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Who's afraid of big, bad Putin?

The Baltic states needn’t fear; Russia’s jolting behavior is merely a diversion from its actions farther east

April 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

A strong cold wind is blowing from the east, and they’re shivering in Poland and the Baltic states. It’s their worst nightmare: to be the target of Russian aggression yet again. Their reaction has been close to panicky. Hundreds of self-defense units have been formed in Poland, Lithuania is considering reinstating the draft, and Latvia reports that Russian submarines approached its borders more than 50 times in the past year.

These countries have some reason to be worried. Carved up as they were by Stalin and Hitler, the vagaries of war made Soviet Russia by turns their invader, liberator and occupier. The events in Ukraine raise valid concern, but Poland and the Baltic states are not likely to suffer similar fates, for two reasons. First, Ukraine has enormous symbolic and historical meaning for Russia. Many Russians consider themselves and Ukrainians one people, although, tellingly, this is a sentiment rarely voiced by Ukrainians. The second reason is coolly practical and geopolitical. If Ukraine were to enter the Western camp, Russia would be flanked by NATO from the Baltic to the Black Sea — an unpardonable display of weakness that would cost any Russian leader his job.

This isn’t to say that Russia’s actions and reactions toward Poland and the Baltic states haven’t been extreme. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been calling snap military exercises to remind his rivals to the west who has the whip hand. But does Russia have real designs on the territory of any NATO nations and, if so, which ones?

An obvious candidate is Narva, Estonia’s third-largest and easternmost city, which juts into Russian territory like a peninsula. The statistics here are even starker and more alarming than in Ukraine. Narva’s population is 94 percent Russian-speaking and 82 percent ethnic Russian. Fewer than half the city’s residents are even citizens of Estonia, and only 4 percent are ethnic Estonians. It’s a natural place for Russian mischief, which explains the parading of U.S. and other NATO troops in Narva on Feb. 24, Estonia’s independence day. To mark the occasion, the country’s Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said, “Narva is a part of NATO no less than New York or Istanbul, and NATO defends every square meter of its territory.”

That’s a ringing endorsement of the NATO charter’s Article V, which states that members “agree that an armed attack against any one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and has never been truly tested. NATO troops would have to go out on a limb, even for a distant and obscure city that is already 80 percent Russian, or risk a crisis of confidence in the viability of the alliance. 

It is not the US and NATO that need to worry about a resurgent and aggressive Russia. It is Kazakhstan and China.

For that reason alone, Putin would never hazard war for Narva, which has no particular symbolic or strategic importance for Russia. He has no real designs on any NATO territory. His actions in the West have three purposes, none of which is the acquisition of territory: to make Russia’s presence felt in the world, to be feared if it can’t be respected; to test NATO’s nerves and will, thereby weakening its resolve; and to act as a diversion from actions taken farther to the east.

Some observers might point to Russia’s quiet quasi-annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway republics from Georgia. Ever since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, these two tiny states have been essentially under Russian control. Recently Putin went a step further, merging the security and armed forces as well as customs control between Russia and these two areas while making it easier for their citizens to acquire Russian citizenship. This was not a big story in the West, which, just as Moscow wished, was more concerned with Tupolev bombers grazing NATO members’ airspace.

But Abkhazia and South Ossetia are different from Ukraine. They began a bloody war for their independence as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed; they didn’t wish to be part of Georgia’s small multiethnic state any more than Georgia wanted to be part of Russia’s large multiethnic state. As always in such cases, two time-honored principles clashed here: the right to self-determination and the right to territorial integrity. Since North Ossetia is already part of Russia, a case can be made for reuniting South Ossetia with it. But that’s irrelevant. Russia’s real interests are to keep pressure on Georgia so it won’t dare join NATO and, as with Crimea, to create templates for later annexations. Those later annexations will take place in Central Asia.

Putin has broken with the West and turned his attention to the energy markets of Asia, but as Russia reorients itself, it risks becoming a junior partner — a mere supplier of natural resources to Beijing. The Central Asian equivalents of Crimea, Narva and South Ossetia will thus become strategically important to Moscow. This means the northern and eastern parts of Kazakhstan, which are heavily Russian and have been declared “part of Siberia” (that is, of Russia), by no less a moral authority than Nobel Prize laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If Putin manages to assert his influence there, he will have what he really wants: control of Kazakhstan’s border with China, the border through which China imports energy and exports manufactured goods. Then Putin’s true eastern ambition will be fulfilled. Russia will no longer be China’s junior partner, but a full-fledged equal. In other words, it is not the U.S. and NATO that need to worry about a resurgent and aggressive Russia. It is Kazakhstan and China. 

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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