Abstract What drives Russia's Baltic policy? To answer this question, I develop a neoclassical realist framework that explains how local great powers act toward neighboring small states. In brief, the framework argues that local great powers face strong systemic incentives to establish a sphere of influence around their borders. Toward that end, they can employ positive and negative incentives. The general rule is that the higher the level of external pressure, the more assertive the policies pursued by the local great power. However, this simple relationship between external pressure and regional assertiveness is moderated by two variables: (1) the ability of small states to obtain security guarantees from extra regional powers; and (2) the level of state capacity of the local great power. The article develops this theoretical argument and shows that it goes a long way to explain the overall pattern and evolution of Russia's Baltic policy over the last two decades. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the question of security in the Baltics has received increased attention from policymakers, think-tankers, and academics. In particular, a lively debate has ensued among Western observers on whether Russia will launch a Crimea-style operation or perhaps even a conventional military strike in the region (see, e.g., Carpenter 2014; Chivvis 2015; Lucas 2015). This paper puts the issue into a larger theoretical and temporal perspective and examines the evolution of Moscow's policies toward the Baltic states from 1995—after the last Soviet/Russian troops had been withdrawn from the area—to the present. During this two-decade-long period, Russia's Baltic policy has been marked by many zigs and zags. Nonetheless, two major phases can be distinguished. In the first, from 1995 to 2003, Russia's policy was characterized by rhetorical opposition to the pro-Western orientation of the three Baltic states. Moscow launched a barrage of threats of what would happen if they established close ties to the West in the military and security fields. Beyond the realm of rhetoric, however, relatively little happened—quite the opposite. Russia's Baltic policy became increasingly incoherent, self-contradictory, and less assertive. In the second phase, which runs from 2004 to the present, Russia has adopted a more coherent and tough-minded approach. Moscow has exerted pressure on the Baltic states through cyberattacks, shows of force, attempts at internal subversion, and economic sanctions. But, at the same time, it has abstained from the direct use of force. The evolution of Russia's Baltic policy raises three questions. First, how can one explain the discrepancy between words and deeds in the latter half of the 1990s? Second, what accounts for the shift in Russia's approach toward the Baltics in the middle of the 2000s? And third, what are the underlying drivers and ambitions that guide Russia's policies in the region? The existing literature provides some potential answers, highlighting factors such as the Kremlin's turn toward authoritarianism and the resurgence of ethnonationalist sentiments in Russia (for an overview, see Sleivyte 2010, 120–22). Perhaps the most prominent explanation is provided by scholars working in the status perspective. They suggest that Russia pursued a Western-oriented policy throughout large stretches of the 1990s and early 2000s to gain recognition from the United States as an equal partner. Accordingly, Moscow's policy toward the Baltics was marked by moderation and restraint. By the mid-2000s, however, it became increasingly clear that Washington was unwilling to treat Moscow as a coequal in diplomatic and military affairs. In response, Moscow adopted a more anti-Western stance. Concomitantly, Moscow began to pursue a tough-minded policy vis-à-vis neighboring countries, including the Baltic states, to reassert Russia's great-power status (see, e.g., Larson and Shevchenko 2014; Tsygankov 2013). In this article, I present an alternative answer to the questions raised above. More specifically, I develop a neoclassical realist framework that explains how local great powers deal with neighboring small states. My framework shows that local great powers face strong systemic incentives to establish a sphere of influence around their borders. Toward that end, they can apply a wide range of diplomatic, economic, and military instruments. The basic argument is that if the level of external pressure increases (that is, if smaller neighbors make attempts to join forces with extraregional powers), the local great power will tighten the screws on its neighbors and adopt more coercive policies—including the threat and use of force, if needed—to prevent them from teaming up with outsiders. However, this simple, quasi-linear relationship between external pressure and regional assertiveness must be qualified in two ways. First, once a neighboring small state has entered into a security partnership with a major extraregional power, the local great power will avoid the direct use of force. After all, it may lead to a costly military confrontation with a more powerful adversary. Instead, the local power will seek to destabilize the foreign-aligned small state through various forms of political and economic subversion. Second, the link between external pressure and regional assertiveness presupposes that the local great power can be treated as a unitary and strategic actor. This is not always the case, however. As neoclassical realists have shown, countries that lack state capacity are unable to act upon systemic incentives in a strategic fashion (Schweller 2004; Taliaferro 2006; Zakaria 1998). Accordingly, shifts in the level of state capacity also affect the neighborhood policies of the local great power. Overall, I find that this framework—which combines international, regional, and domestic factors—goes a long way toward explaining the course of Russia's Baltic policy from the mid-1990s to the present. The contribution of this article is threefold. First, it provides a theoretically informed account of Russia's Baltic policy. Second, it advances neoclassical realist scholarship, which has been criticized for its focus on Western great powers and historical cases (Ripsman, Taliaferro, and Lobell 2016, 182–83). Third, the article develops a theoretical framework of a phenomenon that has remained undertheorized—namely how local great powers act toward smaller neighbors that are aligned with a major extraregional power (for a partial exception, see Knudsen 1988). This topic is likely to gain in importance in the years ahead. After all, the United States has established strong politico-military ties with a number of smaller countries in Central Eurasia and East Asia over the last decades (Selden 2013). At present, however, regional great powers such as Russia and China are re-emerging in these parts of the world. The question thus becomes how these powers will deal with neighboring small states that have entered into security partnerships with Washington. The framework developed in this paper makes a step toward answering this broader question. In short, I provide a theory of foreign policy that explains state choices and strategies—a Type II neoclassical realist theory (Ripsman, Taliaferro, and Lobell 2016, 29–31)—and apply it to the case of Russia's Baltic policy. Moreover, my theoretical argument contributes to our understanding of regional security dynamics in the Baltic area and, potentially at least, in other parts of the world. The remainder of this article proceeds as follows. The first section lays out the theoretical argument and derives some expectations about Russia's Baltic policy. The second and third sections examine to what extent these expectations hold up against the track record of Russia's Baltic policy from the mid-1990s to the present. The concluding section compares my neoclassical account of Russia's Baltic policy to the arguments of the status perspective, briefly outlined above, and suggests directions for future scholarship. Neoclassical Realism and the Pursuit of Regional Primacy Neoclassical realism's central argument is that a country's foreign policy is shaped by the interplay of international and domestic conditions (Rose 1998). Thus, any neoclassical realist theory worth its salt must accomplish two tasks: explicate how systemic factors incentivize and constrain the formation of foreign policy, and specify the unit-level factors that moderate the link between systemic influences and actual state behavior (Rathbun 2008). International Conditions: Systemic Incentives and Constraints How do systemic influences shape the neighborhood policies of major powers? According to offensive realism, the structure of the international system—marked by anarchy and the ever-present uncertainty over others’ intentions—pushes major powers to pursue regional hegemony (Mearsheimer 2001). Defensive realists, on the other hand, hold that the international system only provides incentives for balancing behavior—not for power maximization. But, notwithstanding this point of contention, many defensive realists agree that there are good reasons for major powers to surround themselves with a zone of influence. As Robert Jervis (1978, 169) notes, “In order to protect themselves, states seek to control, or at least to neutralize, areas on their borders.” In short, when it comes to the neighborhood policies of major powers, there appears to be room for combining elements from offensive and defensive realism.1 If one fuses insights from the two theoretical strands, three important reasons can be identified as to why major powers want to carve out spheres of influence near their home territories. First of all, major powers seek to prevent neighboring states from entering into alliances or security partnerships with great-power rivals from other parts of the world. Nobody, after all, wants to have client states of potential adversaries on their doorstep (Mearsheimer 2001, 142–43). The underlying reason is simple. The projection of power, especially military power, increases with proximity (Walt 1987, 23–24). It is therefore important to prevent extraregional powers from establishing forward-operating sites like airfields and army bases next to one's home territory. This, in turn, provides a strong incentive for major powers to have some degree of control over the external relations and defense policies of smaller neighboring states. Second, and relatedly, major powers have an incentive to maintain access to transport infrastructure and military installations on the territory of neighboring countries. After all, access to such installations—for example, early warning radar sites and intelligence-gathering facilities—can be vital for protecting the land, air, and sea approaches to one's home territory. What is more, airfields and seaports in neighboring states can serve as stepping stones for the local power to project influence into regions further afield (Harkavy 2007). Third, major powers want to maintain some form of control over lines of communication and transport routes in their geographical vicinity. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it reduces the risk of being cut off from important resources and export markets during times of international crisis. For another, it enables the local power to constrict the freedom of maneuver of potential adversaries in one's home region. Additionally, control over trade and transport arteries can be used to exert pressure on smaller neighboring states, if deemed necessary. In essence, the combination of international anarchy and uncertainty, coupled with the effects of geographic proximity (a “structural modifier” in the terminology of neoclassical realism), incentivizes powerful states to pursue regional primacy. To achieve this aim, they can employ a range of diplomatic, economic, and military instruments. Elsewhere, I have shown that diplomatic, economic, and military instruments can take the form of positive incentives (carrots) or negative incentives (sticks). In brief, positive incentives refer to forms of statecraft such as diplomatic blandishments, the provision of economic assistance, and weapons transfers. Negative incentives refer to forms of statecraft such as the cut-off of diplomatic relations, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the threat and use of force (for more on this, see Götz 2016, 304–6). The question that remains is: what determines the choice of policy tools through which states pursue regional primacy? My theory suggests that the choice of policy tools is largely driven by the intensity, or level, of external pressure. For the purposes of this article, the level of external pressure on the local great power is defined as a function of the relationship between great-power rivals (actual or potential) from other parts of the world and small states in the immediate vicinity of the local power. Simply put, the closer the politico-military ties between extraregional powers and small states in the local power's vicinity, the higher the level of external pressure (for similar arguments, see Knudsen 1988, 15–19; MacFarlane 2003, 126–27). Accordingly, the local power is exposed to a high level of external pressure if small states in its vicinity make attempts to forge close security ties with extraregional powers and extraregional powers indicate a willingness to engage in substantial military cooperation with them (e.g., through troop deployments or defense agreements). In such situations, the local power will rely on negative incentives to constrict the foreign-policy autonomy of smaller neighboring states. The aim is to coerce their governments to cut off ties with outsiders. Conversely, the level of external pressure is low if smaller neighboring states have aligned their military and defense policies with the local power. In such situations, the local power will use positive incentives to keep smaller neighbors in its orbit of influence. This is, of course, a stylized picture. In reality, the level of external pressure is not always high or low but often hovers somewhere between the two. It may be useful, therefore, to think of external pressure as a continuum. As the level of external pressure increases and smaller neighboring states deepen their security ties with extraregional powers, the local power will gradually move from the application of positive incentives to the use of negative incentives. In other words, there exists a quasi-linear relationship between the severity of external pressure and the assertiveness of the local power vis-à-vis neighboring small states. That said, one important qualification must be added. If a neighboring small state manages to establish a close politico-military relationship with a major extraregional power—which means that the level of external pressure is very high—the local power will refrain from any direct application of military force against this small state. The reason is simple. The local power fears that the employment of highly assertive policies—an armed intervention, for example—might lead to a major confrontation with the extraregional power that serves as the small state's security patron. Thus, the local power will accept a degree of restraint (Knudsen 1988, 17; also see Huth 1988). This does not mean, however, that the local power will stand idly by and do nothing. Instead, the local power will resort to means short of the application of force. This may include economic pressure, intelligence operations, and interference in the internal affairs of the foreign-aligned small state. In the best-case scenario, the local power will be able to reverse the strategic direction of the foreign-aligned small state through such activities. At minimum, such activities contribute to keeping the neighboring small state off-balance and destabilize it from within. In short, in situations in which the level of external pressure is high but the use of force is considered too risky and dangerous, the local power will seek to subvert foreign-aligned small states through coercive measures that stop short of military force. One example of these dynamics is the US approach toward Cuba during the Cold War. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the United States used positive incentives such as economic and military assistance to maintain a pro-American regime in Havana. However, as a result of the 1959 revolution, the level of external pressure increased. The new government in Cuba made clear that it wanted to establish close ties with the Soviet Union. In response, Washington began using negative incentives and pursued an increasingly assertive policy toward Cuba. Think, for instance, of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. US policy changed again after the Cuban missile crisis. A major reason for this was that Moscow had indicated its readiness to protect the Castro regime in a future conflict with the United States. Thus, in subsequent years and decades, Washington refrained from the direct application of military force vis-à-vis Havana. Instead, Washington resorted to softer forms of hard power—such as internal subversion and economic pressure—to destabilize Cuba and, if possible, effect a regime change (for an overview of US-Cuba relations, see Perez 2003, 238–62). This case nicely illustrates that a close security partnership between a small state (Cuba) and a major extraregional power (Soviet Union) can induce some restraint in the local great power (United States). Of course, the local power will give up its self-effacement if there is a clear and present danger that an extraregional power plans to use the small state's territory as launching pad for an attack on the local power's homeland. In such situations, the local power will resort to military means—even accepting the possibility that it may lead to a major military conflict with the extraregional power. After all, if an attack is imminent, there is nothing that holds back the local power from striking against the foreign-aligned small state. For instance, if Washington had received information that the Soviets planned to use Cuba as a bridgehead to launch an attack on the United States, it seems not far-fetched to assume that Washington had carried out a preemptive strike on the island. In sum, the level of external pressure is a moderating variable that affects the selection of tools and tactics employed by powerful states in the pursuit of regional primacy. That said, it is worth reiterating that the incentive to pursue regional primacy in the first place derives from the mix of international anarchy, uncertainty, and geography. In other words, the structure of the international system pushes states to make bids for regional primacy (goals), whereas the level of external pressure affects the way in which states seek to achieve this aim (means). Before proceeding, one should note that neoclassical realism is a broad school of thought that identifies a number of international-level variables, including the clarity of signals about threats and opportunities, the relative permissiveness/restrictiveness of states’ environments, and time horizons (Ripsman, Taliaferro, and Lobell 2016, 46–56). In this study, I consciously limit myself to basic features of the international system (anarchy, uncertainty, and geography), along with the level of external pressure, in order to isolate their effect on the neighborhood policies of major powers. Moreover, doing so enables me to theorize how systemic incentives interact with variations in state capacity in the formation of foreign policy. Domestic Conditions: The Importance of State Capacity Thus far, my theory suggests that external factors determine the strategic behavior of major powers vis-à-vis neighboring small states. This line of reasoning rests upon the assumption that major powers can be treated as rational and unitary actors—an assumption that guides many structural realist analyses of world politics. However, its usefulness has been called into question, not least by Innenpolitik theorists who emphasize the role of domestic political actors and societal forces (see, e.g., Moravcsik 1997). Building upon the work of neoclassical realist scholars, I strike a middle-ground and argue that major powers act as if they were unitary actors—if they have a sufficient level of state capacity. This line of reasoning is based on the observation that well-functioning states (regardless of regime type) tend to act in a unitary fashion when it comes to major economic and military matters that affect the country's security (see, e.g., Dueck 2009; Krasner 1978). To be sure, the timing and style of individual policies may be affected by intragovernmental disputes and bureaucratic maneuvering. The broader pattern of behavior, however, is determined to a large extent by external factors and strategic considerations (for a defense of the unitary-actor assumption, see Grieco 1997, 168–69). If, on the other hand, countries lack state capacity, they are best understood as composite rather than unitary actors. That is to say, their behavior is shaped by the self-serving agendas and interests of subnational actors. It follows that government authorities in countries with weak state capacity are unable to respond effectively to system-level impulses (Schweller 2004; Zakaria 1998). In short, state capacity is a moderating variable that conditions the impact of system-level impulses on actual foreign policy behavior. This proposition raises an important conceptual issue: what exactly is meant by state capacity here? State capacity, after all, has become a term with many meanings (for overviews, see Cingolani 2013; Hendrix 2010). For the purposes of this article, I conceptualize state capacity in a relatively narrow sense. I focus on the so-called “foreign policy executive”—which comprises the leadership, foreign and defense ministries, and other government officials responsible for formulating and conducting foreign security policy—rather than on the state machinery as a whole (Blanchard and Ripsman 2013, 7–8). Moreover, with regard to “capacity,” I do not look at factors such as administrative and bureaucratic quality. Instead, I concentrate on two dimensions that appear most relevant to our discussion: extraction capacity and autonomy. Extraction capacity refers to the ability of government authorities to mobilize resources and collect taxes from society. Its importance is hard to overstate: if government authorities cannot levy taxes, they lack the ability to convert the country's raw power resources into actual economic and military capabilities (Taliaferro 2006, 487–91; for background, see Thies, Chyzh, and Nieman 2016). Moreover, if government authorities lack extractive capacity, they are unable to finance major foreign policy programs such as the pursuit of regional primacy. After all, no matter if regional primacy is pursued through positive incentives (e.g., provision of aid, arms transfers) or negative incentives (e.g., imposition of sanctions, threat of force), it is costly in economic terms. Hence, extraction capacity is a precondition for major powers to exert influence over neighboring countries. Autonomy, on the other hand, refers to the ability of state officials to formulate and implement decisions against the wishes of powerful societal actors such as NGOs, financial-industrial groups, and ethnic communities (Ripsman 2002, 43–58; for background, see Mann 1984). Naturally, these actors lobby the government to advance their own goals and objectives; in itself, that is not a problem. It can become a problem, however, if government authorities are so weak that they cannot withstand the prodding and cajoling of societal actors. If this is the case, the state as an institution is effectively captured by interest groups. As a result, government authorities will pursue policies that suit the narrower objectives of societal actors with little regard for the country as a whole (Ripsman 2009). This in turn makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the foreign policy executive to develop and implement a concerted approach vis-à-vis smaller neighbors. In essence, the pursuit of regional primacy presupposes that the local power possesses both extraction capacity and some degree of state autonomy vis-à-vis societal actors. As depicted in Figure 1, the gist of the argument is that major powers have a system-induced incentive to pursue regional primacy (A). Toward that end, major powers will engage in soft-line or hard-line policies, depending on the level of external pressure (B). Lastly, the argument suggests that the pursuit of regional primacy is moderated by the level of state capacity (C). Figure 1: View largeDownload slide A Neoclassical Realist Theory of the Pursuit of Regional Primacy Figure 1: View largeDownload slide A Neoclassical Realist Theory of the Pursuit of Regional Primacy Neoclassical Realism and Russia's Baltic Policy: Theoretical Expectations What does the neoclassical realist theory just described imply for Russia's Baltic policy? First of all, it becomes clear that the Baltic states, despite their small size, are of strategic importance to Russia. A peek at the map shows why. Estonia and Latvia have common land borders with Russia and are situated close to the political heartland of the Russian Federation. Estonia, for example, is less than 160 km from St. Petersburg and no more than 850 km from Moscow. In addition, several important trade arteries and transport corridors run through the Baltic region. Of particular importance here is Lithuania, which serves as a land bridge connecting Russia (via Belarus) with the Kaliningrad exclave. Thus, the baseline expectation is that, for geopolitical reasons alone, Russia wants to have some form of control over the foreign-policy orientation of the Baltic states. Second, my neoclassical realist theory suggests that the level of external pressure shapes Russia's strategic behavior toward the Baltic states. Accordingly, as the Baltics moved toward membership in NATO in the late 1990s, one would expect that Russia would have used all means available, including the threat and use of force, to derail this process. Furthermore, one would expect that Russia would have abstained from the direct use of force vis-à-vis the Baltics after they joined NATO, for fear of provoking a major military conflict with the alliance. Finally, one would expect that Moscow would consider launching strikes on the Baltic states, if there were a clear danger that NATO would use their territory for military operations against Russia. Third, my neoclassical realist theory suggests that the link between external pressure and Russia's Baltic policy is moderated by variations in state capacity. This means that government authorities in Moscow will be unable to act upon system-level incentives and constraints, if the Russian state lacks extraction capacity and autonomy. Under such circumstances, the level of external pressure has little effect on Moscow's policies in the Baltic region. Instead, Russia's actions are guided by the narrower interests of societal actors. The following two sections examine to what extent these expectations measure up to Russia's Baltic policy. Toward that end, I analyze the development of Moscow's behavior vis-à-vis the Baltics over the last two decades. To be clear, the purpose of my analysis is not to provide an exhaustive explanation of the case. This would require a thorough engagement with alternative explanations, the investigation of causal mechanisms, and access to internal government documents that are not available at present. My aim, therefore, is more modest: to illustrate the workings of my neoclassical theory, test its plausibility against the existing empirical evidence, and in the process of doing so, provide a theoretically informed interpretation of Russia's Baltic policy. Phase I: Russia's Baltic Policy, 1995–2003 In the mid-1990s, Western states and organizations began establishing closer ties with the Baltic countries in the political, economic, and military spheres. Russian government officials protested vehemently against these moves. On the ground, however, relatively little happened. As the scholar Raimo Väyrynen (1999, 221) noted, “Russia has continued to express its opposition to NATO membership for the Baltic states, but otherwise it has been rather passive in relation to them.” There is, in other words, a twin puzzle: why did Russia not respond more strongly to the budding partnership between the Baltic countries and the West, and how can one explain the discrepancy between Moscow's assertive rhetoric and less assertive actions? As I show in this section, the interplay of growing external pressure and declining state capacity can account for Moscow's contradictory approach. External Pressure All three Baltic states had joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994. In the following years, they participated in a number of NATO-led training exercises, expressed their intent to become full members of the alliance, and engaged in several so-called BALT-projects. These projects aimed at promoting inter-Baltic cooperation but also at creating economic, technological, and military structures in the Baltic states that were interoperable with those of the West (Grissom 2003, 20–23; Huang 2003, 37–41; Kramer 2002, 744–45). The United States, for example, helped to set up a Baltic airspace surveillance system, known as BALTNET, which was “designed to be fully compatible with NATO systems” (Huang 2003, 39). In 1998, moreover, Washington signed a Charter of Partnership with the Baltic states, which included a commitment for closer cooperation in the security realm and a promise to support Baltic membership in NATO (Black 1999, 260; Kramer 2002, 741). Although the Baltic states were not included in the first round of NATO enlargement, they received Membership Action Plans in 1999. Three years later, in November 2002, they were invited to join the alliance. Moscow strongly opposed the increasingly close ties between the Baltic states and NATO. Already in 1996, President Yeltsin warned Washington that “the Baltic states’ admission to NATO is absolutely unacceptable. Any steps in that direction would directly challenge Russia's national security interests and undermine European stability and security” (quoted in “Yeltsin Denounces Balts to Clinton 1996”). The opposition to NATO expansion became official state policy in February 1997, when Moscow issued a document entitled “Russian Policy Guidelines towards the Baltic States.” The document listed an array of political and economic objectives, but it also made clear that the highest priority was to prevent Baltic membership in NATO (Herd 1999a, 200–1; Oldberg 2003, 10; Ziugzda 1999, 7–8). Moreover, both the 1997 and 2000 National Security Concepts explicitly identified the “eastward expansion” of NATO as a threat to Russian security (RF 1997, 2 and 8; RF 2000a, 5). Particularly noteworthy in this context is that opposition to NATO expansion was widely shared across the political spectrum, including communists, nationalists, and liberals (Black 1999). Some observers have suggested that this can be explained by deep-seated historical animosities toward the alliance and “lingering Cold War attitudes” (Gorenburg et al. 2002, 32 and 33–35). There may be something to it. Above all, however, Moscow's opposition to NATO expansion was driven by geopolitical factors and military-strategic concerns. In the words of then–foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, “Russia cannot remain indifferent to the factor of distance—the Baltic countries’ proximity to our vital centers. Should NATO advance to new staging grounds, the Russian Federation's major cities would be within striking range of not only strategic missiles, but also tactical aircraft” (quoted in Donaldson and Nogee 2009, 216). Likewise, the Russian scholar Nikolai Sokov (1999, 18), hardly known to be a hardliner, wrote in a commentary for the Atlantic Council, “The Baltic states’ membership in NATO would mean U.S. troops in the immediate vicinity of key Russian political and economic centers, making it particularly vulnerable to air strikes.” Even some Western analysts acknowledged that “tactical aircraft operating from Baltic airfields would be within easy un-refuelled striking distance [of nuclear submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula]. Aircraft based in the Baltic countries would also be within an hour's flying time to political and military command centres in the Moscow and St. Petersburg metro areas” (Grissom 2003, 24). Western policymakers, for their part, tried to allay Russian fears by asserting that the alliance had no aggressive intentions. In May 1997, moreover, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed, which stated that NATO did not intend to deploy significant numbers of troops or nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Notwithstanding these assurances, policymakers in Moscow remained deeply suspicious. After all, intentions could change and, in the event of a conflict, NATO could rapidly establish forward-operating sites and military infrastructure on the territory of the Baltic states (Sokov 1999, 13–15). To quote, once again, then–foreign minister Primakov, “If NATO . . . comes to engulf the territory of the Warsaw Pact, from our point of view, the geopolitical situation will deteriorate. Why? Because intentions change. . . . Obviously I do not believe that NATO will attack us. However, on a hypothetical level a situation might emerge in which we will be forced to act in a way which is not in our best interest” (quoted in Wolczuk 2003, 120). In short, the cooperation of the Baltic states with the US-led NATO alliance increased the level of external pressure on Russia. Thus, going by a purely structural perspective, one would expect that Moscow resorted to coercive tools and tactics vis-à-vis the Baltics to prevent them from joining the alliance and, if possible, to gain greater influence over their foreign-policy orientation. State Capacity On the domestic level, the Russian state was marred by a number of problems throughout the 1990s. One of the most serious problems was the inability to raise revenues and collect taxes. As one scholar pointed out, “In 1996 only 16 percent of companies and organizations were without serious tax trespasses and 34 percent did not pay taxes at all” (Puheloinen 1999, 31). Moreover, and partly as a result of this, the ratio of tax revenues-to-GDP declined from 20.3 percent in 1992 to 9.2 percent in 1998, even though Russia's economy substantially contracted over the same period (Orban 2008, 26). Meanwhile, the work of tax inspectors had become an increasingly dangerous occupation in Russia. “In 1996 alone,” one report noted, “26 tax collectors were killed, 74 wounded, 6 kidnapped, and 41 burned out of their homes” (Chang 1999, 80). In short, the tax-collection system was in tatters. On top of that, there was widespread capital flight. As a result, government authorities in Moscow lacked resources to finance major policy programs (Oliker and Charlick-Paley 2002, 27–33; Treisman 1998). Equally detrimental was the lack of state autonomy. In the mid-1990s, Russian business tycoons—known as “oligarchs”—acquired control of many of the country's most lucrative assets. In parallel, they began expanding their influence into the political sphere. Of course, lobbying activities are common to most countries in the world. In Russia, however, the problem was that some oligarchs had become so powerful that they were able to capture parts of the state machinery. For instance, Vladimir Potanin was appointed to serve as Russia's first deputy prime minister in 1997. Another case in point is Boris Berezovsky, who became deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council. In effect, business tycoons played an important role in the formation of Russian state policy (McFaul 1998, 318–19; Schroder 1999). In addition, Russia fragmented along regional lines. The Chechnya problem was merely the most obvious example. A number of regional entities within Russia sat up their own border posts and began establishing state-like structures. Some regions even created “ministries” for external relations and began conducting their own, semi-independent foreign policies. Tatarstan, for instance, refused to send its conscripts outside the republic and supported NATO's military intervention in Kosovo (Oliker and Charlick-Paley 2002, 11–16; Perovic 2000). In short, regional entities undermined the authority and autonomy of the foreign policy executive in Moscow. Russia's Baltic Policy in Action Defense planners in Moscow stressed that the Baltic region was of utmost geopolitical importance to Russia, both because of military installations in the area and because of lines of communication and trade routes (Puheloinen 1999, 55–66 and 74–80). Accordingly, they wanted to maintain some influence over the foreign-policy orientation of the Baltic states. Members of the Russian foreign policy executive proposed a number of steps to achieve this aim. In 1997, for instance, President Yeltsin laid out a plan according to which Russia would provide security guarantees to the Baltic states. In return, they should pledge to abstain from joining any military bloc or organization, effectively leading to a Finlandization of the area (Black 1999, 256–58; Herd 1999a, 201–2; Sleivyte 2010, 129–30). In parallel, Moscow issued thinly-veiled threats. For example, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Afanasievski warned that a Baltic bid for NATO membership “would not serve the interests of their security, and on the contrary would create immense tensions” (quoted in Ziugzda 1999, 9). Members of the Russian foreign policy executive also threatened to station nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad and beef up the Baltic Sea Fleet. According to documents leaked to the press, there were even contingency plans to invade the Baltics if they joined NATO (Clemens 2001, 188–89; Lieven 1996, 175; Sergounin 1997, 333–34; Sleivyte 2010, 132–33). The assertive rhetoric of Russian officials corresponds well with the growing level of external pressure. Words, however, were not matched by deeds. To be sure, Russia brought to bear some economic pressure on the Baltics. Moreover, Moscow stalled border treaties