Russian President Vladimir Putin has his eyes on eventually reclaiming Finland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, according to Putin’s former top economic adviser, Andrey Illarionov.
Illarionov’s warning was reported in an interview with the Swedish paper SvD Nyheter (Svenska Dagbladet), which my Swedish political friends tell me is one of the most reputable papers in Sweden.
Illarionov, who was Putin’s top economic adviser and served as Russia’s representative to the G8, says that Putin isn’t planning on taking Finland and the Baltic states right now, but long-term those are his plans. He says Putin also has his eyes on Belarus, located north of Ukraine and south of the Baltic countries.
The Baltic countries were annexed by the USSR in the early 1940s, and became free after the Soviet Union fell, while Finland was basically neutered by the Soviets.
If you look at the map below, it’s clear what Putin is doing. He wants to create a buffer between Russia and Europe.
Illarionov laments that the West let Putin get away with invading and annexing parts of former-Soviet Georgia, and says more is to come. “The west let him do it with impunity, and now he has got Crimea,” Illarionov told Svenska Dagbladet. “And now, eastern and southern Ukraine are being destabilized so that the ‘self-defense forces’ can take power there. If the situation allows, it may mean a Russian military invasion. The goal is a pro-Russian puppet government in Kiev.”
Illarionov goes on to warn that “Putin claims to have ownership” of “significant parts of Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland.”
While the Baltic states are now part of NATO (since 2004), and any Russian aggression towards those countries would entail all out war with NATO, Finland is another story. While NATO has close ties with Finland, the country is not a member of NATO. And while any Russian attempt to undermine Finland, or even take its land, would probably be met with even more western sanctions, it’s not clear whether the west would react militarily. And that’s what Putin is betting on, according to Illarionov.
Some are blaming NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic countries with putting Putin in a position where he felt he had to strike back and take Georgia and Ukraine. Then again, the Baltic countries’ accession to NATO is the only thing guaranteeing that Russia will never again be able to Crimea-ize those small countries in the future. The same can’t be said of non-NATO Finland.
Specifically regarding Finland, Illarionov says the country “is not on Putin’s agenda today or tomorrow – but if Putin is not stopped, it will be.”
The problem for the US, and the west generally, is that while Ukraine and Georgia might not be strategically important enough to warrant risk going to war with Russia, empowering and enabling Putin by permitting him to annex his neighbors could lead to strategically important implications later on. It could enable him to test NATO’s and the EU’s mettle by going after a non-NATO European country like Finland, or worse, NATO- allies Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who I met at a conference in Greece a few years back, wrote a scathing piece about Russia’s intention in the Washington Post a few days ago. In addition to arguing that Europe must provide immediate assistance to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, Ilves hits on Russia’s peculiar, and dangerous, practice of handing out Russian passports willy-nilly to any “ethnic Russian” who will take them:
The Russian Federation’s practice of instant citizenship, whereby Russian passports are distributed willy-nilly to ethnic Russians abroad so they can be “protected” in their current homeland, is unacceptable. Passports are travel documents, not a tool to justify aggression.
The first problem: Russia is using the passport to justify an invasion. “Those are Russian citizens – look, they even have Russian passports!” But a second problem is national security in the west. Russian passports are no longer legitimate travel documents, Ilves argues to the Daily Beast, and they should be met with skepticism at nations’ border crossings:
Ilves also raises the idea of reviewing Europe’s recognition of Russian passports as “trustworthy travel documents.” A key element of Moscow’s game plan in the territories it wants to take is “passportization,” the cynical—not to mention illegal—distribution of Russian passports to citizens of other countries. That’s what it did in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the run-up to the 2008 War. Earlier this month it did the same thing in Crimea. “If it were some other country that was a passport mill, there would be a reaction to that,” says Ilves.
“This document [the Russian passport] is now being thrown all over the place, to everybody, it means nothing.”
Without getting into specifics, Ilves says EU countries should “review” their entire approach to dealing with Russian passports. “This document is now being thrown all over the place, to everybody, it means nothing, and therefore we have to cease—until we come up with a new policy—recognizing this as a legitimate travel document.”