Catholics in Baltic states ponder response to new Russian aggressiveness

An Estonian soldier takes part in training in Adazi, Latvia, Oct. 31. (CNS photo/Valda Kalnina, EPA)

Warsaw, Poland — As NATO's military chiefs prepare to send troops for the first time to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, local Catholics are divided over how much Russia poses a new threat to small Baltic nations who regained independence barely a generation ago. 

Fears that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump might be unwilling to defend them have heightened the nervousness — and brought belated attempts at reassurance. 

"I think a lot of this is exaggerated — and since it's so difficult to find the objective truth, it isn't surprising people are confused," said Fr. Paul Klavins, administrator at Riga, Latvia's St. James Cathedral and a spokesman for Latvia's church. "Information is manipulated all the time, via both major media networks and informal channels. But I don't sense there's any great perception of new insecurity among Catholics in daily life." 

Further south in Lithuania, however, the dangers are being taken more seriously and have touched off some soul-searching as to how church leaders can best respond. 

In an autumn pastoral letter, the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference reminded citizens that freedom was an "ongoing task," which required everyone to be "not passive observers, but active participants."   

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"There are always tensions here, because we're close to the Russian border and hard to defend," explained Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, president of the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference. "The old mentality of the Soviet empire is still alive, and many in Russia consider the three Baltic states to be part of it. But Lithuanians have fought hard to re-establish their independence and have shown they're willing to pay a price for freedom."

Catholics make up 77.3 percent of Lithuania's three million inhabitants, according to the U.S. State Department's annual Religious Freedom Report, compared to less than a quarter of citizens in Latvia (21 percent) and less than one percent in Estonia. The three countries broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, gaining protection under the alliance's Article 5 collective defense guarantee. They've increased defense spending sharply since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Ukraine, and stepped up anti-tank defenses on their land frontiers. 

However, the Russian build-up of air defense systems and nuclear batteries in Kaliningrad just west of Lithuania is believed likely to impede NATO reinforcements during a crisis. In late November, Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevicius, told Britain's BBC there were dangers Russian President Vladimir Putin could challenge NATO's military preparedness before Trump's January inauguration. 

Similar warnings came in early December from Estonia's Foreign Minister, Sven Mikser, who said Russia was now constantly testing his country's defenses — as well as NATO's unity and resolve.

In the Catholic church, however, views differ over Putin's saber-rattling. All three Baltic states are home to substantial Russian minorities, numbering 5 percent in Lithuania, 27 percent in Latvia and 25 percent in Estonia.

In April 2014, as East-West tensions flared over Ukraine, Russia's Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, was asked to postpone a planned visit to Latvia by President Andris Berzins. And this November, another Orthodox priest, Andrei Kuraev, was denied entry for a lecture in Riga, sparking complaints of "Russophobia." 

In a Nov. 23 resolution, the Strasbourg-based European Parliament included Russian churches on a list of bodies spreading Kremlin-orchestrated "anti-EU propaganda," suggesting the Latvian government's action wasn't unjustified. Yet with Russian speakers among Latvia's Catholics — and prominent ethnic Russians, such as Nils Usakovs, Riga's mayor, condemning the move — church leaders have been cautious.

In a speech last August for the 25th anniversary of independence, Archbishop Zbignevs Stankevics of Riga told Latvia's two million inhabitants they could "take pride in its achievements," after a "slow but determined journey back to the family of free and democratic states."

Among current dangers, he listed Muslim fundamentalism and "aggressive and totalitarian secularism," as well as demographic pressures, unfair pay and "centrifugal forces" impeding Europe's unification. But Stankevics made no mention of Russia, and is unwilling to discuss threats to his country, which was ruled from Moscow from 1795-1918, and again from 1944-1991.  

From his base at Riga cathedral, Klavins is similarly unwilling to lend weight to the current anxieties. He thinks talk of Russian aggression is being hyped by Western governments and media organizations.

