. Despite the tensions and ongoing challenges, Lucas is optimistic, as he believes Russia is a country full of weaknesses, bad demographic outlook, weak political institutions and is lacking strong allies.
NATO forces in the Baltics
Lucas also spoke about NATO’S transformation over the past 10 years, saying he does not agree with those who claim that NATO is ‘useless’… it’s good we have NATO forces here and we should have more forces, air defence and armour, but fundamentally we are not going to build an imaginary line down the Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian borders, there is no point in doing that because the real defence of the Baltic States lies with deterrents and that’s the second bit of good news, I believe we are starting to get our deterrents working.” Despite the fear over Russia’s nuclear weapons, Lucas spoke about the strength of Europe’s missiles, which he believes the Russians would not be able to shoot down, which the Finnish and the British already have and the Polish are planning to get them. Lucas emphasised his confidence over these deterrents and Europe’s ability to defend itself. He believes Europe is stronger than many think. “The EU has defied predictions that it would fall apart, I think both Shenzen zone, Eurozone and the Single Market are all going to survive and believes the EU is in better shape than people say and has done a really good job on energy.” Lucas also spoke about Russia’s largest gas producer Gazprom saying that they “treated the EU the way Microsoft and Google did. They did not understand how the competition worked and thought they could do whatever they wanted and it turned out to be a big mistake. Gazprom has gone through the same painful learning curve. The job is still not done yet…. but the EU has transformed the energy market over the course of the last five or ten years, which would have been absolutely inconceivable.”
Latvia officially opens its gas markets
Chairman of Latvijas Gaze management board Aigars Kalvitis told Russia’s largest news agency TASS that Gazprom will continue to dominate the gas market in Latvia, despite the move to open the gas market and allow new competition. Latvia was the only country in the the European Union that was 100 per cent dependent on Russia for gas supply. However, on April 3rd Latvia decided to make a big change and liberalise the markets with 15 companies registering with the regulator as gas suppliers. These include Latvian companies: Latvijas Gaze, Latvenergo, Enefit, AJ Power Gas, ESK Sistemas, Euro Energo Company, Frenzo, GEG, Latvijas Propana Gaze, Rigas Gaze, Scener, Daugavpils Siltumtikli and WIN Balitc. Lithuanian companies Lietuvos Duju Tiekimas and Litgas are also part of the new pack.
Martiņš Kaprans an expert at the University of Latvia told The Baltic Times, “I see it as a diversification of risks and it is the right way to go. There are many still unanswered questions, also with respect to who will be responsible for the transmission/ transportation/pipelines of gas. That is different and is still an open question. And that will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future.” Kaprans believes, the influence of Russian gas lobbies in Latvia will remain an issue here in terms of security.” In terms of Russia’s strategy, he thinks Russia continues to try its best to maintain its position and presence here. Kaprans also highlighted the ongoing quarrel between Belarus and Russia over gas prices. He said “for Russia it is not just business, therefore, I don’t think there will be a crucial change in the way of seeing the Baltic States as just as an economic factor from a Russian perspective, but on the other hand, they can’t think in the same category as they were used to as the situation is dramatically changing for them as they are in an open market.” Looking ahead, Kaprans will be closely watching Latvia’s municipal elections in two months as he believes these elections could determine and will most likely change the political landscape in Latvia, also there might be some reshuffling in terms of coalition. In some large cities and areas, he thinks they might change the political landscape and relations between the ruling party and Harmony, the pro-kremlin party, which has been the ruling party in Riga since 2009.
Dr. Maris Andžans, Research Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs also shared his views with The Baltic Times on the topic of gas. He believes this will not be “the beginning, neither the end of decreasing the dependence on Russia. He told The Baltic Times that “significant steps have already been taken to establish physical electricity and natural gas interconnections between the Baltic States and Finland, Sweden and Poland. Now, the natural gas market will have to be liberalized also in practice. The incumbent will probably try to retain its share and impact in the market and thus prevent the liberalization in practice.” Dr. Andžans also believes that “we can expect further distancing from Russia as we have seen around many spheres, especially trade. To be fair, however, usually distancing has been underpinned by external factors – such as economic crisis in Russia, Russian countersanctions, EU led natural gas market liberalization, Eubacked and unilateral energy interconnection projects, etc. “
Russian Propaganda continues
The Russian propaganda war continues. According to Lithuania’s national security report, through social media and propaganda events Russia tried to influence audiences in Lithuania and abroad by highlighting society-sensitive topics, such as NATO in the Baltic’s or “the 13th of January events, and accusing Lithuania of falsifying the history in the public sphere.” Latvia’s Foreign Minister has also warned Canadian troops that they need to be prepared to immediately counter any Russian backed smear campaigns. According to Dr. Andžans, “Russian propaganda has been there long before the Ukrainian crisis and not much has been done to constrain it. Latvian institutions would need to impose stricter limitations on Russian propaganda media presence in the public sphere, considerably increase funding to the national broadcasters to allow them to fill the information sphere instead of Russia.” Looking ahead, Dr. Andžans will be keeping a close eye on military exercise “Zapad 2017” in the autumn and its possible consequences in Belarus. He will also be watching Russia’s efforts to prevent the longevity of NATO’S enhanced forward presence as well as elections in France and Germany and their possible impact on Western attitudes towards Russia.
Edward Lucas is Senior Vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis