An Assessment of the Impact of the War in Ukraine on the Baltic States

This is part of our special feature, Europe and NATO Since Ukraine.


That giant of German history, Otto von Bismarck, once reportedly said, “Wars are not won by generals, but by schoolteachers and parish priests.” While Bismarck ostensibly uttered this quip in the mid-1870s, at the outset of the Kulturkampf, the line has recently taken on a new life. It is being used to describe the identity battles at the core of the war that Vladimir Putin caused when he ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For example, the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko has used Bismarck’s line to explain the importance of identity, culture, and collective memory to the wartime mobilization of the Ukrainian nation.[1] That Ukrainian intellectuals are keen to quote Bismarck, as opposed to some prominent figure in Russian, Soviet, or even Ukrainian history, tells us two things: first, that Ukrainians are increasingly viewing their own history through a pro-Europe lens; and second, that they primarily see the war against Russia as one of culture and identity, rather than one of great power politics or military strategy.

It is likely that Putin would agree with this analysis. Not unlike Bismarck, Putin has fashioned himself as a culture warrior—and not just within the Russian Federation. A practitioner of what he calls “healthy conservatism,” Putin has long portrayed himself as the protector of traditional values. In his worldview, men should be “real men,” willing to engage in public displays of machismo and bravado, much like those in the famed shirtless adventures of his yesteryear. Men should also brashly assert their authority, maintaining a male-dominated public sphere. Putin himself famously attempted to do just that when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and cruelly brought his large dog to their joint press conference, knowing full well that she fears canines. According to Putin, the private dwelling, too, must be the domain of the virile man. Thus, Putin’s government decriminalized domestic violence when it does not result in hospital treatment. Another early aspect of his culture war policies was the suppression of the LGBT movement in Russia, with the 2013 “anti-gay propaganda bill” underpinning that governmental initiative.

In comparison to that earliest phase of his culture war tactics, Putin’s general hatred of cultural progressivism has over the past few years reached a fever pitch. In the months leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, he railed against the “monstrous West,” as he put it in a 2021 speech, for its embrace of “cancel culture,” transgender rights, and all-around “aggressive dogmatism verging on absurdity.” Having explained in this speech in Sochi the dangers of these cultural changes, he concluded with the memorable line: “Let’s call a spade a spade: This simply verges on crimes against humanity under the banner of progress.”[2] Not to be forgotten, Putin has also been an active fighter in the arena of historical memory, contending that the Soviet Union was the home of “one people,” whose loss of a homeland was “a genuine tragedy.” Not content with mere words, Putin has used physical sites of memory, such as new monuments to prominent Soviet leaders, to drive home this message.

While the military and territorial outcomes of the war in Ukraine are still unknown, what we do know about the war thus far is that it has led to a sudden and very dramatic shift in the culture war that Putin has been so eager to win. This shift has taken place both in Russia and its so-called “near abroad,” lands that became independent following the breakup of the Soviet Union and surround the present Russian Federation. That near abroad includes Ukraine, whose citizens are increasingly in favor of full European membership, but it also very much includes the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Recent developments in the Baltic states suggest that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has led to the failure of his culture war gambit, at least regionally. This essay examines this important outcome of the war.

Whereas before the war Putin was having quite a bit of success using Russian speakers in the Baltic States as a kind of cultural and political Trojan horse, today the pro-Russia parties have become all but obsolete. For example, prior to 2022, one of the largest political parties in Latvia had been the pro-Russia party Harmony (Saskaņa). But, as a microcosm of the larger impact of the war on the Baltic states, in fall 2022 Harmony failed in parliamentary elections to gain even a single seat in the Saeima, the Latvian parliament. In Estonia, a similar political impact affected the Estonian Centre Party, which had been the preferred party of Russian speakers. In the run-up to the 2023 parliamentary elections, the party made clear that all of its ties with Russia had been severed. Yet even with that promise, the party still suffered a catastrophic loss of seats. With the decline of these pro-Russia parties, Baltic governments have moved with terrific speed to align more closely their political-cultural values with those of the progressive West.

In 2004, when the Baltic states joined the European Union and NATO, political commentators in the West noted that Baltic governments needed to improve their metrics of democratic health. As a holdover from Soviet times, government transparency, corruption, and societal openness were all areas ripe for improvement. While work on good governance was fairly straightforward, progress on societal openness was slow and halting, in large part due to the Kremlin-produced propaganda aimed at Russian speakers. In stark contrast to the previous eighteen years, since the start of the war, Baltic governments have implemented in their respective societies a firm cultural break with Moscow. The evidence is overwhelming and fascinating to consider.