"Perhaps the military people know more — but we don't have any special complications with Russia in reality," Klavins, who also lectures at Riga's Theological Institute, told NCR. "Politicians are trying to scare us by highlighting Russia's military presence on our border. But the church has no particular opinion about this, and hasn't been asked for moral and spiritual guidance." 

Some Baltic Catholics think priests like Klavins are in denial.

Lithuania's government reintroduced military conscription in 2015 for male citizens aged 19-26, and has circulated civil defense pamphlets advising citizens what to do if Russia invades. 

Against such a background, anxieties are high about a possible change of policy under Trump, who questioned the usefulness of NATO during his campaign and warned the Baltic states not to count on being defended against Moscow.  

Grusas is sanguine about Trump's apparent disinterest. As Lithuania's military bishop, he says he's well aware NATO's European member-states have long been urged to spend more on defense, and thinks there's "nothing new" in the president-elect's threats to scale down U.S. military commitments unless this happens. 

In 2015, the U.S. paid more than 70 percent of NATO's costs, while only Britain, Poland and a handful of the alliance's other 28 member-countries met their agreed obligations to devote 2 percent of GDP to defense.    

"This was most probably campaign rhetoric, even a negotiating stance to push the Europeans to pay their share," the archbishop told NCR. "Steps have now been taken to reassure NATO members the U.S. position won't change. And while the danger from Russia is still felt to be growing, people in the West who speak on Russia's behalf, seeing it as surrounded by hostile NATO states, need to take a reality check — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia pose no threat to Moscow." 

Some analysts are similarly wary as to how seriously Putin's military build-up should be taken. 

Russia's armed forces remain poorly trained and equipped compared to the West's, and have been forced to cut back on modernization because of plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions. They're likely to face ever greater pressure if, as expected, Trump increases the U.S. defense budget.

Yet the eventuality of Russian infiltration campaign is being taken seriously, as is the possibility of a lightening military strike — against three small countries who can collectively muster 11 battalions of lightly armed troops, against the 46 battalions of tanks, paratroops, marines, artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and attack helicopters Russia has stationed in the region.

Republican Party senators from the U.S. are to discuss the situation with Lithuanian parliamentarians amid final preparations for the early 2017 deployment of 4,000 NATO troops in the Baltic states and nearby Poland. A NATO press officer in Brussels told NCR this would be technically a "rotational deployment," rather than a permanent presence. But he confirmed it would the first time NATO forces were based in the region, and said the decision had been taken in the light of Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea. 

In Latvia, Klavins is determined to stay calm. His church's bishops are sensitive to historical animosities, which could easily be reignited and used politically. But if it comes to a crisis, he's confident Trump will stay committed to his Western allies, and pursue a strategy of "peace through strength" similar to President Ronald Reagan's in the 1980s. 

Lithuania's Grusas is similarly upbeat. In late November, he hosted Auxiliary Bishop Frank Richard Spencer from the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services at celebrations of Lithuania's National Military Day, along with military officers from the U.S., Poland, France and Ukraine who were well aware of the current predicament. 

NATO would lose its moral purpose as a defensive alliance if it ever tried to "take over other countries for its own gain," Grusas told NCR. In the 67 years of its existence, it hasn't ever done so; and having "partners' boots on the ground" next year will provide key reassurance. 

"NATO has always been a defensive entity for maintaining peace — and that's why the church provides chaplains for the military and seeks to preserve its moral profile," said Grusas, who succeeded Cardinal Audrys Backis as Vilnius archbishop in 2013.

"Whether it's America or Russia, everybody wants to be great. But a country expresses its greatness when it can respect and live in peace with its neighbors rather than trying to conquer them. People who've gone through 50 years of Soviet occupation and all subsequent hardships know insecurities are part of life. But we're praying peace will be preserved, with the same faith in God that's helped us in our history." 

[Jonathan Luxmoore's two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing in the UK.]


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