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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Influence By Other Means

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The closure this week of the last Russian military facility in the Baltic states -- the Skrunda radar site in western Latvia -- will not reduce Moscow's influence in these three countries. Indeed, it is likely to have just the opposite effect.

There are three reasons for this conclusion: First, by handing over the site to Latvian control on Thursday more than four years after all other Russian forces left Latvia, Moscow has removed what has been a major irritant in Latvian-Russian relations.

Both during and after the talks that led to the withdrawal of other Russian troops in August 1994, Latvians were often angry about the continued Russian presence at Skrunda, a Soviet radar site intended to detect incoming missiles.

Not only did that presence challenge their recently recovered sovereignty, but Latvians had been forced to agree to it largely because the West insisted that this site, mentioned in a number of Soviet-American arms control accords, be allowed to continue to function.

That in turn highlighted both Latvia's underlying insecurity and the continued willingness of the West to reach agreement with Moscow on issues affecting Latvia but without Latvia's direct participation.

Second, the transfer of control of Skrunda from Russia to Latvia almost certainly contributed to a further decline of Western attention to other methods Moscow may be employing to promote its influence.

Western governments view the closure of Skrunda as a mark of Moscow's good faith and its intention to play a smaller role in the Baltic countries. And that view in turn may mean that the West will devote less attention to Russian activities in the Baltic states.

And third, both the improved atmospherics in Latvian-Russian relations and the declining attention of the West opens the way for Moscow to promote its interests in Latvia, as well as in Estonia and Lithuania, in ways that promise to be even more effective.

In 1992, the Russian government leaked an internal foreign ministry document to the Latvian embassy in Moscow discussing the ways in which the Russian authorities could expand their influence in Latvia and its neighbors after Russian troops were withdrawn.

Many in Latvia were delighted by this document. It proved, they said, that Moscow was planning to leave. But relatively few of them then or subsequently paid attention to just what this Russian foreign ministry paper was suggesting.

It argued, and more recent Russian position papers have concluded as well, that Moscow should avoid using military pressure in the Baltic countries lest such use generate increased Western support for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

And it suggested that Moscow should use economic leverage, promote the corruption of local officials, and generate negative press coverage about the Baltic countries to expand its influence there. Such means not only better reflect Moscow's reduced circumstances, the paper said, they will be less likely to generate an "allergic reaction" by Western countries.

In the years since the three Baltic countries recovered their independence, that has been precisely what the Russian government has tried to do.

By shifting the flow of exports crossing these countries, by imposing special tariffs -- most recently against Estonia -- and even by exploiting Russian economic weakness, Moscow has made it more difficult for the Baltic states to reorient their economies and escape Russian influence.

By providing legal cover for Russian businessmen who have engaged in corrupt practices in the three Baltic states, Moscow has made them both weaker and less attractive candidates for future Western investment.

By playing up charges of anti-Russian attitudes and policies in the Baltic countries and by highlighting concerns about the behavior of some Baltic nationals during the Nazi occupation, Moscow has sought to undercut the reputation of the Baltic states as bastions of democracy.

Moscow clearly has legitimate interests in the Baltic states. But questions have been raised about methods it has used to promote these interests.

Consequently, many in Latvia and its neighbors are likely to view the closure of Skrunda as an occasion not only for celebration but also for concerns.