Cordon Sanitaire


The last time the world stood on the brink of nuclear war, it was because an island off the American coast with seven million inhabitants was welcoming Soviet missiles in order to ward off American aggression. Today, there is general agreement — and fear — that World War III would be most likely to erupt in the area of the three Baltic states, which together have fewer inhabitants than New York City. History and geography being amongst the most neglected academic subjects, it has been easy for the dominant culture (the US) to convince the rest of the world that ‘the Baltics’ are being threatened by a powerful neighbor. The reason? They were for centuries part of that entities’ predecessors.

Lack of historical perspective leaves Western publics open to every sort of illusion about the past. In the case of the Baltics, they have been made to believe that the Soviet Union occupied democratic countries that had always been free and independent, with only the dissolution of the "Evil Empire" enabling them to become ‘free’ once again. 

The fact is that aside from a brief period between World Wars I and II, and the current one, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the three Baltic countries that present themselves as imminent victims of a mythical Russian threat have always been part of other, larger groupings aside from Russia, and not even always together! Totaling only six million inhabitants, these three countries do not even share a language. Latvian and Lithuanian are both Indo-European languages, but Estonian is part of the Uralic language group that also includes Finnish. These language families are so far apart — think Hungarian and French — that no direct communication is possible.

Not surprisingly, although they are neighbors, the Baltic countries’ histories have also been quite different: during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lithuania and Poland united to become one of the largest entity’s in Europe. At its peak, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth spanned some 450,000 square miles (1,200,000 km2) encompassing present-day Poland, Lithuania, Bela Rus, and Ukraine, with a multi-ethnic population of 11 million. Today their descendants are found in several Central and East European countries: Poland, Ukraine, Moldova (Transnistria), Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Meanwhile, Latvia and Estonia were ruled by more powerful Baltic German populations for over 700 years, before coming under the influence of the above-mentioned Commonwealth and also of Sweden. 

Contrary to the erroneous impression created by the Western media, the Baltic states in their present boundaries did not actually become independent until after the First World War, having been gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire as far back as the 18th century. Starting in 1919, as independent states, they were part of what Clemenceau considered to be a necessary strategic cordon sanitaire, protecting Europe from Soviet Russia. 

The cordon sanitaire comprised the entire area from Finland in the north to Romania in the south, that stood between Europe and Soviet Russia.  

In the late twenties and early thirties, all three Baltic nations came under home-grown authoritarian rulers through bloodless coups. When they were occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II, as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, their right-wing dictatorships collaborated with Hitler in the hope of regaining their independence, similarly to the scenario playing out in Ukraine. And like Ukraine, they were instead occupied by the Third Reich in 1941, as part of its onslaught against the Soviet Union.They were liberated by the Red Army in 1944-45, and their re-incorporation into the USSR was formalized by the Yalta Conference and the Potsdam Agreement that divided Europe between the Soviet Union and an American-led West.

One can think of many reasons why small countries who have been occupied by large countries resent their status and subsequently, are determined to avoid a repeat of that situation. With respect to the Baltics, some of the reasons are related to the fact that many Russians were sent to help their modernization. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia required that Russians learn their totally unrelated languages in order to qualify for citizenship, making international news.

Aside from typical these nationalist tendencies, what appears to be broadly overlooked in the present tense situation between Russia and NATO is that the Baltic states, like the countries of Eastern Europe proper, have historically constituted the path through which Russia has been invaded, starting in the Middle Ages by the Teutonic Knights, then Napoleon, then Germany, twice.  (Centrally located, Germany has historically been the dominant influence in the  region east of the Alpine barrier which, for the Russians, has been an open back door.)  Just as the West believed it was necessary to impose a ‘cordon sanitaire’ between itself and the young Soviet state, Russia is just as determined as was the Soviet Union to defend itself against future invasions. This determination has never been accepted by the West, mainly due to Russia’s history of autocratic rule that lends itself to dramatic cinematographic portrayal.

The Baltics’ have apparently bought in enthusiastically to the West’s on-going campaign of fear-mongering of Russia, with a view to ultimately gaining access to its mineral treasures.

Invariably painted as the Evil Empire redux, when a Russian naval vessel makes a perfectly legitimate trip from Kaliningrad — Russia’s outlet on the Baltic Sea — to the Mediterranean — where Russia is engaged in defending the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a brutal US funded terrorist campaign to topple him, it makes the front pages of newspapers all along its route.

Of course, history is pertinent to present-day Baltic hysteria, but it does not come close to warranting the relentless drumbeat of war embodied in the presence of NATO troops and advanced military hardware in both Poland and the Baltic states, which can only serve to legitimize fear.

A dispassionate appraisal of the situation requires us to recognize that any government with a normal concern for its country’s finances would be all the more willing to welcome NATO forces (and their propaganda) that their presence is a financial boon. War is good for the economy, and the threat of war is as well.

Finally, there is the same longing for recognition as part of ‘the West’ that afflicted the countries of Eastern Europe for centuries: although they were not occupied by the Ottoman Empire, as was all of Eastern Europe up to the gates of Vienna in the sixteenth century, the Baltics are even farther from Western Europe, which for centuries represented the world’s creme de la creme. On their land borders, only the immense, snow-covered expanse of backward, tsarist or bolshevik Russia — on the other, the cold Baltic Sea.


It is ironical that these ultra-nationalist countries on Europe’s Rim are not interested in becoming part of the Eurasian Union, whose founding principle is that individual countries must protect everything that makes them unique. They have chosen to harbor the West’s most sophisticated weapons, to ensure their inclusion in a globalized, homogenized world.