Viewed from Paris, London and Washington, the events unfolding in Ukraine may seem like a new Cold War taking shape in Europe.
From the Baltic countries, it looks much worse.
To Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — particularly those old enough to have lived under Soviet control — Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine has some worried that they could be the next target. The tensions have brought back memories of mass deportations and oppression.
“My grandparents were sent away to Siberia. My father was persecuted by the KGB. Now I live in a free democratic country, but it seems that nothing can be taken for granted,” said Jaunius Kazlauskas, a 50-year-old teacher in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine sent shockwaves through the Baltic countries on Thursday. Lithuania’s president declared a state of emergency and Latvia suspended the broadcast licenses of several Russian TV stations accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda.
All three Baltic countries were seized and annexed by Stalin during World War II before gaining independence again with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. They joined NATO in 2004, putting themselves under the military protection of the U.S. and its Western allies. Ukraine is not part of NATO.
Along with Poland, also a NATO member, the small Baltic countries have been among the loudest advocates for powerful sanctions against Moscow and NATO reinforcements on the alliance’s eastern flank. Baltic government leaders in recent weeks have shuttled to European capitals, warning that the West must make Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for attacking Ukraine, or else his tanks will keep rolling toward other parts of the former Soviet empire.
“The battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If Putin is not stopped there, he will go further,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned last week in a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Two days before the attack, President Joe Biden announced that some American forces deployed in Europe, including 800 infantry soldiers, F-35 fighters and Apache helicopters, would be moved to the three Baltic states, describing the step as purely defensive.
The news was met with enthusiasm in the Baltic capitals. While the NATO treaty commits all allies to defend any member that comes under attack, the Baltic countries say it is imperative that NATO show resolve not just in words but with boots on the ground.
“Russia always measures the military might but also the will of countries to fight,” said Janis Garisons, state secretary at Latvia’s Defense Ministry. “Once they see a weakness, they will exploit that weakness.”
While Putin hasn’t publicly expressed any ambition to reassert Russian control over the Baltic countries, many Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians worry he wants to regain influence across all former republics of the Soviet Union, the collapse of which he once described as a tragedy for the Russian people.
In his speech earlier this week setting the stage for Russia’s military intervention, Putin said Ukraine is “not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”
Culturally and linguistically different, the Baltic countries don’t have the same connection to Russian history and identity. However, they were ruled by Moscow for most of the past 200 years, first by the Russian Empire, then for almost 50 years following World War II by the Soviet Union. All three countries have ethnic Russian minorities; in Latvia and Estonia, they make up about one-quarter of the population.
Though many of them are well integrated, tensions flared in 2007 when hundreds of ethnic Russians rioted against government plans to relocate a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Estonia suspected Russia of stoking the unrest and orchestrating cyberattacks that paralyzed government computer networks.
“When we hear Putin humiliating Ukraine, calling it an artificial state with no history, it reminds us of the same things that they have been repeating about all former Soviet republics for many years,” said Nerijus Maliukevicius, a political analyst at Vilnius University. The Russian “state propaganda machine is now working on unprecedented levels of intensity, and the message is not just about Ukraine,” he added.
Lithuania borders both Kaliningrad, a Russian region where the country’s Baltic Sea fleet is based, and Belarus, the former Soviet republic where tens of thousands of Russian troops have been deployed for joint exercises. Belarus recently announced that the drills would continue because of the tensions in eastern Ukraine.
“It seems they are not going to leave,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said before Russia launched its attack on Ukraine. “But we must understand that numbers do not mean everything. There are technically very advanced troops on our side of the border. Their main task is deterrence — and defense, if necessary.”
The Baltic countries have expressed strong support for Ukraine. Baltic leaders have traveled to Kyiv recently to show their solidarity and have sent both weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Estonia, which celebrates its independence day on Thursday, is taking a strong stance in the conflict, but not because it fears for its security, said former President Kersti Kaljulaid, the first woman to hold that office.
“We are doing it because we find it is our moral obligation,” she said. “We very strongly feel that … every nation should have the right to decide their future.”
While the Baltics are direct neighbors of Russia, she said other European countries should be equally worried about the crisis in Ukraine.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t think it concerns the Baltics more,” she said. “If you look from Kyiv, it’s the same distance to Berlin as Tallinn.”