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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.

21 September 2021

By Donatas Kupciunas, Baltic Research Associate

In 1919, the somewhat miraculous appearance on the map of Europe of the three eastern Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania drew much interest from London. From the outset, Britain played a significant role in this Baltic state building. Together with its allies, Britain had won the First World War and annulled the pan-Germanic designs of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, according to which the Baltic provinces were to become German vassal states. Together with Russia being in the disarray of a civil war, this created a perfect vacuum of power necessary for Baltic statehood.

The vacuum of imperial power, however, did not mean peace. At the time when hostilities of the Great War had ended in the West, new wars were being fought in the East. The Baltic region became a theatre of war where two kinds of Russians (Whites and Soviets), two kinds of Germans (remains of the regular army and the Freikorps), a mixture between Germans and Russians (the so called Bermontians), Poles, as well as the nascent armies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were skirmishing with each other, over goals as varied as their flags. Britain, too, flew its flag in what was to become known as ‘Baltic wars of independence’. Its warships harassed the Bolshevik fleet in the Baltic, bombarded Bolshevik positions along the Latvian and Estonian coast and even provided refuge to the Latvian nationalist government. In London, the Balts were sourcing boots, uniforms, guns and loans.

British non-military involvement in the eastern Baltic region was no less significant. Britain pressed the Russian Whites towards democratic federalism in the Baltic. It also acted as a mediator in the Lithuanian-Polish dispute over Vilnius, while British commissioner Professor James Young Simpson led an arbitration commission that peacefully established the Latvian-Lithuanian border.  After the Great War, the Foreign Office was frequently approached by makeshift Baltic diplomats for advice, becoming something akin to a diplomatic school for them. In trade relations, Britain was one of the major importers of Baltic agricultural produce. British presence and attractiveness in the Baltic was such that in 1919, the Lithuanian Cabinet freely voted in favour of making Lithuania a permanent British ‘protectorate’.

Despite all this, British commitment in the Baltic in the interwar period had been limited by a number of circumstances. Sending troops anywhere, for whatever cause, was extremely unpopular after the horrors of the Great War. So was spending, whereby even modest schemes of support were vetoed by the Treasury. In 1925, with the signing of the Locarno treaties, Western powers attempted to guarantee Germany’s western borders, but refused similar commitment to the security of Central and Eastern Europe. Many in the West still saw the Baltic states as a Russian sphere and saw Poland as a state that provoked German and Russian revisionism.  

Today, however, most of these issues are no longer relevant. Britain and the eastern Baltic are both under the NATO collective security umbrella. The Baltic states have no territorial conflicts between themselves, and are not considered a ‘Russian sphere’ even by Russia itself. Civilisationally, they are sometimes called ‘the best Europeans’, due to their high support for the EU and NATO, although certain divergences with the ‘old West’ exist, in areas such as the rule of law, LGBT rights, or refugee quotas. Britain has often found an ally in the Baltic states, whether in opposing movement towards federalism within the EU, or in continuing to rely on the US for the security of Europe. Britain is also home to 250,000 Lithuanians and some 120,000 Latvians. What will Britain’s role in the eastern Baltic be post-Brexit? Will it continue to play as central a role in the lives of the Baltic states as it did a century ago?? This is one of those areas where better understanding of the past can inform and shape policies for the future.

Donatas Kupciunas - the Centre's new Baltic Research Associate - begins work with the program 1 October. Donatas' research interests include modern international history, relations between East/Central and Western Europe in the interwar period, cultural and intellectual history of diplomacy, the geopolitics of the Baltic sea region and contemporary Russian foreign policy. Donatas’ forthcoming book ‘The Devil’s Paradise: the Vilnius conflict in European diplomacy, 1919-1923’ will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.