Abstract: Much of the analysis of Russian war aims and motivations in Ukraine has pointed to the Russian ruling elite’s expansionism and nostalgic imperialism fueled by the ideology of Neo-Eurasianism. However, how this inherently expansionist Neo-Eurasian ideology extends beyond Ukraine has been given substantially less attention. Drawing on content and discourse analysis of the Russian elite, as well as public opinion polling in Russia and the Baltic states, the Russian political elite of the Putin regime and the broader Russian population is heavily influenced by Neo-Eurasianism in how they view the Baltics as connected to a Russian-led Eurasian bloc due to nations’ Russian-speaking minorities and successful integration into the Western world since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Problem statement: How to understand Putin’s view of the Baltic states as a part of the ‘Russian World’ led astray by the West that must be reunited in a Russian-controlled Eurasia?
So what?: Western policymakers and the West more broadly must recognise that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a symptom of a larger expansionist ideology that encompasses the entire post-Soviet space of Eurasia and seeks to restore it to Russian hegemony. As we have seen in Ukraine, the use of force is not beyond question in realising these imperialist goals. NATO and the West must craft policy for the defence of the Baltics with the potency of this ideology in mind, and further research must be dedicated to fully comprehend the influence of Neo-Eurasianism in Russia towards the Baltics and within the respective nations themselves.
Russia’s Eurasianist Vision
The current Russo-Ukrainian war has reinforced the relevance of Eurasianism in Russian foreign policy, specifically Neo-Eurasianism, which seeks to “reconstruct a ‘traditional’ Russian hegemony over the Eurasian space.” This ideology is abundant in statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian political leaders in foreign affairs and defence ministries. It is also present in Russian statements regarding the war in Ukraine, such as Mr. Putin’s claim that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” and his description of Ukraine as not a sovereign nation but a “colonoy.” These statements call upon the shared culture and history of the Ukrainian and Russian people in justifying the use of force and Russian goals of control over a Eurasian sphere of influence that includes Ukraine. As Europe watches its largest war since 1945, it is vital to understand how this ideology may influence future Russian actions in the Baltics and states that were formerly part of the Russian Empire. The Baltic states, members of both NATO and the European Union, are often pointed to as the most vulnerable and obvious step in any future Russian territorial acquisition beyond Ukraine. To anticipate any future Russian hostility in Europe, policymakers in the West must first understand how this Neo-Eurasianist vision impacts Russia’s goals in the Baltics.
As Europe watches its largest war since 1945, it is vital to understand how this ideology may influence future Russian actions in the Baltics and states that were formerly part of the Russian Empire.
Eurasianism cannot be confined to a single or even consistent ideology. Instead, Eurasianism can best be understood as “a body of ideas” that began with “original Eurasianism.” This philosophy advocated a definable Eurasian region of culturally and historically linked ethnic groups distinct from Europe and most efficiently “safeguarded by an autocratic state” in 1920s Russia. Seemingly embodied previously in the Russian empire, the Soviet Union was the primary vehicle for institutionalising this Eurasian vision under Russian control for much of the 20th century. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Eurasianism evolved to meet the new world order of the post-Cold War space, championed by Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin’s vision placed Eurasian ideology in a geopolitical context by advocating Russian hegemony over Eurasia in opposition to the hegemonic liberal Western order. Eurasianism was able to “unit[e] a diverse range of anti-liberal and anti-democratic elements” of Russian society.
Heavily influenced by “virulent anti-Westernism,” Dugin’s vision of a Russian-controlled Eurasian regional bloc opposing the Western liberal order requires reconstituting the territorial claims of imperial and Soviet Russia to reunite the Russian-speaking minorities within them. This radical form of Eurasian ideology is the most dangerous to the Western world and interests of a rules-based international order. Furthermore, this expansionist ideology has been translated into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ foreign policy that seeks to bring the ‘Russian World’ under its hegemonic control.