Today, the political leadership in the Baltic states is an antidote to the patriarchal propaganda emanating from the Kremlin. One need not look any further than the position of the prime ministers in the region. When Evika Siliņa became prime minister of Latvia in September 2023, it marked a milestone in Baltic history. For the first time ever, all three Baltic states had female prime ministers. Estonia has been especially progressive on this front, becoming in 2021 the first country in European history to have a woman president and a woman prime minister at the same time. These Baltic leaders are thriving in extraordinarily challenging times. For example, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, an aggressive critic of Putin and outspoken supporter of Ukraine, won a resounding reelection in March 2023, despite having to address the high inflation caused by the war. Much of her success has come from her ability to calmly yet bluntly assess the Russian threat. For example, in a national address in February 2023, she uttered the following powerful lines:

I do not think that Russia will ever become a reliable partner in the eyes of the rest of the world again. On the contrary, one could say that Putin destroyed the future of Russia with this war. We, on the other hand, have to get used to the idea that we live next to a terrorist pariah state and we must stay alert at all times… I do not know whether, if at all, the time will come when the Russian people will ask themselves and their leaders, “Why did we need this war?” Does Russia not have enough land, are they suffering from a lack of natural resources, or what the hell did they hope to achieve with this attack? Only the Russians themselves can answer this. All we can do is be better prepared while they try to ascertain those who are responsible.[3]

Impressive, too, has been the steady and bold leadership of Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, who has been in office since 2020. Not only did she guide the country through the COVID-19 pandemic, but she has been passionate and steadfast in her denouncement of authoritarianism, standing up both to Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, even going so far as to permit the Taiwanese people to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius. Under Šimonytė’s guidance, Lithuania also became the first ex-Soviet state to pull out of the China-led 17+1 grouping, a move precipitated by President Xi’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The other Baltic states followed suit. It seems now that the Baltic region will not be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, yet another geopolitical change wrought by the war.

In addition to rebuking Putin’s machismo culture with examples of steady female leadership, the Baltic states have also advanced on support for LGBT rights. This was much needed progress. In previous decades, Lithuania and Latvia had been consistently ranked as two of the least welcoming European countries for LGBT citizens. Smartly, local activists in those countries have publicly linked their movements with support for Ukraine. This strategy could be seen at a 2022 gay pride parade in Vilnius, where marchers waived both rainbow and Ukrainian flags. This tactic has led to substantive progress. In Estonia, the parliament voted in June 2023 to legalize same-sex marriage. Just to the south in Latvia, President Edgars Rinkēvičs—the former long-time foreign minister—made history in July 2023 when he became not only the first openly gay man to serve as Latvia’s prime minister or president but also the first gay president in all of European history, a fact that was lauded by the Baltic press. Paired with Rinkēvičs, Prime Minister Siliņa indicated in her earliest statements in office that she will pursue as a top priority support for “human rights related issues,” an indirect but clear message that she will work with the parliament on securing LGBT rights. Although Lithuania has not seen marked progress, the parliament did for the first time in 2022 consider legislation that would permit civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

More than almost any other topic of the culture wars, Putin cares deeply about the historical memory of the Soviet Union. Since the early 2000s, he has used debates about historical memory and monuments to unsettle Baltic societies. At home, he has also recently sought to eliminate monuments to victims of Stalinist terror (though officially the government has denied involvement in the removals), while also unveiling new statues and busts of prominent Soviet figures, such as Felix Dzerzhinsky and Josef Stalin. Tellingly, Putin’s regime unveiled only a few months ago a new monument to Stalin in Volgograd as part of the ceremonies marking the eightieth anniversary of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. In spite of Putin’s attempt to influence historical memory, the war in Ukraine has galvanized Baltic societies to move beyond this particular culture clash. To appreciate fully what has happened, a basic overview is required.

Since regaining independence in 1991, the Baltic states have struggled with questions of historical memory. No aspect of that struggle has been more fraught than the question of what to do with the Soviet-era monuments, such as the massive eighty-meter-tall (260 feet) obelisk in Riga. Built in the 1980s and colloquially referred to as the “Victory Monument,” it dominated the skyline of Riga’s Pārdaugava district, which is situated directly across the river from the city’s resplendent old downtown. Although the monument served for Latvians as a reminder of Soviet occupation and totalitarianism, and despite the fact that a majority of Latvians had long wanted to see it removed, the Latvian government had its hands tied. In return for Russia’s recognition of their independence, the Baltic countries had agreed in the early 1990s not to destroy Soviet-era monuments or graves. As clear markers of the Soviet past, this and other similar monuments in the other Baltic states became sites of demonstrations and protests. Russian speakers gathered at sites such as the Victory Monument ostensibly to celebrate Soviet victories in the Second World War but more importantly to emphasize their connections to Russia. In reaction, Baltic citizens opposed to Russian influence staged counter demonstrations. Each year, the most contentious events came on May 9, when nationalist Russian speakers assembled at the Victory Monument to mark “Victory Day,” a Soviet-era celebration of victory in the Second World War that has continued in Putin’s Russia. Wanting to avoid these controversial demonstrations, Baltic governments considered plans that would not run afoul of the aforementioned agreement about monuments. The most serious attempt at an alternative was the Estonian government’s decision in 2007 to relocate the so-called Bronze Soldier monument from downtown Tallinn to a military cemetery. It did not go well. Putin responded by launching what scholars considered to be the world’s first ever case of cyberwarfare. The Kremlin also encouraged Russians in Estonia to protest, leading to multiple nights of street battles that resulted in one death and extensive property damage.

