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Are Baltic Russian-Speakers "Russians" Who Need Vlad's Protection?

It seems that nearly every day we read not only Vlad Putin's propaganda machine repeating the need to protect "Russian-speakers" in the former republics of the Soviet Union, but in western media, too -- including today's New York Times -- referring to "Russian-speakers" as significant minorities in the Baltics. But are "Russian-speakers" ethnic Russians? Not necessarily.

According to Lithuania's 2021 census 84.6% of the population identified themselves as ethnic Lithuanians, 6.5% as Poles, 5.0% as Russians, 1.0% as Belarusians, and 1.1% as members of other ethnic groups. But how many Lithuanians speak Russian, and who are they?

According to the 2011 census in Lithuania (the most recent census from which the following information has been derived), as in the chart below, over 80% of the population over 30 years old can speak Russian, as opposed to fewer than 20% of children under 14. Conversely, while over 80% of Lithuanians 15-19 can speak English, fewer than 20% of Lithuanians over 50 can speak English.


Why can and do older Lithuanians -- and Latvians, and Estonians -- speak Russian? Learning Russian in school as a primary language was mandatory during the 50 years of Soviet occupation which ended in 1990, while, as a result of its 1992 Constitution, foreign language study in Lithuania now includes English, German, Russian, French, and Latin, with English the primary foreign language studied.

"An empty Russia declares itself the protector of all Russian-speakers

"For today’s Russia, the communities of Russian-speakers who live in the states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, tally between 12 to 16 million people. This group is strategic for Russia for a number of reasons:

  1. Russia is a largely empty country with a population constantly decreasing as a result of poor living conditions for its majority, low life expectancy, and massive brain drain.

  2. Russia relies on Russian speakers who generally consume media produced by Russia to represent its interests in a number of countries and create local lobbies that favor Russian business and political interests.

  3. Moscow instrumentalizes those communities when it wants to oppose local or foreign governments by playing the card of minorities allegedly deprived of their cultural or linguistic rights. This is often done to antagonize the European Union via the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic states. It serves as an excuse to continue to support Transnistria and eventually was used in Moscow’s justification to occupy Crimea, parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and most recently, the whole of Ukraine.

"Today, Moscow is purposely manipulating the diverse and complex notion of Russian-speakers to deny their own specific identities: many, including in Ukraine, who speak Russian as their native or are bilingual, do not identify as ethnic Russians and certainly not with Russia. Yet Moscow claims it is coming to their defense. The reality is that when it bombs a city like Kharkiv in the north of Ukraine, it is bombing ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers alike." Filip Noubel, Managing Editor,, March 2, 2022


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