This connection between the discursive space and actionable foreign policy has been seen most acutely in Putin’s rhetoric and justifications for his war in Ukraine. Putin repeatedly draws on Neo-Eurasianist talking points about reuniting Russian minorities. He also expresses nostalgia for the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and the special place of Russia in a Eurasian space distinct from a corrupt and hostile West. While Ukraine has seen the most hostile manifestation of Putin’s Neo-Eurasianism, the Baltics are similarly in danger of such ideology as former Soviet states with significant Russian-speaking minorities. Therefore, it is essential to understand the extent to which Neo-Eurasianism influences Russia’s views of the Baltics and the respective nations themselves.
Neo-Eurasianism in Putin’s Russia
Putin’s Russia has been heavily influenced by Neo-Eurasianism, which affects how they view post-Soviet states and how those views are translated into foreign policy, including in the Baltics. Putin’s Eurasian vision was first translated into integration projects such as the Eurasian Union and Eurasian Customs Union, which sought to “blend and unify” branches of liberal economic and imperial ethnic Eurasianism. However, since the outright invasion of Ukraine in 2022, any economic integration projects for Eurasia have taken a back seat to blatant territorial expansion that embraces the imperial vision of Neo-Eurasian ideology. Putin’s advocation of the “genetic code” of the Eurasian space that needs Russia to defend it from an “extreme Western-style liberalism” suggests that Neo-Eurasian tenants of imperial nostalgia, anti-Westernism, and cultural unity are his driving factors. In Ukraine, Putin has been even more blunt by denying Ukraine sovereignty, justifying his invasion by saying that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people.” Likewise, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said that Putin’s “three advisors” on Ukraine are “Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great.
Putin’s advocation of the “genetic code” of the Eurasian space that needs Russia to defend it from an “extreme Western-style liberalism” suggests that Neo-Eurasian tenants of imperial nostalgia, anti-Westernism, and cultural unity are his driving factors.
While Putin’s rhetoric may sound extreme, these sentiments of connection between Russia and its former satellite states are widely shared in larger Russian society. This Soviet nostalgia in the Russian population was displayed in a 2020 Levada poll, where seventy-five per cent of respondents identified the Soviet Union as “the best time in Russia’s national history.” Furthermore, a majority of Russians pointed to the need to “protect Russian speakers” in Ukraine as a primary cause for their support for Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine in 2022. These foreign policy positions are because of an overwhelming and long-standing public sentiment, shown in a different survey as far back as 2005, of a feeling of connection between the Russian population and states they consider to be formerly part of the Soviet Union. This connection was most notable in countries with Russian-speaking minority populations, such as Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states.
These sentiments of ‘connectedness’ with these states and their Russian-speaking populations have translated into tangible foreign policy actions. Drawing on Neo-Eurasianism, Russia’s geopolitical outlook has been defined by “civilisations” with “hegemons” responsible for these civilisational spheres of influence. Russian political leadership refers to the Eurasian sphere of influence as “the Russian World,” which Russia has been increasingly active in trying to reassert control over since 2014. Also referring to the ‘Russian World’ as its “near abroad,” Russia has attempted to reassert control over the post-Soviet space with overt kinetic military action, such as in Georgia and Ukraine, and through non-kinetic operations, such as in the Baltics. Whether conventional or hybrid, Russian actions have sought to reestablish a sphere of influence over the space once dominated by the Soviet Union and counter the West. Russia has utilised the cultural and ethnic pillars of Neo-Eurasianism to justify its actions on the world stage. These justifications also draw on the imperial and Soviet nostalgia of Neo-Eurasianism, pointing to the “historically justified zone of privileged interest” that Russia sees in its ‘near abroad.’
Russia has utilised the cultural and ethnic pillars of Neo-Eurasianism to justify its actions on the world stage.
