Rorate Caeli

The Next Aims of Putin’s War: The roots of Christian Europe and the threat to the Baltic countries (by Roberto de Mattei)

Do the plans of Vladimir Putin include an operation to separate the three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) from the European Union? 

This could happen if Russia were to occupy the Suwalki corridor, a 90km strip of land that connects Poland to Lithuania and separates Belarus from Kaliningrad, the base of the Russian naval fleet operating in the Baltic. If an expanded Ukrainian conflict were to see Russia link Belarus to the Kaliningrad enclave, the Baltic countries would be isolated from any possible aid from NATO land forces. This would be a matter not of military isolation alone, but of an attempt to de-Europeanize these peoples for whom the political borders of the European Union are, like those of NATO, a defensive barrier against Russia, which is their age-old enemy.

In the great Gulf of Riga there fall the reflections of Latvia and Estonia. The language of the Latvians, like that of the Lithuanians, is Indo-European, while that of the Estonians belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch. However, apart from ethnic and linguistic differences, the historical link between these two countries is closer than the one they share with Lithuania. This latter was a great state, whereas Latvia and Estonia, while still retaining their national features, were subjected to foreign powers until the twentieth century. Tallinn and Riga, the two capitals, belonged to the Hanseatic League, the alliance of cities that maintained a trading monopoly over much of northern Europe between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. In the Old Towns of Riga and Tallinn one breathes the medieval atmosphere typical of the Germanic cities of long ago. This is how we imagine Lübeck and Gdansk were before their wartime destruction.

Latvia and Estonia, in the Middle Ages, were part of “Livonia,” a land that stretched from the lower valley of the Daugava River, or western Dvina, to the Gulf of Riga. It was the “Baltic Crusades,” organized at the beginning of the 13th century, that brought about the entrance of these peoples into the history of the West. The Germans, who had been forcibly subdued by Charlemagne, in turn took up arms and subjugated the Baltic and Slavic peoples. Riga was founded in 1201 by Albert of Buxtehude, who made it the base of the religious-chivalric order of the Brothers of the Sword, later incorporated into the Teutonic Order. Tallinn was founded by Danish king Valdemar II and Lund archbishop Anders Sunesen in 1219. It too was fortified with strong walls and watchtowers and was home to the Baltic Crusaders. The first bishop of Livonia was the German monk Saint Meinhard (1134-1196), devotion to whom was restored by John Paul II on his journey to that land in 1993.

The Hanseatic cities were part of the Holy Roman Empire and had the Teutonic Order as their “protector.” It had its seat, since 1466, in the city of Koenigsberg, renamed Kaliningrad in 1946. The Protestant wave that spread from Germany in the sixteenth century soon hit the Baltic countries as well. Gotthard Kettler, head of the Livonian Order that succeeded the Teutonic one, converted to Lutheranism and became Duke of Courland. In the following centuries Poland, Denmark, and Sweden fought for the Dominium Maris Baltici, which however ended up in Russia’s sphere of influence. The heirs of the Teutonic knights, the “Baltic barons,” owners of a large part of the territories, formed a sort of German “enclave” in the immense Russian Empire. The Baltic strongholds, scattered among woods and lakes of dark and glittering colors, once kept watch over the frontiers of Christendom.

World War I broke out and the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed between Russia and the Central Powers on March 3, 1918, started the process of liberation of the Baltic countries. Before their independence was officially recognized by the Treaty of Versailles there were violent clashes in these regions between the Russians of the Red Army and those of the White Army, the Latvian and Estonian nationalists, and the militias enlisted by the Baltic barons.

If the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in 1917, had sanctioned the independence of the Baltic countries, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939 erased them from history. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviets and became the theater of conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Stalin ordered the deportation to Siberia of politicians, officials, priests, but also of anyone who merely owned property. Among these was the Jesuit archbishop Eduard Profittlich (1890-1942), appointed apostolic administrator of Estonia by Pius XI in 1931, the first Catholic bishop to serve in Estonia since the Middle Ages. He was sentenced to the firing squad and died on February 22, 1942 in the gulag of Kirov, before the sentence could be carried out. His beatification process has been introduced.

It was then that the first resistance against the invader was organized. The Latvian and Estonian partisans, who took the name Forest Brothers, and the Lithuanian Liberation Army were the protagonists, after 1945, of an epic armed resistance against the Soviet invader. Against the anti-communist guerrillas the Soviets deployed whole units of the Red Army, the militia, and the NKVD secret police. The resistance continued after the end of the war. In the early years the Americans tried to support the armed struggle by parachuting in aid and volunteers, but Soviet infiltration of the CIA soon led to the withdrawal of their support. The bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 marked the end of the last hopes of help from the West. Thousands of partisans died in what was the longest history of guerrilla warfare in the Baltic, brought to light above all by the historians Heinrihs Strods in Latvia (Latvian National Partisan War 1944-1956, Latvijas, Riga 2003) and Mart Laar in Estonia (War in the Woods: Estonia's Struggle for Survival, 1944-1956, Whalesback Books, Washington, D.C. 1992), and recalled in Italy by Alberto Rosselli (La resistenza antisovietica e anticomunista in Europa orientale, 1944-1956, Settimo Sigillo, Rome 2004).

In December 1990, the associations of Tradition, Family and Property, led by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (1908-1995), had brought to a Vilnius threatened by Gorbachev 5,212,580 signatures in defense of the independence and freedom of Lithuania. On January 2, 1991, the head of the Kremlin ordered his tanks to invade Lithuania. The government entrenched itself in parliament, protected by masses of young people with rosary in hand, singing hymns to Our Lady. Nine of them died heroically, but the Russian president was forced to back down. The example spread like wildfire and the Soviet republics, starting with the Baltic ones, broke away from Moscow, marking the beginning of the definitive collapse of the USSR.

Since April 2004, the airspace of the Baltics has been placed under the control of NATO planes, at the request of those peoples over whom there hangs a tragic historical memory. Meeting in Riga with the leaders of the three Baltic republics on May 9, 2005, American president George W. Bush said that the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II will be remembered as “one of the greatest wrongs of history,” adding that much of the responsibility for this must be attributed to the United States. In fact, the Yalta Conference of 1945, the American president stated, was situated within the unjust tradition of the Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Today the Ukrainian people, but also the inhabitants of the Baltic republics threatened by Vladimir Putin, are looking with apprehension at the dramatic evolution of the war that has opened in the heart of Europe. From the music of desolating beauty by the Estonian Arvo Pärt, one of the greatest contemporary composers, there seems to spring from the depths of the Middle Ages and to find new forms of expression the love cry of these lands for the ancient roots of the Christian West.
Roberto de Mattei