Viewing historical memory as a core component of his culture war, Putin made clear with his response to the Bronze Soldier episode that these monuments would not be moved or destroyed. He also demonstrated that he would continue to use them to stoke identity clashes that would prevent the cultural assimilation of Russian speakers into Baltic societies. Until 2022, Putin was winning this essential aspect of the culture war, for no Baltic country dared to touch the monuments as Estonia did in 2007.

Surprisingly, there has been a very sudden and dramatic shift in this culture war clash since the invasion of Ukraine. The cause is twofold. First, the Baltic governments claimed that they were no longer beholden to the agreement to protect Soviet monuments, since Putin had violated the sovereignty of a fellow post-Soviet state. Second, Baltic leaders came to believe that a large number of their Russian speakers were aghast at the scenes of war shown on the internet and on Baltic television networks. Therefore, the Baltic governments made the bold decision to tear down the monuments. In all three Baltic states, many Soviet-era monuments have been removed or destroyed since 2022. For example, on August 26, 2022, the Victory Monument in Riga was toppled, splashing memorably into the reflection pool below. The statues that were on the grounds were also demolished. Another telling example is that just a few weeks later the Estonians removed the Soviet-era Second World War monument in the very Russian town of Narva, which sits right at the Estonian-Russian border. Significantly, these actions did not result in any major protests, a clear contrast from the Bronze Soldier incident of 2007.

Not only did the Latvian government remove the Victory Monument, but it has also since attempted to uproot the tradition of May 9. Since the 1990s, May 8 and May 9 have been tense days in the Baltic states. Whereas those who commemorate the Second World War on May 8 are seen as “pro-European,” adherents of the May 9 tradition are seen by Latvians as hardcore Russian nationalists, Soviet apologists, and Putin supporters. From 1991 on, May 8 and May 9 were synonymous with nationalistic tensions and protests. But 2023 was very different. Of course, the monument had been removed months prior, and the Latvian government was determined to prevent any sort of gathering that day, including at the site of the former monument. In pursuit of that goal, in April 2023 the Latvian government passed a law that criminalized the May 9 tradition. On May 8, 2023, the Latvian police reminded Russian speakers of this change with the following public announcement:

We remind you that placing flowers and other elements in places where the now demolished Soviet monuments were located can be seen as possible justification and glorification of totalitarian regimes, war crimes, and military aggression. Such acts will be considered as possible criminal offences.[4]

Yet another telling change in the culture war fights has been the Baltic governments’ increasingly assertive stance on national language and assimilation. Due to Soviet policies, when the Baltic states regained their independence, they did so with a large Russian minority present in all three countries. In the cases of Estonia and Latvia, the Russian minority makes up between 25 to 30 percent of the overall population. In Lithuania, the number is lower, at about 5 percent. Since 1991, the Baltic states have struggled to manage Russian speakers who were born prior to renewed independence. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these Russian speakers had to make decisions regarding citizenship. The first and most consequential decision was whether to stay or move to the new Russian Federation. If they chose the former, they needed to make a subsequent decision—whether to pursue citizenship in the respective Baltic country. A different option was to obtain Russian citizenship, paired with a residency permit to stay in that Baltic state. One last option became the most infamous of the three. Russian speakers could refuse both citizenships and receive an “alien” or “non-citizen” passport. Making these decisions more emotionally laden, many were upset that they had not been granted automatic citizenship, and those feelings were hardened by the fact that a language proficiency exam has been required in order to get citizenship in the Baltic states. Claiming that they are being discriminated against—and certainly the Kremlin has told them as much—many Russian speakers in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have resolutely refused to obtain citizenship in these states. Over the years, various solutions have been proposed and implemented, but insufficient progress has been made in terms of the citizenship and integration of Russian speakers.

