Leaked Kremlin documents show that before the launch of the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s staff were apparently scheming to renew Russia’s diminishing soft power in the Baltic states.
Summaries of the leaked documents, published by independent journalists from Re: Baltica in late April, are in some respects reassuring. They point to plans of influence that are both unimaginative and at least in part delusional. Yet they also shine a light on Kremlin thinking and approaches and highlight which potential vulnerabilities the Baltic States should avoid.
The plans, developed in a department of the Russian presidential administration in 2021, contained schemes of influence for the short term (until the end of 2022), medium-term (until 2025), and long-term (2030.)
None of the ideas outlined for Russian influence — political, military, economic or humanitarian — has much to show in terms of success in the short term. To begin with, there was the traditional emphasis on preserving the Russian language in Estonia and Latvia — including the plan to prevent the transition of Russian-speaking minority schools to schooling in Latvian only. Final decisions on this transition were made in response to the all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when anything seen as having the potential for Russian influence was regarded with the utmost suspicion.
Similarly, the support of pro-Russian NGOs and the promotion of Russian culture among young people in Estonia can hardly be called a success. The area where Kremlin’s aspirations failed most spectacularly is the promotion of its view of history and the preservation of Soviet-era monuments. Both Latvia and Estonia removed many from public spaces or got rid of some of them altogether in 2022.
The Kremlin’s hopes to stem gains in NATO’s reputation among Baltic citizens, and its presence in their countries, have proven equally unrealistic. In the aftermath of full-scale aggression, NATO’s Madrid Summit saw a commitment to increase the presence of NATO troops in all three Baltic States as part of the enhanced forward presence. Meanwhile, the alliance has become more popular. According to GLOBSEC Trends, support for NATO membership increased in all three Baltic States between 2021 and 2022, likely as a reaction to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. During the same period, positive perceptions of Russia and its leader declined in the Baltics; while in 2021, a meager 13% of the Lithuanian population regarded Putin positively, which fell to 6% following the full-scale invasion. In Latvia, which has a much larger Russian-speaking population, Putin’s approval went from 31% in 2021 to 14% and is likely continuing to fall.
In a separate publication, Re: Baltica detailed a Russian disinformation program using environmental rhetoric to suggest NATO is damaging the environment. It stated a “Baltic Platform” had been created to promote cooperation with experts from the wider Baltic region, including the Baltic states but also Scandinavia, and Germany. There is, however, no visible sign of this to date.
Given the failure of the Kremlin’s leaked strategy in both the cultural and military spheres, one might be tempted to conclude that the whole set of plans has proven nothing more than an excuse for Kremlin officials to spend funds on an imaginary soft power campaign.
However, that is not necessarily accurate. The plans contained significant economic elements, aimed at attracting transit from the Baltic states to Russian ports, and emphasized cooperation with so-called moderate political parties in Latvia. The two elements may in fact be closely connected. In Latvia, the oligarch Ainārs Šlesers, whose party Latvia First entered parliament in 2022, has been a long-term advocate of transit business with Russia. Similar rhetoric about economic ties also emerges from the more openly pro-Russian party, For Stability, which is also currently represented in the Latvian parliament. While the Kremlin planners believed establishing cooperation with friendly politicians was merely a goal in Lithuania, in Latvia, the Kremlin seemed to judge that this could be swiftly achieved; that is before 2025.
Another potential risk is indicated by a Russian scheme to attract Estonian tech and Latvian industries to Russia. While European Union (EU) sanctions in response to the aggression in Ukraine make economic cooperation, for the most part, impracticable, the very fact that the Kremlin harbors this ambition suggests that the Baltic states must focus on preventing possible technology smuggling by their unfriendly eastern neighbor.
Enforcing compliance with sanctions is a never-ending struggle, and at a time when Russia is firmly set on militarizing its economy, it cannot be allowed to score any wins on the tech espionage front.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a Latvian politician, political scientist, and historian. She served as the Minister of the Interior of Latvia and as a member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022.) She has been also active as a public policy researcher and international consultant.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.