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Why did the former SSR countries like Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia face no trouble from Russia to join NATO and EU, while countries like Georgia and Ukraine were/are facing Russian military invasions?

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6 Answers 6

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There are several reasons.

  1. Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia don't pose as significant strategic geopolitical threat as invasion route. Ukraine and Georgia do.

    I covered the geopolitical motifs that drive Russia (the need to protect itself from invasion from West/Southwest/South due to lack of defensible natural borders) in another Politics.SE Q&A.

    The following map illustrates the differences very nicely (hand drawn red squiggles mine). You will note that:

    • Latvia has a very small border with Russia, that's easier to defend, and further from Moscow. Lithuania has no direct border (Kaliningrad/Königsberg is irrelevant from this viewpoint). Estonia's border is more defensible due to water except for small area near Narva.

    • Ukraine has a huge ass-border, right near the best route to invade to Moscow from Europe (if you discount Belarus, which is firmly with Russia for now)

    • Georgia not only has a big border, it's also near Ossetia/Chechnya, which are... sensitive spots for Russia security wise

    enter image description here

  2. Similarly, Baltic republics don't offer much of a significant geopolitical value to Russia, comparatively.

    They aren't resource rich (unlike Ukraine with its hydrocarbon resources or Georgia with all the resources in Caucasus region).

    They don't offer great agriculture (being in the colder North; baltic area) unlike Ukraine and Georgia.

  3. Baltic republics have strong affinity for Western Europe, and strong dis-affinity for Russia; for historical, cultural, and religious reasons. The effort to keep them out of Western orbit and in Russia's is much harder.

    They were the very last republics that were forced to join USSR. They were the very first ones to want to separate from USSR. Most of Russian speaking population there are not indigenous. Their culture is largely that of Western Europe.

    In contrast, Ukraine has an north-eastern region that is historically and culturally Slavic/Russian.

    As far as Georgia, it has less affinity with Russia, but bullet points #4/#5 compensate for that.

    Next two bullet points are kind of in reverse, in that they cover "why isn't NATO gung-ho to accept them"; but the fact that NATO is not gung-ho is precisely why Russia can afford to contest them more strongly as influence.

  4. Georgia is very hard for NATO to defend. Professionals study logistics, remember? Georgia is at the end of a super long supply line, going through Turkey (which may not be in NATO much longer anyway).

  5. NATO doesn't want either Georgia nor Ukraine as of right now as members, regardless of Russia.

    Economically and partly politically, they aren't in the position to fit NATO requirements. (this can be elaborated on into a whole separate answer, if you're curious please ask as a separate independent question)

  6. As someone noted in comments, even if Russia wanted to contest Baltic republics joining NATO, they weren't in a position to do so back then (2004) - Russia was just barely starting to try to recover from economic collapse of 1990s and political volatility.

  7. Somewhat affecting both #1 and #2, water resources (both as far as invasion routes, AND as economic benefits).

    Baltic republics have bleargh Baltic sea (and Russia already has access to Baltic as needed anyway).

    Georgia and Ukraine have Black sea.

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    @anonymous - (a) most of them aren't indigeneous either (the way Eastern Ukraine population is; (b) there's less of them; (c) See reasons #1, 2 and 4.
    – user4012
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:47
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    @Federico - good catch! Yes, as far as geopolitical threat of invasion, it doesn't count, but I probably should have mentioned. Updated
    – user4012
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:53
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    "there's far more russians in Ukraine vs. Esthonia." --- Your theory is totally wrong. 17.3% population of Ukraine are Russian. vs 26% of Estonia.
    – user4514
    Feb 9, 2017 at 13:55
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    @user4012 17.3% of 44M is greater than 26% of 1.3M. Mar 14, 2022 at 23:55
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    "Ukraine has a huge ass-border" explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/37:_Hyphen Jul 3, 2022 at 4:25
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  1. The naval base in Crimea is Russia's only warm water port.

  2. Because they have their most important naval base there, there are many Russians in Crimea.

  3. Once they already invaded Crimea, there was less preventing an invasion of eastern Ukraine, which also has a significant Russian population. I.e. they got away with Crimea, so it seemed like they could get away with eastern Ukraine.

  4. Russia felt less secure about protesting in 2004 than in 2014.

  5. Russia was already contesting Georgia and could not contest both sides.

  6. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are naturally limited. Of nearby countries, only Finland would be considered part of the old Soviet sphere.

  7. Georgia gets NATO to Azerbaijan. Together, Georgia and Azerbaijan would block off that section of land and Russia ally Iran.

  8. Azerbaijan would also give NATO access to the Caspian Sea, which leads to places like Turkmenistan, etc. From Russia's point of view, Georgia could be the start of a domino effect that would leave them surrounded by NATO and China.

  9. Georgia borders rebellious parts of Russia (e.g. Chechnya), which might themselves want to leave Russia and join NATO.

It's also possible that events in eastern Ukraine weren't entirely managed by Russia. Obviously they encouraged the organization of the separatists, but it is unclear if they were actually able to assert control. The separatists did things against Russia's public utterances. While this could have been a Russian plan, it could also indicate that they didn't control the rebels. They may have been stuck with either supporting or abandoning the rebels, and they didn't want to abandon them.

From the outside, it is very difficult to tell if the rebels were listening to Putin's private utterances or not. Particularly considering that if they were, then having his private and public statements differ was an intentional strategy.

In general, we don't know if Russia tried to whip up an Estonian separatist movement. Maybe they did but failed. Maybe thinking about what they could have done in Estonia gave them ideas for Ukraine. Maybe Russians in Ukraine are more concentrated in the eastern regions and more spread out in Estonia. Maybe there are simply more Russian army personnel in eastern Ukraine than in Estonia. Maybe the importance of Crimea led them to build a distraction in eastern Ukraine that got out of control.