Like the other aspects of the wider culture war, there have been surprising developments on this front since 2022. First, hoping that their Russian speakers would turn away from the Kremlin, Baltic governments rebooted their assimilation programs. The results have been impressive. For example, in Estonia the pace at which Russian speakers have applied for citizenship has tripled since the start of the war. In Latvia, the government has offered proverbial carrots to encourage Russian speakers to apply for citizenship, but it has also wielded some sticks. First, on the question of language, the Latvian government announced in October 2022 that, beginning with the 2026-27 school year, Russian will no longer be spoken in any Latvian school. Instead, an EU language will be offered as a second language. Just a few years ago, pro-Russia political parties in Latvia were calling for Russian to be made the second official language of Latvia; but by 2026, the Russian language will now be banned from all schools. This is a dramatic turn of events. However, more dramatic yet is the change to immigration law.

Roughly one month after the felling of the Victory Monument, the Latvian Saeima formally adopted amendments to state immigration law. Essentially claiming that residency permit holders with Russian or Belarussian citizenship needed to prove their loyalty to Latvia and fealty to European values, the amendments dictated that all residency permits for the roughly 25,000-30,000 residents with Russian or Belarussian citizenship would expire on September 2, 2023. Per the revised law, renewal of said permits is possible, but only if the holders can pass a Latvian language exam at the level of A2. Importantly, the law does include exemptions for those under the age of fifteen or over the age of seventy-five, as well as for those suffering from certain medical conditions. In total, Russians can apply for twelve different exemptions, whereas the list of exemptions for Belarussians totals twenty-nine. If residents refuse to initiate the renewal process or decline to sit for the language exam, then the government will give the resident ninety days to leave the country. However, it remains unclear how the state might enforce such a policy, since Minister of the Interior Māris Kučinskis has declared that forced deportation is not an option. When it became clear that Russian speakers were struggling to pass the language exam, with sixty-one percent having failed it as of September, the Saeima made further revisions to the law, permitting residents who failed the exam to apply for a two-year temporary permit. In theory, these permit holders are to use the two years to improve their language skills and successfully apply for permanent residency.

This change to the immigration law has certainly caused controversy and consternation. For instance, some academics have pointed out that such aggressive policies might actually increase polarization and hinder assimilation efforts. Others have contended that the policies might encourage Russian speakers to renew their support for Putin. While it is too early at this point to know the long-term consequences of these policies, what we do know thus far is that the vast majority of residents affected by the change to immigration law would like to stay in Latvia. For example, the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs reported in September that ninety-two percent of residents with Russian citizenship had initiated the renewal of their residency permit.[5]

Recent elections in Europe have made these developments in the Baltic states even more significant. With the electoral success of Robert Fico in Slovakia, there is now discussion of an emerging “pro-Putin” bloc within the Schengen Zone—with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary as the other member. Moreover, the November elections in the Netherlands resulted in dramatic political gains for Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom. Like Fico, Wilders has engaged in culture war tactics, trumpeting Putinesque slogans and policies. And of course, both leaders have criticized the European Union’s financial and military support for Ukraine. For Balts, these political developments are disconcerting because they suggest that perhaps Putin’s culture war ploy is not totally failing. Aghast at seeing these and other Western leaders fall into the orbit of Putin’s influence, Baltic politicians have noted that the period of “Westsplaining” is now over—that when it comes to understanding Russia and Putin and protecting European values, the Western powers must follow the lead of Ukrainians, Balts, and other nations stuck in the borderlands of Northeastern Europe. In any case, this has been a clear outcome of the war thus far: Baltic leaders have discovered a newfound confidence to serve as the soul of Western liberalism and the heart of the European project.


Jordan T. Kuck is Associate Professor of History at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina. A scholar of authoritarianism and fascism during the interwar period, he is currently working on a manuscript on Kārlis Ulmanis’s authoritarian regime in Latvia. Recent publications include chapters in edited volumes that marked the centennial of Latvian independence, as well as contributions in the edited volumes Dictatorship and Daily Life in Twentieth Century Europe (2022) and Transnational and Transatlantic Fascism in East Central and Southeastern Europe, 1918–2018 (forthcoming). 


[1] Patrick Wintour, “The revenge of history in Ukraine: year of war has shaken up world order,” The Guradian, December 26, 2022,

[2] “Putin Rails Against ‘Monstrous’ West in Valdai Speech,” The Moscow Times, October 22, 2021,

[3] “Speech by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on the eve of the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia,” accessed January 23, 2024,

[4] Agnija Lazdiņa, “Policija saistībā ar 9. maiju aizturējusi 26 personas un sākusi 4 kriminālprocesus,” Latvijas Sabiedriskie Mediji, May 9, 2023, See also, “Latvian authorities detain six for attempts to celebrate ‘Victory Day,’” Baltic News Network, accessed January 23, 2024,

[5] “In most cases elderly Russian citizens decide to stay in Latvia and apply for new permanent residence permits,” Baltic News Network, accessed January 23, 2024,


Published on February 15, 2024.


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