The Baltic’s in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’
The Baltic states have continuously expressed concern over political and foreign policy developments in Russia. However, western members of the EU have long sought better relations with Russia. Thus, Baltic objections to deeper EU-Russian integration were largely dismissed as “the Baltic Factor,”. Many European nations explained Baltic hesitancy in embracing Russia as “an awkward reflection of their own problematic relationship with Russia, anti-Russian identity, and historical baggage.” Described as ‘“troublemakers’ or ‘agenda spoilers’ in the EU-Russia relationship,” Baltic warnings of an aggressive Russia attempting to meddle in their affairs were largely ignored in crafting EU policy towards Russia. However, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a much more pragmatic and, at times, aggressive EU approach towards Russia “vindicated” the Baltics.”
This reassessment of the “Baltic factor” in the EU and shift in Western policy outlook to join the Baltic nations in viewing Russia as a hostile power is deeply rooted in the Baltics’ position as a member of Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ Both the EU and NATO now recognise Russia’s primary geopolitical strategic interests as reasserting influence and control over what it considers the “Russian world” in the “near abroad,” where Russia has proclaimed its rightful sphere of influence. While Russia’s larger strategic objectives of reasserting this sphere of influence may be to create a multipolar world with itself as a leader of a Eurasian bloc as an alternative to Western hegemony, which is also compatible with Neo-Eurasianism, its focus on the shared ethnicity and culture of Russian-speaking peoples rings especially true for the Baltics. The Baltic countries retain significant Russian-speaking minorities, as twenty-five per cent of the total population of Estonia “define themselves as ethnic Russians,” twenty-seven per cent in Latvia, and roughly five per cent in Lithuania.
These relatively large Russian minority populations make the Baltic states, and their history as former Russian and Soviet territories, part of what Russia sees as its ‘near abroad’ and rightful sphere of influence as part of the ‘Russian World.’ Seeking to “bind Russian-speaking minorities abroad to Russia’s declared sphere of interest,” Russia views the Russian minorities of the Baltics as “important political means of exerting influence.” Additionally, since the Baltic states are members of both the EU and NATO, increased Russian influence in the region also serves the objective of Russia’s larger grand strategy to weaken Europe and the U.S. in its effort to create a multipolar world. While this makes the Baltics a critical aspect of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ strategy, it also places limits on the extent to which Russia can pursue its objective of reclaiming its sphere of influence, as any overt use of force, such as in Ukraine and Georgia, would invoke NATO’s Article V treaty obligations.
As Russia’s ‘near abroad’ foreign policy is “manifested in an aggressive and unpredictable manner” through the employment of “integrated employment of political, economic, informational and other non-military means” in what it sees as its sphere of influence. Analysis of these ‘grey zone’ efforts demonstrates the most accurate measurement of the Baltic’s importance to Russia in this regard. Deterred from military action by a larger war with the U.S. and NATO, Russia has “s[ought] to achieve and maintain information influence on the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic States” to undermine the Baltic states and their place in the West. Russia has utilised both formal information communication, such as television stations like Russia Today, and informal information communication in the form of social media to promote propaganda and disinformation that undermines the Baltic states, the EU, NATO, and the U.S. One of the most common talking points in these disinformation campaigns is the “violation of minority rights,” which Russia utilises to alienate Russian-speaking minorities from their countries and draw on their shared language, culture, and ethnicity with the common Russian civilisation.
As Russia’s ‘near abroad’ foreign policy is “manifested in an aggressive and unpredictable manner” through the employment of “integrated employment of political, economic, informational and other non-military means” in what it sees as its sphere of influence.
These efforts speak to the Baltics’ importance in Russia’s vision of its ‘near abroad’ and the larger Neo-Eurasian ideology that drives its expansionist goals throughout its neighbourhood, utilising similar rhetoric in Ukraine and Georgia. Likewise, Russia’s military buildup and history of large-scale ground and naval exercises around the Baltics suggest that they would be the first theatre of active conflict if Russia ever invaded NATO territory. Likewise, the corresponding NATO deployments to the Baltic region during times of increased tension between NATO demonstrate that NATO views the member states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as its “most vulnerable region.” Both militarily and non-militarily, Russia’s actions in and around the Baltics are part of its larger strategy to reassert influence in its ‘near abroad,’ justifying its actions through Neo-Eurasian rhetoric that proclaims a historical and cultural right to influence the region, portions of the Baltics’ population part of the ‘Russian World,’ and its alignment with the West contrary to the Neo-Eurasian vision that these actions stem from.
