Talking Russian: Minority Politics and the Putin Doctrine in the Baltic States

The neighboring presence of Russia has always been a defining feature of Baltic security politics, but it has been amplified under the so-called Putin Doctrine. This doctrine emerged from the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and a key speech the Russian leader gave, asserting that Russia has the right to protect Russian-speakers outside of Russian territory. Not surprisingly, this created nervousness within the Baltic States, each of whom are home to significant numbers of Russian speakers.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are members of NATO, the founding treaty of which states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies (Article 5). However, this can be invoked only in cases of “an armed attack”. Domestic political unrest led by ‘volunteers’ without insignia (essentially, this was how the annexation of Crimea was effected) will not invoke Article 5.

Given this backdrop, this article looks at Russian minorities in each of the Baltic States and considers the strategic environment they find themselves in. Do these communities run the risk of becoming pawns used by Russia to justify their expansionism, which some have suggested, following the example of Crimea? If so, what can be done to increase their resilience to this possibility?

The three Baltic States embarked on different paths of Russian minority integration since their independence in 1991, which created three distinct Russian communities with different groups within them.

However, there is a distinction to be made between Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. Russian speakers are the greater constituency numerically. Estonia and Latvia have Russian minorities of about 24% and 27% of the general population respectively, while Lithuania’s Russian population is just under 6%. In terms of Russian speakers, Estonia’s population features around 30%, Latvia 34%, and Lithuania 8%.


Lithuania has the smallest Russian minority of all the Baltic States, amounting to 5.8% of the total population. Lithuanian decision-makers assumed that the minority question has been resolved with a variety of assimilationist policies implemented throughout 1990s. As a result, a vacuum developed in both the minority informational and political spheres that Russia has been attempting to fill by financing local minority-oriented NGOs, news outlets and events.

Since 2014, Russian penetration of Lithuania’s informational and social space has started to pay off for them. The crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea spurred a re-birth of Lithuanian nationalism, which in turn has helped to create a siege-like mentality among Russian minorities which Russia has exploited as antagonism increases.

Currently, many sections of the Lithuanian media portray Russian minorities as a fifth column, and this suspicion is seemingly shared by the government and security institutions. In 2014, Lithuania banned several Russian state TV channels, and in December of that year, the national prosecutor ordered police raids on two Russian schools in Vilnius after the media reported that the students attended militarized summer camps in Russia.


Latvia failed to adequately address its Russian minority issue following independence, and it continues to be divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Ethnic Russians were issued with ‘non-citizen’ passports which restrict holders’ employment opportunities and freedom of movement. Today, some 280,000 ethnic Russians do not have a right to vote or hold senior positions in the government.

The Law on Education (1998) required that from 2004, all monolingual Russian schools to teach 60% of all subjects in Latvian. From 2015, this figure was increased to 80%. This requirement was communicated poorly, placing more emphasis on Latvia’s mono-lingual identity than an intention of empowering Russian minorities to integrate and fully participate in public life and overcome socio-economic marginalization.

A 2012 referendum on making Russian language a second state language drew a clear line between the ethnic Latvian and Russian-speaking communities: 75% voted against the proposition.

Following the Ukrainian crisis, the alienation of Russian minorities in Latvia is escalating. In February 2015, Latvia’s police launched an investigation into a picture circulating on social networks that called for the establishment of a “People’s Republic of Latgale” – an area in eastern Latvia populated primarily by ethnic Russians. The prompt reaction of security services shows that Russian minorities remain a highly sensitive security issue.


Since independence, Estonia has measured success of minority integration in terms of language. The 6.7% of its population that failed to pass the Estonian language exam do not now have citizenship of any country, and claim status of a “non-citizen.” There are no alternative processes for naturalization, and naturalization by birth is not an option either. In fact, since independence, 47,000 new non-citizens – the off-spring of non-citizens – were born in Estonia.

Furthermore, Estonia has a clearly divided ethnic Russian minority. On the one hand, there are educated and young Estonian Russians, who are fluent in both languages and are well integrated in public and socio-economic life of Estonia. In 2014, a small number signed a memorandum stating their allegiance to Estonia’s territorial integrity and national constitution, an act which received a lot of media attention – far greater in fact, than the number who signed it.

On the other hand, there are those who fell through the cracks of minority integration programmes, including the older generations, those living in Russian-dominated areas in north-east Ida-Viru region bordering Russia, and those lacking Estonian language skills or citizenship rights to integrate into Estonian life.

These divisions manifested themselves notably in 2007, when a decision to move a sculpture, the Bronze Solider of Tallinn which commemorates the Soviet dead of WWII,

led to social unrest, and by many accounts, cyber-attacks from sources sympathetic to Russia. As with Estonia’s fellow Baltic States, the antagonism between Russian-speakers and ethnic Estonians has only been increasing.

Given this environment, Russia’s attempts at inciting distrust in the Baltic governments among Russian minorities fall on fertile ground. Divisive propaganda tends to politicize every aspect of Russian identity, including culture, religion, history and language.

However, we have seen above that all three Baltic States have events in their post-Independence history that at the policy level result in the de facto encouragement the pan-Russian identity asserted by the Putin Doctrine. Reinforcing a minority’s sense of being minority will only have that outcome.

The Baltic States would be better advised to nudge their Russian minorities towards a Pan-Baltic Russian identity which promotes the Baltic values of inclusion and tolerance. In September 2015, Estonia went live with a Russian language TV channel, ETV+, aimed at its citizens. Lithuania and Latvia, though they may agree with the reasons behind the initiative, have so far lacked the ability to do the same, citing funding issues.

If the goal is increasing the resilience of the Russian speakers to the Putin Doctrine, then strengthening the media environment of all three states should be seen as a priority, not least at the level of popular media literacy and providing support to public service broadcasters.

Promoting plurality and balance is much more likely to achieve the long term results desired, but this must be underpinned by genuine and meaningful policy level measures to improve the legal status and social well-being of the Russian speakers in their respective Baltic States.

This article was written by our junior associate Donara Barojan (@donara_barojan) and associate director Guy Gabriel.

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