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Front-line NATO allies are facing an unconventional Russian threat short of war but still quite dangerous

Constantine Atlamazoglou   

Front-line NATO allies are facing an unconventional Russian threat short of war but still quite dangerous
  • Baltic countries are facing intensifying Russian hybrid warfare threats.
  • Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are strong supporters of Ukraine.

The three Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have been at the forefront of the conflict between the West and Russia since the latter's invasion of Ukraine.

Staunch supporters of Ukraine, they – along with Denmark – have given the most aid to Kyiv in relation to their GDP and have been pushing for strict sanctions on Moscow.

Although they are members of NATO and the EU, the Baltics are in a precarious position. Bordering Russia or its ally Belarus, they are small and were part of the Soviet Union until its collapse. Furthermore, over 20% of the population of Estonia and Latvia and 5% of Lithuania are ethnically Russian.

All of this has put them in Moscow's crosshairs. Russia seems to be employing unconventional methods against them that blur the line between war and peace and fall into what is called the "gray zone."

In July 2023, Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna expressed his concern about the possibility of such Russian attacks. "There are hybrid threats. But we never know what kind of hybrid situation may happen. We have witnessed them before as well," he said.

NATO has also cautioned against intensifying Russian hybrid warfare in the region and in the rest of Europe that could include "disinformation, sabotage, acts of violence, cyber and electronic interference, and other hybrid operations."

Targeting the Baltics

Indeed, a year later in May 2024, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed the Baltics for severing most of their ties with Russia, adding, "We will also respond to the hostile actions of the Baltic states with asymmetrical measures, primarily in the economic and transit spheres."

Moscow is suspected of following through with its threats.

In May, a leaked Russian proposal outlined plans to redraw Russia's territorial waters with Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Petrov said the proposal wasn't politically motivated but implied it was required to ensure Russia's security amid escalating regional tensions.

Although the proposal was deleted a day after it leaked, the following day several buoys demarcating the territorial waters between Russia and Estonia on the Narva River were removed by the Russian coast guard.

Estonian high officials urged calm, but Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis was more pointed: "Another Russian hybrid operation is underway, this time attempting to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about their intentions in the Baltic Sea," Landsbergis said in response.

Additionally, there has recently been increased jamming of the satellite navigation systems of commercial aircraft in region, which appears to be originating from within Russian territory. Although it is not clear whether the disruption is intentional, Tallinn and Vilnius have accused Moscow.

Russia and Belarus have also been accused by EU officials of pushing migrants towards the border of Lithuania and neighboring Poland and using them as hybrid weapons. Lithuania temporarily closed off some of its border crossings with Belarus in response, and Poland deployed troops to the border. The Baltics and Poland are prepared to close off their borders in the event of a major migrant push from Belarus.

All three Baltic countries have been targeted by influence operations. Estonia has seen a rise in sabotages that included damage to an undersea gas pipeline and telecommunications cables between it and Finland. Espionage, cyber attacks, and election tampering are also a concern, with Estonia having arrested the most Russian agents per capita in the EU.

Destabilization is the point

Hybrid warfare can use various tools – including military, informational, economic, civilian, and others – but it falls short of overt military action.

Its purpose is to destabilize a country's government, institutions, or population while often preventing attribution back to the perpetrator – occasionally, a purposeful and targeted action may even appear to be a random event.

Although hybrid warfare is not a new strategy, nor one employed exclusively by Russia and its allies, it has received increased attention following Russia's 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea as Moscow used a variety of military and non-military tools, which were described as hybrid, to capture the peninsula without meaningful Ukrainian resistance.

The murky nature of hybrid warfare can make it hard to identify and address potential threats. Yet, the Baltic countries are prioritizing hybrid threats and fortifying their institutions in response.

Tellingly, Latvia, in its 2016 National Defense Concept – the country's overarching defense strategy – named hybrid threats and Russia as the main threats to its security for the first time.

And last week, writing alongside his Polish and Czech colleagues, Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs expressed "deep concern" over Russian hybrid threats.

"We will act individually and collectively to address these actions, boost our resilience and continue to coordinate closely to ensure that the Alliance and Allies are prepared to deter and defend against hybrid actions or attacks," he said.