Eurasianism in the Baltics
While Russia’s influence operations in the Baltics display how engaging with the Russian minorities of Baltic states fits into its larger policy of pursuing increasing influence in its ‘near abroad’ and ‘Russian World,’ it is vital to understand the extent to which these Russian-speaking populations share the Eurasian ideology that fuels these foreign policy objectives. The sheer size of the Russian minority population in the Baltic states is significant in its own right. In Latvia and Estonia, nearly twenty-five per cent of the population describe themselves as ethnically Russian, while almost five per cent see themselves the same in Lithuania. However, the connection these people feel with the current Russian nation is a more complex matter. Russia has described these Russian minority groups in former Soviet-dominated states as “compatriots,” meaning “transmitters of Russian culture, values, language, and intermediaries of relations between Russia and foreign states” in the “Russian World,” purposely using a vague and broad definition for ‘compatriots’ that encompasses any ethnic group that previously lived in imperial or Soviet Russian territory.
The sheer size of the Russian minority population in the Baltic states is significant in its own right.
Before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine in 2022, large portions of the Russian-speaking populations of the Baltic states felt this connection with Russian culture and history over that of their country’s place in the Western world, as well. In a poll of Baltic nations prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Russian minorities in the Baltics broadly identified with the Russian Orthodox Church, and many found some sort of “conflict between” their “traditional values and those of the West.” Likewise, in the same survey, Russian minorities in the Baltics were found to be “Eurosceptics” or “alienated” from European organisations, like the EU. Contrasted with the larger population of Baltic states, who are largely Catholic and have favourable opinions towards Europe and the EU, Baltic Russian minorities possess differences with the rest of their nation and tangible connections with their Russian heritage.
Despite these concrete connections with Russia, the Baltics’ Russian-speaking people did not share the same radical anti-Westernism and Russian imperial or Soviet nostalgia at the core of Neo-Eurasianism, especially when manifested in policy implications. Membership in the EU, for example, despite being “Euroskeptics,” is heavily favoured by Baltic Russian speakers. Likewise, even those who disagree with certain EU policies heavily favour being in the EU due to the “geopolitical significance” of EU membership.” These policy preferences are rooted in thirty years of enjoying “the benefits” of Western integration following the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of the Baltic states, which has allowed its people, even the Russian minorities, to economically “benefit from globalisation” and become politically and socially independent.
Not only have the three decades since the end of the Cold War brought economic success and political freedoms to the Russian minorities of the Baltics but also a novel civil and national identity to their own countries. Even before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, while the Russian diaspora in the Baltics still viewed themselves as “ethnically Russian” with “an appreciation of Russian language and culture,” they possessed an “Estonia/ Latvian/ Lithuanian civic identity” that transcended Neo-Eurasianism and led them to “reject” the idea of pursuing a ‘Russian World.’ Informed by “lived experience,” brought about through education, press, and society that is independent of Russia, the new generations of the Russian diaspora in the Baltics “do not feel the same ‘Soviet nostalgia’ and yearning for” the past that Neo-Eurasianism is fueled by. These lived experiences have created a Russian minority in the Baltics that is proud of their Russian heritage on the one hand and opposed to the Neo-Eurasian ideology that underpins any expansionist Russian policies in its ‘near abroad’ on the other.
Not only have the three decades since the end of the Cold War brought economic success and political freedoms to the Russian minorities of the Baltics but also a novel civil and national identity to their own countries.
