Tension rises as Putin threatens Baltics
President Obama has proposed quadrupling the money the US spends defending Europe from Vladimir Putin. Amid military buildup on both sides, how much should the West fear Russia’s president?
Russian soldiers have come to the Estonian city of Narva twice before. In 1700 Peter the Great was routed by the Swedish empire there. Two and a half centuries later the Soviet Union captured it from Nazi Germany.
Narva lies across the river from Russia. A third of its inhabitants are Russian citizens. Now some of its residents fear the Russian army could return.
Lt-Gen Riho Terras, Estonia’s highest-ranking military officer, had some sharp advice for his soldiers last year: ‘You should shoot the first one to appear’. He was warning that pro-Russian separatists might enter the country to cause unrest, as they did in Ukraine two years ago.
Estonia’s Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, have practised for similar scenarios. Lithuania has reintroduced conscription. And residents of northern Poland have reported an increase in military exercises. ‘You can hear the shooting at four in the morning,’ says Katarzyna Plejnis, who lives in Braniewo.
In recent months, Vladimir Putin has reportedly increased his military capability and deployed missiles to the territory of Kaliningrad, which borders Poland. And in September 2014, Russia seized an Estonian intelligence officer just inside his own border; they have since sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
During the Cold War, the Baltic states and Poland were among those occupied by the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War, they have gained independence and joined Nato. The Western military alliance was formed in 1949 to counter the Soviet threat. Nato is committed to defending its members against attack; under Article 5 of its founding treaty, members agree: ‘an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’.
Nato has responded to Putin by holding large training exercises in the Baltic states. This week President Obama proposed to quadruple the amount of money the US spends defending central and eastern Europe. Now, polls suggest, an increasing number of Russians see the US as a threat.
Putin is the biggest danger to the West, say some. He was ruthless and unpredictable in Ukraine. His background in the paranoid world of the Soviet intelligence services is troubling. He is vulnerable — Russia’s economy is collapsing and his conventional military forces have declined. And he has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons.
That’s overly pessimistic, say others. Ukraine is uniquely symbolic to Russians — Putin’s actions there will not be repeated. He is primarily interested in defending Russia, and attacking a Nato member would bring catastrophic consequences for his country. He is merely putting on a show of force.
- Are you worried by Vladimir Putin?
- Is Russia the greatest threat to the West?
- Summarise this article in your own words, using no more than three sentences.
- Prepare a one-page dossier for Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of Nato, on the threat from Russia. What are the grounds for concern? How worried should we be and why?
Some People Say...
“Only our leaders have enemies.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Doesn’t this only affect a few small countries?
- The countries which are most worried about Putin at the moment are relatively small, but much bigger countries have promised to defend them — most notably the United States. And the US and Russia have over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them.
- But what if there isn’t a war — does this matter?
- The threat of war, even if only a regional one, has an impact. When they feel threatened, countries increase the amount of money they spend on the military, meaning ordinary people have to pay more in taxes, more soldiers need to be hired, and more people will get jobs building military equipment. It also takes up a lot of our politicians’ attention and has a knock-on impact on the economy, as markets react badly to instability.
- 96% of people in Narva speak Russian.
- In June 7,000 soldiers undertook a three-week exercise in Lithuania. Britain’s largest warship and American nuclear bombers have also taken part in Nato navy exercises.
- Reports in March said Russia had deployed missile launchers to Kaliningrad, putting several eastern European countries within range of missiles which can be armed with nuclear warheads. Russia said the move was temporary.
- Obama outlined a defence budget for 2017 including planned expenditure of $3.4bn on the European Reassurance Initiative. As a result an additional 3,000 American troops, along with heavy artillery and military equipment, would be stationed in Central and Eastern Europe.
- 59% of respondents to a poll last April said the US posed a threat to Russia — a 12% increase since 2007. ‘Fear about external threats has replaced economic concerns as the main driver of public sentiment,’ says Mikhail Dmitriev, an economist and sociologist in Moscow. The poll was carried out by the Levada Centre, Russia’s most independent pollster.