Putin’s bluntness, or do not overestimate the rhetoric of Russian officials


Authors – CEEPS researchers: Armands Astukevičs, Mārcis Balodis

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent quote about Latvia’s ugly attitude towards its Russian-speaking population gained wide resonance in social media, and some social media users treated it almost as a war threat. This is a moment of truth when we can look back at the rhetoric of Russian officials with regard to Latvia and its meaning in a broader context.

What has Putin actually said?

The widely covered quote from Putin’s video came out when the Kremlin’s lord attended the meeting of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on December 4 of this year:

“I don’t believe those who practice such a policy will succeed. I don’t know how many at present, but in my opinion, 40 per cent of the population in Latvia of used to be Russian speakers. Probably it is not a small portion even today. If they practice such a policy in relation to people who wanted to live in that or another country, to work there, brought benefits to that country, and they are treated so badly, then in the end they themselves will face bad repercussions in their own country”.

At the same time, the mentioned quote was only one small part of Putin’s answer to the Sputnik ‘journalist’s’ question about the noticeable increase of ‘Russophobia’ in Western countries, especially in Latvia, and Russia’s opportunities to repatriate its citizens. What remained largely unnoticed was the fact that in his reply, Putin emphasized not so much criticism of Latvia, but the need for Russia itself to work on the implementation of programs to support the return of its citizens to Russia.

However, the messages of Russian officials directed against Latvia are nothing new. Already in November of this year, the chargé d’affaires of the Russian Embassy in Latvia Oleg Zukov shared a comment that the embassy “in recent months we have observed a sharp increase in cases where Russian citizens in Latvia are subject to repression and are denied the right of permanent residence in Latvia”. Mariya Zakharova, the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, has also echoed his views several times this year, stating that Latvia continues to implement an “uncompromising Russophobic policy” and that Russia was developing measures for the situation if certain Russian citizens had to leave Latvia.

However, it is significant that those messages of Russian officials have so far not gained any significant resonance either in the Russian society itself or abroad, including Latvia. This most likely shows that the detailed explanations by Russian officials have not really created confidence in its real ability and preparedness to receive those Russian citizens who would be ready to return to Russia. Maybe it’s because the swaggered support of Russian citizens abroad appears to be just pure bluff in the end? Instead, the Russian talking heads at every opportunity try to convince how wrong the policy implemented by Latvia is and what negative consequences it will bring to Latvia’s economy.

It should be noted that the Centre for East European Policy Studies has been following the developments in Russia’s foreign policy and its influence activities against the Baltic states for years. In this sense, there is nothing new in Russia’s fictional narrative of ‘rising Russophobia and resurgent Nazism’ in the Baltic states; it has been widely used long before Russia’s expanded war in Ukraine.

Balancing the vulnerability of Russia’s domestic policy and the sharpness of its foreign policy

As the dissatisfaction of the Russian public with the country’s domestic policy, the protracted mobilization and the ‘special military operation’ is growing, the desire of the Russian administration to resort to sharper rhetoric in foreign policy is also increasing. It is a long-observed trend and implemented practice of the Kremlin to try to compensate Russia’s internal political problems by the foreign policy moves. The narrative of Russia’s frightening neighbours and Russia as a besieged fortress struggling to protect its society from those threats continues to be regarded, at least in the eyes of the Kremlin, as an effective tool for controlling public opinion. According to the Kremlin, such messages gain public support and strengthen Putin’s image as a strong leader.

This is especially important in view of next year’s upcoming Russian presidential elections; however, we can sense some worry in the Kremlin’s circles of political technologists about a successful outcome. Although Russia is not considered a democratic country and extensive vote-rigging campaigns are regularly deployed during elections, it is an important moment of truth for Kremlin officials themselves, in order to get an idea of the true extent of Russian public support.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Latvia and the other Baltic states have done considerable work to cut off the channels of Russian propaganda influence. This is also well reflected in our media space, where Russia’s opportunities to reach the Latvian local audience have shrunk considerably. However, comments from such high-level Russian officials are among the last few avenues to break into our information space through the back door. The purpose of these messages from Russian officials is clear – to provoke Latvian state institutions and political officials, as well as to create psychological tension in Latvian society, while trying to create an image of Russia’s greatness in the eyes of its own citizens.

In conclusion

It is certainly understandable that the overall geopolitical context does not leave much room for optimism. Russia’s extended invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing, and the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive did not achieve the results many in the West had expected. The foreseeable future marks a clear need to focus much more seriously on strengthening our country’s defences against conventional military threats. However, it is necessary to remember that Latvia’s position as a NATO member is possibly stronger than ever before, and officials in Russia are also clearly aware of this.

This does not mean that Russia’s expressive threats can be underestimated. However, inciting fear and panic is a poor political response even to perceived threats from an aggressor. Instead, it is important to have a cool and clear awareness of Latvia’s ability as a NATO member to stand up for its national security interests and the right to create policy as it sees fit, rather than to be guided by the wishes or opinions of Russia’s officials.