This evolution of this identity has been more acute since Russia started acting out on its Neo-Eurasian vision in aggressive foreign policy moves in the ‘Russian World,’ starting with the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. As Putin’s Russia became more aggressive in its attempts to reassert its place in its ‘privileged sphere of influence,’ such as using military force in Georgia and Ukraine, these actions “antagonised the Baltic states.” Instead of supporting Russian efforts to further connect with ethnic Russians living abroad, Russia’s use of force caused Russian minority groups in the Baltics to favour “deeper integration into the EU and NATO.” Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine only exacerbated this existing hesitancy of Russia’s forceful foreign policy amongst Russian speakers in Baltic states, with a large majority of Russian-speaking Latvians saying they supported Ukraine’s fight for “independence and freedom” against Russia in 2023. In addition to Russia’s actions alienating the ethnically Russian population of the Baltics, efforts by countries in the region to blunt Russian propaganda and influence operations also minimised the extent to which Russia could export its Neo-Eurasian ideology of its place in the ‘Russian World.’ These internal “changes in the political infrastructure” of the Baltic states, such as banning Russia Today and changing education from bilingual to Latvian in Latvia, “have reduced Russian soft power” in the region.
This waning of Russian influence in the Baltics and the alienating effects of Russia’s hostile actions towards former Soviet states are most visible in shifting public opinion surveys of ethnic Russians in Baltic states towards Russia and the West. Two years after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, a survey revealed “that 84.3 per cent of Latvia’s Russian speakers feel belonging to Latvia, 43.1 per cent feel belonging to Europe, while only 32.4 per cent and 28.3 per cent feel belonging to the USSR and/or Russia.” Similar findings were made in surveys of the Estonian Russian minority population, where “a post-Crimea opinion survey on the influence of Russian compatriot policies in Estonia concluded that the territorial and political ties of Estonian Russians are quite weak.” Furthermore, the same survey found that ethnic Russians in Estonia “do not support Russia’s ambition to develop strong ties between the diaspora and the homeland.” These surveys suggest “a high level of loyalty” among the Russian-speaking populations of the Baltics towards their home countries, which was most apparent in a separate survey from 2019, which found that seventy per cent of Russian-speaking Estonians would be willing to take up arms against Russia in the case of an invasion.
This waning of Russian influence in the Baltics and the alienating effects of Russia’s hostile actions towards former Soviet states are most visible in shifting public opinion surveys of ethnic Russians in Baltic states towards Russia and the West.
The connection between the Russian-speaking minorities of the Baltics and their Russian heritage is not simply a figment of Kremlin propaganda’s imagination. It is, however, drastically overstated by Russian political leadership and their influence operations that use disinformation and propaganda campaigns to target the ethnically Russian minorities of Baltic states. While Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics claim Russian culture, history, language, and religion as essential parts of their identity, they do not extend this cultural heritage to their national or civic identities. With three decades of space between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current realities of independent and sovereign nations in the Baltics, the ethnically Russian people of the territory do not claim Russia as their country more than their own. Likewise, they do not support Kremlin efforts to reunify the Russian diaspora, especially after witnessing illegal and violent military campaigns in Georgia and Ukraine when those countries attempted integration with the West to that end. Through polling, the Russian-speaking peoples of the Baltics have made clear that, while proud of their Russian ethnicity, they do not share the same Neo-Eurasian vision of Putin’s Russia.
The Importance of the Baltics in Neo-Eurasianism
Russian political leadership has spoken consistently with Neo-Eurasian bluster about its historical right to maintain influence in its ‘near abroad,’ inherently denying the Baltics and other neighbouring states their sovereignty and invoking the ethnic and cultural connectedness of the ‘Russian World.’ Except for Ukraine, the Neo-Eurasianist language of reuniting Russian speakers abroad in a larger Eurasian regional bloc has been largely vague and broad. In one speech about the Russo-Ukrainian war, for instance, President Putin spoke of ethnic Russians abroad as people who “consider themselves part of Russia” because of their “culture, religion, traditions, and language,” which, he claimed, justified a “return to their native homeland.” Overtly relying on these Neo-Eurasian talking points to justify his war in Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly denied Ukrainian sovereignty through imperial and Soviet nostalgia, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and proclaiming the war to be one for Russian “civilisation.”