with Latvia and Estonia and missed no opportunity to complain about the mistreatment of Russian-speaking communities there. This had partly to do with genuine concern for its compatriots and partly with instrumental reasons. After all, Russian strategists knew fairly well that countries with unresolved border disputes or ethnic conflicts were unlikely to be included into NATO (Oldberg 2003, 21–23 and 33–34; Sokov 1999, 12; Väyrynen 1999, 221). For the most part, however, relatively little happened. Indeed, as the level of external pressure increased and the Baltics established ever-closer ties with NATO in the late 1990s, Russia's behavior became more inchoate and less assertive. This can be explained by the lack of state capacity, which impaired Russia's ability to pursue an assertive policy vis-à-vis the Baltics in three major ways. First of all, the fall in tax income amplified the need for military cutbacks and downsizing. In 1998, for example, Moscow reduced its troops in the St. Petersburg Military District and the country's northwestern region, which abuts the Baltic area, by more than 40 percent. Moscow also considerably reduced the size of Russian forces stationed in Kaliningrad (Freudenstein 2015, 121; Oldberg 2003, 30; Sleivyte 2010, 130; Ziugzda 1999, 12–13). Of course, the sorry state of Russia's economy must be taken into account as well. However, in terms of material capabilities and power resources—such as money and manpower—Russia hovered like a giant over the Baltic states. The main problem was that the Russian state lacked the capacity to extract these resources from society. This led to a “hollowing out” of the military. As one observer reported, “In 1997 the military received only 56 percent of its budgeted appropriation. It was given only 43 percent of its budget allocation for medical services, 41 percent of monies earmarked for clothing and equipment, and only 50 percent of what was promised to feed its soldiers” (Herspring 1998, 325). As a result, Russia's fighting power and its ability to conduct military operations was limited. Indeed, in November 1998, the Duma Defense Committee concluded that “the armed forces are in the deepest imaginable crisis, which is effectively full-scale disintegration, and unable . . . to carry out strategic operations” (quoted in Herd 1999b, 265). In short, weak extraction capacity hampered Russia's ability to exert military pressure on the Baltic states. Second, oligarchs and their financial-industrial groups affected and, at times, counteracted the Kremlin's policy toward the Baltics. In the summer of 1998, for example, Moscow decided to impose sanctions on Latvia. Many Russian companies, however, continued to trade with Latvia and thus undermined official state policy (Sokov 1999, 28–30). Another example occurred in late 1998, when the Lithuanian government decided to sell a major stake in the Mazeikiai refinery complex, the largest in the Baltics, to the US company Williams International and not to Russia's state-affiliated company Lukoil. The Kremlin responded by cutting off oil supplies to Lithuania. Yet, at the same time, Russia's largest private energy company, Yukos, began cooperating with Williams International and expanded its operations in Lithuania (Krickus 2006, 23–25; Oldberg 2003, 56–59). The details of the case are complex, but the larger point is simple: oligarch-owned energy companies acted sometimes at cross-purposes with Russia's state-affiliated companies in neighboring countries. This undermined Moscow's ability to exert economic pressure on the Baltics (Herd 1999a, 202–3). Third, Russia's Baltic policy was impaired by the decentralization of power. Regional entities in northwestern Russia (Pskov, Novgorod, Leningrad, and Karelia) began to develop their own foreign policies. Some regions even “signed their own agreements with the Baltic states” (Olberg 2003, 58). Needless to say, this made it very difficult for government authorities in Moscow to pursue a cohesive and assertive policy in the Baltic area. The domestic constraints that affected Moscow's Baltic policy were reflected in Russia's 1997 Security Concept. While the expansion of extraregional powers toward Russian borders figured prominently in the document, as mentioned above, the concept stressed that the most pressing and immediate threats facing Russia “are of predominantly internal nature” (RF 1997, 9). Accordingly, the incoming Putin administration committed itself to solve the country's internal problems and placed a high priority on strengthening the Russian state apparatus. At least until 2003, however, Russia remained weak in terms of extraction capacity and state autonomy. Moreover, the efforts to rebuild the state diverted attention and resources from foreign-policy issues. The perhaps most graphic example is the second Chechen war, which tied up not only many of Russia's most capable fighting units but also money and political capital. Thus, when NATO announced the admission of the three Baltic states in November 2002, many Kremlin officials kept a relatively low profile (Gorenburg et al. 2002, 35–36; Kramer 2002, 747–749; Oldberg 2003, 26–27). Summing up: Lack of state capacity hobbled Moscow's attempts to pursue a coherent and combative policy toward the Baltics in the face of growing external pressure. Instead, drift and self-contradictions characterized Russian behavior throughout the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s. This, however, would soon change. Phase II: Russia's Baltic Policy, 2004–Present From 2004 onward, Russia began to systematically apply a number of policy tools—including military provocations, economic sanctions, propaganda campaigns, cyberattacks, and domestic political interferences—to destabilize the Baltic states. Yet, at the same time, Russia has abstained from direct military actions. How can one explain this pattern of behavior? The answer, I argue, is found in the interplay of external pressure and the strengthening of Russian state capacity. External Pressure In 2004, the Baltic states officially joined NATO, much to Moscow's dismay. Russian defense officials were particularly concerned about the possibility that NATO would construct military facilities in the region. This concern was expressed repeatedly in security planning and defense documents. For example, the 2000 National Security Concept identified as a main threat “the possible emergence of foreign military bases and major military presences in the immediate proximity of Russian borders” (RF 2000a, 5). Likewise, the 2000 Military Doctrine warned of the “creation (buildup) of groups of troops . . . close to the Russian Federation's state border” (RF 2000b, 3). Similar threat assessments can be found in subsequent Military Doctrines and National Security Concepts. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Moscow emphasized in the run-up to NATO's 2004 enlargement that it would “not tolerate the US-led military alliance stationing troops or equipment in the Baltic states” (Dempsey 2004). In accordance with the Founding Act, NATO refrained from deploying substantial combat forces in the Baltic states. This helped to allay some of the worst Russian fears. Nonetheless, after the Baltic states had joined the alliance, NATO immediately launched the Baltic Air Policing mission and stationed a handful of fighter jets at the Siauliai airbase in northern Lithuania. Furthermore, NATO installed in all three Baltic states modern air surveillance and radar systems that “can look deep into Russia” (Sleivyte 2010, 150). Russian policymakers protested vocally against these moves. To be clear, government officials in Moscow did not expect that NATO would attack their country “tomorrow.” The concern was that the alliance, in the event of a crisis, could use the Baltic region as a staging area for military operations against Russia (Sleivyte 2010, 133–34). From a military-strategic perspective, the Baltics’ entry into NATO undoubtedly increased Russia's vulnerabilities and limited its possibilities to project power into the Baltic Sea region. To put it into the terms of my neoclassical realist theory, the level of external pressure was high. But, at the same time, Baltic membership in NATO meant that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were now covered by the alliance's Article V collective defense provision, according to which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. In other words, the Baltics had obtained a de facto security guarantee from a major extraregional power: the United States. This provided a strong disincentive for Russia to apply direct military force against the Baltics—more on which below. State Capacity As noted in the previous section, the rebuilding of the Russian state became the top priority during the first term of Putin's presidency. Toward this end, the Putin administration adopted a three-part strategy. First, the Putin administration worked hard to strengthen the state's extraction capacity. Among other things, it introduced a new tax code; it removed tax concessions that had been granted to regional entities during the Yeltsin years; and it restructured the Federal Tax Service. As a result, the ability of the state to collect taxes improved greatly (Oliker and Charlick-Paley 2002, 19; Tsygankov 2014, 118–19; Yakovlev 2006, 1042–43). According to one statistic, the ratio of tax revenues-to-GDP increased from 9.2 percent in 1998 to 24.5 percent in 2006 (Orban 2008, 26). Second, the Putin administration took several steps to increase the Kremlin's control over regional entities. For example, it divided the country's 89 regions into seven super-districts headed by presidential envoys; it reformed the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament); and it introduced a controversial law that allowed the Russian president to appoint governors. Some of these measures were more successful than others. Overall, however, there is no question that Putin's reforms contributed to strengthen the federal center vis-à-vis the regions (Oliker and Charlick-Paley 2002, 16–20; Ross 2005; Tsygankov 2014, 109–11). Third, the Putin administration reined in the oligarchs, at least those not loyal to the Kremlin. The best example is the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismemberment of his energy empire Yukos (Tompson 2005; Tsygankov 2014, 106 and 120–25). Relatedly, Putin and his team sought to reassert state control over strategic branches of the economy—including energy production, arms manufacturing, aerospace, and mining. To that end, the Kremlin placed representatives on the boards of the country's largest companies and corporations. This prompted one observer to quip that “state capture gave way to business capture” (Sakwa 2008, 189; also see Hanson and Teague 2005; Yakovlev 2006). By introducing these measures, many of which had an authoritarian ring, the Putin administration managed to strengthen the Russian state in a relatively short period of time. There is no denying that Putin's state-building project was driven in part by the effort to consolidate his personal power. As the late Charles Tilly (2007, 137) put it, “Putin's regime was aggressively expanding state capacity as it squeezed out democracy.” Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Putin's turn toward authoritarianism is the root cause of Moscow's increasingly assertive policies in the post-Soviet space (see, e.g., Ambrosio 2009). The argument advanced here is different. Putin's authoritarian tendencies are not the root cause but rather a facilitating factor, in the sense that they have allowed the Russian government to rebuild state capacity within a short time span. This, in turn, has enabled Moscow to act upon external pressures and opportunities in a more systematic fashion. Russia's Baltic Policy in Action The Putin administration needed the first years in office to strengthen the Russian state. As described above, the Kremlin's policies in the Baltics remained incoherent during this time. By around 2004, however, the state had become a more unified actor and was able to curtail the international activities of Russia's regions. Especially interesting for the purposes of this paper, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly “warned the leaders of Russian regions not to pursue any relations with the Baltic States that would not be at first endorsed by Moscow” (Sleivyte 2010, 161). Furthermore, the Russian state curtailed the influence of oligarchs. This enabled the Kremlin to better coordinate the activities between private and state-run businesses in the Baltic area. Finally, the increase in extraction capacity meant that the central government had more financial resources at its disposal to fund major policy programs. Among other things, it led to a substantial increase in defense spending, which laid the foundation for the rebuilding and modernization of the Russian military. There can be no doubt that Russia had the capacity to conduct military operations against the Baltics in the latter half of the 2000s. The problem was that the Baltics had used the window of opportunity provided by Russia's internal weakness in the previous years to join NATO. Of course, many Balts have questioned the political will of Washington and other Western governments to honor their treaty obligations and defend the Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack. From Moscow's perspective, however, the calculus is different. There is a nontrivial chance (or perhaps better, risk) that military operations against the Baltics—either direct or Crimea-style—will lead to a major confrontation with NATO. Needless to say, this would be extremely costly and dangerous for Russia. After all, NATO is far superior to Russia in terms of economic and military capabilities. In short, the Baltic membership in NATO made the application of military means very risky. Hence, although there was a high level of external pressure, Moscow refrained from the use of force. Instead, it began pursuing a four-pronged approach toward the Baltics to regain some influence. First of all, Moscow expanded its support for pro-Russian parties in the area. In Estonia, it cultivated close ties with the Center Party, which represents large sections of the country's Russian-speaking community. For instance, state-connected companies like Russian Railways are believed to have provided campaign funds to Edgar Savisaar, who until recently was the Center Party's leader and mayor of Tallinn (Grigas 2012, 12). Moreover, already in 2004, the Kremlin's United Russia party signed a cooperation agreement with the Center Party (Bulakh et al. 2014, 49–52). In Latvia, United Russia signed a cooperation agreement with the center-left Harmony party. Moscow is also believed to support the pro-Russian fringe party “Latvian Russian Union” (McDonald-Gibson 2014; Kudors 2014, 76 and 82–84). In Lithuania, which has no sizeable Russian community, Moscow has extended logistical and financial support to the country's Polish minority party. This indicates that not only ethnonationalist sentiments but also larger politico-strategic interests are behind Russia's meddling in the domestic-political affairs of the Baltic countries (Maliukevicius 2014, 115–23). Second, and relatedly, Moscow has provided logistical and financial support to various Russia-friendly groups and societal organizations