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  • Regarding #1, the one in Syria does not count? Or is somewhat different?
    – Federico
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:35
  • @Federico, that setup has long been unused by Russians. The activity is very recent.
    – user4514
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:37
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    "...which already borders NATO state Sweden." Sweden is not a member of NATO.
    – Anders
    Feb 9, 2017 at 15:04
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    @convert: And, despite that, it's still a warm-water port (you can thank the Gulf Stream for that). A "warm-water port" is any port that doesn't ice up in the winter, and Murmansk fits the bill.
    – Vikki
    Feb 3, 2022 at 22:16
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    re: "Russia's only warm water port". That's not even remotely true. I posted a map of all of Russia's ports connected to Atlantic or Pacific oceans in this answer. Russia has 2 Sea of Azov ports and a port in Novorossiysk. All 3 are warm water ports connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, Novorossiysk port is further south than all of Crimea.
    – wrod
    Mar 8 at 3:30
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According to Alexei Gromyko, director of the official Institute of Europe and someone who often serves in an advisory role to today’s Russian leaders, the reason is because Russia couldn't do anything about it at the time (1999).

In his view, today’s inflamed geopolitical crisis was rooted in the post-Cold War failure to create a security system, primarily in Europe, that would fully include Russia. Western leaders gave Mikhail Gorbachev strong verbal assurances NATO would not be expanded into the former Soviet sphere but, as Mr. Gromyko ruefully notes, Mr. Gorbachev failed to get that in writing. Following the USSR’s demise, U.S. President Bill Clinton took office and adopted other plans. That lesson was not lost on the Russians.

"After the collapse of one pillar of the former bipolar world order, it became fashionable in the West to think that the world order could become unipolar, with the U.S. at the helm," he says. "In the 1990s, Russia descended into its worst crisis since 1917. It not only ceased to be a superpower, it suffered political, economic, and social collapse as well. It was not even clear that Russia would survive physically.* So, perhaps believing that Russian interests and views didn't matter anymore, Clinton made the decision to enlarge NATO to the east."

"But just because Russia couldn't do anything about it at the time doesn't mean that we accepted it. We never did. Since then the process of NATO expansion has been unstoppable, and so has the subsequent chain of events."

The Western alliance has since taken in all of the former Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies, as well as the three former Soviet Baltic republics. Mr. Gromyko says the Russians signaled repeatedly to Western counterparts that inducting Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance would be a red line. At its 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO shelved those countries' applications, but issued a statement insisting they would eventually join.

(Most relevant parts highlighted)

Viewed another way, Ukraine and Georgia are suffering the consequences of not trying to join NATO in 1999.

*See Wiki on the Russian economy during this period.

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    At least for Ukraine in 1999 there was a majority in the south-eastern part against NATO.
    – convert
    Feb 3, 2022 at 12:57
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    @convert: the irony is that by removing a large portion of Russian population from Ukraine, Putin has made (the remainder of) it more pro-NATO. Zelensky was actually the more pro-Russian of the two candidates in the last election, he got more votes in the areas with more Russians. Putin even welcomed his election as a chance to reset relations etc. Mar 14, 2022 at 0:51
  • @Dolphin613Motorboat The chance did not materialize. Zelensky was in for two years and no reset was happening.
    – alamar
    Mar 15 at 14:15
  • @alamar illustrating how people don't like to be coerced ...
    – Allure
    Mar 16 at 4:39
  • He wasn't coerced during these two years... He just decided to not deliver on his program.
    – alamar
    Mar 16 at 11:02
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I'm not quite sure about Georgia, but as far as Ukraine is concerned this is what I know:

Ukraine is simply much more important for Russia in terms of building a new empire. Such a new empire might be built without the three Baltic countries but never without Ukraine. Ukraine's migration to the West is the death for Russia as an empire. This is why Russia did what it did to my country

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    Welcome to Politics.SE. "is simply much more important" seems to be a weak argument by itself. You may need backing your claim with some better explanation and credible sources. Feb 9, 2017 at 18:06
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    @AndreyChernukha, Crimea aside, I think, Ukraine can still get out of Russian influence. So, what would Russia do in that case?
    – user4514
    Feb 10, 2017 at 21:48
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    @bytebuster "much more important" - Ukraine - 42m people, Lithuania - 2.9m, Latvia - 1.9m, Estonia - 1.3. Actually this "importance for empire building" has some merit.
    – Shadow1024
    May 27, 2017 at 18:08
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    @Andrey Chernukha Which kind of US support you was tallking about? Sanctions? USA have imposed a lot of sanctions already.
    – convert
    Feb 3, 2022 at 14:48
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    In light of that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, this answer seems spot on. Mar 13, 2022 at 7:07
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Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania

These three states' claim to having been occupied has always remained active.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the last republics to be incorporated into the USSR in August 1940.

They were the 1st to try to leave the USSR when the process of its dissolution began.

Their claim to having been occupied by the USSR was never abandoned. Some (perhaps all) of their foreign funds were frozen after the USSR occupied them and were never transferred to the USSR. They were released back to these states once they re-gained their independence.

As newly-formed liberal democracies, which were always viewed as occupied countries, they were natural candidates for being given the protection which came with a NATO membership.

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The foreign policy of Russia have changed very significantly at some time between Baltic states joining NATO and that we see now. Today it will never be allowed and in general I do not think any country from the former Soviet Union would be allowed refusing to stay part of Russia. What happened at these times, was a miracle. There was more than enough military power, it was not applied. It is probably one of the biggest secrets in the history of that century. There were movements and demonstrations but these have already been crushed with tanks some time ago in places like Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), with great success. Why not again? I do not know.

I am not sure why did this shift backwards happened. Obviously, very unfortunate.

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