While the focus on returning historically Russian territories with significant Russian minorities back to a Russian-controlled Eurasia causes obvious concern for the Baltic states, they are rarely mentioned as specific targets for this expansionist policy. Russia has engaged in ‘soft power’ techniques in the Baltics to engage the Russian-speaking populations to undermine the countries of the region and the West more broadly. However, any attempt at using force or ‘hard power’ to achieve any unification objectives, such as in Ukraine, remains entirely hypothetical. This makes the Baltics distinct from other states that have attempted to align or integrate with the West and faced harsh reactions from Russia for attempting to exit a Russian-controlled Eurasian space.
Russia has engaged in ‘soft power’ techniques in the Baltics to engage the Russian-speaking populations to undermine the countries of the region and the West more broadly.
Ukraine and Georgia faced Russian use of force, conventionally and non-conventionally, upon signalling a desire to join the EU or NATO, respectively. On the other hand, the Baltics did not trigger a significant Russian response upon joining the EU and NATO in 2004, as Putin declared that Russia could do nothing to stop the sovereign nations of the region from integrating with the West.
The Russian population shares a sentiment of claiming ethnic Russians abroad and former Soviet territories as part of the ‘Russian World’ but leaving the Baltics low on the list of priorities and connections. A 2022 public opinion study of the Russian population’s geopolitical outlook surrounding the war in Ukraine found that most Russians supported broad the Neo-Eurasian beliefs used to justify the 2022 invasion, such as “protecting Russians abroad,” disapproving of current borders, and being connected through culture with Ukraine, but also former Soviet satellite states or Imperial Russian territories. In polling specifically about the Baltics in 2023, the majority of Russians found the Baltic states to be “a threat” to Russia. It ranked relations with the region as “negative,” but did not point to the same level of ‘connectedness’ found in surveys about Ukraine and Belarus. While Russian culture and ethnicity are key components of Neo-Eurasianism, so is anti-Westernism, and viewing the Baltics as a member of a hostile Western bloc that threatens Russian civilisations could suggest that the Russo-Ukrainian war has increased the importance of the Baltics in Russia’s Neo-Eurasian vision despite feeling any loss of connection.
Determining to what extent Neo-Eurasianism influences Russian-Baltic relations is neither an easy nor comfortable question due to the complexity of the ideology and its manifestations. Furthermore, the dreadful costs of acting on them have been seen in Ukraine. It is, however, necessary to understand how Russia and the people of the Baltics view the region in the context of the inherently expansionist ideology that could threaten it. Through both qualitative and quantitative means of public opinion and discourse analyses, it is evident that the influence of Neo-Eurasianism both towards and inside the Baltics is mixed. On the one hand, Russian political leadership and ordinary Russian citizens largely support the idea of a cultural and societal connection between the Russian Federation and the rest of the Eurasian space that underpins Neo-Eurasianism. Likewise, Russian political leadership has made clear that it views all the Russian-speaking minorities of those now independent countries as part of the ‘Russian World’ that makes up Eurasia under historically and culturally defined Russian control. In contrast, most Russian citizens support Russian influence in the region.
Russian political leadership has made clear that it views all the Russian-speaking minorities of those now independent countries as part of the ‘Russian World’ that makes up Eurasia under historically and culturally defined Russian control.
While the Baltics certainly fall into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and ‘Russian World,’ placing it within any potential Neo-Eurasian expansionist framework, the region appears to be less of a priority than other former Soviet or imperial Russian territories. The specificity and hostility that Russian political leadership uses to invalidate Ukraine’s sovereignty is not seen in discussing the Baltics. Likewise, while feeling connected to their Russian ‘compatriots’ in the region, the Russian people place Belarus and Ukraine above the Baltics in any border grievances. They also, however, view the region as part of the hostile West that Neo-Eurasianism also thrives on. This complex overlap of Russian political leadership’s rhetoric and the Russian people’s views place the Baltics in danger of Neo-Eurasianist expansion, but no more than any other state with a significant Russian-speaking minority. 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