Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: Background and U.S.-Baltic Relations (excerpts), 2020


Potential Hybrid Threats

In recent years, tensions between Russia and the Baltic states have been exacerbated by [..] and a Russian propaganda offensive directed at Russian speakers in the Baltic states. [..]

Disinformation Campaigns and Ethnic Russians in Baltic States

The presence of a large ethnic Russian population in the Baltic states is a factor in these concerns, especially given that Russian claims of persecution against Russian communities were part of Russia’s pretext for intervention in Ukraine. According to statements by Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, one of the central principles of Russian foreign policy is acting as the defender and guarantor of the rights of Russian-speaking people wherever they live.71

71 President of Russia, “Address by President of the Russian Federation,” March 18, 2014, at

Russia routinely accuses Estonia and Latvia of violating the human rights of Russian-speaking minorities by discriminating against the Russian language in official usage.72 Although international organizations generally have rejected these charges, some segments of the countries’ Russian-speaking communities are poorly integrated into society. 73 About 230,000 people in Latvia and 76,000 people in Estonia, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, are noncitizen residents who are not allowed to vote or hold public office because they have not passed a citizenship test, which includes language and history components. Additionally, approximately 55,000 Russian citizens live in Latvia and 89,000 Russian citizens live in Estonia.74

72 In April 2018, for example, Latvia adopted a law mandating that Latvian is to gradually become the sole language of instruction in the country’s public schools. Although the reform is popular among ethnic Latvians, many in the country’s Russian-speaking population have objected to the law as discriminatory. Russia strongly criticized the law and threatened to impose economic sanctions against Latvia in response. See “Russia Threatens Sanctions over Latvian Language in Schools,” BBC News, April 3, 2018.
73 Isabelle de Pommereau, “Estonia Reaches Out to Its Ethnic Russians at Long Last,” Deutsche Welle, February 24, 2018

74 Council of Europe, “Latvia Takes Important Step Toward Eliminating Child Statelessness,” press statement, October 18, 2019; “Number of Stateless Residents in Estonia Drops by over 2,200 in 2018,” ERR News, Estonian Public Broadcasting, January 3, 2019; and “Population of Russian Citizens in Latvia Grows by 28,000 over Decade,” Public Broadcasting of Latvia, July 24, 2017.

Many in the ethnic Russian community receive their news primarily from Russian-language television and newspapers, and Russian media dominates the information market in Russian-speaking regions.75 In the past, Latvia and Lithuania have imposed fines and temporary bans on Russian media outlets, such as Rossiya and Sputnik, due to what authorities considered dangerous and unbalanced reporting.76

75 See Andrew Whyte, “Russian-Speakers Increasingly Turning to RTR Planeta for ‘Propaganda’ Dose,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, October 25, 2018, and Mārtinš Hiršs, The Extent of Russia’s Influence in Latvia, National Defence Academy of Latvia, Center for Security and Strategic Research, November 2016, p. 12 (hereinafter, Hiršs, Extent of Russia’s Influence).

76 “Latvia Shuts Down Russian ‘Propaganda’ Website Sputnik,” Euractiv, March 30, 2016, and Liudas Dapkus, “Latvia, Lithuania Ban Russian State TV Broadcasts,” Associated Press, April 7, 2014

Analysts have documented how Russia uses traditional media (e.g., radio, television) and social media to propagate disinformation in the Baltic states and many other European countries.77 Russian disinformation efforts against the Baltic states typically attempt to polarize society by portraying the Baltic states as illegitimate and dysfunctional, the EU as ineffective and divided, NATO and the United States as imperial powers, and Baltic governments as Russophobe fascist regimes that oppress their ethnic Russian populations. Russian outlets repeatedly have sought to stir up opposition to NATO deployments in the region by fabricating stories of criminal activity by deployed NATO soldiers.78

77 See, for example, Todd C. Helmus et al., Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe, RAND Corporation, 2018.
78 Edward Lucas and Peter Pomeranzev, Winning the Information War, Center for European Policy Analysis, August 2016

There is no movement among Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic states advocating absorption by Russia, and survey data indicate that these communities are not a unified, homogenous group in terms of how they view competing political narratives.79 Analysts believe most members of these communities prefer to live in Estonia or Latvia rather than Russia; noncitizen residents enjoy benefits such as visa-free travel throughout the EU, and average wages are considerably higher than in Russia.80 Concerns remain, however, that Russia could attempt to foment tensions or civil unrest as a pretext for intervention or in an attempt to seize territory populated by ethnic Russians.

79 Hiršs, Extent of Russia’s Influence, pp. 3 and 9-23.

80 Emily Ferris, Probing the Baltic States: Why Russia’s Ambitions Do Not Have a Security Dimension, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, November 21, 2018.


Document data: version of December 2019 ; version of January 2020

Publisher’s notes: the author himself chose the example of instruction being switched to Latvian only, and wrote that “international organizations generally have rejected these charges”. Tellingly, he did not provide any examples of such rejection. In fact, the legislation has been criticized by various international organisations, see

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