in the region. For example, the state-sponsored Russkiy Mir Foundation has established several centers in the Baltics and backs pro-Russian NGOs there, such as the Latvian Human Rights Committee and the Legal Information for Human Rights in Estonia. Likewise, Russia's Rossotrudnichestvo agency, which was founded in 2008, has established branches in all three Baltic states. In parallel, Moscow has stepped up its support for Russian language schools and Russian-speaking media outlets in the region (Braw 2015; Bulakh et al. 2014, 40–49; Grigas 2012, 9–10; Persson 2014, 25–27). Of course, not all Russia-sponsored cultural and social activities in the Baltics are guided by Machiavellian calculations of power and influence. Nor can the Russian communities in the Baltics be simply regarded as a “fifth column” of the Kremlin. Large swathes of the Baltic Russians have developed their own, distinct identity and interests (Laitin 1998). That said, there can be no doubt that Moscow has tried to use economic and social grievances of the Baltic Russians for instrumental purposes. Third, Russia has stepped up its efforts to destabilize the Baltic countries. Perhaps the best example here is the April 2007 statue crisis, which erupted when Estonian authorities relocated a Red Army memorial from the center of Tallinn to the outskirts. This decision sparked violent street riots that were reportedly stoked by members of Night Watch, a right-wing group with ties to Russian authorities, and the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi. What is more, Estonian government and banking sites became subject to a major cyberattack, which is widely believed to have originated in Russia (Freudenstein 2015, 121–22; Grigas 2012, 5). Similar cyberattacks were launched against all three Baltic states in November 2013, during a large-scale NATO exercise in Poland (Coffey and Kochis 2015, 9). On several occasions, moreover, Russia has disrupted trade with the Baltic states. For example, in the run-up to the EU's Vilnius summit in November 2013, Russia imposed an embargo on Lithuanian dairy products (Socor 2013). Fourth, in lockstep with the rebuilding of Russia's armed forces, Moscow has increased its military activities in the Baltic area. No doubt, the number of Russian air incursions has shot up in recent years. But it is nothing entirely new. Over the course of the last decade, Russian planes have repeatedly violated Baltic airspace. In one particularly spectacular incident, which occurred in October 2005, a Russian SU-27 fighter jet crashed near Kaunas in Lithuania (Ehin and Berg 2009, 4–5). Russia also started to boost its military presence in the Kaliningrad exclave, effectively transforming it into a force-projection platform that can serve both offensive and defensive purposes (Oldberg 2015). Concurrently, Russia began conducting a number of large-scale training exercises (e.g., the Zapad 2009, Zapad 2013, and Zapad 2017 military exercises) close to the Baltics (Sleivyte 2010, 146–48). The purpose of these exercises has been manifold—to test new weapon systems, to practice for worst-case scenarios, to send a signal to the West—but also to intimidate the Baltic countries and induce their governments to redirect resources and attention from domestic challenges. In other words, these maneuvers can be understood, at least in part, in terms of Russia's attempts to undermine the internal stability of the Baltic states. Summing up: Compared to the previous period, Moscow's Baltic policy has become more cohesive and assertive since the middle of the 2000s. My analysis suggests that this can be explained by the rebuilding of Russian state capacity, which enables Moscow to respond more effectively to external pushes and pulls. Still, Russia has so far abstained from the direct use of force in the Baltic area. This can be explained by the membership of the Baltic states in NATO, which deters Russia from carrying out a military intervention in the region. Conclusion This article has developed a neoclassical realist theory that explains how the combined impact of systemic imperatives and variations in state capacity shapes the neighborhood policies of major powers. The previous two sections have shown that this approach provides a useful prism through which the evolution of Russia's Baltic policy can be understood. How does my neoclassical account of Russia's Baltic policy compare to the status perspective outlined in the article's introduction? As noted, the status perspective holds that Russia adopted a policy of restraint vis-à-vis the Baltics in the 1990s and early 2000s as part of its quest for recognition as a coequal partner of the West. By contrast, my neoclassical account suggests that Russia was unable to pursue a more assertive policy vis-à-vis the Baltics in these years, although it faced strong systemic incentives to do so, due to lack of state capacity. In this regard, the two accounts stand in opposition to one another. Given the limited access to internal policy documents, transcripts of high-level meetings, and the like, it is difficult to adjudicate between these competing interpretations at present. I leave this important task for future research. In other regards, my neoclassical account and the status perspective seem to complement rather than contradict each other. For example, a number of scholars have documented that in Russian identity discourses the notion of “great power status” is closely associated with regional spheres of influence and the right to exert control over neighboring small states (see, e.g., Hopf 2002; Matz 2001). Others have shown that higher status tends to enhance a state's ability to influence others and pursue its strategic interests more effectively in the international arena. As Thomas Volgy and his coauthors put it, “Attribution of major power status by the community of states to a handful of others provides members of the club with a form of soft power with which to complement material capabilities (Volgy et al. 2014, 60–61).” If this is so, it is not far-fetched to suggest that status concerns and systemic imperatives form a mutually reinforcing incentive structure that pushes Russia to pursue regional primacy. Future research should investigate and theorize how status and power politics interact with each other in shaping Moscow's neighborhood policy. Moreover, work remains to be done to evaluate the generalizability of the neoclassical model developed in this article. On the face of it, the fact that Russia has pursued a more assertive policy since around 2004, not only toward the Baltic states but in the post-Soviet space more generally, fits well with my neoclassical model. My model would suggest, for example, that Russia's military interventions in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) can be largely explained by the interplay of three factors: (1) systemic incentives to exert geopolitical control over neighboring countries, (2) improvements in Russian state capacity under the Putin regime, and (3) high levels of external pressure emanating from the pro-Western policies adopted by governments in Tbilisi and Kiev. Of course, additional research is needed to develop this argument in greater detail and test it against the available evidence. Finally, one could test the portability of my theoretical argument more generally. That is to say, one could examine how well the theoretical model travels to other cases—say, the neighborhood policies of the United States or China. 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Foreign Policy Analysis – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 7, 2017
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