The economic turmoil in Russia seems to be getting worse by the hour, so by the time you read this the situation might well have changed beyond recognition. This economic situation is closely connected with the frozen conflict in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the Crimea, though perhaps not in ways that people would expect. The economic crisis is usually depicted as a consequence of the sanctions that followed the conflict; but economic crises are usually a long time brewing: it is also surely possible to see the invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from Russia’s lacklustre economic performance in recent years. In other words, the difficulties of the Russian economy long predate the war, and are not the fault of the West, as Mr Putin would have his people believe.
Like General Galtieri, Mr Putin is a military adventurer, and if this seems too strong a comparison, then don’t just take my word for it, but listen to the Archbishop of Vilnius on the subject. Mgr Gintaras Grusas (I declare an interest: I knew him very slightly in Rome when we were both students) is hardly a fantasist or someone who is in the habit of spreading false alarms, but his words are unmistakeable:
We’re in the front line, and Russia has made its intentions clear. While we feel Nato’s support, we know the front could move forward if the international community fails to stand firm. What isn’t fully realised in the West is that the information and propaganda war which preceded the military action against Ukraine is very much underway here, too. There’s a high degree of tension, and everybody here knows how dangerous the situation has become.
The Archbishop is not only living on Russia’s front door step, he is also one of a nation that suffered horribly from its forced incorporation into the Soviet Union – an incorporation that happened while the rest of Europe stood by. Moreover, he is as good a judge as anyone of the current atmosphere in Lithuania. When he speaks, everyone should listen.
The idea of a Russian attack on Lithuania or the other Baltic states seems inconceivable given that the Baltic states are part of the European Union and, more importantly, Nato. To attack even one of them would mean an attack on the whole of Nato. However, the Russian President might think it worth the risk, given that he has the perfect excuse – the welfare of the Russian minority in the states, particularly in Latvia which has the largest Russian ethnic minority. In addition, he might think Nato too weak to react. After all, Nato has hardly presented a united front on Ukraine, has it? Moreover, Russia has already attacked Estonia, though not physically, through concerted cyber attacks back in 2007. These may well have been Russian retaliation for the Estonian government’s decision to move a war memorial, which led to rioting by ethnic Russians in Riga.
Where does all this leave us? After all, Russia is hardly our problem, is it, and Lithuania is a faraway country full of people of whose quarrels we know nothing. But distance is no defence: it is conceivable that in the midst of economic ruin, Mr Putin may try to save his regime by provoking a war with the Baltic states. After all, what has he got to lose? But for our part, if we want to promote peace, we must stand up and defend Lithuania and do so immediately, and unmistakeably. We failed with Georgia, when she was attacked by Russia in 2008; we have not done well in the Ukrainian crisis; we must stand firm, as Archbishop Grusas suggests, in the face of any aggression directed against Lithuania and the other Baltic states. After all, we owe them. We failed to save them from Stalin; we must not let them fall victim to aggression again.