When the crisis in Ukraine emerged and the peninsula of Crimea was occupied by so-called polite, armed men, people in the Baltics and other regions of the world started to discuss the possibility of Russia moving in on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well.
Those countries, members of both NATO and the EU since 2004, remember their historical experiences with Russia all too well: in 1940 the three countries lost their independence, which was then followed by mass deportations of the population and almost 50 years of occupation. History has always played an important role in the politics of the region, with Russia regularly labelling Latvia and Estonia as fascist countries.
It may seem that the situation in the Baltics is similar to the one in Ukraine. Both Latvia and Estonia have Russian-speaking minorities in their eastern regions that tend to watch Russian TV and vote for Putin’s United Russia allies. There are also a lot of programmes for compatriots right now, designed by the Russian government to encourage people of Russian descent to move back to the ‘motherland’, a call that some Russian-speaking Estonians responded to. As did a lot of Ukrainian people who, even before the crisis, moved to Russia to work and live there because of the better economic conditions. However, the people of Latvia and Estonia are used to higher standards of living and probably wouldn’t want the Russian border to move in their direction.
Furthermore, the differences between the western and eastern part of the country run deep; eastern Ukraine, where a majority of people speak Russian and go to Orthodox churches, has more in common with Russian society than the western part of Ukraine, where a more Catholic, Ukrainian nationalist identity prevails. The closer historical, cultural and economic ties between the eastern Ukrainian regions and Russia also resulted in the rise of opposing political parties in eastern and western Ukraine and a very different perception of what it means to be a patriot. But instead of dealing with these differences, the Ukrainian government chose to ignore them.
In Estonia, there are no such huge divisions. When asked about their attitude towards the possibility of an armed conflict, young Russians living in Estonia close to the Russian border said that they would fight for their homeland, i.e.Estonia.
The crucial difference lies in the countries’ varying levels of success in implementing soft-power measures and in uncovering and stopping the direct involvement of special services. While in Estonia several spies have been captured in the last decade, the infiltration of former Russian officials and special service officers in eastern Ukraine’s separatist movements – although not particularly well concealed – went unchecked.
Mutual understanding between all ethnic and linguistic groups, the economy that’s doing relatively well, the central government’s involvement in solving the problems of less successful regions and people’s readiness to accept the Baltic states as their homeland despite their mother tongue being Russian; those are the answers to the question posed in the title. Well, that and the presence of some U. S. troops.