Russia's legal authorities are reviewing whether the ex-Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are legally independent countries, the Russian state-controlled Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday.
The move comes after two Russian legislators requested the review, suggesting that the Soviet Union illegally granted independence to the three tiny countries on the Baltic Sea in northern Europe as the communist superpower was collapsing in the early 1990s.
"The decision to recognize the Baltic States' independence is defective, as it was adopted by an unconstitutional body," an unnamed source close to the parliamentary inquiry told Interfax.
The lawmakers believe that relinquishing the Baltic countries "brought great harm" to Russia and was tantamount to "state treason," Agence-France Presse reported.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite didn't welcome the news.
"No one has the right to threaten us," she said in a statement, according to Radio Free Europe. "Our independence was gained through the blood and sacrifice of the Lithuanian people."
The Baltics are particularly wary of questions about their sovereignty.
In the late 1930s, before Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union became enemies in World War II, they signed the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which contained plans to secretly divide up the Baltics between the two powers. Germany wound up occupying the three countries. When the Soviet Union pushed the Nazis out in 1944, the Russians stayed.
The United States and Western Europe didn't recognize the Soviet annexations, but Cold War tensions prevented them from doing anything about them. The Baltics reluctantly became part of the Soviet Union and rushed to declare their independence in 1990 when it became clear the Soviet Union was breaking up.
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The Baltics were also eager to join NATO in 2004 to secure their independence. Under the alliance's rules, anyone who attacks them would risk war with the United States, Germany, Britain and a host of other North Atlantic countries.
The official in the prosecutor-general's office recognized that Russia simply couldn't nullify the Baltics' independence. The decision, he told Interfax, "should take into account not only the legal but also the political aspect of the issues raised."
But Moscow's move is still disconcerting because the same the prosecutor-general ruled last year that Soviet leaders erred when they transferred ownership of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. The opinion provided a legal rationale for Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of the peninsula.
Russia has been increasingly bellicose in the Baltic Region, flying warplanes close to Swedish jets, snatching Estonian border guards and raising tensions in other ways as Moscow also stokes the separatist war in eastern Ukraine. In response, the US recently deployed tanks to the Baltics to beef up NATO forces.
Later on Wednesday, the AP reported that a spokesperson for the Prosecutor General's office clarified that though it is reviewing the request as a matter of course, the questioning of Baltic independence "has no legal prospects."
Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quick to follow up with his own deflection, saying that the Kremlin had not anticipated the lawmakers' request.
"Frankly speaking, I have trouble grasping the sense of it," he said.
Nevertheless, Putin's endgame isn't clear, which is probably exactly how the Russian president likes it, said Michael O'Hanlon, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he is just sort of playing with us and enjoying the fact that he himself doesn't know what he would do next," O'Hanlon told VICE News. "He's an opportunist. He presumably doesn't want World Ward III over liberating the Baltics. But he knows we probably don't want World War III for defending them. He's probing."
A crisis in the Baltics could force American generals to confront whether they want to risk the destruction of New York or Washington in a nuclear war with Putin over the Baltic capitals of Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, said O'Hanlon.
More likely, however, is that Putin wants to distract NATO in the north while he undermines Ukraine thousands of miles away in the south.
"I wouldn't necessarily rule out that he would try some shenanigans or at least make us worried enough about this prospect so that we might back off from some of the other robust things we would do over Ukraine," said O'Hanlon.
This article has been updated.
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