Lesser-known walls: How Trump's presidency is intensifying fear in the Baltics

Donald Trump isn't the only one talking about walls as of late. In the Baltic region, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are building walls along the Russian border — a sort of line in the sand in the face of renewed aggression. And like Trump's effort, they may further stoke already simmering tensions, Don Murray writes.

With a U.S. president who is open to deals with Russia, those on Putin's doorstep are building up a defence

A Lithuanian army soldier stands near the NATO flag during the NATO Force Integration Unit inauguration event in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sept, 3, 2015. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

Let us now talk of walls.

No, not the Mexican-Trumpian extravaganza that has dominated headlines in recent weeks. Rather smaller walls, in smaller countries, farther east.

Like Donald Trump's effort, some of those walls may, in fact, finish as fences. And like Trump's effort, they may further stoke already simmering tensions between countries.

NATO, the Western military alliance, is already involved. Within months, both Canadian and U.S. troops will be on the front lines.

But these walls may be far from the mind of the new NATO-skeptical U.S. president — in spite of his predecessor's previous commitments.

We're talking about the Baltics, three small countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — whose fate and history it has been to share a border with Russia, and not happily.

'A super problem'

The latest of the countries to start building a wall is Lithuania.

"Russia is not a superpower," the country's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, said recently. "It's a super problem."

For 50 years, the Baltic countries were actually inside their neighbour's border, having been invaded and occupied on the orders of Josef Stalin, the ferocious leader of the Soviet Union.

It was a time of cruel repression and the Baltics fought in the 1980s to break away. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, the countries vowed they would never again live under domination.

They knocked at NATO's door and were admitted in 2004.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius talks to the media as he arrives at a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in this 2015 file photo. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

That enraged the Kremlin. It saw the induction as NATO gathering at its borders, trying to bring Russia to its knees militarily. And so it struck back.

A cyberattack in 2007 all but paralyzed Estonia's government, banking and media sites for hours. Estonia blamed Russian hackers and is convinced the Kremlin directed them.

More recently, Russian military jets have repeatedly encroached on Lithuanian airspace. Government advisers have had their email accounts hacked. And in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, the country's military installed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in 2016.

So Lithuania has decided to build a barrier — part fence, part brick wall. Slated to be finished by the end of the year, it will be two metres high and run 130 kilometres along the border with Kaliningrad.

The official reason for the wall is to stop the smuggling — of goods and people — organized on the Russian side.

The underlying reason is both militaristic and symbolic: To stop what the Lithuanians call "provocations" from the so-called "little green men" — Russian soldiers who spearheaded the takeover of Crimea in 2014 — and to say to Moscow, this far and no farther.

Brussels steps in

Publicly, the acting governor of Kaliningrad welcomed the barrier as good for business. Kaliningrad, after all, has a big brick factory.

"If our colleagues in Lithuania want," Anton Alichanov said, "we will sell them bricks so they can build their wall."

But he laughed when Russian television asked him about the 3.5-million-euro ($4.9 million Cdn) Lithuanian budget for the barrier. "I don't think that that sum will be enough to build it."

It will more likely cost around 30 million euros ($42 million), with the difference being paid by the European Union.

The Latvians next door and the Estonians farther north are also building barriers along the Russian border. By invoking the need "to stop illegal migrants" from slipping into Europe, they've unlocked the coffers in Brussels.

An Estonian border guard observation tower is seen near the Russian border in Omedu, Estonia. The EU is paying close to $140 million for more than 200 kilometres of walls and fences in the Baltic region. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

In total, the European Union is paying close to 100 million euros ($140 million) for more than 200 kilometres of walls and fences in the Baltic region. (This being the progressive and animal-friendly EU, the barriers must include holes and gaps for animals to go back and forth in their natural habitat.)

The Russians, of course, are no slouches at wall-building.

Leave aside the Berlin Wall, ordered up by Moscow in 1961. Decades later, under Vladimir Putin, Russian forces invaded another ex-Soviet republic: Georgia. In 2008, Putin's troops installed themselves in the region of South Ossetia and, to signal their intention to stay, built a wall between that territory and the rest of Georgia.

NATO's response

Yet the walls and fences in the Baltics will do little to stop the Kremlin if it comes to military action. The RAND Corporation, an American think-tank, recently war-gamed a confrontation in the region between NATO and Moscow.

Its conclusion was sobering.

Russian troops would overrun the three countries in 60 hours, with the nearest NATO forces still dozens, if not hundreds, of kilometres away.

American soldiers are welcomed at the Polish-German border in Olszyna, Poland, on Jan. 12, 2017. U.S. troops are being deployed in Poland under Operation Atlantic Resolve, a NATO-led response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. (Natalia Dobryszycka/AFP/Getty Images)

The NATO response to the annexing of Crimea, led by former U.S. president Barack Obama, was to dispatch 4,000 additional troops to the region — first to a base in Poland and then, by spring, into the Baltics. (The first of the troops, along with American tanks and armoured vehicles, arrived just over two weeks ago.)

By summer, a 1,000-strong NATO battalion will be in place in Latvia, led by Canadian troops, who will make up half the contingent.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian reaction has been angry. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the NATO reinforcement "threatens our interests and our security."

Baltic build-up

The Baltic countries, meanwhile, are drastically increasing their military spending. Lithuania has reintroduced compulsory military service and is encouraging its citizen militias, such as the Rifleman's Union, which now has more than 10,000 members.

"We're not scaremongering, we're just being vigilant," said Foreign Minister Linkevicius. "We understand that there are no free lunches anymore."

But what is worrying Baltic leaders now is the disdain shown for NATO by the just-sworn-in Trump, who has called the alliance "obsolete."

Combined with his expressed willingness to talk and do "deals" with Russia, it has left people very much on edge.

Trump has a wall in mind, but it's far from the Baltics — and the goal is to stop Mexicans, not Russians.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.